Getting a great deal
10 tips for finding cheap train tickets
By Joe Elvin
10 tips for finding cheap train tickets
Get the best deal on peak and off-peak train tickets and cut the cost of your rail journey by up to 86% with our 10 expert tips.
Finding cheap train tickets can be a lottery, but our travel experts have compiled 10 tips to help you get the best deal.
Click below to skip to a specific tip:
- 1. Get the best ticket type
- 2. Split your ticket
- 3. Look for slower routes
- 4. Buy direct from train companies
- 5. Get cashback on your purchases
- 6. Get a railcard
- 7. Use season tickets and Rover tickets
- 8. Travel in groups
- 9. Take the Megatrain
- 10. Take advantage of cheap London travel
For some of these tips, we show you how much you can save based on one of the following journeys:
- Cardiff Central to Newcastle (anytime ticket price £159.90)
- Birmingham New Street to London Euston (anytime ticket price £85).
All prices are based on the first journey leaving after 8am on 1 April 2016. At the bottom of the page, you can also see how we effectively saved 86% on the cost of the Cardiff to Newcastle journey and 85% on the Birmingham to London journey using a combination of our tips.
1. Get the best ticket type
Advance train tickets
Advance train tickets tend to be the cheapest. These are all singles and tie you to a particular train, so you won't be able to stop off en route to break your journey. They are also non-refundable, so if you miss your train you'll have to buy another ticket - which is likely to be much more expensive.
Some outlets' allocations may sell out before others, so it's worth checking different train-company websites or booking offices for the best prices.
Advance tickets are typically released 12 weeks before travel and are available until 6pm the day before you travel. By entering your journey details on thetrainline.com you can sign up to receive free email alerts to notify you when advance tickets go on sale.
Off-peak train tickets
Off-peak train tickets can be used only at certain times of day. These travelling times tend to vary considerably depending on the journey you're making, even within the same areas of the country and with the same train companies, so it's always worth checking when off-peak tickets are valid.
If you're choosing between an advance ticket costing a similar amount to an off-peak one, the off-peak will be the better choice for the following reasons:
- You can buy off-peak tickets in advance and immediately before travel.
- If you miss your train but you're still travelling at off-peak times, you can just take a different one.
- If you need to upgrade to a more expensive anytime ticket, you can pay the difference between the two.
- Off-peak and super-off-peak day tickets are valid until 2.30am the next day.
- They are refundable, sometimes subject to an administration fee.
- You're usually allowed to stop off en route, including overnight, but it's best to check first with National Rail Enquiries. Your travel must resume by noon the next day.
Super-off-peak tickets are cheaper than off-peak, but are valid for even shorter periods of time during the day.
2. Split your ticket
Split ticketing involves buying multiple tickets to cover separate parts of one journey. The only rule is that the train must stop at all the stations named on your tickets.
The reason it can save you money is that different train companies have their own prices for different parts of the journey. The aim is to travel the longest distance on the lowest-priced leg. If your journey straddles both peak and off-peak times, see whether you can split the journey so that the largest possible part is off-peak.
This tactic could save you hundreds of pounds on an annual season ticket. Rail staff aren't allowed to advise on split tickets, but must sell them if asked.
3. Look for slower routes
Many routes are served by multiple train companies. Some will be much faster, but the slower routes tend to be considerably cheaper.
For example, both London Midland and Virgin Trains run services to London Euston from Birmingham New Street.
The Virgin Trains service takes one hour and 24 minutes, but an anytime ticket will set you back £85.
You can save up to £33 by travelling on a London Midland train. An anytime ticket costs £49, although it takes two hours and 13 minutes to reach Euston.
4. Online - buy direct from train companies
It is often best to ignore sites such as Quno, Thetrainline and Raileasy, and instead buy from train companies' own websites.
Train companies have online reductions for their own off-peak fares that aren't available through third-party companies. What's more, many of these third-party train-ticket websites charge a booking fee on top of the ticket price.
UK train companies must sell the full range of each other's tickets, so you may well find a cheap fare from one train company on the website of one of its competitors. There are a few exceptions to this rule, though, so it's worth checking the websites of all the train companies that serve your journey.
5. Get cashback on your ticket purchase
A number of train companies and train-ticket websites are listed on cashback websites, such as Quidco and TopCashback. If you complete your train ticket purchase via a cashback website, you should get a small percentage of each purchase you make credited back into your account. For an even bigger payout, consider paying for your tickets with a cashback credit card.
In April, TopCashback was offering 3.15% cashback on all tickets bought through thetrainline.com, while our Which? Money Compare tables had cashback credit cards offering up to 5% cashback on certain purchases.
Terms and conditions apply to each of these deals, but if you took advantage of both of them, you'd earn £13.04 cashback (minus £1.50 booking fee at thetrainline.com) when buying tickets for our example journey from Cardiff to Newcastle.
6. Get a railcard
National railcards cost between £20 and £30 for a year, and get you a third off both standard and first-class tickets.
Some railcards can't be used for certain journeys during peak times on weekdays, although we found that most of them could be used during our early-morning example journeys. These restrictions don't apply to weekends or bank holidays.
If you're eligible for a railcard and make a few off-peak train journeys a year, it will more than pay for itself.
In fact, if you travelled between Cardiff Central and Newcastle just once using a railcard, you'd save £53.30, which is almost double the annual cost of the most expensive card.
These are less well-known than national railcards. They also give sizable discounts, typically a third off. They are Cambrian Railcard, Cotswold Line Railcard, Dales Railcard, Devon & Cornwall Railcard, Esk Valley Railcard, First Capital Connect Student 16/18 Connect Card, Heart of Wales Railcard, Highland Railcard, Pembrokeshire Railcard, Valleys Senior Railcard and Valleys Student Railcard.
7. Use season tickets and Rover tickets
If you're a regular commuter, an annual season ticket will almost certainly be your cheapest option. Those travelling in the Network Railcard area (mainly London and the south-east) can also take advantage of the Gold Card.
There are also weekly and monthly season tickets, which tend to work out cheaper if you're making multiple repeat journeys over those periods. Season tickets covering more than one month but less than a year are also available.
Another option for repeat journeys is a Rover ticket. These give you unlimited travel (or sometimes travel after the morning peak time) in a designated area over a set period, such as four days in eight. There are approximately 80 Rovers. Most are listed by National Rail, but it's worth cross-referencing with the train companies you will be using to see whether there are any more.
8. Travel in groups
Most train companies offer a discount if you're travelling in a group.
Virgin Trains offers a 20% discount to groups of three to nine people buying their tickets in advance, and bigger discounts for groups of 10 or more.
In the south-east, a group of three to nine adults travelling together can save 34% on the price of individual off-peak adult tickets.
9. Check Megatrain
One of the best third-party websites for advance train tickets is megatrain.com.
The website sells tickets for journeys covered by Virgin Trains, East Midlands Trains and South West Trains, and off-peak fares start from just £1, plus a 50p booking fee.
10. Take advantage of cheap London travel
If you're travelling across London, it's often cheapest to buy one cross-London ticket rather than buying separate tickets for the different legs of your journey, as this will include transfer by Tube, DLR or Thameslink.
The GroupSave scheme operates in London and the south-east, offering a 34% discount on the price of standard off-peak tickets.
Combine our tips for serious discounts
Using a combination of our tips, we managed to find tickets for the 08.05 service from Cardiff Central for £23.66, while securing £1.68 cashback on our purchase. That's an effective discount of 86% compared with buying an 'anytime' ticket.
We also secured tickets for the 08.10 Birmingham-to-London service for £13.67 plus 97p cashback, which is effectively an 85% discount.
Here's how we did it:
Example 1: Cardiff Central to Newcastle
- We know there are significant discounts for this journey by splitting your ticket at Manchester Piccadilly, so we conducted online searches for two journeys (from Cardiff to Manchester, and from Manchester to Newcastle).
- We found advance tickets on sale for a total of £35.50 (£20 from Cardiff to Manchester and £15.50 from Manchester to Newcastle).
- With a railcard, we could reduce the cost to £23.66.
- We secured 50p cashback by buying our tickets through TopCashback, which was offering 2.1% cashback on tickets bought through the Virgin Trains website.
- By paying for the tickets using an American Express Platinum Cashback Everyday Credit Card within the first three months of opening the account, we could another get 5% cashback (£1.18).
Example 2: Birmingham New Street to London Euston
It doesn't always have to be as complicated as our first example. We cut the cost of our 08.10 journey from Birmingham New Street to London Euston without having to split our ticket.
- We found an advance ticket for the journey for £20.50.
- With a railcard, we could cut the cost to £13.67.
- We secured 97p cashback by buying through TopCashback and paying with the American Express Platinum Cashback Everyday Credit Card.
- Last updated: April 2016
- Updated by: Joe Elvin