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 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. Book in advance
- 2. Look for slower routes
- 3. Travel off peak
- 4. Split your tickets
- 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
1. Book in advance
When it comes to cheaper train tickets, it always pays to book in advance.
A set number of reduced-price 'Advance' tickets are allocated to specific trains and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. So despite train companies almost doubling the number of cheaper Advance fares in recent years, you’ll need to be quick off the mark for the best choice of deals.
Advance fares are typically available to buy up to 12 weeks before you travel – but there are exceptions. For example, you can book on Virgin Trains East Coast services from London to north of York up to 24 weeks in advance.
Most train companies sell Advance seats up to the day before travel (many up to one minute before midnight), and the handful currently selling advance tickets on the day of departure is set to increase by the end of summer 2017.
You can ensure you’re first in line for the cheapest advanced fares by visiting the National Rail website, which has future release dates for advanced bookings and the latest time you can book.
What’s more, some train companies, including Virgin, Greater Anglia and Cross Country Trains, offer ticket-alert emails, meaning you’ll be the first to hear about any new ticket releases.
|Examples of Advance ticket savings|
|Journey||Anytime fare||Advance fare||% saving|
|London Kings Cross to Leeds||£119.50||£15.50||87%|
|Manchester Oxford Road to Glasgow||£69.00||£13.00||81%|
|Ipswich to Sheffield||£80.50||£30.60||80%|
|Birmingham New Street to London Euston||£88.00||£22.00||75%|
|Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston||£142.00||£37.00||74%|
2. Look for slower routes
Speed is key for some people, but often a slightly longer route from A to B – via C – could save you money.
For example, if you took the 08:00 direct train from London to Manchester, arriving at 10:07, your single journey would cost £166 and take 2 hours 7 minutes.
Yet, if you took the 08:07 from London to Stafford, then switched trains and travelled on to Manchester, it would cost £104.20 and take 2 hours 26 minutes. The extra 19 minutes saves £61.80.
|Alternative routes that will cost you less|
|Journey details||Train operator(s)||Journey duration||Number of changes||Single fare||Saving||% saving|
|London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly||Direct||Virgin Trains||2h 07m||0||£166||£61.80||37%|
|Change at Stafford||Virgin Trains/Cross Country||2h 28m||1||£104.20|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Birmingham New Street||Direct||Cross Country||1h 23m||0||£51.60||£33.40||61%|
|Change at Cheltenham Spa||Cross Country/Cross Country||1h 45m||1||£18.20|
|Leeds to London King's Cross||Direct||East Midlands Trains||2h 18m||0||£73.50||£28||38%|
|Change at Doncaster||Northern/Virgin East Coast||2h 39m||1||£45.50|
3. Travel off peak
‘Off-peak’ and ‘super off-peak’ tickets apply during quieter times, such as early afternoon. They’re not as cheap as advance fares, but they give you some flexibility (unlike with advance tickets, you don’t have to get one specific train) without the high cost of fully flexible ‘anytime’ tickets.
Train companies can set their own peak and off-peak hours within a window defined by the Department for Transport. This has resulted in confusion, as the terms apply to different times across the train network, and even for different routes with the same train company.
It’s worth knowing when the off-peak clock chimes for your journey. A London to Southampton one-way ticket departing at 8.39am costs £40.50. But at 9.05am (6 minutes into South West Trains’ off-peak time zone for Monday-Friday, London departures) it plunged to £14.95. That's a saving of £25.55.
If you’re leaving during a peak time, then consider splitting your ticket to see whether part of the journey could be off peak. It’s also worth seeing whether there’s an alternative route that’s off peak.
4. Split your ticket
Instead of buying one single ‘through’ ticket for your journey, you buy multiple tickets to cover its component parts – same journey, same seat, no changes.
This ticketing hack allows you to pick up the cheapest fares for different parts of your route, capitalising on advance tickets and off-peak fare changes.
The only rule to bear in mind is that your train must stop at the stations named on your ticket.
How to find split tickets
Unless you know to ask for a particular split ticket, train staff are unlikely to tell you about it. However, once you know what journey to ask for, you can buy these online or at the station.
The tables below show the most popular splits, and those with the biggest potential savings.
You can also use split-ticketing websites such as trainsplit.com and splitticketing.co.uk.
|10 big split savings|
|The journey||The split||Full fare at time of booking||Split fare||Split saving||Split % saving||Railcard used?|
|Ipswich to Sheffield||Ipswich - Doncaster||£208||£25||£183||88%||Yes|
|Doncaster - Sheffield|
|Manchester to Bristol Parkway||Manchester Stations - Stafford||£188.90||£24.95||£163.95||87%||Yes|
|Stafford - Birmingham stations|
|Birmingham stations - Cheltenham Spa|
|Cheltenham Spa - Bristol Parkway|
|London to Huddersfield||London - Mirfield||£66.25||£8.90||£57.35||87%||Yes|
|Mirfield - Huddersfield|
|London to Leeds||London - Wakefield Kirkgate||£98.70||£14.80||£83.90||85%||No|
|Wakefield stations - Leeds|
|London to Sheffield||London - Doncaster||£94||£14.50||£79.50||85%||No|
|Doncaster - Sheffield|
|Plymouth to Southampton Airport||Plymouth - Salisbury||£210||£35||£175||83%||No|
|Salisbury - Southampton Airport Parkway|
|Edinburgh Waverley to Doncaster||Edinburgh Waverley - Alnmouth||£95.50||£16.20||£79.30||83%||No|
|Alnmouth - Doncaster|
|Coventry to Glasgow||Coventry - Wigan stations||£74.25||£14.50||£59.75||80%||Yes|
|Wigan stations - Glasgow|
|London to Newcastle||London - York||£81.40||£16.10||£65.30||80%||Yes|
|York - Newcastle|
|Bury St. Edmunds to Huddersfield||Bury St. Edmunds - Wakefield||£78.20||£15.60||£62.60||80%||No|
|Wakefield stations - Huddersfield|
|Top 10 most popular split journeys|
|The journey||Example split||Average full fare at time of booking||Average split fare||Average split saving||Average split % saving|
|London to Leeds||London - Doncaster||£49.43||£36.01||£13.42||27%|
|Leeds to London||Leeds - Wakefield||£54.91||£38.34||£16.57||30%|
|Wakefield - Doncaster|
|Doncaster - Peterborough|
|Peterborough - London|
|London to Manchester||London - Stoke-on-Trent||£102.65||£67.35||£35.30||34%|
|Stoke-on-Trent - Manchester stations|
|Bristol Temple Meads to London||Bristol Temple Meads - Didcot Parkway||£103.66||£67.84||£35.82||35%|
|Didcot Parkway - Slough|
|Slough - London|
|Manchester to London||Manchester Stations - Stoke-on-Trent||£93.69||£66.12||£27.57||29%|
|Stoke-on-Trent - London|
|Newcastle to London||Newcastle - Doncaster||£81.77||£52.70||£29.07||36%|
|Doncaster - London|
|Plymouth to Bristol Temple Meads||Plymouth - Tiverton Parkway||£31.26||£20.27||£10.99||35%|
|Tiverton Parkway - Bristol Temple Meads|
|Bristol Parkway to London||Bristol Parkway - Didcot Parkway||£103.22||£70.82||£32.40||31%|
|Didcot Parkway - London|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Sheffield||Bristol Temple Meads - Cheltenham Spa||£59.93||£36.56||£23.47||39%|
|Cheltenham Spa - Birmingham stations|
|Birmingham stations - Derby|
|Derby - Chesterfield|
|Chesterfield - Sheffield|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Plymouth||Bristol Temple Meads - Exeter St Davids||£27.29||£18.41||£9.38||34%|
|Exeter St Davids - Plymouth|
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 buy your train ticket 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 January, TopCashback was offering 3.45% 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.
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.
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 available. 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.
|Examples of 7-day season ticket savings|
|Journey||5 x Anytime return tickets||7-day season ticket||% saving|
|Bristol Temple Meads to London Paddington||£1,020||£199||80%|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Sheffield||£1,027.50||£252.50||75%|
|Birmingham New Street to London Euston||£380||£144||62%|
|Manchester Oxford Road to Glasgow||£690||£309.50||55%|
|Plymouth to Bristol Temple Meads||£345.00||£181.60||47%|
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.
- Last updated: January 2017
- Updated by: Joe Elvin