Finding cheap train tickets can seem like a lottery, but there are a number of tricks you can use to make a saving.
Our experts have analysed the best ways to get a good deal and compiled a list of expert tips on how to find cheap train tickets.
1. Book in advance
We found Advance tickets for a journey from Birmingham New Street to London for £25, which is 81% cheaper than the cost of an Anytime single ticket.
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 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, so if you've planned a trip more than three months away, it could still be worth checking for tickets.
While Advance seats are traditionally sold up to the day before travel, some rail operators now sell Advance tickets on the day, available up to 10 minutes before departure.
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 Avanti West Coast (avantiwestcoast.co.uk), CrossCountry (crosscountrytrains.co.uk) and LNER (lner.co.uk) offer ticket-alert emails, meaning you’ll be the first to hear about any new ticket releases. You can also sign up for these releases from Trainline (trainline.co.uk).
The table below sets out some of the examples of the savings you could make with an Advance ticket on three popular routes.
|Journey||Anytime fare||Advance fare||% saving|
|London Kings Cross to Leeds||£187.50||£73.50||61%|
|Manchester Piccadilly to Glasgow||£84.20||£27.10||68%|
|Birmingham New Street to London Euston||£132.40||£25.10||81%|
Fares gathered on 12 November 2021 based on the first train after 9am on 2 February 2022.
2. Travel off-peak
You could save £78.30 by travelling from London to Swansea during off-peak hours.
‘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.
A a general rule, you might expect to see peak hours at morning and evening commuter times. If you buy your ticket online or in-person at a train station, you'll be able to see which types of tickets are valid for a particular service.
It’s worth knowing when the off-peak clock chimes for your journey. An anytime ticket from London to Swansea departing at 18:18 costs £182.10. One hour later, a ticket for the off-peak 19:18 service costs £103.80. That's a saving of £78.30.
If you’re leaving during a peak time, then consider splitting your ticket (see below) 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.
3. Split your ticket
You could reduce the cost of a journey from Ipswich to Sheffield by 43% by splitting at Peterborough and Doncaster.
Instead of buying one single ‘through’ ticket for your journey, you can 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.
For example, you can save £39.35 on a ticket from Ipswich to Sheffield by splitting your ticket at Peterborough and Doncaster. You'd pay £90.80 for an anytime direct ticket, but just £51.45 for a ticket with these two splits.
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.
4. Get cashback on your ticket purchases
In November, TopCashback was offering 5.25% cashback on tickets new customers bought through Trainline
A number of train companies and train-ticket websites are listed on cashback websites such as Quidco (quidco.com) and TopCashback (topcashback.co.uk). 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 cashback account.
In November, TopCashback was offering 5.25% cashback on all tickets bought through Trainline (thetrainline.com).
For an even bigger payout, consider paying for your tickets with a cashback credit card.
5. Get a national railcard
You could reduce the cost of your journey by up to a third if you hold a National Railcard.
If you're eligible for a railcard and make a few off-peak train journeys a year, it will more than pay for itself.
Most national railcards cost £30 for a year, and get you a third off both standard and first-class tickets. Notable exceptions are the Disabled Persons Railcard, which costs £20 a year for one-third off tickets, and the 16-17 Saver, which offers 50% off for £30.
Some railcards can't be used for certain journeys during peak times on weekdays. These restrictions don't apply to weekends or bank holidays.
You can see which kinds of railcards are available, and purchase them, on the National Railcard website (railcard.co.uk).
6. Look for a regional railcard
These are less well known than national railcards, and they're usually cheaper too. They also give sizable discounts, typically between a third and 50% off, but only for trips within certain areas.
- Cambrian Railcard
- Cotswold Line Railcard
- Dales Railcard
- Devon & Cornwall Railcard
- Esk Valley Railcard
- Thameslink Student Connect
- Heart of Wales Railcard
- Highland Railcard
- Pembrokeshire Railcard
- Valleys Senior Railcard
- Valleys Student Railcard
You can find more details about these railcards on the relevant rail operator websites or at local train stations. You may have to buy them in person from a ticket office as opposed to online.
7. Use season tickets
You'd save £798 by buying a seven-day season ticket between Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington, as opposed to buying five anytime return tickets.
If you're a regular commuter, an annual season ticket will almost certainly be your cheapest option.
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.
8. Try a Flexi season ticket
You could save 46% with a Flexi season ticket if you commute for two days a week
If you're travelling into the office for only part of the week, you may benefit from a Flexi season ticket.
These tickets are meant to save passengers at least 20%, though when we checked in June we saw savings of only 7% and 8% on some routes.
On the other hand, you can save more than this on some routes. An annual season ticket from St Albans to London costs £3,808. A year of Flexi season tickets would cost £2,049.60 for two-day commuters. That's £1,758.40, or 46%, cheaper.
Flexi season tickets will work for people who want to travel the same route on two or three days a week. You'll save more if you're travelling for two days, though. The same St Albans to London route costs £2991.60 for the year for three-day commuters. That's an £816.40 (21%) saving.
Flexi season tickets are only available in England but other networks offer discounts for those only travelling into the office a couple of days a week.
ScotRail, for example, still sells 10 tickets at a 10% discount, for use within one month, across 28 of its routes.
- Find out more: how much can you save with a Flexi season ticket?
9. Travel in groups
Many train companies offer a discount if you're travelling in a group.
Groups of three to nine adults can save one third on off-peak tickets when they travel together through the Groupsave scheme.
You can find more detail on the National Rail website (nationalrail.co.uk).
10. Take advantage of cheap London travel
Perhaps counterintuitively, you might find it cheaper not to plan ahead if you're travelling around London. Thanks to the TfL 'pay as you go' system, you'll only be charged for the journeys you make, up to a daily or weekly cap, when using London public transport.
You can tap a contactless card or Oyster card whenever you take a bus, Tube, Overground, DLR or Thameslink within Zones 1-9 and TfL will calculate the cost of your combined journeys and charge you the money afterwards. Depending on how many journeys you make, this could be cheaper than buying a London Travelcard ticket upfront.
Video: must-know cheap train ticket tips
Find out three must-know facts about getting cheap train tickets that could help you save a fortune in the short video below.