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10 tips for finding cheap train tickets

By Joe Elvin

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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 

87%We found Advance tickets for a journey from London King's Cross to Leeds for £15.50, which is 87% 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 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%
Fares gathered on 4 January 2017. Advance fares based on first train after 8am on 29 March 2017.
 

2. Look for slower routes

£61.80You'll save £61.80 by taking a slower service from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly.

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
Savings based on lowest-priced alternative fare at time of checking
   

3. Travel off peak

£25.55You'll save £25.55 by travelling from London to Southampton Central 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.

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

88%You could reduce the cost of a journey from Ipswich to Sheffield by 88% by splitting at Doncaster

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
Data provided by Trainsplit.com based on journeys between Nov 2015 and Nov 2016. Savings based on one-off ticket bookings.
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%
Doncaster-Leeds
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
Data provided by Trainsplit.com based on journeys between Nov 2015 and Nov 2016. Fares and savings are averages, based on 2,152 single real-life journeys.
   

5. Get cashback on your ticket purchase

3.45%In January, TopCashback was offering 3.45% cashback on all tickets bought through thetrainline.com

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

 

33%You could reduce the cost of your journey by up to a third if you hold a National 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. 

Regional railcards

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

£821You'd save £821 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. 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%
Fares gathered on 4 January 2017.
 

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. 

The unofficial Oyster Rail website has detailed information about rail journeys on London's Oyster ticket system. The Transport for London tickets page also has lots of information. 

  • Last updated: January 2017    
  • Updated by: Joe Elvin

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