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Why train fares don’t add up

Which? finds train staff give poor ticket advice

Train station

Which? finds 51% of train ticket advice wrong, exposes the issues – and shows you how to get the best deal

Undercover Which? researchers asked station clerks and National Rail Enquiries 150 questions in total (15 questions, 10 times) about train travel. We found that 59% of the answers from station clerks were wrong; and 43% of National Rail Enquiries’ phone answers were wrong. We got very similar results in October 2007 and September 2009, too. 

We tested whether customers were given the chance to save by:

  • Taking a cheaper, slower route;
  • Waiting for a slightly later train to take advantage of off-peak fares;
  • Stopping off en route as part of their ticket, rather than paying for two journeys; or
  • Buying a weekly season or rover ticket rather than multiple individual tickets in a week

The worst result was when we asked about making two round trips from Oxford to Cardiff in a week. For 9 of the 10 times we asked the question, we were advised to buy 2 return tickets costing £200 each. Just one clerk correctly advised that buying a weekly season ticket would save £112.

To help you get the cheapest train tickets, see our cheap train tickets guide. It shows you basic and advanced tips for getting the best deal from ticket offices, over the phone or online, and has a guide to cheap train travel local to you and information on good value first class fares. 

Limitations of train websites

national rail website

Clicking on ‘Advanced search’ brings up various options, including the ‘travel via’ box – useful if you know of a specific journey you want to make 

None of our questions could be answered easily on the National Rail Enquiries’ website. 

Ticking ‘include slower trains’ on Nationalrail.co.uk answered 4 of our 15 questions. Otherwise you would have needed special knowledge, such as knowing exactly which station to insert in the ‘travel via’ box (you can find this and other options under ‘Advanced search’  – see our picture, right). Other tactics needed included using the season ticket calculator and reading the terms and conditions of ticket types. 

Which? members can read the full Which? magazine article Why train fares don’t add up. Not a member? You can take a subscription to Which? for just £1 for your first trial month.

Advance train tickets online – take your time

We also looked at buying advance tickets online and our research revealed you have longer than you think. While the standard advice is to book as early as possible, we found fares only went up substantially around 4 weeks before travel. 

This was true across 8 different journeys with a mix of long distance train companies: East Coast; First Great Western; CrossCountry and open access train company Grand Central.

A tip from our cheap train tickets guides is to only buy from train companies’ websites as they cannot charge booking fees or debit and credit card fees – unlike third party websites. 

Are you satisfied with train travel?

We also asked 1,500 passengers who had travelled in the last year how happy they were with the train services available to them in the UK. 

54% said they were satisfied overall, with only 31% rating value for money as excellent or good and just a quarter rating ease of understanding what ticket to get as excellent or good. 

What do you think of Britain’s railways? Give us your views and take our Which? Conversation poll on whether the railways have improved since privatisation.

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