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Is it worth buying a railcard for cheap train tickets?

Following the launch of the 26-30 railcard, we've taken a closer look at railcards on offer - across ages and journeys - to see when it's worth buying one

Those eagerly trying to buy the new 26-30 Railcard after its launch faced online queues that sometimes exceeded three hours – but was it worth the wait?

More than 125,000 people bought the 26-30 Railcard and saved more than £3.4 million on train tickets in the first month after launch, according to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). If this trend continues, card holders will save an average of £281 a year.

The new railcard costs £30 for one year (or £70 for three years), and can be bought by anyone aged between 26 and 30. Once you’ve bought it, you can use it to save a third on train tickets.

It joins an array of railcards for different groups of people, meaning you don’t have to be a 20-something to benefit from cheaper train travel in 2019.

Keep reading to find out whether you could be eligible for one of them, and how quickly you might expect to make your money back.

10 tips for finding cheap train tickets – let us help you get the best deals on peak and off-peak train tickets.

Could I buy a railcard – and should I?

Here’s a run-through of the main railcards on offer:

Railcard Price What you get Who’s eligible?
16-25 £30 for one year, or £70 for three years 1/3 off UK train tickets Those aged 16-25, or over 26 and in full-time education
26-30 £30 for one year, or £70 for three years 1/3 off UK train tickets Those aged 26-30
Two Together £30 for one year 1/3 off UK train tickets for you and the other person named on the card when you’re travelling together Two people aged 16 or older
Family & Friends £30 for one year, or £70 for three years 1/3 off UK train tickets for up to four adults and 60% off for up to four children aged between 5 and 15 Two adults can be named as cardholders. They don’t need to travel together, but you need to be travelling with at least one child aged between 5 and 15 for a discounted fare
Senior £30 for one year, or £70 for three years 1/3 off UK train tickets Those aged 60 or older
Network £30 for one year 1/3 off UK journeys within the ‘Network Railcard area’ – this spans 16 counties in the South East including London Those aged 16 and above. You can take up to three adults with you and they’ll also benefit from 1/3 off. Plus, you can take up to four children (aged 5 to 15) and save 60% on the child fare
Disabled Persons £20 for one year 1/3 off UK train tickets Those with a disability that makes travelling by train difficult. Visit disabledpersons-railcard.co.uk for more info

Ultimately, whether you’ll make your money back (and some extra savings) depends on the journeys you make, and how many.

Generally, though, if you’re planning a few trips by train in the course of a year, the investment usually pays off. We’ve crunched the numbers on a few examples:

  • If you live in Sittingbourne, in Kent, and regularly go on day trips to London, an off-peak day return costs £24.20. With a railcard, it costs £16 – a saving of £8.20. This means that you’ll make back more than the £30 you spent on the railcard in four trips.
  • If you often travel from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly, a standard off-peak day return will cost you £14.70 – but with a railcard, it will cost £9.70. This is a saving of £5, and means you’ll make your money back in six trips.
  • If you make a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Edinburgh for the weekend, and you buy on the day of travel, a standard off-peak open return ticket will cost you £238. Use your railcard, however, and it will cost you £157.10 – a saving of £80.90 which more than pays for your yearly railcard in one trip.

16-17 railcard announcement

A new railcard specifically for those aged 16-17 was also announced on 2 January and will be launched later this year.

It will offer a 50% discount on rail travel (the same price as a child-rate ticket) and should be available from September, in line with a new academic year.

Where do I buy a railcard?

You can’t buy all railcards in the same way, so here’s how to get your hands on the type of card you’re after.

  • 16-25, Two Together, Family & Friends and Senior: online, at a station ticket office or by phone.
  • 26-30: online or by phone (not at a ticket office).
  • Network: online or at a station ticket office (not by phone).
  • Disabled Persons: online or by post.

If you plan on buying your railcard at a ticket office or by post, you’ll need to take a completed application form with you, which you can download online and print.

Unlike the other railcards on offer, the new 26-30 railcard is digital-only. This means you won’t get a physical card, but will hold it on your smartphone (or tablet).

Some, but not all, railcards require a passport-style photo which you can upload, send by email or bring with you, depending on how you’re applying.

Regional railcards

There are also a number of regional railcards on offer, typically slashing prices by a third, including:

  • 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.

Railcard restrictions

Check the small print on when you can travel at a discounted rate, and with who.

Your railcard won’t work on Eurostar services, for example, and you can’t use it for season-ticket purchases either.

There are usually restrictions if you’re travelling before 10am on Monday to Friday, too – Senior railcards aren’t valid at all, while a minimum fare of £12 is payable if you hold a 16-25 or 26-30 card.

How else can I save money on train tickets?

Other than buying a railcard, there are several other tricks to save money on train tickets. For instance:

  • Book in advance: The further in advance you can buy your ticket, the more likely you’ll get a cheaper price. We found advance tickets for a journey from London to Leeds for £15.50, which is 87% cheaper than the cost of an anytime single ticket.
  • Travel off-peak: Travelling at peak times is sometimes unavoidable, but it’s more expensive. If your schedule is flexible, research the cheapest time to travel for your journey.
  • Split your ticket: This is where you buy multiple tickets to cover different component parts of a journey, rather than a single ‘through’ ticket. It lets you pick up the cheapest fares for different parts of your route, capitalising on advance tickets and off-peak fare changes.

For more information on all of the above (and more hacks), take a look at the Which? Money article on how to find cheap train tickets.

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