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22 Jun 2021

Flexible train tickets on sale now: how much could you save?

The new wave of part-time commuters could save hundreds of pounds a year

Part-time commuting just got a whole lot cheaper thanks to the launch of the new flexi season ticket. But some routes will see bigger discounts than others.

As lockdown eases, many companies are adopting new flexible working policies, with a mix of office and home-based working.

Flexi season tickets are now on sale across England, and they could save you £100s a year compared with daily returns if you commute two or three days a week.

But according to our analysis, certain commuter routes will be getting bigger discounts than others, compared with the cost of an annual season ticket.

Here, Which? takes a look at how flexible train tickets will work, and how much you could save.

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How to buy flexi train tickets

Alongside the new tickets, National Rail has launched an updated season ticket calculator on its website to find the best ticket for you.

You can enter the two stations you'll be travelling between, the number of days you'll be commuting for, and the duration that you want to buy a ticket for.

When you click 'Calculate Price', it will show you the different ticket options you have with the cheapest listed first.

If you're travelling four or '5+' days, this will usually be a traditional annual season ticket, the kind that already existed before flexi tickets were launched. These tickets allow unlimited travel between two stations for seven days a week.

If you're travelling for two or three days a week, you'll likely see flexi tickets as an option. We'll get into how these work below.

Helpfully, the calculator lists the equivalent 'cost per day' of each ticket type so you can directly compare your options.

For example, you could still buy an annual season ticket for a two-day-a-week Woking to London commute, but it would cost you £24.30 per day instead of £11.72. So you shouldn't do that.

The National Rail season ticket calculator
The National Rail season ticket calculator.

How will flexible season tickets work?

Annual season tickets usually give the equivalent of 12 weeks' free travel - a significant discount for daily commuters, but until now it's been cheaper for part-timers to just buy individual tickets each day.

These new flexible tickets aim to offer discounts to part-timers who formerly had none and the new wave of commuters that will mimic their working patterns. Here's how they work:

  • Flexible tickets allow passengers to travel on any eight days within a 28-day period
  • There is no need to select the days of travel in advance
  • They are 'smart-only', so you tap a smartcard or your phone at the station when you travel

These tickets are being marketed towards people who travel for two or three days a week, yet as you may have noticed, eight days within 28 is actually just two days a week if you buy one flexi ticket per month, or 12 over a year.

For this reason, three-day commuters will need to buy them more frequently than once a month, so 18 tickets in one year, to secure the discount.

The tickets are part of the Department for Transport's (DfT) overhaul of the rail system, rechristened Great British Railways. Despite the moniker, they will only be available in England.

The government's plan also includes a new Great British Railways ticket website and app and more straightforward compensation.

Find out more: 50 ways to save money

How much could you save with flexi season tickets?

Tickets are on sale now, for use from 28 June onwards. Ahead of time, DfT released some example potential savings for nine routes compared with buying daily tickets. Now that the season ticket calculator is online, we were able to check how much you could save ourselves.

We thought it would be useful to compare flexi ticket prices to the traditional annual season tickets that most commuters would have been buying before the pandemic. This way, you'll be able to see how much cheaper your commute could be when you return to the office part time.

We analysed prices for 12 commuter routes in England, including routes the government selected as examples, alongside four more of the country's most popular journeys.

For clarity, though, it is always cheaper to buy a season ticket rather than day returns unless you travel for one day a week, as we'll see.

Some routes get greater discounts

Some flexi season tickets we looked at were proportionally much cheaper than others.

Commuting from Bromsgrove to Birmingham for two days a week will cost you £704 over the year with flexi tickets. That's 46% less than a £1,296 annual season ticket.

A two-day commute from Brighton to London, on the other hand, will cost £4,704.60 - just 8% less than the £5,108 annual season ticket.

It's worth noting, however, that even though this discount is smaller, it's still hundreds of pounds cheaper than the traditional ticket, as you'll see in the table below.

Which? understands that a fixed discount level wasn't implemented because rail prices vary across the network already. Flexi ticket prices were intended to be relative to the options passengers already have.

Flexi season tickets are meant to be at least 20% cheaper than the equivalent monthly season ticket. But we're comparing them to annual season tickets, which offer a better discount than monthly tickets.

Discounts on two-day commutes

RouteAnnual season ticket costFlexi season ticket cost* (two days)Discount (£)Discount (%)
St Albans City to London Terminals£4,040£2,049.60£1,990-49%
Weston-Super-Mare to Bristol Temple Meads£2,108£1,084.80£1,023-49%
Southampton Central to Winchester£1,288£691.20£597-46%
Chelmsford (Essex) to Stratford (London)£4,088£2,215.20£1,873-46%
Sutton (London) to St Albans City£4,124£2,236£1,888-46%
Bromsgrove to Birmingham£1,296£704.40£592-46%
Woking to London Terminals£3,528£1,977.60£1,550-44%

*Price of 12 flexi season tickets, each allowing eight days of travel every 28 days

Two-day weeks get bigger discounts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two-day commuters will see bigger discounts than three-day commuters when compared with annual season tickets, according to our research.

Discounts for two-day commutes ranged from 8% to 49%. For three day commutes, the largest discount was 24% and the worst discount was the Brighton to London route, which was actually 38% more expensive than an annual ticket.

Discounts on three-day commutes

RouteAnnual season ticket costFlexi season ticket cost* (three days)Discount (£)Discount (%)
Woking to London Terminals£3,528£2,666£862-24%
St Albans City to London Terminals£4,040£3,074.40£966-24%
Weston-Super-Mare to Bristol Temple Meads£2,108£1,627.20£481-23%
Southampton Central to Winchester£1,288£1,036.80£251-20%
Chelmsford (Essex) to Stratford (London)£4,088£3,322.80£765-19%
Sutton (London) to St Albans City£4,124£3,355£769-19%
Bromsgrove to Birmingham£1,296£1,056.60£239-18%

*Price of 18 flexi season tickets, each allowing eight days of travel every 28 days

Sometimes annual season tickets are still cheaper

We found a small number of routes where buying an annual season ticket was actually still cheaper for three-day commuters. Unsurprisingly, these were the routes where the flexi ticket discount was the lowest.

So if you're commuting to London from Cambridge, Brighton or Reigate for three days a week, it may cost less to buy an annual season ticket rather than 18 flexi tickets over the year.

Thankfully, it's easy to find the cheapest option using the new season ticket calculator, so it's unlikely you'll end up accidentally paying more as long as you buy through this page.

It's still a shame that commuters on these very popular routes are missing out on hundreds of pounds in savings if they travel three days instead of two. If you travel on one of these routes, and you're currently discussing your future working arrangements with your employer, it's worth keeping this in mind.

The Rail Delivery Group told us traditional annual season tickets are cheaper on some routes because of the significant discounts they already offer compared with peak return fares.

A DfT spokesperson told Which?: 'Flexible season tickets will offer most two and three day per week commuters savings against buying daily tickets or traditional seasons.

'We have always been clear that passengers should consider which product best suits their journey and travel pattern. This will be easier than ever with the updated season ticket calculator.'

Flexible season tickets aren't for four-day weeks

If you're headed for a four-day week post-lockdown, the flexi season ticket isn't for you. For all the routes we checked, it was cheaper per day to buy an annual season ticket that gives you seven days' travel a week instead.

Day returns are only cheaper for one-day weeks

Commuters who only travel in once a week are better off buying daily return tickets, as this was always cheaper on the routes we checked.

But if you travel for more than one day a week, it will always be cheaper to buy a season ticket of some kind.

Other flexible train ticket schemes

Back in July, we reported that DfT was asking rail operators for proposals for what became the new flexible ticket. In the process, we rounded up a few of the flexible ticket schemes that already existed.

Most of these were carnet (pronounced car-nay) schemes where you effectively 'bulk buy' tickets at a discount. Some of these will be replaced now the new flexible ticket has been launched. But the schemes outside of England will likely still continue.

ScotRail, for example, still sells 10 tickets at a 10% discount, for use within one month, across 28 of its routes. So although rail passengers in Scotland may miss out on the Great British Railways ticket, they'll still have a chance to save.