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Updated: 21 Apr 2022

Government announces Great British Rail Sale - but can it really save you money?

More than a million half-price rail tickets are up for grabs

The government has teamed up with several UK train operators to offer up to 50% off train tickets between 25 April and 27 May 2022.

Tickets are available to book now from participating retailers.

The incentive aims to 'help ease some of the pressure on family finances' at a time when prices have been increasing on everything from household bills to supermarket essentials.

Here, Which? explains what the 'rail sale' is, and whether you'll be able to benefit from cheaper rail travel.

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What is the Great British Rail Sale?

The 'Great British Rail Sale' is an initiative between the government and participating rail operators that offers up to 50% off some train tickets between 25 April and 27 May.

Unfortunately, these dates don't cover school Easter holidays, May half term, or the upcoming Jubilee weekend bank holiday - but you could still plan a trip for the early May bank holiday.

Tickets have been available to book with participating retailers since 19 April.

Off-peak train journeys where you can get a discount of up to 50% include:

  • York to Leeds: was £5.60, now £2.80
  • London to Edinburgh: was £44, now £22
  • London to Cardiff: was £47, now £25
  • Wolverhampton to Liverpool: was £10.50, now £5.25
  • Manchester to Newcastle: was £20.60, now £10.30
  • Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Meads: was £25.30, now £12.60
  • Portsmouth Harbour to Penzance: was £45.70, now £22.00.

UK rail travel, which should offer a low-cost environmentally-friendly way to travel, has been criticised for its high prices for some time. In fact, last year Which? found taking the train from London to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow cost three times as much as flying.

How to buy discounted train tickets

To get your hands on discounted train tickets, you'll have to travel with a participating train operator between 25 April and 27 May.

Participating train operators include:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • c2c
  • Chiltern Railways
  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Railway
  • Grand Central Railway
  • Greater Anglia
  • Great Northern
  • Great Western Railway
  • Hull Trains
  • LNER
  • London Northwestern Railway
  • Northern
  • South Western Railway
  • Southeastern
  • Southern
  • Thameslink
  • TransPennine Express
  • West Midlands Railway.

The number of Rail Sale tickets will vary between providers - and some may have additional restrictions. For instance, LNER is only offering discounted tickets between Monday and Thursday (inclusive) while the offer is on.

Tickets can be purchased online directly from rail operators, Transport for Wales, and a host of other online ticket retailers including TrainPal, Omio, My Train Ticket, Railsmartr, Trip, the Trainline, Traintickets, Trainhugger, RailEasy and Redspottedhanky.

You can see if your desired route is included in the sale - or get inspiration if you're not sure where you want to go - with National Rail's dedicated Great British Rail Sale site.

Some providers are only offering discounts during off-peak times. The Department for Transport defines the general peak and off-peak windows, but they may vary between train companies.

You have until 2 May to purchase the discounted tickets, but it's not clear how many will be left by this time.

What isn't included

These discounts won't apply to most commuters, who use train services the most. That's because only specific pre-booked journeys will be discounted - ruling out season tickets.

As tickets have to be booked in advance, you won't get a discount if you just turn up at the train station to buy tickets on the day you want to travel.

Train fare price rises

Rail commuters will be used to ticket prices increasing every year, usually in January. The increases are usually based on the retail price index (RPI) figure of the previous July, plus 1%.

However, this year has been a little different. Train ticket prices were not increased until March, and were capped at 3.8% - this equals July 2021's RPI figure, but there's no additional 1%.

That being said, it's still the steepest price rise since 2013 - as shown in the graph below.

These are the average price rises; some train routes will have seen far steeper price rises throughout this period.

Other ways to save on train tickets

If you're not able to get a discounted ticket in the 'rail sale', there are lots of ways to save money on train travel all year round - but you'll probably need to plan ahead:

Book in advance

If you're able to organise your trips around 12 weeks in advance, we've found you could save up to 81% compared to the cost of an anytime single ticket.

Most rail operators release a set number of advance tickets 12 weeks in advance, sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Some are released even further in advance, so if you know there's a train journey you want to make later this year, see if you can book it early.

You can also sign up to be alerted about ticket releases from the Trainline and some other rail operators.

Split your tickets

In some cases, it's cheaper to split up your journey into different sections compared to paying for one ticket straight through from your departing to arrival stations.

You won't have to switch trains, or even seats - as long as your chosen train stops at all of the stations mentioned on your various tickets.

Websites such as Trainsplit or Split Ticketing can help you find cheaper split journeys.

Make the most of railcards

National and regional railcards can save you between 30% and 50% on certain rail journeys - but there are a lot of different eligibility criteria to navigate.

For national railcards, you'll need to be a certain age, have a qualifying disability, or be travelling with your partner, or family and friends.

Regional railcards are only for journeys in certain areas.

Get cashback on what you spend

Online cashback sites such as Quidco and TopCashback list train ticket companies and rail operators among their participating retailer list, meaning you can get earn cashback on what you spend on train tickets.

The payouts are often small, but will mount up over time - but you must make sure you log into the cashback site and click on the affiliate link before purchasing the train tickets; otherwise, you won't earn any cashback.

Alternatively, you could also earn cashback via your debit card or cashback credit card.

Find out more: how to find cheap train tickets

Editor's note: This story has been edited since it was first published - we initially stated Rail Sale tickets would only be available on off-peak journeys. We have corrected this as some rail operators are offering the discount for peak-time journeys. It was updated on 21 April 2022 with extra details about ScotRail's separate 50% discount offer.