How to get cheaper train tickets
Sure, trains can be a bit more pricey than other means of travel, but there's no denying how comfy it can be. Plus, we've got tips to slash the cost of your ticket!
We all know trains aren't exactly the cheapest form of transport, and prices only seem to be going up! However, depending on where you're travelling to, sometimes you have no other option but to splash out on rail.
But despite prices generally being way higher than they should be (sometimes even more expensive than flights! How'd you work that one out, Richard Branson?!) there are loads of tricks you can pull to get a serious discount.
And here they are!
How to save money on rail travel
Get a railcard
Seriously, you'll kick yourself if you don’t get yourself one of these. This card will save you a bucketload – even from the very first time you use it – so it's particularly handy if you've moved to the opposite end of the country for uni.
Student railcards will take a third off every train ticket you buy and it costs £30 a year. It may sound a tad on the pricey side, but if you travel just a couple of times a year you'll already be making a saving.
If you don't qualify for the 16–25 railcard, and normally travel along with someone else, it might be an idea to get a two together railcard instead. This will also get you a third off all fares (as long as you're travelling after 9.30am Mon–Fri) and costs £30.
SUPER HACK: You can also be super sneaky and make your railcard last until you're 27 by buying a 3-year card just before your 24th birthday (up to the day before your birthday, to be precise!). Once you hit 24, you'll only qualify for a 1-year card, so think ahead and you could save yourself a mint.
You can also currently get a four year railcard for free when you open a Santander student account!
Never travel at peak times
You’ll find the price of your train ticket rockets at weekends and during rush hours. This is usually before 9 and just after 5, but the exact hours will differ depending on your route and the direction of travel. For example, sometimes the deciding factor will be when you end your journey, whereas on other occasions it'll be when you start.
It’s not just expensive to travel at peak times, but you're also more likely to be left standing for the entire journey (or crouched outside the bogs like our man Jezza) since it tends to get really overcrowded.
Rail booking sites will notify you of peak times when you book, so take care to avoid them.
If you absolutely have to travel at peak times, make sure you reserve a seat when you book your ticket. It's usually free to do so, and helps avoid the risk of having to stand for three hours!
Book in advance
Early bird gets the worm and all that! The best time to book your tickets is 10–12 weeks before you travel, but even if you don't manage to do it until one week before, it can still make a big difference.
Travelling across the UK can cost £200+ if you buy a ticket on the day of travel, but buying even just a week or two in advance can save you as much as 43% on your journey.
Some operators will even let you buy advance tickets as soon as 15 minutes before the departure time! Check out this summary of the latest purchase times for an advance ticket with each major company.
If you're not quite sure exactly when you'd like to travel, but don't want to miss out on a discount for buying early, check out the Trainline app's Price Tracker tool.
This nifty littlefeature predicts when the price of your ticket will increase, and by how much. Given that the Trainline has been selling train tickets for yonks, we're inclined to trust their judgement on this one!
WARNING: Before you take the plunge and get your ticket, don't get suckered into buying your ticket from the Trainline. Unlike many other train ticket websites with the same prices, they charge booking fees!
Split up your journey
If you have a long journey that passes through several major stations, it might be worth checking the price of booking each leg of the journey separately rather than buying a single ticket straight to your destination.
For example, if you're travelling from London to Edinburgh and the train passes through Newcastle, it might actually work out cheaper to buy two singles (London to Newcastle and Newcastle to Edinburgh) than one direct ticket, even though you have no intention of switching trains or getting out of your seat!
Amazingly, it can sometimes work out cheaper even though it's the same journey!
Doing a manual search for the best ways to split your journey would take an age, so luckily there's a tool to do it all for you. Head on over to Trainsplit, where their advanced search filters let you choose everything from the maximum number of changes, to any train operators you'd like to include (or exclude…).
It's probably best to take advantage of these filters if you don't want to end up like this savvy saver, who reduced the cost of a trip from Newcastle to Oxford by £56, but increased the number of tickets quite significantly…
Remember returns aren't always cheaper
Credit: Alan Parkinson – Flickr
Just as you can split up your journey along the way, you can also divide a return journey into two single tickets to see if it works out any cheaper. However, it's worth knowing that in most cases, it will cost pretty much the same for two singles as it does for a return.
It's just a matter of doing your research. Sites like the Trainline actually show you a price comparison between two singles and a return, so you can see which works out cheapest.
Wait for sales
Credit: Kevin Dooley – Flickr
This isn't always the most convenient option, particularly if you have an exact date in mind that you'd like to travel.
But if you can handle waiting around for deals to happen, some of the flash sales from companies like Virgin Rail are seriously crazy. For a company that often has journeys priced at £150+, it's not unusual for them to offer £5 tickets during flash sales.
Check if Megatrain covers your route
Credit: Naked Faris – Flickr
Our beloved Megabus began offering budget train seats over a decade ago, but they're often overlooked as an option since the routes they offer can be quite limited.
However, if you're travelling on an East Midlands Trains route this is definitely worth looking into, as tickets can be as low as £1 plus 50p booking fee!
Megatrain sell off seats on the less popular routes/times at a discounted price, which is why you won't have seen any bright blue and yellow Megatrains on the rails – Megatrain tickets will get you a seat on an East Midlands Train, not their own.
Bring your own snacks and drinks
Food on the train is extremely overpriced, so save yourself a mint by bringing your own!
Buying some sandwiches at a nearby supermarket will work out cheaper (although nowhere too close to the station, as the mark-ups can be high), but throwing something together at home and popping it in a Tupperware box is even smarter!
Don't be afraid to complain
Credit: Kevin Spencer – Flickr
As if it wasn't bad enough that it costs a million pounds to ride the train, they're also notoriously unreliable when it comes to arriving on time. You've almost certainly got your own train travel horror story, but thankfully you can claim some money back.
Each rail network will have their own rules and regs on complaints, largely depending on whether or not they've opted into the Delay Repay scheme. Some will give you a partial refund for delays as small as 15 minutes, whereas others won't pay out until you've been held up for at least half an hour.
They may also have a sliding scale, whereby the size of your refund is determined by how significant the delay was.
In short, if you've had any sort of delay, head over to our guide on train delay refunds and claim back what you're owed.
Consider a season ticket
If you're making the same journey multiple times a week (maybe you live a little way away from the main campus, or you've got a job in the next town), it might be worth your time investing in a season ticket.
Season tickets provide a discount to frequent travellers, and the longer your season ticket is for, the more you save. You can get them for any period of time that you'd like, but the most common types are weekly, monthly and annual.
However, season tickets aren't always the cheapest option. Unless you're commuting every day, you should do some quick maths to work out whether or not you'd actually get a discount. Use this season ticket calculator, and compare the average journey price to what you currently pay.
It's also worth noting that you can't use a railcard with a season ticket. It should still be cheaper for regular commuters to get a season ticket, but again, it's worth doing the sums.
Use a cashback site
Before heading straight to the website of the rail company to book your tickets, it's worth knowing that you could actually earn cash back on the money you spend if you go via a cashback site first.
Check out our guide to using cashback sites for more info on how to do this.
Exploit the perks of first class (even with a standard ticket)
Usually we'd strongly advise against getting a first class ticket, but every now and then it could be worth spending a little extra.
If there's a sale on, first class tickets can cost just a few pounds more than a standard. Many networks throw in a ton of perks for first class passengers, including a free buffet cart and free WiFi (which sometimes also has free entertainment too!).
A first class ticket that costs £5 more than a standard could end up saving you money, as the unlimited free food and drink saves you having to make or buy your own beforehand. And, as long as you don't go way over the top, there's nothing stopping you taking some of the free stuff for later.
But buying a ticket for first class isn't the only way to get some perks. If you're on a train that only has WiFi in first class (or if it's only free there), there's a very good chance that anyone sat nearby can also get in on the action.
You can't usually reserve a specific seat if you book in advance, so to take advantage of this hack, you'll either have to skip reserving a seat and risk standing, or simply hope that your reserved seat is right by the first class section.
Alternatively, if you have reserved a seat but board the train to find that it's fairly empty, there's nothing to stop you moving towards the first class seats and setting up camp just outside.
For some unknown reason, different ticketing sites will sometimes have different prices for the same journey. It's for that reason that you should always do some comparisons between the big hitters, just to make sure that you're definitely getting the best price out there.
Remember that although some sites charge a delivery fee, it's usually free to get a phone ticket or to collect it from an eligible station.
So, in no particular order, here are the top five ticket companies to book with:
Cons: Few helpful tools.
The Virgin Trains website is great for getting deals on longer journeys, and despite their high prices they often run flash sales that see tickets going for as little as £5! What's more, they don't just sell tickets for Virgin Trains – you can buy a ticket for any operator on their site.
Plus, if you feel like really treating yourself, you can upgrade to first class for as little as £5 using the Seatfrog app!
Cons: Booking charge, credit card fee.
It may not always be the cheapest place to buy tickets, but the Trainline app is worth having just for the sheer selection of extra features.
The Price Tracker helps you make sense of the wacky world of train ticket prices, while BusyBot lets you know how busy a train is (and where you're most likely to find a seat) before you board.
If you do buy your ticket with the Trainline, you also get the added bonus of a digital ticket, meaning you won't need to rummage around in your bag when the inspector comes down the aisle.
Cons: £1 booking fee, delivery charges.
In days gone by, RedSpottedHanky's lack of fees made it by far the best. However, they've now got a £1 booking fee as well as extra for ticket delivery, and we're not happy about it!
There still aren't any card fees included though, and you can pick up your tickets from the station for free, so they're still one of the best value sites.
A little added bonus is that you can earn 1 reward point for every £1 you spend with their loyalty scheme. Each point is worth a penny, so although it's not much, it is similar to the rates supermarket reward schemes offer.
Finally, if you've got a Tesco Clubcard, every £5 worth of vouchers you have can be turned into £10 to spend at RedSpottedHanky. Ideal!
Cons: Booking fee, credit card fee, delivery fee.
From the good people who brought us Trainsplit, it's… well, the good people themselves!
Raileasy's site may not look as jazzy as some of the alternatives, but the functionality is all there. That said, they do demand fees for booking, delivery and the use of a credit card, so you'll want to make sure their prices are lower than the competition's before shelling out.
Cons: £5 booking fee.
Hardcore money savers used to love this site, as it was one of the only ones left without fees. However, due to the introduction of whopping £5 fee they're no longer anywhere near the best.
The site design is also a bit dated.
If you've covered all of the above but still can't find tickets within your budget, it's definitely worth checking out coach travel instead as this tends to be much cheaper.