14 ways to get cheap train tickets
Train tickets can infamously cost more than a flight between the same two destinations. Fortunately, 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!) there are loads of tricks you can pull to get a serious discount.
And here they are!
How to save money on train tickets
Get a railcard
Seriously, you'll kick yourself if you don’t get yourself one of these. A railcard 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 spend £90+ on train travel 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 three 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 one 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!
Get cheap tickets in London
Ok, so technically this doesn't just cover 'trains' as such – but a handy extra benefit of having a railcard is that if you live or travel in London, you can link it up to your Oyster card and get a third off your travel there too!
This covers all off-peak journeys that are pay as you go (as opposed to one made using a monthly travelcard, for example), and includes trips made on the London Underground, London Overground and DLR services – all of which are nothing if not types of train.
For a full breakdown of how to get cheap train tickets in London, including what's classified as an off-peak journey, check out our London city guide.
Never travel at peak times
You’ll find the price of your train ticket rockets at weekends and during rush hours – usually before 9am and just after 5pm, although this 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.
These periods are known as peak times, and tickets to travel during these times are usually much more expensive than others. Not only that, but you're also more likely to end up standing for the entire journey (or sat on the floor, à la Jeremy Corbyn) since trains are typically overcrowded at these points in the day.
Train booking sites will notify you of peak times when you book, so take care to avoid them.
And 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 your ticket in advance
The best time to book your tickets is 10–12 weeks before you travel, but even booking as soon as a week beforehand can still make a big difference.
Travelling across the UK can cost well over £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 10 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 little feature 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...
Return tickets aren't always cheaper
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.
In most cases, it will cost pretty much the same for two singles as it does for a return. But every now and again, the oddities of the British train ticket system means that two single tickets will actually be cheaper than 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 ticket sales
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 unheard of for them to offer £5 tickets during flash sales.
Check if Megatrain covers your route
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.
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 Trains service (the only route they operate on), not their own.
However, if you're travelling on an East Midlands Trains route this is definitely worth looking into, as the tickets are far cheaper than booking through other services.
To prove this, we checked the price for a return trip from London to Derby on Megatrain and the Trainline. We checked the prices at the exact same time (seven days before the journey) for the exact same services, and the price difference surprised even us.
But it turns out that there's a way to get tickets even cheaper than that...
How to get the very cheapest tickets on Megatrain
This tip comes courtesy of our Deal Expert, Bronni, who has used the trick to get tickets for as little as £1!
The process is simple: go on to the Megatrain website and enter the journey you'd like to make. Then click on the calendar and select a date as far in advance as possible, and see if there are any £1 tickets. If not, note down the current latest date you can book tickets for (let's call this Day X).
You'll then need to regularly check back and wait for tickets on the day after Day X to go on sale. If you're the first person to book a ticket on the service, you'll be able to get a £1 ticket!
Bring your own snacks and drinks
Food on the train is extremely overpriced, so save yourself a mint by bringing your own!
Grabbing a snack at a nearby supermarket will work out cheaper (although nowhere too close to the station, as the mark-ups can be high), but making sandwiches at home and popping it in a Tupperware box is even smarter!
Don't be afraid to complain
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.
But – and this is a big but – the cashback is often very small. So small that you should work out whether it's cheaper to go through a cashback site and shop at one retailer, or just go straight to another retailer with lower prices.
Check out our guide to using cashback sites for more info on using them!
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 films and TV 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 means you don't have to buy or make 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 usually can't 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.
Best train ticket companies to book with
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 best 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, delivery charge, not always the cheapest prices
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: 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!
That said, you can earn one 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.
Cons: Booking fee, delivery fee, basic site
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 and ticket delivery, 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 – although they're by no means the only train ticket site with this issue.
Cons: Only available via the app, prices not always the cheapest
No, you didn't read that wrong. Skyscanner are now offering train ticket comparisons too!
Unfortunately, unlike their flight prices, the numbers aren't quite so low here – and the service is only available through their app, not the website.
Nonetheless, the service is typically slick and easy to use, and best of all, there are no booking fees!
Cons: Booking fee, only available on one train network
We went into Megatrain in quite a bit of detail earlier, so we won't lecture you again.
But it's worth reinforcing the fact that the prices on Megatrain are usually substantially cheaper than elsewhere, and you can sometimes get tickets for as little as £1.
It's just a shame that Megatrain only sells tickets on one network (East Midlands), as we'd love these prices to be available across the country.
Oh, and Megatrain also has a £1 booking fee – but at these prices, it shouldn't make a significant difference to the overall cost.
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.