Choo Choo! All aboard the ridiculously expensive train to PoorVille!
As much as I’d like to use trains over cars and planes (and I do when I can), tickets aren’t cheap. Rail fares went up by 3.8% in March, the largest increase on already pricey tickets in nine years.
And some fares might go up more! The size of any annual rise is limited to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) inflation figure – but only on regulated fares. Non-regulated ones, such as advance singles and day off-peak are set by the rail companies so could go up by more.
You’ll pay these highest prices if you buy your ticket at the station moments before your train is due to leave, but it is possible to significantly lower the cost. Here are my top tricks to bring down the price.
Book in advance
An old tip, but still the best. Train companies generally release tickets 12 weeks in advance, though I’ve noticed a few (Transpennine for example) are releasing cheaper fares earlier.
As much as I hate Trainline, it does have a useful alert system where you can get email notifications for when advanced tickets are on sale. Simply enter the dates you’ll travel and your route.
Even if you don’t get the advanced fares as soon as they go on sale, it’s still worth booking as soon as you know when you are going to travel. Though the best fares often go quick, you can still get reduced fares the day before on many routes, and some even offer an advanced discount on the day. Trainline also has a feature where it predicts when prices will change.
Hours vary by train company but think of it as the rush hour (or two) in the morning and late afternoon. Travel outside those times and you’ll pay less.
Split your ticket
In the wisdom of the train companies, they’ve decided that it’s sometimes cheaper to get two separate tickets and split your journey along the way. You might even be able to stay on the same train! I’ve written more here about how it works.
There are a few different companies offering this now and I find they often come up with different routes. A few websites to look at:
Check if two singles are cheaper than a return
Defying logic, it can sometimes be less to NOT buy a return ticket. Hopefully the website will show you those options when booking.
Get a season ticket
Travelling a lot? A season ticket might be cheaper. Most lines will sell weekly, monthly and annual ones. If yours expires before the New Year, it’s always worth renewing before January 2nd, as that’s when prices are hiked up.
It’s worth seeing if your employer will provide an interest-free loan to buy the season ticket. You’ll pay it back over the year straight from your salary, so it’s a bit like getting the discount each month. If not, look at 0% purchase credit cards.
There are also now flexible season tickets for those communting part of the week. When I analysed these they were a mixed bag with some cheaper and some more expensive than buying daily tickets.
Get a railcard
The terms & conditions vary for each type of card but you can broadly save a 1/3 on travel, sometimes for people travelling with you.
- Got a family? Then you want the Family & Friends Railcard
- You’re a student? The 16-25’s Railcard is for you
- A bit older? Then go for the 26-30 Railcard (also known as the Millenial railcard)
- Over 60? You can also get a Senior Railcard
- While a Disabled Person’s Railcard is for those with disability and a carer
- There’s also a Two-Together card if you regularly travel with the same person
- Live in the South East? Grab a Network Railcard
If you live in London or the South East and already have an annual season ticket (including TFL) then you also have a Gold Card, which is pretty much the same as the Network Card.
Earn cashback or points
If I’m paying with a card rather than points I’ll use my Chase or American Express cards as I’ll get 1% back. Here’s my guide to cashback and reward credit cards.
You can also earn Nectar points if you book via Transpennine Express or Avanti West Coast, while LNER has its own Perks scheme.
Don’t pay a booking fee
Use popular companies such as the Trainline and you’ll be hit with booking fees and delivery charges. Go direct with the train operator and you’ll likely save yourself cash – even if they don’t operate the route. I tend to use the LNER site. You’ll need to pick up at the station or have digital tickets to avoid delivery charges with many booking websites.
Go First Class for less
It can sometimes cost less to travel in First Class if you leave it late and the advance fares are all gone, so don’t discount them completely. Or on the day of travel the app Seat Frog will let you bid for a reduced upgrade to First.
Claim a refund for any train delays
Each company has slightly different rules, but essentially if you are delayed more than 30 minutes once the journey has started there is a good chance you’ll be able to claim something, possibly 50%. If it’s over an hour you might get the whole lot back. A handful have cut the time to a 15-minute delay.
Ask at the ticket office or look on the train operator’s website for more information. If your journey is split between two different companies and a delay on the first one makes you miss the connection, it’s less likely you’ll get something. Here’s how to get a train refund
Watch this video from 2017 on how I saved on a journey from London to Yorkshire