10 tricks for cheaper train fares

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.

Travel off-peak

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.

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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.

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.

If you have any Tesco points you can convert them at triple value for a railcard. Alternatively, from time to time, there are discounts on railcards which I’ll feature on my Travel Deals page.

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

12 thoughts on “10 tricks for cheaper train fares

  1. Thanks for the advice!

    Do season ticket prices become more expensive the closer you purchase them to the date of use? For example, will a monthly season ticket for January 2020 be cheaper now than if I buy it on 31 December?
    Using GWR. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jonathan, it’ll only be cheaper if you buy it for travel before the prices go up. So if you want it to start on say 5th Jan, it’ll be the new prices whenever it is you buy it.

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