How To Get Cheaper Train Travel
Are you about to make travel arrangements for the Christmas break? Read our top tips on how to get train tickets for less.
Travelling by train this Christmas means you could avoid packed motorways, pricy airport transfers, luggage ending up in the wrong country and all the `joys' that Ryanair and co bring.
There are some great train ticket deals to be had, but you have to know where (and when) to look. Follow our top tips and you could easily halve the cost of your trip!
Fares made easier
The UK train fare system was, until recently, a tangled web of different products which virtually no one fully understood.
In May this year, it all became much easier. Several ticket types (including `Apex', `Leisure Advance' and `Value Advance') were lumped together to simply become known as 'Advance' fares.
There are also `Off-peak' tickets (which can be bought up to the time of travel, but with certain restrictions) and `Anytime' (which can be bought up to the time of travel with no restrictions).
`Advance' tickets are usually the best value for money - and I'm going to show you how to get your hands on them.
The best ways to book
You can often pick up extra discounts if you book your tickets online. However, some train websites charge sneaky online booking fees, so avoid them if you can.
Here's the lowdown on three of the main sites:
- The National Rail Enquiries website: This is great for researching different travel possibilities. Its search tool is easy to use and the options are extensive.
On the downside, you can't buy your tickets directly through the site, but it will connect you with individual train operators (who don't charge booking fees).
- The Trainline: A huge commercial operation that covers all train companies and national destinations. It's easy to use, but does charge booking fees: £1 plus a hefty £2.50 for credit card payments.
- National Express East Coast: Far from only covering the east coast region, this system allows you to buy tickets to all destinations in the UK. There are no booking fees, and you get a 10% discount when you book online.
For example, I recently used the National Rail Enquiries website to research the journey I wanted to make, then bought the actual tickets using the National Express East Coast site.
That way, I avoided the booking fees charged by The Trainline, and got the 10% discount.
12 weeks for the cheapest deals
We all know we ought to book early to get the best rail deals, but try to book too early and you won't be able to find anything at all. This is because tickets (even the cheapest `Advance' type) usually aren't released until 12 weeks before the date of travel.
This is when you need to pounce. To make sure you're in on the action, register for a National Express East Coast email alert, which will be sent to you the minute the cheap tickets for your chosen date become available.
Just bear in mind that when they're put up for grabs, these tickets are usually released in batches rather than all at once. So if, on the very first day, the website tells you that no more cheap tickets are available for a particular journey, take it with a pinch of salt. Wait a few hours and try again - the next batch of cheap tickets may well have been released by then.
Finally, it's worth looking for `Advance' tickets even if you're booking at the last minute. There's a chance there may still be some available on the day, particularly if you're travelling on a quiet route or at an unusual time.
Split that ticket!
Many aspects of train ticket booking seem beyond the realms of logic. Two single tickets, for example, can often be cheaper than a return ticket covering the same journey.
Even more weirdly, buying a series of single tickets - covering different parts of your journey - can be much cheaper than buying one single ticket which covers the whole length of your trip. This is known as `splitting' your ticket.
It's perfectly legal (although the train must stop at the stations you've bought the tickets for). So - when you're booking a longish train journey, take a few minutes to play around on one of the websites I've mentioned.
Find out how much you'd pay for one single ticket. Then experiment with breaking your journey at various points and see how much tickets would be from this interim location to your final destination.
It could very well be time well spent - a friend did this recently and almost halved the cost of her trip!
Railcards and season tickets
If you're a regular train traveller, there are now several railcard and season ticket options that could save you a packet:
- 16-25 Railcard: As the name suggests, this is mainly for people aged 25 and under - but it can also be used by full-time students of any age. It costs £24 a year (or £65 for three years) and will get you one-third off fares throughout the UK.
- Senior Railcard: One for people aged 60 or over - same prices and discounts as above.
- Family & Friends Railcard: Anyone can use this, as long as they're travelling with at least one child. Better still, up to four adults and four kids can travel on just one Railcard. It gives each adult one-third off - and each child a very juicy 60% off - their fare.
It also offers lots of discounts on hotels, restaurants and days out. Again, it costs £24 a year (or £65 for three years).
- Disabled Persons Railcard: This is the cheapest of the four at £18 a year (£48 for three years). It offers one-third off most UK rail fares.
There are also certain area-specific railcards (like the Network Railcard in the south east) and season tickets that could shave pounds off your travel costs. You can use the National Rail Enquiries season ticket calculator to work out how much yours might cost.
Railcards are now valid on all tickets bought in advance, including the cheapest `Advance' sort. As usual, just makes sure you read all the terms and conditions carefully, as they aren't valid for every journey.
Unfortunately, I haven't got space here to cover all the individual special offers and cheap deals that are around at the moment.
In brief, it's definitely worth checking the special offer pages of each of the sites I mention, as well as those of the individual train operating companies.
And of course, keep an eye on no-frills operator Megatrain (Megabus' sister site) for fares starting from £1 plus booking fee.
Now - let's just hope we can avoid `the wrong kind of snow' this year.