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Cheap train tickets 2024: how to avoid being overcharged when you travel by rail

Cheap train tickets 2024: how to avoid being overcharged when you travel by rail

As new research shows some passengers are paying up to 154% more for their tickets, we reveal how you can avoid being overcharged when travelling by train.

lovemoney staff

Motoring and Travel

lovemoney staff
Updated on 19 January 2024

The great train station robbery

Travelling by train can be incredibly expensive, particularly if you make the mistake of buying your ticket from a machine rather than online.

An investigation from the consumer champions at Which? found that the machines are charging up to 154% more for the same journey as you could get online.

Which? Sent mystery shoppers to 15 stations, to check the price of 75 journeys from a ticket machine against what they would pay if buying the ticket through Trainline.

Each time they were tasked with getting a price for the cheapest one-way ticket for travel the same day, the following morning and in three weeks’ time.

And the price differences were staggering.

Online prices were found to be cheaper around three-quarters of the time and, on average same-day journeys, cost a whopping 52% more when tickets were bought from machines. 

However, in one case, the journey worked out an eye-watering 154% more costly, a one-way ticket from Holmes Chapel in Cheshire to London which cost £66 from the machine compared with £26 online.

Overall, there could be substantial differences between the best prices obtainable online and in person.

Given these issues, it’s important to understand the ways that you can reduce the amount you spend on train tickets. Here are some of the simplest ways to do so.

Railcards for everyone

Did you know that railcards aren’t just for seniors and students?

There's the 26-30 railcard which, for £30 a year, lets those eligible save up to a third on most rail journeys, while the Two Together Railcard gives similar benefits to those travelling as a pair.

Or if you’re travelling with a child, you could get the Family and Friends Railcard, covering up to four adults and four children, which gives adults 33% off and children a whopping 60% (under-5s travel free). It’s one year for £30 or three years for £70.

Also priced at £30 the Network Railcard gives one third off travel in the South East and you can use it whilst travelling alone.

Railcards are worth getting if you regularly travel by rail, because they make almost everything cheaper, and can be combined with advance booking and rover tickets to get some surprising discounts.

You can get considerable cashback on a railcare with Quidco or TopCashback.

Learn more about the different types of railcards here.

Train websites and apps

There are specialist websites and apps that can help you land a great deal on your train tickets, such as the RailEurope and Trainline smartphone apps.

They will show you the lowest prices for a route across all train lines and can be combined with railcards. It’s worth using both apps to get the cheapest deal.

Trainline’s app has a useful feature that will predict when the price of a ticket will rise, although it does have a booking fee of up to £1.50.

Another app and website, RailEurope, can be used for train travel both in the UK and across Europe. It can be paired with railcards and crucially doesn't charge any booking fees.

Finally, it's worth checking out the Split My Fare site, which can help you secure big discounts and doesn't charge booking fees.

Advance tickets

Advance tickets are usually considerably cheaper, but frequently get sold out for travel at popular times, so you need to snap one up early.

In general, advance tickets come on sale 12 weeks before departure. 

What’s less well-known is that it’s possible to get advance tickets just hours – sometimes minutes – before a train departs.

Conditions vary: we’ve included all the deadlines at the end of this guide.

Do bear in mind that advance tickets require you to travel on a specific train, unlike many return tickets which have more flexibility.

In some cases, there will be a fee to pay if you need to change an advance ticket, though terms will vary 

If you sign up to Trainline's Ticket Alert Service, they will email you when your desired route becomes available.

Special offers on attractions

National Rail runs a website called daysoutguide.com which offers a discount on attractions nationwide, providing you travel by rail.

London Eye, Chessington, Cadbury World and Legoland are just a few of the dozens of attractions with discounts: in many cases two-for-one.

You can buy up to four tickets per attraction with the voucher.

You need to go to the daysoutguide.com, pick an attraction and you’ll receive a voucher. You then present this voucher alongside your train tickets to buy tickets at the discount price.

Legoland Windsor (image: Shutterstock)

Rover and ranger tickets

Rover and ranger tickets are special tickets that allow unlimited travel within particular regions.

If you’re the type of traveller who likes to visit plenty of places en route, they could save you a huge amount of money as well as the stress of getting individual tickets.

They also provide an itinerary for some incredible trips around the UK.

For example, the Spirit of Scotland Railpass includes four days of unlimited rail and bus travel, as well as ferries to the Western Isles, and stretches as far south as Carlisle and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

It costs £149, with discounts for kids and railcards, and allows you to space you four travel days over an eight-day period, while there’s also a version that allows eight days' travel over a 15-day period and costs £189.

Other standouts include Northern rail’s Coast and Peaks Rover (£92.20) and SouthEastern’s Kent Rover (£45). National Rail’s website has a sporadically-updated list of all the rover and ranger tickets available.

Get cashback

As with rail season tickets and holiday bookings, it’s worth using a cashback credit card to get some money back.

Using a credit card won’t cost any extra and you could get up to 5% cashback, in the case of the fee-free American Platinum Everyday Credit Card.

Combine these credit cards with cashback sites like TopCashback and Quidco and you could save even more.

Advance ticket deadline dates

Here we break down the deadline for booking advance tickets from the main train companies.

In general the tickets are released 12 weeks in advance, though there are exceptions - the Caledonian Sleeper releases tickets 12 months in advance, for example.

Train operator

Deadline for booking

Avanti West Coast

60 minutes before the train starts its journey

Caledonian Sleeper

N/A

Chiltern Railways

18:00 the day before

CrossCountry

15 minutes before train through app

East Midlands Railway

23.59 the day before travel

Grand Central

4 hours before departure

Great Western Railway

18:00 the day before travel

Greater Anglia / Stansted Express

10 minutes before departure (except Southend)

Hull Trains

Day before travel

London Northwestern Railway

End of day before travel

LNER

10 minutes before departure

Northern

15 minutes before departure on some routes

ScotRail

Two hours before departure

Southern

18:00 the day before travel

South Western Railway

23:59 the day before travel

TransPennine Express

15 minutes before departure on some routes

Transport for Wales

18:00 day before travel

West Midlands Trains

23:59 the day before travel

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