How to save on UK rail fares: all the tips and tricks

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Use a railcard for a 33% saving

Everyone knows about the young person’s railcard – or, to give it its proper name, the 16-25 railcard – but are you aware of the 26-30 railcard’s existence, or that the senior railcard is available to all those aged 60 and over?

There are now nine railcards to choose from, and about the only group that doesn’t have a railcard aimed at them are single people aged 31 to 59. And even they have the option to buy a Network card for use across the southern half of England, including in and out of London.

The most popular railcards cost £30 a year (or, in many cases, £70 for three years) and typically give a 33% discount on the ticket price. Users of some of the cards (including the 16-25 and 26-30 cards) can use them at peak times – albeit with a £12 minimum fare. Others, such as the senior users, have to mostly travel off-peak, which generally means after 9.30am or, annoyingly, 10am in the case of the Network card.

In some cases users will save the card’s purchase price in one or two trips. They are now available digitally (to be kept on a mobile) or in paper form. Just don’t forget to take it with you or to keep your phone charged.

View image in fullscreenRailcards are available in paper form or digitally. Photograph: Peter Scholey/Alamy

Do you still need a full-time season ticket?

In response to more people working part of their week at home, the rail industry has started offering flexible season tickets that typically allow users to travel on any eight days in a 28-day period.

The problem is that in many cases the discounts are not sufficient to make them worthwhile. When MoneySavingExpert crunched the numbers, it found part-time season tickets offered the best value to those travelling two days a week, but even then not in all cases. If you go into the office for either one, or three or more days a week, you are likely to be better off buying daily tickets, or the full season ticket, it concluded.

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One of the biggest ways to save money while commuting is to shift your travel to off-peak – assuming your boss will allow it. This makes particular sense if you can often add a railcard, too. For others, Carnet tickets offer a 10% discount on certain routes but again only off-peak.

Going long distance – buy in advance, and look at singles

Rail companies are now like the airlines in that the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get a cheap advance ticket. It is generally best to start looking for tickets about 12 weeks before your journey. That is the point that Network Rail must have the timetable set. Train operators commonly release cheap advance tickets then, unless you are travelling on Avanti West Coast, in which case anything goes.

View image in fullscreenIt is generally best to start looking for tickets about 12 weeks before your railway journey. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Don’t automatically buy a return, as two singles are now often cheaper – so check before you input your credit card number. If you are travelling by rail this Christmas, tickets on most lines are now on sale.

Another tip is to avoid the high-demand days and times. Just as it generally is cheaper to fly on a Wednesday to Europe, train fares come down hugely on the days and times when demand is lowest. Switch to a train leaving London after 7pm and the fare drops significantly.

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Get a free alert when tickets go on sale

Put your journey details into the Trainline ticket alert system and you will receive an email when advance tickets for that specific journey go on sale, which are commonly the cheapest fares. The only problem with using Trainline is the booking fees it charges – up to £1.75 for tickets that can be bought fee-free elsewhere.

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View image in fullscreenCheck to see whether two singles are cheaper than a return. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Check online last minute

If you missed the 12-week deadline and find yourself travelling last minute, don’t despair. If tickets haven’t sold out, seven rail firms now let you buy the cheaper advance tickets on the day. Check the website on the way to the station as it may be a lot cheaper than the walk-up fare.

Split ticketing

Heading to Durham from London on a train that stops at York, it could well be cheaper to buy two tickets – one to York and another on to Durham. A host of websites and apps will work out whether you can save money by buying two or more tickets for your chosen journey.

Four sites stand out. TrainPal appears to be the cheapest as it doesn’t impose fees but reviews suggest it won’t always find the cheapest options. Split My Fare and are slicker but will charge 15% or 10% of the saving made respectively. However, they only work via the website rather than an app. Trainsplit is another one worth looking at. It also charges 15% but it does offer an app.

View image in fullscreenCan you save money by buying two or more tickets for your journey? Photograph: Chris Thain/Alamy

The savings will really vary but can be generous. For example, those booking a standard return from Taunton to London will pay £105. However, if you split the journey at Pewsey, you can get the fare down to £42.70 – a saving of £62.30.

To use split tickets you don’t need to get off the train but the train has to stop at the station at which you theoretically change trains. For those regularly making the same journey, it is worth exploring all the options.

Claim any Delay Repay refunds due

You would be amazed at how many regular rail users don’t claim the compensation due when their train is delayed. The exact terms of the refund vary according to the train operator but in most cases passengers are entitled to a 50% refund once they have been delayed by an hour, and a full refund once you are two hours late. Make sure you keep hold of the ticket rather than ripping it up in frustration as you may well need to present a photo of it as part of your claim.

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View image in fullscreenOn some routes taking a coach can be as quick as a train. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Take the coach instead

While taking a coach from, say, Glasgow to London might be considered a step too far for many people, on certain routes taking the coach is almost as quick as the train, and so much cheaper. This is especially true if you are travelling at the last minute and all the “cheaper” advance fares have gone. This week National Express was quoting only £4.90 for next-day travel from London to Bristol – leaving at 8am and arriving a bit under three hours later. Great Western Railway wanted £100 for an early morning departure, or £55 if I was prepared to wait until 9.32am for a train that arrives at Bristol Temple Meads after the coach had arrived.

The Bristol route is a winner because the coach is on a motorway for almost the journey’s entirety but there are plenty of other coach trips that take longer than the train, although not so much as to justify the extra cost. Weigh up the total journey times – bus stations are often closer to the city centre or your final destination as well.

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