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How to get cheap train tickets online

Victoria Woollaston Edward Munn
3 Dec 2019
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We show you the best ways to get the cheapest train tickets using railcards, Advance tickets and split fares

With rail fares increasing every year, there’s no surprise that travelling by train can be very expensive.

A jaunt from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly, for example, will set you back £82.90, while a standard single from Bristol Temple Meads to Norwich costs a whopping £115.70 on the day. In some cases, it's cheaper to fly to your destination (although more damaging to the environment). 

And, as if these prices alongside an increasing number of strikes and delays weren't enough, rail industry leaders have confirmed that national rail fares are about to get even more expensive.

From 2 January 2020, average prices on so-called unregulated fares will rise by 2.7%. Unregulated fares refer to the range of tickets that are not regulated by the government and whose prices are instead set by rail operators, such as advance tickets, first class tickets and more.

Not all fares are set to rise, and this price rise is lower than inflation. What's more, some fares may actually fall in price but the changes will still be a blow to people who regularly travel by train. Especially those who have no choice to.  

"We understand no one wants to pay more to travel," said Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group. "Passengers will benefit from 1,000 extra, improved train carriages and over 1,000 extra weekly services in 2020 and the industry will continue to push for changes to fares regulations to enable a better range of affordable, mix and match fares and reduced overcrowding on some of the busiest routes."

Fortunately, there are a few easy ways that you can make sure that your next trip doesn’t break the bank. The best advice is normally to book well ahead, but if you can’t do that, we run through a range of other ways you can save money including using a different rail operator, splitting your journey or, if all else fails, travelling by coach instead. Read on to learn about the best ways to save money on your next train ticket.

Book early

The easiest way to get cheap train tickets is simply to book them well ahead. Advance tickets typically become available 12 weeks before the date of travel and you can save anything up to 80% on the usual cost of a single fare.

Advance tickets are sold in limited numbers on a first-come, first-served basis, and in general the further ahead you buy, the cheaper your tickets will be. You can mix and match any number of Advance tickets in order to cover your return journey.

It’s also worth noting that you can often save money on your train ticket right up to 6pm the day before you travel, so it’s always a good idea to check even if you haven’t been organised enough to book weeks ahead

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Beat the price rise

We’ve all been there – you check the price of an Advance train ticket only to go back the next day and find it’s shot up. A new tool in ticket-booking company Trainline’s mobile app provides a solution by letting you see how much the cost of your journey will rise.

By analysing price trends from billions of customer searches, the Price Prediction feature not only tells you the price of your Advance ticket now, but how likely it is to increase in the future. If you’re organising travel in advance, the Trainline app lets you know how long you have to decide until the price rises meaning you can strike when the iron is hot.

To use the tool, search for a journey in the Trainline app and, if Price Prediction data is available, you’ll see a button labelled “View Price Tracker” below the search result. Tap it and you’ll see a prediction of when the price is likely to rise, and what the inflated price is likely to be.

Travel off-peak

It might sound obvious, but if you can’t commit to a single service (which is what Advance tickets require you to do), make sure you travel outside peak travel hours. These times can vary considerably, but if you use the travel planner at www.nationalrail.co.uk or www.thetrainline.com, it’s easy to see whether or not a journey is off-peak.

Try using a different train company

Sometimes it’s significantly cheaper to travel with one train company than another, especially if you’re happy to alter your route slightly. The journey might take longer, but you might decide it’s worth it if the ticket is half the price.

If you’re travelling from London to Brighton, for example, you can save £10 on the day by travelling with Thameslink (£17.50) rather than Southern or Gatwick Express (£27.50). To search a journey with a specific rail operator, simply use the “Choose operator” dropdown menu on National Rail’s website. Alternatively, select All Operators and the journey planner should still help find you the cheapest options.

It’s also worth noting that it can sometimes be cheaper to book direct with a rail operator than through National Rail and other price comparison sites. This comes with the added benefit of fewer fees, in many cases, and extra perks. For example, if you book direct with Virgin Trains you’ll sometimes get a free Wi-Fi code, which normally costs £5.

Split your journey

The exorbitant price of long-distance rail travel in this country means that even paying the lowest Advance fare can still cost you a packet, so many passengers split their tickets to save money.

The trouble with this tactic is that it involves playing around with journey permutations to find the best deals, if any are available. A handy website called Ticketclever aims to simplify the process by using an algorithm to calculate the cheapest and/or quickest travel options, including those involving multiple “split” tickets.

Just enter where you’re travelling to and from, and when, plus the number of people, and Ticketclever presents results organised by price, speed and flexibility. Tickets can be booked through through the site, without any fees, and either collected from the departure station or posted 1st Class.

Ticket-splitting is generally only worthwhile on long journeys, and works best when you can stay on the same train rather than having to keep changing. That said, it’s also important that your train stops at the station where you’re splitting your ticket.

Get a railcard

If you regularly travel by train, there are railcards that save you around one-third on most standard and first-class rail fares. There’s a full list of these on the National Rail website. Additionally, you can get a number of regional railcards which can only be used in specific areas of the national network.

Even without a railcard, a number of rail operators offer discounts for groups of three to nine people travelling together on off-peak trains. The group needs to travel together at all times and you are not entitled to any further discounts using railcards.

Travel by coach instead

When you search for a journey on Thetrainline.com, the results page will flag up when you can make the same journey on a National Express coach, how long it’ll take and how much it costs.

When I searched for a train ticket on the same day from Norwich to London, a coach fare cost a fifth of the price (£10.10 vs £51.10), despite taking only about an hour longer. Not bad, huh? So, if you’re really hard up for cash and you haven’t planned ahead, it’s always worth checking if you can travel by coach – it’ll almost always be cheaper.

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