The ultimate guide to cheaper train tickets
Originally written by Sylvia Bevan
Like it or not, as a frequent traveller what you have with trains is a relationship.
Not in a weird way. Not like those guys who have sex with their cars. [I once saw a documentary in which two of these "motor enthusiasts" were brought together to discuss their "passion" but it soon became very awkward when halfway through filming one guy "slept with" the other guy's car].
Even the best relationships can be temperamental and require much care and consideration to get the best out of them.
Here are 10 things you can do to keep the cheap tickets coming your way...
1. When you've found the one, stay loyal
By joining Red Spotted Hanky you can order your train tickets and get loyalty points each time, which can then be converted into Red Spotted Hanky vouchers to get you money off your next tickets. Usually it's 1 point per £1 spent, but during promotional periods you can sometimes get 2 points.
There are also other offers that become available from time to time that enable you to earn even more points, and you can see all the latest offers on our Red Spotted Hanky page here.
2. What you see isn't always what you get
If you're buying tickets online, many sites will charge you additional transaction fees, or fees for using your card.
You can avoid this by using a National Rail service like East Midlands trains (you can buy tickets for any service) or Virgin Trains - both don’t charge you anything other than the cost of your ticket, and it’s free to pick up tickets at any station of your choice.
3. Invest in your future
This isn't simply purchasing a ticket a few days or weeks prior to travel. An 'advance ticket' is an actual ticket type sold by rail operators in the UK, available a maximum of 12 weeks before the travel date. They tend to be cheaper than standard fares, but 'advance tickets' do not come in return journey form.
You can buy two 'advance' singles instead though, which is often cheaper anyway. These are available to purchase right up until the day of travel but it is very rare that there will still be any left at this time, so book as soon as possible. In particular, if you’re booking for busy dates like the end of term or over bank holidays you should write in your diary approximately 12 weeks before you want to travel, so you can get the cheapest available tickets. Check out National Rail’s advance tickets table that’ll show you if you were to buy tickets today, what the furthest in advance you could buy with each train company.
4. Know what else is on offer
Periodically train companies run promotions and sales on selected routes, whether it’s a return London - Birmingham ticket for £5, or an extra 20% off all advanced fares. To find these have a quick search on Google, or easier still, just check Student Money Saver’s ‘Train Deals’ page which we update with everything from cut price first class sales to cheap Eurostar tickets.
Our favourite trick to get tickets for as low as 90p each way (plus booking fee) is to use Megabus (yes, you heard right), to buy our train tickets. For train companies including South West Trains, Virgin, and East Midlands Trains, you can buy tickets for some routes on Megabus for normal Megabus prices. To buy these tickets find out more here.
5. You may fight, but what comes next is GREAT
According to the Passenger Charter, each UK rail operator offers compensation for delayed or cancelled trains. How much and how severe the delay must be to claim varies per company - but check out our train delay compensation guide, you can get up to 100% of your fare back for a few minutes work.
6. Act your age, not your shoe size
If you’re aged 16 to 25 or in full time education you can get a 16-25 Railcard which reduces fares by a third (except some, e.g. peak-time services). What’s more is that you can usually save at least 10% on the cost of a Railcard, so check Student Money Saver’s Railcard deals page to get the latest discounts. If you’re 26 or over you can still get a discount if you’re travelling with one other person by getting a Two Together Railcard (£30), it still saves a third on rail travel, so if you spend more than £90 a year on train tickets (and you always travel with the same person), it’s worth picking one up.
7. When the time is right...
Off-peak tickets are cheaper as the trains are less busy, so there is less demand for tickets. By purchasing an ‘Off-peak’ or ‘Super off-peak’ ticket you may be required to travel on a certain train or route, or at a certain time of day.
If you’re flexible with your travel time it is worth looking on your rail operator’s website to see when their off-peak times are. For example, First Great Western’s ticket prices reduce significantly on trains departing after 7pm. By travelling at quieter times you’ll also be treated to a less crowded train!
8. Sometimes, single is just better
Sometimes it is actually cheaper to buy two singles rather than one return ticket. Ticketing websites will show you the price for a normal return ticket, but they’ll also give you the option to select two singles with the price listed, if you select two and the combined price is cheaper than the displayed return option - go for it.
9. Splitting up is hard, but it could be just the ticket
By splitting your journey you don’t necessarily need to get a different train, or more trains, or change your actual journey at all. All you need to do is purchase several tickets that link together to produce the same journey. Just change the ticket you show the conductor when you get to the station your first ticket tells you to get off at (you don't need to leave the train).
For example two tickets London Waterloo - Basingstoke and then Basingstoke - Andover might be cheaper than buying London Waterloo - Andover. It doesn't always work out like that, but it's definitely worth a try.
There are a few ways to do this easily as it has been realised that this is a handy trick for keeping train costs down. Moneysavingexpert’s Tickety Split desktop app is one way, although it’s worth inputting your journey in more than one ticket splitter, so have a look at https://www.splitticketing.com/ or http://www.splityourticket.co.uk/ as well.
But don't be like this guy who ended up buying 56 tickets for one journey.
10. You can be friends with benefits
You can get free train vouchers by saving up Tesco Clubcard points, and doubling the vouchers value with Clubcard Boost. That means for only £5 worth of points you can get a tenner in Red Spotted Hanky vouchers, bargain!
You can also earn Nectar points on First Trains - could be worth saving them up for something special?