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10 UK train travel tips

By on July 6, 2015 in Travel Tip, UK

Train travel in the UK can be expensive, challenging and frustrating. Below are a number of tips, tricks, and some advice, that may help improve your journey/experience.

1. To get the best deals book in advance

Train companies often advertise how cheap it is to travel from point A to B, and typically this is worded as “Edinburgh to London from only £15 one way”. The truth of the situation is there may only be one or two tickets at that price when tickets were released for that service some three months or more earlier.

However, don’t despair, if you hunt around online you can still get some good prices, particularly if you follow some of the advice below on travelling off-peak and splitting journeys.

You also need to be aware of the different ticket types available. There are of course the usual types of ticket – single and return, standard class and first class – but there are also a myriad of “weird” tickets such as:

  • Advance – Bought in advance, and sold in limited (sometimes very limted) numbers. Travel with these tickets are limited to the date, time and train given on the ticket.
  • Off-Peak – These can be bought at any time, and are for travel at off-peak. (There is also Super Off-Peak!). Off-peak is usually outside the rush hour (e.g. after 9:30 am), i.e. once the trains are less busy in the morning.
  • Anytime – These can be bought at any time, and are for travel at any time.
  • Season – These give unlimited travel between two stations for a specified period. Typically used when someone makes the same journey three or four-times per week. Often used by commuters to get to work.
  • Rovers and Rangers – These give unlimited travel within a specified area or region.

One odd thing – at train stations you can often buy a ticket cheaper by going online (particularly if the train is not leaving for another 15 minutes) than at the ticket counter window, or at the ticket machines. Why?

Also, if you are a tourist and visiting the UK from overseas you may be able to get some tourist ticket deals online before you arrive in the country.

2. Try to get a railcard of some type

There are numerous railcards available and they typically save you around 1/3 on your journeys – railcards can be regional or national. Examples of national railcards cards are:

  • Two Together Railcard – gives 1/3 off all fares when two named adults travel together by train. See twotogether-railcard.co.uk for more information.
  • 16-25 Railcard – gives 1/3 off most fares for 16-25 year olds.
  • Family & Friends Railcard – gives you 1/3 off most adult fares and 60% off childrens’ fares throughout the UK.
  • Senior Railcard – gives 1/3 off most Standard and First Class rail fares for travellers over 60 years old.
  • HM Forces Railcard – for this one you need to be in the UK forces….

Examples of Regional Railcards (e.g. Cambrian Railcard, Cotswold Line Railcard, Dales Railcard, Devon & Cornwall Railcard, Esk Valley Railcard, Thameslink and Great Northern Student 16/18 Connect Card, Heart of Wales Line Railcard, Highland Railcard, Network Railcard, Pembrokeshire Railcard, Valleys Senior Railcard) can be found at the National Rail website.

3. Try splitting journeys to get best fares

This is a tricky one and may take some time to actually sort out.

The idea is you break your journey into segments and buy tickets that cover them. For example, say you were travelling from London to Edinburgh. You may find it is cheaper to buy a ticket from London to Peterborough (which the London to Edinburgh train passes through) and then Peterborough to Edinburgh, than a single ticket from London to Edinburgh. The train you are on MUST stop at the breakpoint (in this case Peterborough), but you don’t have to get off, but you may have to change seats (see below).

Ticket splitting can really save you money by helping to avoid ‘peak’ fares (see below) on long journeys. For example, if you leave London for Edinburgh during the peak period you will pay the peak fare for the whole of the journey, however, if you split at Peterborough, as described above, then you would pay the peak fare for only the first segment of the journey IF you leave Peterborough after the peak period ends.

Ticket splitting also works for off-peak journeys. And I have no idea why that should be the case.

4. Avoid peak travel

Different train companies in different parts of the UK have different times of the day it considers to be peak travel. Hence you need to check.

Peak travel typically runs up to 9:30 am. That is, it is the start of the day when commuters are travelling in to work and the trains are most busy.

5. Don’t expect to get a seat even if you have booked one

I personally don’t like booking a seat as I like to have the flexibility of sitting where I want, and moving if the carriage becomes too hot (aircon always breaks down on trains on the hottest days) or too cold (heating always breaks down in at least one carriage on the coldest days). Plus, there is always the problem of getting to your seat and finding a little old lady in it who if you asked to move would do so, but would mean you would get dirty looks from all the other passengers for the rest of the journey.

Recently I even encountered an injured soldier (not obvious a soldier from what he was wearing, but we got chatting as we both stood at the end of the carriage), and he couldn’t get a seat on the train as they were all booked.

Just because you have a broken leg (and you are in the army) don't expect to get a seat on a UK train

Just because you have a broken leg (and you are in the army) don’t expect to get a seat on a UK train

And don’t think that if a seat is empty you can just sit in it because if it is booked (look a white ticket on the back of the seat, or an electronic booking display above the seat) and you sit in it, and you haven’t booked it, then you may be liable for a £200 fine.

6. Just because you can book online and get an electronic ticket don’t expect the train company/station to be able to handle it

Smart phone apps such as thetrainline app allow online booking and tickets. These are great as they make life a lot easier, and means you can keep all the information in one place.

Trip details on a smart phone...  (check out the price...)

Trip details on a smart phone… (check out the price…)

However, at the time of writing this post the electronic tickets that these apps produce, such as the barcode below, can’t be used at a lot stations (no scanners) and the ticket inspectors on trains also don’t have scanners to process the ticket.

When I was recently asked for a ticket on a CrossCountry train, and I reached for my phone, the ticket inspector groaned and complained that eTickets take longer to process, and that he still didn’t have a scanner.

Train Ticket Bar Code - Stations and Ticket Inspectors don't have scanners to read these

Train Ticket Bar Code – Stations and Ticket Inspectors don’t have scanners to read these

However, when there are no scanners you can present the ticket screen (shown below).


Train eTicket

At train stations you can often buy a ticket cheaper by going online (particularly if the train is not leaving for another 15 minutes) than at the ticket counter window or at the ticket machines

7. Don’t expect your mobile phone to work

Most trainlines in the UK run across countryside far from roads and towns and hence there is often zero cell (mobile) phone coverage. I often write a batch of emails and queue for sending, or wait to refresh Twitter, when I am in a station, where hopefully there is some coverage.

8. Onboard train wifi rarely works

Most long-distance (as opposed to local service trains) in the UK have wifi and on some trains it may even be free! However, as with most communual wifi it is often very slow and typically doesn’t work.

9. Don’t bank on food and water being available

Over the years I have been on numerous trains the UK that were supposed to have a buffet car/cafe/trolley service and haven’t. On occasions this has resulted in 5 to 6 hour train journeys with no food or water. As a result I always take my own food and drink on to trains in the UK.

10. Don’t expect to arrive on time.

Sad by true, just don’t expect this to happen. Occasionally trains do arrive on time, but in my experience trains are more often late than on time.

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Nick's continued wanderings can be followed on Twitter: @nickswanderings.
Photos from this blog are available for purchase via Shutterstock and Eyeem

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