Can you save money on train tickets?

A train, yesterday.

Train travel is somewhat newsworthy at the moment. We looked at how the Government lets train companies like London Midland do what they want, and today good old Richie Branson is rubbing his hands in glee after his complaining has landed the public with an estimated £40m bill to re-tender the West Coast mainline. What better day to talk about how to try and minimise the shocking cost of train tickets.

Even with the scandalous amount of tax and stuff in petrol, it is still often cheaper to drive somewhere than to get a train, but still the train companies increase their fares every year over and above the rate of inflation, despite the fact that earnings (that pesky small inflow of cash from which most of us actually purchase our train tickets) have not increased at the same rate. But what can we do to minimise ticket costs?

The easiest way to get cheaper fares is to book in advance, even the day before, although larger discounts are available the further ahead you can travel. you can also get cheaper fares if you know which exact train you are going to get- but beware, if you miss your train you may have to purchase a whole new fare at walk-up ticket prices. Better to book a slightly later one than one you might miss. Of course the savvy among you will also know that you can also get cashback on train ticket purchases from the major cashback sites.

What you may not know is that, despite its first-to-market advantage and friendly adverts featuring sheep, is often not the cheapest site to book tickets from. You may wonder at this revelation, knowing that the ticket prices are largely set by the train companies themselves, rather than the retail site, but thetrainline adds a compulsory £1 booking fee (don’t get us started on booking fees) every time and charges an extra £3.50 for payments by credit card. Other sites, including the aforementioned billionaire’s Virgin Trains do not charge a booking fee or a credit card fee, meaning you could be £4.50 better off before you start.

And the cashback rates can vary too. For thetrainline, TopCashback offers 1.51% and Quidco offers 1.5% cashback on tickets over £25, but both TopCashback and Quidco both offer around  2% cashback on Virgin Trains. Quidco currently have an exclusive 4.5% at MyTrainTicket on first class ticket purchases, and, remembering you don’t actually have to book with the train company you are travelling with,  TopCashboack’s top train company to buy from, with cashback of 6.06% is Southern Railway .

But advance booking and cashback shenanigans aside, what else is there? You may have recently seen Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis, the one who sold out to a comparison site for an eye-watering sum of money, talking on his new ITV show. One of the ways of getting cheaper tickets he mentioned was to buy split tickets. For example, if you are travelling from London to Birmingham, it may be cheaper to buy a ticket from London to Rugby and then a ticket from Rugby to Birmingham. While good, and potentially lucrative in theory (Lewis’ examples saved up to £40), this method may require you to get off a train and wait for the next one, not to mention the requirement to actually know which stations your train calls at, and the faffing around trying to book it. Only you know whether this is worth the saving.

But there are other, less complicated ways too. As reported in the Observer, sometimes a reverse return can save you money on buying a single out of London. When booking super off-peak tickets with First Capital Connect, someone going from London King's Cross to Cambridge could buy the cheapest (walk up) single ticket for £21.20, or they could buy a return from Cambridge to King's Cross for £16, saving £5.20. You can also buy these fares online.

But before any train anoraks protest that this breaches the National Rail Conditions of Carriage, these state that you may not use the return of your ticket before the outward part, but in this case, the outward part is not used at all. First Capital Connect denied their single ticket prices were too expensive.

And the final way to save money could be to buy a railcard. While you may not qualify for a 16-25 railcard (although you can still get one if you are over 25, but a full-time student), a family and friends railcard could save more than its £28 cost in one train journey, particularly if you have a big family. As in lots of people, not that you are all overweight. Beware though, the rules of tickets purchases with this card state that you MUST travel with at least one child and the train WILL refuse you if you don’t. We were recently contacted by an avid reader who was refused access to a Virgin Train because his family had decided not to come on a day trip to London owing to illness. Clearly he was trying to play the system by only buying four tickets for his single journey, and despite the fact that he also had a student railcard (which meant he could have purchased a ticket just for himself for cheaper), the train company refused to budge, telling him he would have to purchase a new ticket at walk up prices. The moral- if you have a railcard that doesn’t rely on other people, use that first.


  • OlPeculier
    Not quite saving money, but I book all my tickets through East Coast, regardless of operator. You get one point per pound spent, or 1.5 points for a first class ticket, and points can be redeemed for free East Coast travel (you could, in theory use that for a KX-Aberdeen return ticket), wifi in cattle class, and access to lounges at King's Cross and Waverley.
  • Steve O.
    It's also rarely advertised, but I get my Network Railcard for £1 a year cos the wife has a Gold Card. If you have a commuter in the family they can probably do you the same favour.
  • Idi A.
    I find that thetrainline's prices are identical to those on nationalrail, so I can't see how their TV ad is justified in saying you can save money on their site, unless they mean they're comparing their prices to the very highest alternatives that nobody in their right mind would buy anyway. So until trains take you door to door, I'll carry on using my car thanks.
  • Steve O.
    Gold Card = Season Ticket, not posh credit card.
  • Marketing W.
    @ Steve O Thanks, I did wonder.
  • Sicknote
    Yes, hide in the toilet. It worked for 5 young ladies that piled out of the train the other evening at Southampton airport.
  • OFI
    Given up looking for train tickets. Since I became too old to get the 16-25 card (33% discount) and in the same year tickets increased by ~8% it's just not a viable option. My nearest station is approx 40 minutes away which isn't ideal but even if you pretend that part of the journey doesn't need to be covered by a car and then paid parking you're still left with a journey time equal to that of driving and often costing more. Aberystwyth to York is ~£96 return last I checked. That's a tank and a half of fuel :-/
  • Avon B.
    My nearest station (Narborough) used to have a free car park. I used the train quite a bit. Network Fail then threw some tarmac over it, gave us some bollocks about improving facilities and charged for parking. It's now not worth and I drive instead. Way to go, guys.
  • Toby L.
    And how the cocking hell can it cost £40 million to re-tender something that has only just been tendered? What the fuck are they wasting that money on?
  • matth5182
    As far as I know is owned by Virgin Rail anyway so best to avoid them as the other sites don't charge a booking or credit card fee. are always doing promotions with national newspapers to offer £10 free credit towards train tickets. The wife and I have been to London and Edinburgh booking 2 seperate single tickets and saving a tenner off each. Booking the tickets seperatley way in advance is cheaper than getting a return. Also we found that starting the journey from our local Merseyrail station (further from destination) is actually cheaper than from a main line station (like Liverpool Lime Street) - madness!

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