UK train travel can be confusing especially when visiting from another country and learning how it all works. I’ll break down the different types of tickets, the best time to buy train tickets, websites to use and much more.
When I first arrived in the UK, I tried to use the railway system. Honestly, I was super frustrated and confused by it all. I would buy the wrong ticket, not really understand how to save money.
Since living here for a few years, I’ve learned tips and tricks to really get the best out of your tickets and railway experience.
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Things to Look Out for Before Booking
Pick the Right Station
Some destinations will have more than one major station and depending on the station it could be walking distance or miles out of the city centre.
- Kings Cross Station and St Pancras Station are a 5-minute walk from each other and connect by underground tunnels.
- Bristol Temple Meads and Parkway, Temple Meads is within the city centre of Bristol, whereas Parkway is a residential suburb several miles away.
Nothing worse than ending up miles away from where you needed to be. Double-check maps or stations before booking to ensure you have the right place.
Allow Times for Connections
Trying to dash across the station with crowds, bridges, stairways and whatever else is through at you can cause you to miss your connection. Allow enough time for you to be able to reach the platform for your connections.
Any connections you miss on advance tickets means you won’t be able to use it or are eligible for a refund. To legally travel you would have to buy a new ticket.
Book in Advance (No more than 12 Weeks Ahead)
Advanced tickets will be released 8 to 10 weeks before your departure date and these are the cheapest tickets you can buy. It does vary so keep your eye out or sign up for price alerts.
Anytime before this, you will find anytime and off-peak tickets being sold or tickets aren’t available to purchase. There is no need to rush and buy anytime and off-peak as these don’t sell out.
If you find yourself faced with £100 train ticket then wait between 4 to 8 weeks before your departure date to snag the cheaper fares.
There are three generic ticket types you can buy. However, depending on different factors like having a Railcard or travelling first or standard will affect the price of the tickets. These factors add another set of price ranges making the product list extensive.
1. Anytime – Fully-flexible. Any train, any time.
- Anytime fares are a fully flexible ticket valid any time, any train, any operator and any permitted route. Some train companies are now able to sell these tickets up to 6 months in advance.
- Although, you are unable to reserve a seat booking more than 12 weeks in advance. I basically use the fare for business travel as it’s pretty pricey.
- It offers everything from travelling anytime, to breaking your route (i.e. you can get off at a station before your destination and then get back on the train) and allowing you to travel on any operator.
- These tickets never sell out, even when a train is standing room only!
- It is possible to reserve a seat as an optional choice.
- There are two choices of validity of an anytime ticket. One the day validity and return any time within 1 month.
- The ticket is refundable minus the admin fee.
- If you see tickets available before the 12-week reservation window they will be anytime tickets without seat reservations. The seat reservation system cannot issue seats before 12 weeks and it’s what links the advance fares to the fares base.
2. Off-Peak – Semi-flexible, any train with time restrictions.
- Off-Peak fares are valid on any train, any time except in the Monday-Friday business peaks.
- No advance booking is necessary, Off-Peak fares also never sell out and can be bought at the station on the day at the same price you see online.
- The more affordable flexi ticket. As long as you don’t want to travel in the peak times you can save some significant ££.
- One thing to be careful about with this ticket is different stations have different peak times.
- You can take any train operator’s train, and travel via any permitted route unless a specific operator or route is shown on the ticket.
- Refundable less an admin fee.
3. Advance – Cheap, inflexible, specific train only.
- Advance fares are only valid on the specific train, no refunds, limited or no change of travel plans allowed.
- These fares are only sold up to 8 to 10 weeks in advance.
- Advance tickets are the cheapest option.
- Advance tickets must be booked before the day of departure, timings of when these tickets stop being sold is up to the train company.
- Advance tickets come with a seat reservation (if seat reservations are running on that service) automatically included, you can only travel on that specific train which has been reserved for you.
- No break of journey is allowed, so you cannot join the train at a station en route, or get off at a station before the one you’re booked to.
I always think it’s a good idea to reserve a seat on anytime and off-peak tickets. They are free of charge and on busy trains they save you standing the long journey. I aim to book for times I think I will get the train and if you don’t take the train then no stress, just sit in a non-reserved seat.
Where to Buy Train Tickets
Currently, there are 28 train companies in operation throughout the UK and they run in different geographic locations. This can make it super confusing where you should buy your ticket.
National Rail Enquiries is like a sky scanner. It aggregates all of the train tickets and then it will hand you off to a train company to complete your purchase.
If you’re purchasing through Trainline, then it’s all through their app or their website and it will just come with a booking fee to complete your purchases.
Other ways you can use the other train company’s website, so you can just pick one and book all your tickets through them as they will sell tickets for the various routes throughout the UK.
If you are purchasing from overseas make sure you select the option for mobile ticketing or collect tickets at the self-service ticket machines to avoid the £7.50 postage fee. Remember that you need the credit card you purchase with and the booking number to collect your tickets.
How to Save on Tickets
Save Up to 1/3 Off with a Railcard
Railcards are a great way to save. They have a variety of products to offer and this can give you a third off railway fares. The money spent on the railcard can easily be made back if you do more than two long-distance journeys.
There is a great range of Railcards that are available:
- 16-25 Railcard,
- 26-30 Railcard,
- Senior Railcard,
- Family & Friends Railcard,
- Disabled person’s railcard,
- Two Together Railcard
- and Network Railcard.
Check out the Railcard website for more information. It’s so easy to get, all you need to do is download the apps and you will have a digital railcard on your phone.
Even if you don’t live in the UK you can get a railcard which is the perfect way to save money while travelling around.
If you’ve watched my how to travel like a local in London, then you know you can add this to your Oyster card and save fairs throughout the underground.
Split ticketing is a method of buying a ticket where you split the journey into sections. You will buy a separate one for each leg of the journey instead of one for the full journey.
You need to make sure your train (even if you don’t get off) calls at each station or have a connection at a station, so the split ticket is valid.
I went from Penge West to Brighton the other day, it was cheaper for me to get a ticket from Penge West to East Croydon and East Croydon and then a full ticket from Penge West to Brighton. As the journey goes through all the stations this made split ticketing an option.
Trying to figure out these tickets can be a little difficult, Trainline is making it super easy and they just tell you when you’re searching for the ticket on their app.
GroupSave Tickets (3 – 9 People)
Travelling with a group of between 3 to 9 people can get you the GroupSave tickets. I find that these generally give you a third off rail fares.
The best way to buy these tickets are either online or when you get to the station, go to the ticket counter as the ticket machines don’t normally have these available. Not all train operating companies have these, but a number of them do.
When Travelling On Trains
Download the Apps
National Rail Enquiries or Trainline both have apps that are great to have on your phone. You will be able to check the online timetables, train information, ticket prices and buy tickets.
Trainline also has the ability to buy Railcard and store it on the app and easy access to your mobile tickets/purchases.
Train Delays and Compensation
Train delays happen but did you know that you can claim compensation for these delays and cancellations? Train companies are getting better at advertising this today and most train companies now offer ‘Delay Repay’ where daily ticket holders, as well as weekly, monthly and longer Season Tickets, can claim for delayed journeys as and when they occur.
Each train company will have different agreements for compensation so you will need to check their terms and conditions. A rule of thumb is it is 30 minutes or more to claim.
There are two sets of compensation payments, either half of your ticket or a full refund. This is based on the time you were delayed.
For example, if I am travelling to Edinburgh from London and I am 30 minutes delayed I will get half of the price based on the fare I bought. If I was delayed more than 60 minutes then I would receive a full refund on the fare I bought.
Make sure you retain your train ticket and make a note of your journey as both will be required to support any claim for compensation. To make a claim you obtain a form from the station office or look for an application online.
Bring Your Own Food and Drinks
I love having a good train picnic! At major stations, there will be small supermarkets where you can buy food and drinks before your journey. You can also bring on your own alcohol, which you will see a few people having holiday beers on longer distance journies.
Depending on the route you are taking there might be a trolley that comes around the train or a food section. I always find it’s best to come prepared.
Avoid Sitting in Reserved Seats
Being kicked out of a seat isn’t fun! Check if the seat has a reservation or head to the seat you have reserved. If you have passed the station that the reservation is for then all bets are off and you can sit in those seats.
Commuter style trains don’t have seat reservations so you will be fine on these.
Wifi and Charging Points
It’s common to find onboard wifi and charging points – be prepared that these don’t always work well.
Days Out Guide
Days Out Guide operates in various cities across the UK and provides discounts on sightseeing activities. All you need is two of you to be travelling by rail ticket and get a voucher.
I’ve saved 50% on my tickets to visit the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kew Gardens by using the Days Out Guide.
The vouchers can easily be obtained on the website (make sure you print them) or at a National Rail Station. It’s a great incentive to go explore what the regions have to offer.
The UK is full of breathtaking mountain ranges, historic cities and crisp oceanic views. To really take it all in you should travel by train! These DIY train journies I’ve put together will give you a range of places to explore in the UK.
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.