Look, trains are magic. There’s something about the hustle of a train station, the energy on the platform, and then stepping into your carriage, taking your seat, and watching the city smoothly slide away... it’s transportive, both literally and figuratively. What’s less fun is looking up tickets and finding out they’re pricier than a night at the Savoy.
But just because you haven't achieved "No-Thought Guac" status yet doesn't mean you have to consign yourself to tepid staycations. If you take the time to know the system and work it, you'll find yourself coasting down the rails (without being hung out to dry).
Be careful to select the right fare type
OK, yeah, these are kind of basic, but you need to have these basics down in order to start saving.
These are tickets that can be used, not shockingly, at any time, and are accordingly pricey as hell. They’re great if you’re working for the man and need to travel at specific, budget-unfriendly times.
These are generally for off-hour or weekend travel. If you can travel outside of the madhouse rush hours, these are great for last-minute trips out of dodge.
These are discounted (sometimes heavily discounted) tickets, but they can only be used on the specific train they're booked for. While they're good for saving money, they're tricky if you're trying to book tight or uncertain connections. If you miss your train, you're out of luck. Go for these only if you know yourself, and know you can be reasonably punctual.
Compare advance singles and return fares
Comparing the different fare types can be a bit dizzying and difficult, depending on the website you’re using to search, so it's worth making sure you know what kind of ticket you’re buying. Even though Advance Fares are marketed as the cheapest, Return Tickets are often a better deal, and even when they're not cheaper, they nearly always give you far more flexibility for about the same price.
Additionally, many routes have Same Day Return fares that are mere pounds (sometimes mere pence) more than comparable Single fares, so if you don’t need to stay overnight, make it a day-trip! A Same-Day Super Off-Peak Return on Thameslink from London to Brighton costs £10.50, compared to two advance singles, which can start at £17!
Buy as early as possible
As soon as we perfect time travel, we’ll be using it to buy hella cheap train tickets (other people might use this technology to play the stock market or sports betting, but whatever). You might think that the differences here aren’t that remarkable, but they totally are, and the farther you’re traveling, the bigger the savings: a Friday-Sunday trip from London Euston to Glasgow costs over £200 return when booked a week out, but can be as little as £60 return when booked in advance.
Look for Off-Peak, Super-Off-Peak, and Advance Specials
With all the different train companies operating in and out of London, it can be hard to keep track of who is offering what kinds of deals and when, but if you have a route you’re particularly interested in -- like for when you match on Tinder with someone from Leeds -- research which companies service the routes and what specials they run. Sometimes there are great Advance fares to Northern England that pair nicely with the VisitBritain campaign, but unless you search for them, they’re hard to find. Similarly, Southern Railway regularly pushes out new batches of Advance fares for as little as £5 each way a few times a year.
Search search search
This is where the real travel mavens are separated from the simpletons: in the search engine. Some people hate wrestling with various travel search engines, but you can learn to derive a weird sort of pleasure from it. Knowing what the different search engines can do is half the battle. Here’s my take on the most popular engines:
National Rail Enquiries: This is the starting point for many train bookings, but I find it a bit clumsy. Even its Cheapest Fare Finder can sometimes suggest nutty fares... basically, this one’s for newbies.
TheTrainline.com: OK, I find their "I AM TRAIN" ad campaign alluring and effective, but what keeps me coming back is their "Best Train Fare" search feature. This allows you to search for the cheapest fares between popular destinations (so... you’re out of luck if you’re trying to get from Havant to Eastbourne) across several time periods and days. The fares shown here are based on what other customers have turned up on Trainline in the past few days, though, so you might find a super-sweet ticket... only to discover that it's not available anymore. Also, they only show full-fare tickets, so if you have a Railcard, remember to mentally subtract 33% when looking at the fares (or forget, and be pleasantly surprised when you add in your Railcard information). Bottom line, this is a pretty powerful search option.
Each Railway Company: There’s something reassuring about the very basic fare search, called the Mixing Deck, used by many of the different regional companies: you can book any rail journey from any company with this engine. Southern Railway ditched their mixing deck for a glossy-looking but less precise search engine, so now's the time to switch over to using the Great Western Railway’s Mixing Deck. This one is especially good if you have to travel at a particular time, because it lets you compare all the different fare types and see various different train times. It can get a bit unwieldy, especially if there are a lot of trains between your two travel points, but once you get the hang of it, it’s well worth the hassle. Also, you can link your Great Western account with your Nectar Account if you’re into that sort of thing. Bottom line: this gives you the most control over what fares and trains you see.
Lastly, even though web sites like TrainLine make their money from the small fees they charge for bookings, you can find many of their fares on the fee-free Rail Company web sites. Each person should look deep within their own heart to decide whether it’s ethical to use one site’s search engine and then book on another site to save 75p, but if you do it, I promise I won’t judge.
Railcards for everyone
Most of us know about railcards, those magical pieces of paper with unfortunate passport photos that get you one-third off almost all rail fares. Of course, most of us think of this as strictly the dominion of the under-25s, and they’re not off base -- that’s one of the better ones. There's something a little cutting about who railcards are available to, as if the National Rail is saying that single people between the ages of 25 and 60 who never served in the military somehow deserve to pay more for rail. Where’s the Held-in-an-Entry-Level-Position Railcard?
Fortunately, there are workarounds:
16-25 Railcard: For the young, beautiful people who may or may not be skint. Pro tip: if you’re a full-time student over 25, you can still get one of these, even though they stamp the words MATURE STUDENT on there... as if you didn’t feel old enough already. Still, the savings will make up for the slight. Thirty pounds for a year, though if you’re under 24, you can buy a 3-year railcard for £70, saving you £20.
Two Together Railcard: At first glance, this Railcard looks like it’s geared exclusively towards those couples in your Facebook feed who are always posting cute selfies from exotic locations, but as it turns out, you don’t actually need to be boning the other person to qualify. Your travel partner can be a friend, coworker, whatever -- the only rule is that you have to be traveling together for the discount to work. Another bonus is that this Railcard costs £30 total, meaning £15 each, so it can be worth it to buy even if you and your travel buddy are just taking one big trip. Just make sure you don’t get into a huge fight mid-journey, unless you’re trying to recreate The Break-Up on a train.
Network Railcard: If you don’t mind confining your travels (or at least your travel savings) to the Network Railcard Area, this £30 Railcard gives you all the savings of a normal railcard. Destinations include Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Dover, Hastings, Brighton, Portsmouth, and Exeter.
If you do use a Railcard, make sure you bring it with you, and that it's valid for the date of your travel -- if you’re caught with a Railcard ticket but no Railcard, things can get ugly.
Split your trip
This move can be a bit tricky, but for PRO USERS, it's a great way to save a few (sometimes quite a few) quid, especially for longer journeys. Instead of booking your ticket all the way from your origin to your destination, you can break up the journey in the middle, usually with fairly short layovers, or sometimes with no layover at all.
Step 1: Find a point along your journey that is a popular stop. As an example, along the London-Glasgow route, Preston is a pretty good place to break the journey.
Step 2: Do a side-by-side search for trains from London-Preston and Preston-Glasgow. If you’re using TrainLine’s Best Fare Search, you’ll need to open two different browsers.
Step 3: Find trains for each of the four "legs" that match up. This is the trickiest part -- you don’t want to book a London-Preston train that gets in a few minutes after the Preston-Glasgow train leaves. No one in the ticket office will have any sympathy for you trying to game the system.
Of course, the Golden Unicorn find is splitting a ticket on the same train (and then you don’t even have to get off), but make sure you double and triple check that it is, in fact, the same train. Match the departure time with the train company for both legs, and when you board the train, make sure you find a seat that's unreserved for the whole journey (or make sure you change your seat wherever you’ve split the journey). Once that’s done, though, you can lean back and look upon all those suckers who paid full price with well-deserved smugness.
Add a TFL Travelcard onto your train ticket
If you live outside of London, are coming in for the day, and are planning on doing a lot of London travel (let's say you’re going to have brunch in Kensington before popping down to Ikea in Croydon, then up to Clapham for coffee with a friend before heading out to dinner in Hoxton), you can get all of that travel included with a day Travelcard added onto your rail ticket, usually for a lot less than the cost of a regular-price Travelcard. Fifteen pounds and 60 pence will get you from Brighton to London and back, including all of your intra-London travel for the day, which means that you could save a good chunk of change. And remember, if you can use a Railcard, the cost of the Travelcard add-on will also be discounted (this same ticket goes for £10.30 with a Railcard!).
Just get a damn coach
Listen, sometimes you're skint and you need to get out of town, and for those times there's the coach. It's not as fun or glamorous as the train, and you can't have a tipple, but good goddamn it can be cheap -- with Megabus leading the race to the bottom with its famous £1 fares. Yes, it can take twice as long by coach (nine hours, 20 minutes from Glasgow to London by Megabus; only four-and-a-half hours by Virgin Trains) but if you’re not in a rush, just load up your phone or tablet with a box set or two (streaming won’t be an option), grab a Meal Deal, and you’ll be fine.
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Charlie Beckerman loves him a train trip, but loves finding good deals on trains almost just as much. If you know of any spectacular rail journeys (or spectacular savings) tweet at him @Chozzles! You can also check out his quest for love (human love) on his podcast, Serial Dater, available on iTunes, Stitcher, or at www.serialdaterpodcast.com!