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Finding the best price

Some rail fares are expensive, but others are good value.  This page will help you to take advantage of the anomalies in the fares system to find the savings that can be made.

Where to buy – at the station or online

In general, tickets are sold at the same price at the station as online.  However, there are some exceptions:
  • Train operators will sometimes offer a discount for tickets valid only on their own trains when bought on their own website
  • Operators will sometimes have special offers – these may only be available on their own website, or may only be available at their own stations
  • Cross Country Trains offers advance tickets for travel the same day through its website, but at booking offices advance tickets cannot be bought on the day of travel.
  • Some websites charge booking fees or credit/debit card fees.
Note that any discounts are given by the operator, not the online retailer.  Aside from the exceptions above, tickets for any journey can be booked either online or at the station booking office.  However at station ticket machines you can generally only buy ‘walk-on' (ie not advance) tickets for travel that or the next day, and you can only buy tickets for journeys from that station.  You can only buy tickets on the train if there is no means of buying a ticket at the station where you boarded.  If there is a ticket machine but it does not accept cash, you should be able to buy your ticket with cash on the train. Note also that some ticket machines used by on-train staff are limited in the tickets that they can issue - for example Northern's new machines print paper (not card) tickets which cannot be used for cross-London travel, whilst Cross-Country machines cannot print tickets to stations beyond their network - you have to pay a supplement for the rest of the journey when you change trains.

The advantage of buying at the booking office is that you can get advice from the booking office clerk, who is obliged to offer you most appropriate ticket for your journey (but not obliged to ask whether you will be making other journeys in the future, or to know all the possible fare splitting options described below!)  On the other hand if booking online, you can spend as much time as you wish researching the options; and you won’t get into the position of arguing with the train conductor or the booking office clerk who doesn’t know all the rules.

If buying online, you can choose to have your tickets delivered, or to collect them from the ticket machine at a station (the system asks you to choose whether to collect from your departure station or another – regardless of what you choose, you can actually collect from any station that has a machine which allows collection of tickets on departure).  When you collect the tickets from the machine, you will need the ticket collection code issued by the website and the credit or debit card used to purchase the tickets – this prevents you buying tickets for someone else to collect.  Railfuture recommend that you use the website of the train operator that sets the fare for your journey, as they do not charge booking fees, you can get any special offers that are available, and if your train does not run it will be easier to get a refund from the operator than from a third party website.  You can check which operator sets the fare at BR Fares - this is is not always the operator of the station where your journey starts. Links to the train operators’ websites are listed on the Planning your journey page.

Smartcards

Smartcards are gaining in popularity as a convenient way to pay for your travel – so much so that London buses will no longer accept cash, and the glass screens of London Underground booking offices will disappear.  You ‘charge’ your smartcard by paying for credit upfront; then you must ‘touch in’ with your card on the card reader at the start of each journey, and ‘touch out’ (except on buses) at the end.  The cost of your journey (based on whether it was during the peak or off-peak period) is then deducted from the credit on your card.
  • Oyster is valid within the London travel zones  on rail, tube, DLR and bus.  It is cheaper than buying a paper ticket for the bus or the tube, and if you make multiple journeys your total travel cost for the day will be limited to slightly less than the cost of a Day Travelcard.  Your season ticket can be added to the card.  If you plan to travel outside the zonal area, you must buy an add-on ticket for the extra part of the journey.  It is worth creating an online Oyster account so that you can check your journey history regularly to make sure that you have not been overcharged  - for example if one of your touch-ins or touch-outs did not register, you did not touch out and in within the required time at an interchange station, or your journey took longer than the maximum allowed. If you have a railcard staff at tube, London Overground, TfL Rail and some National Rail stations can register your Oystercard and set your Oystercard to give the railcard discount. The unofficial Oyster-rail website gives more hints and tips.
  • Contactless credit and debit cards can now be used in the same way as Oystercards on bus, tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line and most National Rail services in London, at the same fares as Oyster. Multiple journeys on the same day are added up and capped in the same way as Oyster, and the total for the day is charged to your card as one transaction. Like Oyster, it is worth creating an online account so that you can check the individual fares that your have been charged. However, it is not currently possible to set a railcard discount on your contactless card, so if you have a railcard this method of ticketing may not be for you
  • The Key is currently being rolled out by Southern Railway – so far it is available for journeys from some Southern stations to London
  • c2c Smartcard has been extended to cover all season tickets issued by c2c
  • South Eastern has introduced The Key smartcard for season tickets
  • ScotRail has enabled its smartcard for season tickets on all its routes and is currently rolling it out across its network for other tickets. Its' franchise commits it to achieve 65% of rail journeys being 'smart' by 2021
  • East Midlands has a smartcard for journeys on the route between London and Sheffield
  • Transport for West Midlands offers the Swift card, which is a pass for regular travel on bus, trains and tram in the West Midlands area
  • Merseytravel offers the Walrus smartcard with an electronic version of the Saveaway ticket for off-peak travel on trains buses or ferries in the Merseytravel area on the same or next day.
A number of operators are running a pilot m-Ticket scheme where the ticket is downloaded on to the passenger's smartphone and allows journeys using more than one operator. The pilot area covers 230 stations in Scotland, North East and North West England, North Yorkshire and the Midlands.

What type of ticket

The best type of ticket to choose is determined by when you need to travel, how frequently you need to travel, and whether you can commit to specific travel times. 

If you make similar journeys every day, then a season ticket is the right choice.  If you need to make multiple journeys, then a rover or ranger ticket may be available. If you have a specific journey to make and can commit to specific travel times, then an advance ticket may be the best choice (although it is not always the cheapest, check both return tickets and first class advance tickets as well).  Note that the price of advance tickets varies with the time of travel and how far ahead you buy. Otherwise, if you have to travel during the peak period, you need an anytime ticket, whilst at other times you need an off-peak ticket.

All ticket types can be bought before the day of travel, but only ‘walk-on’ tickets, ie seasons, rovers, rangers, anytime and off-peak tickets can be bought on the day of travel. Anytime tickets can be bought as single or return; with a few exceptions, off-peak tickets can only be bought as returns. There is no need to buy ‘walk-on’ tickets in advance, except to avoid the queue at the booking office!

You can look up the different fares available for a journey and see the restrictions without having to plan the journey times at BR Fares. You can also download the complete fares database by creating your own account at http://data.atoc.org/member-area.

For details of the individual ticket types see the What type of ticket page.

Special offers

Many operators give special offers from time to time; it is worth registering on the websites of operators that you use frequently, as that may be the only way that you can find out about them. Examples are:
  • London Midland ‘Great Escape’  Travel between any two stations on the London Midland network for a low fixed price, usually in spring and autumn; railcard discount available
  • Arriva Trains Wales ‘Club55’ Travel for over 55’s between any two stations on the ATW network for a low fixed price, usually in spring and autumn; add-on options for travel to major cities in England; ; railcard discount available
  • Southern Discounts for various tickets booked on the Southern website for journeys wholly on the Southern network.

Railcards

Railcards can save you money if you are eligible for one of the following:
  • 16-25 Railcard can be used by people between the ages of 16 and 27 at £30 for one year or £70 for 3 years. You can buy the one year card at any time up to the day before your 26th birthday, or you can buy the 3 year card up to the day before your 24th birthday, they will be valid until you’re almost 27).  Valid at all times of day, it gives a 34% discount with no minimum fare except for morning peaks between September and June, when there is a minimum fare of £12
  • Two Together Railcard can be bought by two named people over 16 at £30 for one year. A discount of £3 can be obtained online at http://twotogether-railcard.co.uk/leaflet by entering the code LEAFLET3. The card will also be available from station ticket offices. Each person must provide a passport photograph. The two people, who must travel together throughout the journey, will receive a discount of one-third off all fares, at all times except for journeys starting between 0430 and 0929 inclusive on Monday - Friday
  • Family and Friends Railcard can be used by one or more people in a group that includes a child aged 5-15.  It costs £30 for one year or £70 for 3 years and gives a 34% discount for adults, 60% (minimum £1 fare) for children aged 5-15; under 5’s travel free, but paying for that child may make the adult fares cheaper! Valid all times of day except for journeys wholly with the Network Railcard area, when it is not valid during the morning peak
  • Senior Railcard can be bought by people over the age of 60 at £30 for one year or £70 for 3 years, giving a 34% discount.  Validity is set by the individual train operators, but generally when off-peak tickets are valid for the journey.  This gives rise to some anomalies when travelling between stations in but near the edge of the Network railcard area, for example Guildford to Cambridge, and starting the journey during the peak period when the senior railcard is not valid; it can be cheaper to buy a ticket from Guildford to Newmarket, just outside the Network Railcard area, because for that journey the senior railcard discount applies.  This is effectively a break of journey, which is legitimate for ‘walk-on’ tickets
  • Disabled Persons Railcard can be bought by people who are registered as disabled, deaf, visually impaired or have epilepsy at £20 for one year or £54 for 3 years.  It gives a 34% discount at all times for you and a companion, with no minimum fare
  • Image Network Railcard can be bought by anyone at £30 for one year.  It is valid only for journeys wholly within the Network Railcard area (London and the South East). It gives you and up to 3 adults travelling with you a 34% discount, and up to 4 children a 60% discount, for journeys after 1000 on Mondays to Fridays and at any time Saturdays and Sundays.  A minimum fare of £13 per adult applies on Mondays to Fridays, and a minimum fare of £1 per child at all times;  even if the adult fare is below the minimum, it can still be worth using the network railcard if travelling with a child
  • Gold Card An annual season ticket for journeys starting, finishing or wholly within the Gold Card area, and issued within the Gold Card area, also acts as a Gold Card, which gives similar benefits to the Network Railcard but without the minimum fare. The area covered by a Gold Card extends beyond that of the Network railcard to also include all Abellio Greater Anglia services (except Ely - Peterborough), East Midlands Trains from Norwich to Ely, all Chiltern Railways services including to Kidderminster, London Midland to Stafford, the West Midlands, Shrewsbury and Worcester, and Arriva Trains Wales from Birmingham to Shrewsbury. Virgin Trains and East Coast services are excluded. See the Gold Card area map (note that SWT services between Yeovil Junction and Pen Mill are included but not yet shown on the map - and journeys which start and end in the area but use through services which travel outside the area on the way, for example Salisbury to Yeovil Junction via Westbury on SWT, are also covered, and you can even break your journey outside the area, for example at Westbury). It may be worth buying an annual season ticket for a minimal distance just to get these benefits - you don't have to make the journey covered by the season ticket! The cheapest season available as a Gold Card is the 5-day annual season between Exeter St David's and Exeter Central at £140 - you have to choose which five days of the week the season is valid for, which must include Saturday and Sunday, however the Gold Card benefits are valid every day. Alternatives are Lichfield Trent Valley to Lichfield City at £164 for 2017, or the Ryde Esplanade to Ryde St Johns Road season at £172 for 2017 which, because it is a journey priced by SWT, does also include six free tickets on South West Trains each year if bought at an SWT station.
You must carry your railcard with you and show it on request. However if you do forget it and have to pay the full price, you can now claim a refund later, but only once per year.

There are a number of other railcards,  applying to specific groups of people or areas.  Some require you to live in specific postcode areas:
People who are over the female state pension age, or are disabled, living in London are entitled to the Freedom Card giving free off-peak travel in the London zonal area.  For travel beyond the zonal area just buy a ticket from the station at the zone 6 outer boundary to your destination before you travel – you do not have to get off the train at the boundary station, and the train does not even have to stop.

Children under 18 can travel free or at reduced price in the London zonal area with a zip Oyster photocard.

Groups

Many train operators offer discounts for a group of people travelling together:
  • Groupsave between 3 and 9 people can travel together with a 34% discount.  Children can be included in the group, but pay adult fares; so for 2 adults and 2 children, it will be worth including one child in the group to get the group discount, but to buy a separate child ticket for the other child. There may be restrictions on travel times.  These can be booked online by ticking the Railcard option and selecting Groupsave
  • Greater Anglia Duo 2 people travelling together at weekends receive 50% discount on the second ticket – railcard discount not available.
  • Northern Rail Duo 2 people travelling together on certain Northern Rail routes receive a 50% discount on the second ticket - valid at weekends (except December) and after 0930 Mondays - Fridays (earlier on some services). Railcard discount not available.
  • Gatwick Express Web Duo offers over £25 saving on anytime return tickets from London Victoria to Gatwick (not the opposite direction) for 2 people travelling together. The offer is only available on the website, cannot be used with a railcard, and does not apply to First Class travel.
Many train operators also offer family and group fare deals from outside London, including Travelcard for 2 adults and 2 children. Since the price of Travelcards inside London has increased significantly, it is now cheaper for a family of 2 adults and 2 children aged between 11 and 15 travelling only inside the London zonal area to ask for a Travelcard from for example Epsom and use the ticket from within the zones.

Fare splitting

Scan of six 'split tickets' for a single rail journey shows the ridiculous lengths that one can go to in order to save money - why is the fare system so complicated and illogical? You can sometimes save money by dividing your journey into separate legs and buying separate tickets for each.  This is usually because the different legs of the journey will be priced by different train operating companies, which each have their own pricing policies.  Therefore the point at which to split the tickets is usually a station where services operated by different train operators meet.  For example, an anytime return from Bristol to Birmingham costs £112.80 (in February 2017).  However an anytime return from Bristol to Cheltenham costs £16.90 and from Cheltenham to Birmingham £39.80, a saving of £56.10 or nearly half! The percentage saving on off-peak tickets is almost as good.  The only constraint is that the train on which you are travelling must stop at the station where you split the journey; however you do not have to get off the train.

To get the best saving you may have to split the journey into more than two legs – for example between Wokingham and Hebden Bridge the maximum saving of around 37% on an off-peak day return trip is achieved by splitting at Banbury, Leamington Spa, Stafford, Stockport and Rochdale – and you still travel on the same train throughout! (You can make an extra few pence saving by only using trains via Coventry, and slightly more by using an advance ticket for one of the legs, but that doesn’t seem worth it).

There are a number of fare splitting sites that may help you find these opportunities. The following sites all use the Raileasy Trainsplit search engine; if you follow through to buy the split tickets here, there is no booking fee but you are charged a share of the split saving, so it is cheaper to use it to identify the split points then buy the tickets on the train operator's website:

Money Saving Expert recommends TicketySplit, which is available both as a mobile website and a smartphone application. However it only works for single journeys, only searches for one split, and only allows 5 searches per day, so it is unlikely to give you the lowest possible price. If you follow through to buy the split tickets it uses the Trainline, which charges a booking fee.

However the number of potential combinations of journeys and travel times means that these sites don’t always give you the best saving. They work best for journeys between major stations; if you want to travel to or from a minor station, you may need to search for a journey between nearby major stations to identify the split points. So if you have time it is worth doing your own research using a journey planner.

You can buy the split tickets online, by phone or at a station with a manned ticket office. However if the station is unmanned, the ticket machine at the station will usually only sell you the ticket for the first part of the journey; if the train has a conductor or guard you should be able to buy the follow-on tickets on the train, but of course if it is single-manned you must buy the follow-on tickets from a booking office en-route before you go beyond the part of the journey covered by the first ticket.

Fare splitting is completely legitimate.  There is one potential downside, which is that if your train is delayed or cancelled, you may not be able to get compensation for the whole journey, even though the ATOC Retail Manual specifies that the entire journey is covered, provided that minimum connection times have been allowed – train operating company staff may interpret the rules differently.  Similarly if you are using advance tickets and are delayed on an early leg and so miss the train for a later leg, some operating companies may not let you use the advance ticket. In either case you have grounds for complaint.

There are some other circumstances when fare splitting works:
  • When your journey spans the boundary between peak and off-peak ticket validity – split your journey at the station which the train will reach just after the end of the peak period 
  • When you hold a railcard of which your journey spans the boundary
  • When you are returning the same day but only a period return is available for the full journey, whereas day returns are available for the individual legs
  • When your journey has connecting  legs at one or both ends, and you are buying an advance ticket – rather than book an advance ticket throughout,  it may be cheaper to book a separate ticket for one or both connecting legs because there may be more price tiers available for advance tickets for the main part of the journey than for the end-to-end journey
  • When you hold a season ticket, Rover ticket, Ranger ticket, paper One-Day Travelcard (not Oyster) or London Freedom Card of which your journey spans the boundary.  Note that this is the only case when your train does not have to stop at the boundary.

Cross-London anomalies

If your journey requires that you cross London, you have a number of choices:
  • If your destination is within the London zonal area, then a Travelcard may be the best option.
  • If your destination is just outside Zone 6, then it may be cheaper during the peak to buy a separate ticket for the part of the journey from the Zone 6 boundary – eg Farnborough to New Barnet and New Barnet to Potters Bar
  • A through ticket may be available, including the journey by tube between the London termini.  The ticket will have a Maltese Cross symbol or plus sign under the ‘Route’ label to signify it is valid on the tube – for example Brighton to Milton Keynes via Victoria and Euston
  • Where there is a possible route avoiding the London termini, a ‘Not via London’ ticket will be cheaper – for example Brighton to Milton Keynes via Kensington Olympia
  • If you are travelling to a terminus on the opposite side of Zone 1, for example Oxford to London Liverpool Street, it may be cheaper to buy a ticket to the first station out from that terminus (ie Oxford to London Stratford) than to buy a Travelcard or to pay for the tube separately.  This approach also works with Finsbury Park or Kentish Town for Kings Cross/St Pancras/Euston, and Wembley Stadium for Marylebone.  You can also get a ‘U1’ (Underground Zone 1) add-on which may be cheaper than a Travelcard for a single journey
  • ‘Not via London’ tickets are significantly cheaper per mile than journeys to London.  Therefore for a journey from Brighton to London Victoria during the morning peak, it is cheaper to buy a ‘Not via London’ anytime return from Brighton to Ash Vale and a separate anytime return from Clapham Junction to London Victoria.  Of course you must use a train that stops at Clapham Junction.
  • There are some cross-London journeys for which Oyster is now valid, but the Oyster option is not shown on ticket machines or websites or known by ticket offices because the operator that sets the fares has not loaded the data. An example is Streatham to Cheshunt, where the only quoted single ticket is £15.80 but the off-peak Oyster fare is £5.20. The only certain way to check whether Oyster is valid is at the TfL website.
  • It is now possible to use Oyster into London from some stations outside London Zone 6, for example Esher, Shenfield or Dartford, but the Oyster and paper ticket fares are not necessarily the same at all times of day. To check which is cheaper you have to look up the Oyster fare at theTfL website, and the fare for a paper ticket on the train operator's or National Rail website, for the times at which you want to travel out and to return. This is particularly important if you are travelling with children as the £1 accompanied child offers are not available with Oyster. There is more detail at the Oyster Rail website.

Other anomalies

Curiously there are a few occasions where it is cheaper to buy a ticket for a longer journey than you actually want to travel. For example, a off-peak return from Reading to Worcester costs more than an off-peak return from Wokingham to Worcester – so buy the ticket from Wokingham even if you only want to travel from Reading! The same is true from Drumry to Edinburgh, where it is cheaper to buy a ticket fro. Dalmuir. Note that this is only legitimate for ‘walk-on’ tickets that allow ‘break of journey’ in both directions, eg most anytime or off-peak returns – not advance tickets.

Gatwick Express is the most expensive way to travel from London to Gatwick - and it does not sell off-peak tickets between Victoria and Gatwick. So if you are travelling off-peak and want to try Gatwick Express, it is cheaper to buy an off-peak return ticket from Shoreham Kent (via Victoria) to Gatwick than a Gatwick Express anytime return ticket from Victoria to Gatwick.

Fares from Cardiff or Newport to English provincial cities, eg Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds or Liverpool, are often cheaper than from Bristol, especially during the peak periods. Travellers from Bristol can take advantage by either travelling via Newport and splitting tickets there, or travelling from Bristol Parkway but booking the ticket from Newport via Bristol Parkway. See article here.

Finally, there may be multiple routes or services run by multiple operators between your origin and your destination, which are priced differently. For example, fares between London and Birmingham are usually cheaper via Banbury on Chiltern Railways, or via Northampton on London Midland, than direct on Virgin. For an extreme case of different routes with fare splitting between Petersfield and Ivybridge see Student creates formula to halve cost of train ticket to South Devon


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