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 covering the area 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.  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.  Details of each type of ticket are given below.

All ticket types can be bought in advance, but you only ‘walk-on’ tickets, ie seasons, rovers, rangers, anytime, off-peak tickets can definitely be bought on the day of travel. Anytime tickets can be bought as single or return; off-peak tickets can usually only be bought as returns. 

Usually all ticket types are available as either standard or first class, but there are exceptions – for example Chiltern Railways does not offer first class.  Note also that many metro services do not have first class accommodation.

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.

Advance tickets

Advance tickets are usually (but not always) cheaper, but are only valid for a specific train.  Therefore you must be sure that you can commit to being on that train – whilst you can get a refund (less a £10 admin fee per ticket, except on Northern which offers train swap from £2.50) in advance. If you miss the train then the ticket is valueless as you cannot part-exchange it for another ticket.  If the advance tickets are really cheap, it may be worth buying a second ticket for a slightly later train, in case you miss the first. One exception is advance tickets on TPE from Manchester Airport, where if your plane is late arriving the station ticket office will endorse your ticket to allow you to use it on a TPE train up to three hours later.

You cannot break your journey, although you can change train where necessary – so you cannot use an advance ticket for a shorter journey.  If you leave the train at an earlier station, you may be charged the full fare for the whole journey to that station.  So for example you cannot legally take advantage of the fact that advance singles from Southampton to Ipswich during the morning peak are only just over half the price of an anytime single from Southampton to London, and advance singles from Dover to Birmingham and back via HS1 are only just over half the price of an off-peak return from Dover to London.

Advance tickets are only sold as singles.  They are quota-controlled;  for each scheduled train, the operating company will make a set number of tickets (maybe as few as four) available at each price tier (there may be up to seven price tiers, or levels, for each journey).  Therefore advance tickets are normally cheaper if you book earlier.  At the higher price tiers, you may find that an off-peak return is cheaper than two advance singles – always check before you buy. You can also check when quota for each tier is likely to be used up (and so the price goes up), using the Trainline Price Predictor - but don't buy your tickets on the Trainline, use one of the train company websites.

Advance tickets are generally released every Thursday at around 1030, for the week commencing the Friday eleven weeks and one day ahead.  Click here for precise dates, or sign up for a ticket alert email from the Trainline - but remember to buy the tickets from the train operator's website, it's cheaper! To secure tickets for the most popular journeys at the lowest price tier on the day that they are released, you may need to keep checking online for the tickets to actually be released so that you can buy the tickets before the quota is taken up by someone else!

It is worth checking the cost of first class advance tickets, as sometimes a first class ticket is cheaper than standard class because the quota for the cheaper standard class tiers has all been sold.  When your journey has connecting legs at one or both ends, it may be cheaper to book a separate ticket for one or both connecting legs because there may be more price tiers available for the main part of the journey than for the end-to-end journey.  Note however that if your connecting train is delayed and you miss the train for your advance ticket, the operator may not accept the advance ticket on a later train if you have split the tickets – see When things go wrong.

And don’t forget that if you’re looking for a ticket to travel the next day, there may still be advance tickets available that are cheaper than an anytime or off-peak ticket.

Some companies, including Cross-Country, London North Eastern, London North Western, Northern, Greater Anglia, VT West Coast, Trans Pennine Express, Grand Central, and Caledonian Sleeper now allow advance tickets to be bought (online only except VTWC and TPE which can also be bought at stations) on the day of travel, up to 10 minutes (Cross Country, Greater Anglia) or 15 minutes (Northern, TPE) before your journey starts, or 1 hour (VTWC, LNWR) or 2 hours (LNER) before the train starts its journey. Cross Country and LNER provide a seat reservation; Northern, Greater Anglia and TPE specify the service but do not provide a seat reservation.

Finally, if you can commit to a specific train for the outward journey but not for the return journey, check whether off peak singles are available for the return – some companies offer them in conjunction with an advance ticket for the outward leg.

Anytime tickets

Anytime tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, and as the name implies, are valid at any time of day – but the freedom to travel at any time comes at a price, as they are the most expensive type of ticket.  They are available as both singles and returns; returns may be valid for one day (for short or medium distances) or one month (for medium or long distances.

Single tickets and day return tickets are valid for the outward journey until 0429 the following day; period returns are valid for the outward journey until 0429 on the sixth day of the period (taking the start date as the first day).  For the return journey, the ticket is valid until 0429 on the day following the ‘valid until’ date shown on the ticket.  In general you can break your journey at any intermediate station on both the outward and return journeys, as many times as you wish; for a period return, the return journey may be split across multiple days.

Off-peak tickets

Off-peak tickets are cheaper than anytime tickets – an off-peak return is usually only slightly more than an anytime single, but as the name implies, cannot be used during weekday peak periods.  The off-peak time restrictions depend on the particular journey you are taking – so passengers making different journeys on the same train may be subject to different time restrictions.  The restrictions are set by the train operating companies, but are not always published – sometimes they have to be deduced by comparing ticket availability in the journey planner.

For journeys totally within the London zonal area, the off-peak period starts at 0930. For journeys starting outside the London zonal area, some companies, for example South West Trains, define the off-peak period as trains scheduled to arrive at their London terminus after 1000.  Check with the train operating company or use an online journey planner. Some companies also offer cheaper tickets which are valid for an even more restricted period. 

There are no peak periods on Saturdays, Sundays or public holidays, so off-peak tickets are valid all day on these days.

Some operators offer off-peak singles as part of a return journey, ie advance ticket in one direction and off-peak single in the other.

Off-peak return tickets may be valid for one day or one month, like anytime tickets.  In general the same rules on break of journey apply (but check, as for some period returns break of journey is not allowed on the outward leg). For period off-peak returns, the outward journey must start on the first day, and if a break of journey is allowed may continue on the second day (within off-peak restrictions) and must be completed by 0429 on the third day. The return journey must be completed by 0429 on the day following the ‘valid until’ date shown on the ticket.

Season tickets

If you make the same journey every weekday in the morning peak, then a season ticket will be cheaper than separate anytime tickets.  Season tickets are available for one week or any period from one month to one year; the period can start on any day of the week or month.  The longer the validity of the ticket, the greater the discount.  An annual season for a typical commuter journey will offer 52 weeks travel for the price of around 40 weeks of day tickets, so is a significant saving if you are sure that you will continue making the journey all year and can afford the upfront cost, particularly if you can buy it in December, just before the ticket prices go up on 2ndJanuary. You can check season ticket prices on this season ticket calculator. Some operators will allow you to renew your season ticket online, or store it on a smartcard - check their website. If you don't want to pay for a annual season up front, South Western Railway will give you a 12th month free after 11 months if you auto-renew your monthly season. If you don't travel with SWR, you could make a similar saving by buying your annual season through a finance scheme such as Commuter Club or MyCommute4Less, or with a new 0% interest credit card.

It is also worth bearing in mind that operators have to offer a discount on season ticket renewal (except weekly seasons), typically 5%, if they fail to meet their punctuality or reliability target (10% if they fail to meet both), and that you can usually renew an annual season up to 7 days early. Operators publish their performance on their website and at stations every month, so if you can arrange for your season to expire just after the December figures are due to be published (usually just before Christmas) and then renew either a few days early before the December figures are published if the performance was below target for the year to November, or wait until after the December figures are published if the performance to November was above target (on the basis that it might fall below target in December).

For journeys where the origin and/or destination are within the Gold Card area (roughly the West Midlands, East Anglia and the South East), and the ticket is bought at a station within the area, an annual season ticket also acts as a Gold Card, which can cut the cost of rail travel. At off-peak times the Gold Card entitles you to buy discounted:
  • tickets for a group of adults and children travelling with you
  • tickets for yourself for a different journey within the Gold Card area
Weekly, Monthly and longer period London Travelcards are available at a discount to the Day Travelcard, giving travel over a range of travel zones.  They can be added to your Oystercard. The annual Travelcard also acts as a Gold Card – if it is added to an Oystercard you will receive a separate paper Gold Card. 

If you drive to the station to start your daily rail journey, consider whether an alternative station offering a different route might be cheaper – for example, the Uckfield and Brighton lines run parallel in Sussex, but the Uckfield line is cheaper.

There may be circumstances where it is cheaper to buy a season ticket for a longer journey than you actually need – a recent example was that a ticket from Watford North to London was valid via St Albans and was cheaper than the ticket from St Albans to London. That loophole has now been closed, but there will be others if you can find them! There are also occasions where split ticketing - ie separate season tickets for each part of the journey - works with season tickets.

For long distances the discount offered by a season ticket over anytime tickets is much higher than for city commuting; for example a monthly season from London to Manchester costs just slightly more than four separate anytime returns, so a season ticket will be cheaper if you travel at least once per week. 

Season tickets are often valid by multiple routes, so can be used to travel to different places.  A London to Manchester season is valid from Euston via Birmingham, Stoke or Crewe, from St Pancras via Derby, from Marylebone via Birmingham, and from Paddington via Oxford and Birmingham – so could be used for visits from London to any of those places, or places in between – or to places just off the route with a separate ticket for the add-on part of the journey.

With East Coast season tickets you can earn reward points that can be used to buy East Coast tickets.

If you do not need to travel during the morning peak, or if you only work say 3 days per week, a season ticket will probably not be cheaper than separate off-peak tickets.  However a few companies offer ‘carnet’ tickets eg:
  • Thameslink Great Northern offer 5 or 10 single journeys (either Anytime or Off-Peak) to be made within 3 months at a discount of 10%
  • Chiltern Railways offer 10 tickets for the price of 9
  • Grand Central offer 10 multi-buy discount tickets with a significant discount
  • East Coast offer 5 tickets for the price of 4
  • Greater Anglia offer the Flexipass with their smartcard with discounts between 5% and 10%
  • First Hull Trains Business Carnet offers 10 tickets for the price of 9
  • Gatwick Express offer 10 tickets for the price of 8, valid one year
  • Great Western Railway offer 10 anytime return flexi tickets for the price of 9 valid for 2 months with their smartcard
  • Heathrow Express offer 12 tickets for the price of 9 or 6 for 5, valid one year.
  • Northern offer 10 anytime flexi tickets for the price of 9 on some routes with their smartcard
  • South Western Railway Carnet offers 10 tickets at 5% discount if you have a Touch Smartcard
  • West Midlands Trains Flexi travel offers 10 tickets within one calendar month at 5% discount

Rover and ranger tickets

Rail Rover and Ranger tickets offer travel anywhere within a defined area (often tourist areas) for a day (ranger tickets) or longer periods (rover tickets), mostly only at off-peak times.  If you plan to make a number of journeys in a day or a week, this may be the cheapest way.  The London Travelcard is also in effect a ranger ticket, valid on rail, tube and bus in the London zonal areas; it can also be bought as an add-on to a ticket to London from stations in the South-East.  Details of the areas covered, prices and ticket validity are given at:
The London Travelcard is also in effect a ranger ticket, valid on rail, tube and bus in the London zonal areas; it can also be bought as an add-on to a ticket to London from stations in the South-East. A number of other tickets give both rail and bus travel:
Rovers and rangers valid in South Wales, South-West England and the Thames Valley, including the All-Line Rover, can be bought online from Great Western Railway. Rovers and rangers valid in Scotland can bought online from Scotrail. Prices of rover and ranger tickets are reduced for railcard holders. Note that season tickets are often valid by multiple routes and so can be used like a rover ticket, valid at any time of day – see season tickets above. 

There are more details of ticket types at the National Rail website.

Planning your journey | Finding the best price | Getting to and from the station | Making the journey easy | When things go wrong | Rail tours | Going abroad