How To Avoid Expensive UK Train Fares

One of the many places you can go: Cornwall. Photo Credit: Author

No need to break the bank.

By Rose Ernst

Since November 2019, I’ve traveled over 4700 miles via rail across the United Kingdom, from bonny Scotland to the tip of Cornwall. 

For someone from Seattle, that mileage seems relatively low. But if you’ve ever traveled in the UK, you know how far that is. That’s over 30 mostly long-distance journeys, not including buses and driving.

And except for a short jaunt a few stops away, I’ve never paid full fare on National Rail. And I’ve also accrued hundreds of airline miles.

You can do it, too.

Split Your Ticket

Transport for Wales validates with unicorns. I love Wales. Photo Credit: Author

A housesitting host first clued me into Trainsplit. Trainsplit is one of a handful of companies that discount rail tickets by “splitting” a journey into multiple tickets (I’ve only used Trainsplit, so I can’t comment on the other ticket-splitting companies):

Imagine you’re travelling from Birmingham to Leeds:

A return ticket costs £61.10*.

With TrainSplit you can buy a train ticket from Birmingham to Derby, another from Derby to Sheffield and finally one from Sheffield to Leeds, all for just £40.10.

That’s a big saving of £21.00. — Trainsplit

Don’t worry — it doesn’t mean you must take multiple trains. It’s simply administrative savings. 

If you’re traveling for more than an hour, it’s usually worth using Trainsplit. The savings are significant. 

Look at these examples:

Grimsby to Newtonmore

Trainsplit = £97.21

Trainline = £176.00

Great Western Railway = £176.00


London Paddington to Holyhead

Trainsplit = £82.00

Trainline = £107.90

[GWR didn’t have any tickets listed]

A word of warning: conductors on various rail lines are still getting used to this split ticketing practice. 

The first time I tried it, we were traveling from Lincolnshire to the Scottish Highlands. I handed over a stack of orange and yellow tickets to our conductor, giving him a sheepish smile. 

He rocked back on his heels and scratched his head. After a few moments of sorting through what admittedly looked like a deck of cards, he nodded and laughed. 

Fortunately, you can usually count on friendly conductors to help you on your way. I’ve had nothing but pleasant experiences with them.

Tip: If your seats are reserved, make sure they’re the same between the “split” part of your journey where you stay on the same train. When I first tried Trainsplit, I didn’t realize this, and they had us moving back and forth like ping-pong balls to different reserved seats (on the same journey). A helpful conductor let us stay in one seat, but it’s better not to rely on that in case of double booking.

Use Rail Cards

Photo Credit: Author

Ah, rail cards. Because most of my rail journeys were with my partner, we saved hundreds of pounds this way. 

We bought the annual “Two Together” rail card for £30 a year: it offers 1/3 off rail fares if you travel with another person (it can’t be random people, though). It easily pays for itself within one or two trips.

Other options include the 16–25 rail card, 26–30 rail card, senior rail card, disabled persons rail card, and veterans rail card, among many others.

So how do you use them?

You buy one online, download the app, and just get ready to show it to the conductor along with your ticket. Make sure you input them in whatever rail ticketing portal you’re using so you get the discount.

National Rail also offers season tickets as well as Rover and Ranger tickets similar to mini interrail tickets (but incredibly complex to decipher!). 

Tip: Even if you’re planning only one long UK rail journey, it still might be worth it for you to buy a rail card. 

Buy in Advance and Return Tickets if Necessary

Coverack. Photo Credit: Author

The nuances of advance rail tickets are truly headache-inducing. If you don’t believe me, look at this National Rail explanation.

The bottom line: unlike certain plane tickets, it’s almost always better to buy your rail tickets in advance. However, if your plans change, it can be nearly impossible to get a refund if you’ve bought advance tickets.

What do you do? There is a way to quasi-return the tickets with Trainsplit. This only works if you will take journeys in the future. What Trainsplit does is essentially “defer” your ticket until the future. 

Let’s say you bought a ticket from Cheltenham Spa to Bath Spa that you no longer need. It cost you £20 pounds.

You can ask Trainsplit to “defer” the ticket. They’ll essentially hold that £20 for you.

If you decide to travel from Bath Spa to London Paddington, and that ticket costs £30, you buy that ticket and send it to Trainsplit. They’ll give you the £20 you spent on that old ticket, even if you bought the ticket with a company other than Trainsplit.

What if your next train journey is less than the ticket price (less than that initial £20)? If it’s £10, for example, you can still get £10 back, but not the full £20. Alternatively, you can wait until you have another train journey that will cost £20or more and you’ll get the full amount back. Note: this is my experience only — check with Trainsplit for full details.

Tip: Trainsplit email customer service is amazing. Even if their rules seem hard to understand, they’ll help you get the best deal.

Avoid Peak Hours

Redruth Station Notice. Photo Credit: Author
Hector always avoids peak hours at Redruth Station. Photo Credit: Author

Just like other forms of transport, trains have peak hours, often mid-morning and during the afternoon commute. It’s not always obvious what the cutoff times are, so search for trains before and after the one you planned to take. The savings are often significant, so it’s often worth getting up early or waiting to travel until early afternoon.

Tip: Just like flights, it can be cheaper to travel on particular days because the cheaper advance tickets already sold out on a Saturday — but you won’t know that unless you check the other days of the week (if you have flexibility in your plans). The excellent Man in Seat 61 has further tips on these points.

Check Alternate Routes

Cornwall. Photo Credit: Author

I recently traveled from Devon to Scotland, all in one day. A direct route from Plymouth to Edinburgh via Birmingham was much cheaper than going through London. Intuitively, this makes sense since so many people will want to travel from London to Edinburgh. But I never would have known if I hadn’t paid attention to alternate routes. 

Tip: Just because it’s a different route and cheaper doesn’t mean it’s longer. The two journeys I just described both took nearly 7 hours.

Bonus: Earn Travel Points and Miles

Photo Credit: Author

Sometimes, splitting your ticket doesn’t add much of a discount (though you can still use the other strategies in this article). This often happens when I cannot buy a ticket in advance or I don’t have flexibility in when I travel. 

If this is the case, you can earn British Airways points (Avios) by buying rail tickets through BA’s online store. Trainline has partnered with BA, so if you access Trainline through the BA portal, you’ll collect Avios for every pound you spend on your tickets. 

Obviously, this is small potatoes, but every bit counts, doesn’t it? It’s worth the extra minute to log in to BA to earn these miles. 

A Final Tip

Winchcombe Station. Photo Credit: Author

Recently, our train from Redruth to Newton Abbot was 40 minutes late. 

On Southern Railway, if your train is later than 15 minutes, you can apply for a refund or compensation. Calculating how much you’ll receive isn’t worth thinking about in advance — just apply and see what you can get depending on the rail service, region, and type of ticket.

It’s not technically a way to save that you can count on. But every bit helps, doesn’t it? If you don’t want a paper check sent to you, just make sure you input your bank or credit card details before applying for a refund.

If you’re traveling during a train strike period, this won’t necessarily apply. But let’s hope the train companies will see sense and pay their workers a living wage. 

And then we can all enjoy riding the rails.

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