The train ticketing system is a farce. To keep your spending away from the buffers, you need to learn how to play the system with hidden tricks.
This guide has 20 sneaky ways to save on fares, including how to split tickets (including free app), beat booking fees, find hidden promotions and much more.
In this guide
Most people know if you book early, you can get cheaper train tickets, yet often these disappear quicker than empty seats on a commuter trip. Therefore to ensure a bargain, the key moment to start looking is about 12 weeks before.
This is because, contractually, Network Rail must have the timetable set 12 weeks in advance. So train operators commonly, though not always, release cheap advance tickets shortly after. It's sometimes not dead on 12 weeks, though, often more like 10 or 11. To help, National Rail has a future travel chart, showing the latest date you can buy advance tickets for each train firm.
If you know when and where you want to go, there's a sneaky way to be first in the cheap tickets queue. TheTrainline's* ticket alert system emails the moment cheap advance tickets for a specific journey come on sale (commonly the cheapest fares).
Bag cheap Xmas train tickets now
If you’re planning cross-country festive rail travel, book now. Network Rail’s obliged to set timetables 12 weeks in advance, and shortly after the train operators launch sackfuls of super-cheap advance fares. So time it right to grab them before the cheap ‘uns disappear.
Now’s the time for Christmas advance fares - right now, most companies have just released tickets till 3 January 2014. We found 24 December London to Manchester singles for £12.50 (£76 on the day) and York to Edinburgh for £15 (£81). Beware, these tickets usually aren’t flexible.
They're likely to disappear fast - use the top booking sites below to locate cheap tickets.
02.Book early late
Most people know advance train tickets are much cheaper, but many folks don't realise you can often buy advance tickets the night before or, occasionally, even on the way to the station. So the golden rule is:
Always check if advance tickets are still available the night before - some people have even got lucky on the way to the station.
As proof of this, during one of Martin's It Pays To Watch TV programmes, he was challenged to save a businessman who travelled to work by train most days as much money as possible. He usually only found out his destination the day before, so booked at the station each morning.
At 5pm, Martin got him to call for a London-Sheffield train for the next morning. He'd have paid £147 on the day, but the night before, £64 advance tickets were still around. That was a stunning saving.
While some advance tickets are only available up to 6pm the day before, most train companies sell them until midnight and sometimes even later.
03.Spend over £90/year? Consider a railcard
Railcards can cut a third off the bill. You can buy them on the Railcard site and most are £30 per year or £70 for three (works out at £23.30/year). So spend more than £90 a year, even in just one trip, and it's cheaper.
Check our Cheap Train Deals page for hot offers, which often include discounts on railcards, such as £10 off.
Don't assume every journey's eligible for a railcard discount. Always check first, especially if travelling at peak times. The main cards:
The 16-25 Railcard is for under-26s or full-time students of any age.
The Family & Friends Railcard is a must if you've got kids and travel by train. The card gets you and up to three more grown-ups a third off travel for a year if there's at least one child. Little ones get 60% off (maxmium four).
The Disabled Persons Railcard costs £20 for one year or £54 for three years. It cuts a third off your ticket and an adult
companion’s, who doesn’t need to be a carer.
The £30 Network Railcard for southern England gives a third off most rail fares for journeys in the Network Railcard area. Up to three adults can travel with you and get the discount, and up to four children (five to 15 years) save 60%.
04. Regular travellers, grab a season ticket
Regular rail users and commuters should always consider annual season tickets. National Rail's season ticket calculator is a nifty little tool to help you work out the cost.
The same routes often have multiple season ticket options. Check them all, as it can make a real difference. A standard 12-month Bristol to London season ticket is £10,420. Yet if you restrict your travel to the Warminster and Salisbury route, it's £7,324.
Getting a season ticket on a heavy commuter route? Check if there are any split ticket options. It can be possible to save with two season tickets covering different journey legs.
05.Singles can beat returns
Returns should be better value but often aren’t. Lots of top deals are only available on one-way fares. It's very common that cheaper fares are available for two single tickets but not the return, so always check.
The web makes finding them easy. If you're booking via RedSpottedHanky* or a similar site, you'll be shown both single and return fares.
Save £261 on a London to Manchester return
As an example, a search for a seat on a London to Manchester train, coming back the next day, brings up a standard anytime return ticket costing a whopping £308. A quick check instantly found that for the same journey, an outbound advance (single) ticket was £34, returning also on an advance at £13, a total of £47.
06. Split your tickets, not your journey
This is the big trick everyone should know. Instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, bizarrely, buying tickets for its constituent parts separately can slash the price – even though you're travelling on exactly the same train.
It's perfectly allowed within the National Rail Conditions of Carriage. The only rule is that the train must call at the stations you buy tickets for.
£219 on a London-Durham return
To show how this works, we unearthed this cracking example. For a London to Durham return, the cheapest ticket was an anytime return at £301. Yet the train stopped at York, so instead we found four singles:
The total cost for those tickets was just £82, a saving of £219. Just to clear it up…
It's the same train at the same time, the difference is you've four tickets covering the journey rather than one.
Read a full step-by-step guide to finding split tickets.
It normally takes 5 to 10 minutes to check, but it's worth doing, especially for long journeys. Here's a step-by-step guide:
Find the journey's cheapest standard price
First get the price for the standard journey. Without this you won't know if you can save.
Find out where the train stops
Use the East Coast booking site. Just search for a journey, click the 'i' for info and then 'show calling points', to see where it stops.
Check the options
Now pick a main station half way along the journey and get a price for separate tickets to and from there for each leg. If that doesn't work, try another station.
For a hint on where to split the ticket, use our TicketySplit app. The tool's first incarnation doesn’t cover advances, only ‘today' tickets. Yet use the tool to find where the today ticket is split, as often it’s the same, then check advance prices on a train booking site to see if it works.
If the train stops at many places then there's a huge combination of available tickets. Obviously it's a balance of time versus money. You could split a journey into six or eight tickets. It all depends on the amount of time you have.
|MoneySavers' split ticketing successes|
|Route||Split tickets at||Standard fare||Split tix cost||Saving|
|Nailsea and Blackwell - Slough||Didcot Parkway||£148.00||£72.20||£75.80|
|Taunton - London||Pewsey||£105.00||£42.70||£62.30|
|Northampton - Leeds||Burton on Trent||£72.00||£34.70||£37.30|
|Llandudno - London (1st class)||Crewe||£403.00||£181.20||£220.80|
|Great Yarmouth – Manchester||Nottingham||£158.00||£42.00||£116|
|Doncaster – Southampton||London||£50.00||£20.00||£30.00|
|Birmingham – Basingstoke||Banbury||£85.00||£37.60||£47.40|
|Manchester – Edinburgh Waverley||York||£150.00||£92.20||£57.80|
|Tiverton - London||Pewsey||£99.00||£55.00||£44.00|
If you find a journey where splitting works, please report your success so others can benefit.
Watch out if you need to change trains
In the rare event that you book specific tickets, your split ticket stop coincides with the station where you change trains, and your first train runs late, then your second ticket might not be valid for the next leg of the journey.
For example, if you travel from Aford to Cshire via Btown and split your tickets at Btown, plus you need to change trains there, if the Ashire to Btown train is late, your ticket may not be valid for the later Btown to Cshire train.
Finally, off-peak and super off-peak tickets require you to travel at specific times of day. If you split your tickets at a station where you change, and the delay takes you outside the off-peak time, you'll have to pay again.
07. Free TicketySplit app to find split tickets
While split ticketing gives massive savings on scores of routes, the problem's always been finding when it works. But now our new split ticket tool uncovers hidden ticket combinations to cut the cost of walk-on single fares.
Download the TicketySplit Lite iPhone app or bookmark the TicketySplit mobile site. Tell it your journey, and it'll tell you where to split and the saving. (On iPhones, a glitch means it might not work the first time you search - if so, just try again.)
This first incarnation doesn't cover advances or returns, only 'today' single tickets. So always check the price for a return too, and if buying the day before or earlier, advance tickets.
How to buy split tickets
Once the tool’s told you what the cheapest tickets are, just go to the ticket office (not machines) and ask for the separate tickets featured in the results. There is no problem making this request – you can buy tickets for any route at any station.
Can you split advance and return tickets?
Yes – and the savings can be enormous. We hope to be able to bring you a tool covering advances and returns in the future, though it's more complex, as there are many options.
For now, to locate cheap advance and return splits, check where the train stops and use trial and error to see if separate tickets make it cheaper - see a step-by-step guide.
Anything to watch out for?
As with all split ticketing, the train MUST call at all the stations you buy tickets to and from. They could ask you to get off the train and back on it again, but we’ve only ever heard of this happening once.
Beware split-ticketing at stations where you change trains. If your service is delayed and you've a time-specific ticket, you may need to pay extra. See a full warning.
Finally, always check ticket terms. Walk-up fares include anytime, off-peak and super off-peak fares. Off-peak and super off-peak may require you to travel at specific times of day, days of the week or on a specific route. Double-check tickets' conditions at the station.
Why is it called TicketySplit Lite?
This is a trial of the technology and it's currently free to you. However, every time you search, we have to pay. Frankly, we have to see how popular and well-used it is.
The app doesn't make money, and we're willing to foot the bill up to a certain level; beyond that we'll have to do some careful thinking. We called this 'Lite', so you'll know it may change. Any updates to the tool will be included in the free weekly email.
Please feed back on the tool
Please add your feedback and successes to the TicketySplit forum discussion. If you spot any glitches, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, letting us know which mobile phone you're using.
08. Use the top UK train booking sites
There are seven main sites for searching out cheap train tickets. Bizarrely, they sometimes list different tickets, so for a belt 'n' braces check on a big fare, try a few.
|The main UK-wide booking sites|
|Booking fee||Credit card fee||Debit card fee||Free ticket postage||Advantages|
Tesco points stashers can double their vouchers' value on RedSpottedHanky tickets.
Devoted train nerds on our forum rate this site, which clearly highlights the cheapest fares when you search.
East Coast sells all train companies' tickets. Postage is free if a station has no self-service machine.
|TheTrainline*||£1.50 per transaction
(£1 on mobile app)
|2% of transaction||No||Yes||
If you’re flexible, bash in your destination on its Best Fare Finder and it’ll hunt for the cheapest days and travel times.
|Raileasy*||£1 on tickets over £10, £2 under £10||2.5%||No||No||
Sometimes highlights hard-to-spot deals, eg, when first class is cheaper than standard. Until 31 Dec 2013 it charges no card/booking fees via this specific link.
|Train operators' own sites||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||
Check the relevant train firm's own site, as they often give discounts. For example, buy advance tickets for a First Great Western route on its own site, and you get 10% off.
It doesn't sell tickets, but it lists fares and has great depth of search. It links to train operators, most of which are fee-free.
09. Double Tesco vouchers' value on rail fares
Spend Tesco Clubcard vouchers on goods in its Tesco Clubcard Partners* list and their value’s up to quadrupled, so a £10 voucher becomes up to £40.
One of the deals featured is train ticket shop RedSpottedHanky*. Swap a £10 voucher and it’s worth £20. It includes cheap advance fares, you can use your railcard, there are no booking fees and postage is free.
In our check, prices were similar to elsewhere, so this is a decent saving. To book, go to Tesco Partners*. The minimum order is £5 (for a £10 rail voucher) and vouchers are valid for six months.
Before doubling on RedSpottedHanky, check Tesco's Clubcard Partner list, as you may be able to quadruple vouchers' value elsewhere. See our Top 10 Tesco Partner Rewards.
10.Watch Martin's video guide to slashing train costs
To really push it to the max, watch this top cheap train tips video from Martin.
Courtesy of Martin's It Pays To Watch, Channel 5. Sept 2008.
11. Only pay peak for the bit that is
Train peak times are usually before 10am and between 4pm and 7pm. Yet if a long train journey's during peak time, even if a portion of it's outside peak time and you return outside peak time, you still pay peak ticket price for the whole return journey.
By following split ticketing based on time as well as distance, you can ensure you're only paying peak prices for the portion of the journey that's actually in the peak hours.
How much you can save… £65 on a Taunton to London peak train return
As an example, on testing a Taunton to London return journey leaving just before 8am, we found a standard return fare for £210. By splitting the ticket at Reading so the final portion was off-peak, and buying an off-peak ticket for the way back, we found the same journey for £90.
12. Grab £1 Megatrain fares
A bit like a pound shop for train tickets, Megatrain flogs hundreds of singles from £1 for routes across England and Scotland, plus a 50p booking fee.
Wondering why there's a Megabus logo at the top of the site? Its booking system's the same as Megabus coach tickets, probably because it hopes £1 train tickets will draw people in. Pick travelling by 'train' in the dropdown, and it won't show bus fares.
Fares from a quid include London to Liverpool, Carlisle to Birmingham, Southampton to London, Bath to London and Glasgow to Preston.
Don't worry, it's not a cheap 'n' cheerful train. The site is run by Stagecoach, which operates South West Trains and East Midlands Trains and is a partner in Virgin Trains.
You're on the same service as everyone else, so for London to Birmingham it's Virgin.
What routes are included?
Megatrain covers more than 100 journeys in England and Scotland.
There are no map or destinations list on Megatrain's site, yet it's kindly allowed us to update an old map with all the latest routes and reproduce it here (see right, or check our a list of all Megatrain routes).
Portsmouth/Havant to London
Derby to London
Oxenholme to Preston/Crewe/
Southampton to London
Nottingham to London
Preston to Crewe/Warrington/
Bournemouth to London
Loughborough to London
Crewe to Birmingham
Bristol/Bath to London
Chesterfield to London
Warrington to Birmingham
Salisbury/Yeovil to London
Carlisle to Oxenholme/Preston/ Crewe/Warrington/B'ham/Edin
Birmingham to London/Edinburgh
Sheffield to London
Glasgow to Carlisle/Oxenholme/Preston/ Crewe/Warrington/Birmingham
Coventry to London
Leicester to London
Glasgow to Carlisle/Oxenholme/Preston/
When can you get them?
While normal cheap advance tickets are released 10-12 weeks in advance, Megatrain only releases tickets 45 days before – handy for those booking later.
These are 'spare capacity' tickets, so there are more for less-popular times. Once the £1 tickets have gone, there are still uber-cheap fares, eg, £3, £5, £7. Popular routes sell like hot cakes, so diarise the date you want.
Another crafty trick is to combine Megatrain fares with split ticketing. If Megatrain covers part of your journey, grab a Megatrain ticket for one leg of your journey and a cheap advance for the rest.
13. Grab ultra-cheap train deals
We've a regularly updated list of super-cheap train promos, vouchers and codes - see the Cheap Train & Coach Deals list.
Also check National Rail for a full local promotions index, with hundreds of regional special offers by train company. Offers change all the time and include everything from Kids for a Quid with Southeastern to first-class upgrades for mums-to-be with Greater Anglia.
14. Get 3% cashback on all train tickets
Cashback credit cards pay you back each time you spend on the card. They are a great way to shave down the cost of transport, especially as some now offer boosted cashback fuel, but ALWAYS...
Set up a direct debit to repay the card in full each month, so you never pay interest, which would outstrip any gain.
The reason card companies offer cashback or reward schemes is simple. They want to encourage you to spend on the card and pay them interest. The interest cost of all cashback cards dwarfs the cashback you'll earn. For full details on what to consider before applying, see Top Cashback Cards.
Each time you apply for one of these cards, you'll be credit-checked by the lenders. Multiple applications in a short period can affect your future ability to get credit. Read full details in the Credit Rating guide.
The easy way to pay off in full
It's easy to do this via a direct debit, which allows the card company to take a variable monthly amount to correspond with what you owe it. Sadly some providers deliberately omit the 'pay off in full' option from direct debit forms, as it makes them less money. If so, just write in 'pay off in full'. They should honour it, but call up after a week or so and check it's worked.
Currently, only one credit card pays a boosted rate of cashback for train tickets. Also, check out the top overall picks in the Top Cashback Cards guide - as they may be suitable if you spend big in other areas.
Santander 123 Cashback*3% cashback with National Rail and TfL
- Cashback: 3% on petrol/transport (max £9/mth), 2% in dept stores, 1% in supermarkets, NONE elsewhere
- Paid out: Monthly
- Max cashback/year: £9/mth on petrol/transport
- Annual fee: £24/year | Min spend: N/A | Card issuer: Mastercard
- Rate: 22.8% representative APR (incl fee). 18.9% rep. APR on spending (see Official APR Example)
- Min income: £7,500
The Santander 123* credit card pays three cashback rates: 3% on public transport and petrol (up to £300/mth spend), 2% in department stores & 1% in supermarkets. Yet it has an annoying £24 annual fee, so to take full advantage you must drive or use public transport a lot, otherwise different cards beat it.
If you spend big on travel, this should wipe out the annual fee quite easily, but it still eats up the gain. Ensure you repay in full every month to avoid the 18.9% representative APR on spending.
One downside is that any spending outside the categories below gets NO cashback (as does fuel and transport spending over £300/mth). Here are some retailers which qualify for the various cashback. Not all branches are eligible, so check your local retailers:
- Transport and fuel: 3%. Includes National Rail and Transport for London (excludes newsagent top-ups). Plus fuel from BP, Shell, Esso, Texaco, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's.
- Dept stores: 2%. Includes Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis, BHS.
- Supermarkets: 1%. Includes Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Waitrose, M&S.
Open Santander's best buy account and the card fee’s dropped.
The fee on this card is refunded for the first year if you also open the Santander* 123 current account. See the Best Bank Accounts guide for full details.
15.Know your train refund rights
Sadly, you can't get any money back if the delay is less than half an hour. If it's longer, every operator has different rules. Here's a general idea of what you can claim:
- You may be entitled to compensation if... the delay or cancellation is the fault of the train operator. Examples include train or signal failures.
You are not entitled to compensation if... the problem is out of the control of the train operator. This includes strikes, pre-planned maintenance work and bad weather. However, in practice, some firms may still pay out so it is worth claiming.
What are your rights if a train's cancelled?
This section applies if your train is cancelled:
Can you get on another train?
If your ticket is open, you can get on any train anyway. If you have an advance ticket for a specific train, which is cancelled, speak to staff. You will probably be able to get on another service with the same train company, but you will not have a reserved seat.
- Can you get your money back if you don't travel?
Yes, you are entitled to a full refund. This applies whether your ticket is for a set train or if it is an open-ended ticket.
- How to claim. You can pick up a form from the appropriate company's stations, or visit its website. Make sure you keep hold of your tickets, as you will need these when applying for a refund. You need to apply within 28 days.
What are my rights if a train's delayed?
The next section applies if your train is delayed, or you get on a later service if your original train is cancelled:
- What if I don't want to travel? You are entitled to a full refund.
- What if I'm late arriving? If you travel and the delay is over half an hour, you may be entitled to a refund, but the amount varies.
- How much can I get? The minimum compensation train operators have to offer you is 20% of your fare for more than an hour's delay. However, you will usually receive more, depending on the train operator.
You may even get cash for delays between 30 minutes and an hour from some firms. In the south of England, Southern gives a full refund if your train is delayed by more than an hour.
- How to claim. You can pick a form from the appropriate company's stations or visit its website. Make sure you keep hold of your tickets, as you will need these when applying for a compensation or a refund.
You have 28 days to apply. Compensation is usually in vouchers, but if you decide not to use them, you will be refunded via the payment method you used to book.
Can I get a refund for Tube delays?
London Underground users are not entitled to compensation when there is a strike. Again, there is no harm in making a claim as you may still get cash, even if you have no formal rights.
Under normal circumstances, if your train is delayed by more than 15 minutes, you can get a refund for the full cost of the journey.
Download or fill in a form from Transport for London within 14 days. As with mainline trains, if you have a paper ticket, keep hold of it as you'll need it when applying for a refund.
16. Cut National Rail Enquiries call costs
If you need to dial National Rail Enquiries, the official number is 0845 748 49 50. To call for less, dial 0121 634 2040, press '1' three times and you get to the same place. See our full Say No To 0870 guide for more.
17. Earn free Eurostar tickets with Avios
Formerly called Air Miles, Avios is a points scheme like Nectar and Clubcard, earnable in Shell, Tesco and by spending on credit cards.
Swap Avios points for Eurostar return tickets and you don't pay taxes or charges, making it excellent value, eg, 9,000 Avios points for a Paris return, depending on availability. For 30 ways to push to the max, see our Avios Points Boosting guide.
18.Scythe down the cost of hotels
Never assume hotel or hostel prices are fixed. Book right and massive savings are possible on UK and worldwide rooms. Our Cheap Hotels guide shows you how to save £100s with top hotel comparison sites, cheap yet clean hostels and more.
The secret hotel section at Lastminute.com* has bargains on up to five-star hotels worldwide (including London), because you only know the description and star rating before you pay. This means rock-bottom prices for classy establishments. See Secret Hotels for how.
Travel overnight to save on hotels
Sleeper trains sound like something from days gone by, yet travel overnight and you save on accommodation. If you're planning a trip between London and Scotland, check ScotRail's Bargain Berths section, where Caledonian Sleeper single fares start at £19.
19.Get free first class in the dining car
Some longer journeys still have first class dining cars as well as the standard buffet. These are often open to all diners, whatever class their ticket is. So go in and order a meal. While it's more expensive, you'll effectively travel in first class luxury at second class price - and get some grub thrown in.
They do have the right to kick you back to where you belong - standard class - once you've finished eating, but it rarely happens.
20. Warning! Travelling short: cheap but banned
Cheap advance fares are often scarce on more popular routes, especially commuter ones. This means it's sometimes possible to buy a ticket for a longer journey that incorporates your route at a cheaper price and make some serious savings.
A popular one, for example, was Chester to London. Peak time cheap train tickets weren't usually available, but for some journeys starting in Wales, going via Chester, they were. This means that absurdly, it was actually substantially cheaper to travel further.
Many people still do this, on lots of different routes and it's known as travelling 'short'. Sadly, it's a no-go as it's against advance tickets' conditions, and you can get fined.
Most other non-advance tickets allow you to get off early or break your journey - check the ticket’s conditions or ask at the station.