The train ticketing system is a farce. To keep your spending away from the buffers, learn how to play the system with hidden tricks.
This full step-by-step guide will show you how to slash the price with split tickets (including free app), buy at the right time, train-spot special hidden deals and much more.
In this guide
Everyone knows 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 (or four months for Eurostar).
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.
If you know when and where you want to go, there's a sneaky way to be first in the cheap tickets queue. The TheTrainline's* ticket alert system emails the moment cheap advance tickets for a specific journey come on sale (commonly the cheapest fares).
2. Get last-minute early booking discounts
Everyone knows 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, even if you're 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.
3. Spend over £84/year? Consider a railcard
Railcards cut a third off the bill. Cards can be bought from the Railcard site and most are £28 per year or £65 for three years (works out at £21.66/year). So spend over £84 a year, even in just one trip, and it's cheaper.
Don't assume every journey is eligible for a railcard discount. Always check it out first, especially if travelling at peak times. The main cards:
4. Season tickets for regular travellers
Regular rail users and commuters should consider annual season tickets. National Rail's season ticket calculator is a nifty little tool to help you work out the cost.
Note that 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 £10,000. Yet if you restrict your travel to the Warminster and Salisbury route, it's £7,028.
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.
If you've an annual season ticket inside the Network Railcard area - London and the south-east of England - or an annual TfL Travelcard, you get under-utilised extra perks. These are annual Gold Cards, and holders get a third off trips for them and up to three adults within the Network Railcard area. They can also take up to four under-16s for £2 each.
5. grab the cheapest train tickets and book for less
For a regularly updated list of super-cheap train promos, vouchers, and codes, see the Cheap Train & Coach Deals list.
Also see National Rail for a full local promotions index, with hundreds of regional special offers by train company. Offers change regularly and include everything from Kids for a Quid with Southeastern to first-class upgrades for mums-to-be with Greater Anglia.
For Virgin Trains travel, use the Virgin farefinder where you can find super-cheap London to Birmingham singles from £7.50. London to Manchester and London to Liverpool singles start at £12.50. While these cheapies are findable on rail booking sites, they are far easier to spot on Virgin's farefinder.
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6. Use The top UK train booking sites
There are six main sites for searching out cheap train tickets, as well as different types of search tool. 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. Read more.
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. Search for a trip and click 'cheapest fares' on the left for that day's best prices. Postage is free if station has no self-serve machine.
|TheTrainline*||£1 per transaction||£3.50||No||Yes||
If you’re flexible, bash in your destination on its Best Fare Finder and it’ll hunt the cheapest days and travel times.
£1 on tickets over £10, £2 under £10
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.
It doesn't sell tickets, but lists fares and has great depth of search. It links to train operators, most of which are fee-free.
Spend Tesco Clubcard vouchers on goods in its Tesco Rewards* brochure 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, which buys, say, a London-Birmingham advance return. 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 Rewards*. The minimum order is £10 and vouchers are valid for six months.
Though before doubling on Redspottedhanky, check Tesco's Rewards brochure, as it may allow you to quadruple vouchers' value. See our Top 10 Tesco Rewards list.
8. 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 abide by:
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 dwarves 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 impact 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 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 Cashback3% cashback with National Rail and TfL
- Cashback: 3% on transport/petrol (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
- Rate: 22.8% representative APR (incl fee). 18.9% rep. APR on spending (see Official APR Example)
The Santander 123* 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 waived for the first year if you also open the Santander* 123 current account. See the Best Bank Accounts guide for full details.
9. More quick tricks and tips
As well as the tricks above, the following can also keep your spending off the buffers.
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' twice and you get to the same place. See our full Say No To 0870 guide for more.
Earn free Eurostar tickets with Avios (Airmiles)
Formerly called Airmiles, Avios is a points scheme like Nectar and Clubcard, earnable in Shell, Tesco and by spending on credit cards.
Swap Avios points for Eurostar returns 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.
Travel overnight to save on accommodation
Sleeper trains sound like something from days gone by, yet travel overnight and you save on accommodation. If you're planning a trip to London from Scotland, check ScotRail's Bargain Berths section, where Caledonian Sleeper single fares start at £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.
Reclaim the cost after train delays
The rules state if a train is late, you can reclaim a full or partial refund. How late it needs to be to qualify depends on the journey, but as a rough rule of thumb, if you're over 30 minutes late then it's worth checking out. Make sure you keep your ticket and pick up a reclaim form from the station.
Hardcore tricks to beat the system
Now let's delve into the hidden timetable secrets. The sheer mass of journeys and rail companies, combined with the system's lack of logic, means there are lots of tricks to try. Yet there's no way to know whether it'll apply for your journey without checking.
Hardcore Trick 1. 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* etc, you'll be shown both single and return fares.
Save £266 on a Manchester to London return
As an example, a quick search for a seat on a Manchester to London train, coming back the next day, brings up a standard anytime return ticket costing a whopping £296. A quick check instantly found that for the same journey, an outbound advance (single) ticket was £18, returning also on an advance at £12, a total of £30.
Courtesy of Martin's It Pays To Watch, Channel 5. Sept 2008.
Hardcore Trick 2. 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.
Save £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 five to ten 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 booking site RedSpottedHanky*. 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 about halfway across the journey and get a price for separate tickets to and from there for each leg. If that doesn't work, try another leg.
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||£221.18|
|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||£54.80|
|Tiverton - London||Pewsey||£99.00||£55.00||£44.00|
If you find a journey where split ticketing works, please report your split ticket 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 place you change trains, and your first train runs late, 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 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.
Free TicketySplit app to find split tickets
While split ticketing gives massive savings on scores of routes, the probem'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 new 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 iPhone, a glitch means it mightn't 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 station kiosk (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, simply check where the train stops and use trial and error to see if buying separate tickets makes 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 the ticket’s 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 email@example.com (letting us know which mobile phone you are using).
All updates will go in the free weekly email Get MoneySavingExpert's free, spam-free weekly email full of guides & loopholes
Hardcore Trick 3. 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 is peak.
As an example, on testing a Taunton to London return journey leaving just before 8am, the standard return fare was £210. Yet 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.
Hardcore Trick 4. 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 50p booking fee. (Wondering why there's a Megabus logo at the top? Its booking system's merged with Megabus £1 coach tickets, and the £1 train tickets draw people in to check prices.)
Fares from a quid include London - Liverpool, Carlisle - Birmingham, Southampton - London, Bath - London and Glasgow - Preston.
And don't worry, it's not a cheap 'n' cheerful train. The megatrain.com site is run by Stagecoach, which operates South West Trains and East Midlands Trains and is also a partner in Virgin Rail Group.
You're on the same service as everyone else, so for London to Birmingham it's Virgin.
What routes are included?
Megatrain covers over 100 journeys in England and Scotland.
There's 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 see a list of all Megatrain routes below).
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.
Just search on Megatrain and be sure to pick travelling by 'train' in the dropdown or you'll get bus fares as well. Booking fee is 50p (per transaction).
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.
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 that was shut down, for example, was Chester to London. Peaktime 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' terms and conditions, and you can get fined.