Commuters on some routes can use a 16-25 Railcard to save up to £700 on a year's train travel, MoneySavingExpert.com can reveal, due to a simple trick which will also work with the new 26-30 Railcard.
Both railcards are aimed at those travelling on off-peak trains - they don't give a discount on season tickets and have a minimum fare at peak times. Yet our analysis has found some CAN use the 16-25 Railcard to slash the cost of their commute, and some who get the 26-30 Railcard when it becomes available next month will also be able to.
Both railcards usually cost £30 for a year and give a third off many fares. The 26-30 Railcard, which was first revealed by MoneySavingExpert in October, will be trialled in the Greater Anglia area from Wednesday 6 December, with 10,000 cards available on a first-come, first-served basis - and a national roll-out is expected next spring.
How to use railcards to save on peak-time commuter fares
Neither the 16-25 Railcard nor 26-30 Railcard gives discounts on season tickets. But in many cases you CAN still save on the cost of an annual season ticket by buying daily tickets. This isn't an exact science, so we've listed the principles below and you'll need to check whether it works on your commute.
There's one rule that's crucial in order for this to work - an anytime day return (or single) on your route must cost at least £12 AFTER the railcard discount's applied.
That's because there's a £12 minimum fare when travelling between 4.30am and 10am Monday to Friday (except in July, August and on public holidays with the 16-25 Railcard). So in order to get the full third-off, your ticket ticket will need to cost £18+ before the discount - if it costs £12-£18 you'll still get a discount, but only down to £12.
We've looked at anytime returns as they'll usually work best - however you could look at advance tickets (if you don't mind having to catch specific trains) or even two singles (if both meet the £12 minimum fare).
You'll also need to check that the cost of daily tickets for a year is LESS than an annual season ticket (sometimes a season ticket will still win). To work this out we multiplied the daily charge by 233 (the number of working days in a year after weekends and the standard 28 days' holiday including bank holidays). If your holiday differs, adapt accordingly.
Some will be able to save up to £700/year
To see how this can work in practice, we looked at the London Liverpool Street to Essex line, which is in the Greater Anglia area and so part of the 26-30 Railcard trial next month.
The table below shows how the figures add up at different stops along the line, looking at travel from the departure station to Liverpool Street and then on by tube to a station in Zone 1, travelling back and forth Monday to Friday at peak times.
Commuters from Shenfield, the first major station outside London, could make the biggest savings – almost £700/year – while the trick won't work further along the line as a season ticket's still cheapest.
Dailies vs season tickets on a Greater Anglia route
|Cost of anytime rtn incl Zone 1 rtn, after 1/3 off via railcard
|Annual season ticket incl Zone 1-6 travelcard
|Saving using railcard trick vs season ticket (1)
|Total for 233 days
|None – £1,285 more
|None – £1,226 more
|None – £2,903 more
|Prices as of 24 Nov – cost of all tickets to rise in Jan. (1) Factoring in cost of £30 railcard.
We've also looked at how this trick can work elsewhere in the country, for those who have a 16-25 Railcard, or who can get the 26-30 Railcard from next spring (assuming it works in a similar way to the trial). Again, it works for some, but not all, commuters.
Dailies vs season tickets across the UK
|Cost of anytime rtn after 1/3 off via railcard
|Annual season ticket
|Saving using railcard trick vs season ticket (1)
|Total cost for 233 days
|Southend Central to London Fenchurch Street plus Zone 1 travel
|Edinburgh Waverley to Glasgow Queen Street
|Llanelli to Cardiff Central
|None – £466 more
|Prices as of 24 Nov – cost of all tickets to rise in Jan. (1) Factoring in cost of £30 railcard. (2) Including £12.15 rail return and two contactless tube fares.
Whether you already have a 16-25 Railcard or are planning to get a 26-30 Railcard, here's how to check if this trick works for you:
- Check the cost of an anytime day return on your route – it must be at least £12 AFTER the railcard discount. That's to meet the minimum fare requirement. (If your season ticket usually includes onward travel, eg, the tube in London, you'll need to factor this in too.) As above, to get the full third-off discount your ticket will need to cost £18+ before the discount - if it costs £12-£18 you'll still get a discount but only down to £12, so it will be smaller.
- Work out how many days you actually commute in a year. The Work-Day website can help – enter your annual leave and it'll give you your total number of working days.
- Compare a year's discounted returns with your annual season ticket cost. Multiply the cost of a discounted anytime return by the number of days you'll actually commute, then factor in the £30 cost of a railcard.
As rail fares can be complex, it's worth popping to your local station to check you've got the best ticket and there are no travel restrictions you need to be aware of. Also bear in mind:
- You must carry your railcard with you at all times. If you don't, you risk a penalty fine.
- You won't have 'free' weekend travel. Season tickets let you travel seven days a week – with our trick you only pay for when you travel. If you sometimes use your season ticket at weekends, factor that in.
- Commuting into London? You won't have a Zone 1-6 travelcard. Season tickets into London can include unlimited Zone 1-6 travel – using our trick you have to factor in tube travel separately, and in our analysis above we've only allowed for travel to and from work in Zone 1.
- You'll need to buy separate daily tickets - you can usually buy a week's worth at a time. So to do this you'll need to factor buying train tickets regularly into your weekly chores – though some companies let you buy online.
'Do the maths now to check if it works for you'
Steve Nowottny, news and features editor at MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "The 26-30 Railcard has been billed as a nice-to-have bonus for cash-strapped millennials, yet our analysis shows it may have a much wider impact. Many passengers will be able to save on their daily commute – and what's more, some aged 16 to 25 already can.
"If you travel to work by train, a season ticket is an unavoidable expense which it can be hard to make savings on. So if you're in the right age bracket and think you can use this trick to save, do the maths now to check if it works for you. It'll mean some extra admin to get the right tickets – but savings of up to £700/year could make it well worthwhile."
What do the train companies say?
We've run the examples above past the train companies concerned and all have confirmed you WILL be able to use a railcard on the fares we've quoted, and that you can save on season tickets as a result.
A spokesperson for Greater Anglia said: "Like other railcards, the 26-30 card is aimed at the leisure market. However, if people want to buy five tickets a week with it and use it for their commute, they can do."
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies, said: "National Railcards were introduced and have been developed for two main purposes: the first being to encourage rail travel amongst groups of people who do not regularly travel by train and secondly for people for whom rail travel may be particularly difficult or cost prohibitive, such as disabled travellers or senior citizens.
"While National Railcards can save rail passengers money on rail travel, these are best suited to those that have the flexibility to travel at off-peak times as the majority of railcards carry peak-time restrictions."