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21 September 2023
Cheap train tickets
Travelling by train can be expensive, and with rail fares in England and Wales increasing by 5.9% earlier this year, it's crucial to cut costs where you can. This guide has 18 ways to save, including when flexible season tickets win, how to split tickets, beat booking fees, what your refund rights are and much more.
Most people know if you book early, you can get cheaper train tickets, yet often these vanish quicker than empty seats on a peak-time journey. To ensure a bargain, the key is to start looking for tickets about 12 weeks before you want to travel.
Network Rail must – usually – have the timetable set 12 weeks in advance. So train operators commonly release cheap advance tickets shortly after. It's not always dead on 12 weeks though, it's often more like 10 or 11.
On the other hand, some operators release advance tickets even earlier than 12 weeks prior – with the caveat that times could change slightly. For example, London North Eastern Railway (LNER) often releases advance tickets up to 24 weeks ahead for routes from stations north of York to London.
If you've less than 12 weeks before you travel, it's usually best to book ASAP, as the longer you leave it, the pricier tickets tend to get. With some operators, you can buy advance tickets up to 10 minutes before you travel if they haven't sold out. For full help, see Book early, late.
Advance tickets are non-refundable (unless your journey's delayed or cancelled). So if you book and then can't travel – for instance, if you're ill – you won't get your money back. See full info on the National Rail website.
If you know when and where you want to go, there's a sneaky way to be first in the cheap tickets queue. Put your journey details into the Trainline ticket alert system and you'll get an email when advance tickets for that journey go on sale, which are usually the cheapest fares – though to avoid fees, book via a train-booking site that doesn't charge them.
National Rail also has a future travel dates table, showing the furthest date in the future you can buy advance tickets for each train firm.
Flexible season tickets are a newer type of ticket that aim to help part-time commuters in England save money on train travel. Our analysis shows that while some can save £100s a year, others will save little or would even be worse off buying these tickets.
They allow you to travel as a day return on any eight days in a 28-day period using a paperless ticket via a smartcard or phone, and you don't need to select when you want to travel in advance. If you were to split it by doing an outbound journey on one day and an inbound journey on another day, you'd use up two of your eight days. If you've an irregular working pattern, after you've used your eight you can just buy another flexible ticket and start again.
They're only available for standard class, but can be used for both peak and off-peak travel, including weekends. In most cases you should be able to use any train operator between your start and end stations, though a flexible season ticket won't allow you to add any extras such as London Underground trips, and can't be used on that or the Newcastle Metro for example.
Try out our Season Ticket Calculator which shows if flexible season tickets beat daily, annual, or other season tickets for your journey. The calculator assumes you get five weeks off a year, so if your situation differs, you'll need to divide your flexible and annual ticket costs by the amount you're likely to travel.
We've also crunched the numbers and tested 35 routes (also based on having five weeks off in a year) to give a rule of thumb on the best type of ticket to use. Of course, this is just a snapshot, and you can use the calculator for your specific journey.
Here's what our rule of thumb analysis found...
|Brighton to London||£3,671||£4,195||£4,316|
|Chelmsford to Stratford||£2,123||£2,364||£4,088|
|Winchester to London Waterloo||£4,931||£7,066||£5,580|
|Southampton Central to Winchester||£662||£727||£1,288|
|Milton Keynes to London||£3,470||£3,965||£5,668|
|Worcester to Bristol||£2,686||£2,972||£5,220|
|Gravesend to London St Pancras||£2,953||£3,376||£5,080|
|Brighton to East or West Croydon||£2,788||£3,947 unrestricted, or £2,548 via Thameslink only||£3,156|
|Doncaster to Sheffield||£660||£754||£1,088|
|Headcorn to London Charing Cross||£3,597||£4,112||£5,504|
|Haywards Heath to Hove||£1,167||£1,334||£1,604|
|Chalkwell to Fenchurch Street||£1,693||£1,785||£3,704|
|Derby to Sheffield||£1,932||£2,870||£3,212|
|Darlington to Newcastle||£1,334||£1,435||£2,664|
|York to Leeds||£1,546||£1,766||£2,516|
|St Albans City to London Thameslink||£1,911||£2,070||£3,808|
|Bromsgrove to Birmingham New Street||£675||£754||£1,296|
|Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly||£1,658||£1,895||£2,760|
|Deal to London||£5,253||£6,449||£5,948|
|West Worthing to London Bridge||£4,564||£5,870||£5,168|
|Petersfield to London||£4,287||£5,538||£4,852|
|Hindley to Manchester||£789||£902||£1,240|
|East Grinstead to London Bridge||£2,214||£2,530||£2,876|
|Cambridge to Kings Cross||£3,671||£4,195||£5,388|
|Brighton to Bedford||£5,686||£6,449||£6,752|
|Reigate to City Thameslink||£1,795||£2,052||£3,096|
|London Paddington to Oxford||£4,897||£6,468||£5,544|
|Biggleswade to Kings Cross||£2,801||£3,202||£4,916|
|Luton to London||£2,536||£2,898||£4,544|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Worle||£1,040||£1,104||£2,108|
|Slough to London Paddington||£1,490||£1,656||£2,860|
|Eastbourne to East Croydon||£2,911||£5,364||£3,296|
|Ashford International to St Pancras International||£6,035||£6,900||£7,020|
|Blackburn to Manchester||£1,111||£1,270||£1,976|
|Weston Super Mare to Bristol Temple Meads||£1,040||£1,104||£2,108|
|Brighton to London||£5,506.00||£6,293||£4,316|
|Chelmsford to Stratford||£3,184||£3,547||£4,088|
|Winchester to London Waterloo||£7,397||£10,598||£5,580|
|Southampton Central to Winchester||£944||£1,090||£1,288|
|Milton Keynes to London||£5,204||£5,948||£5,668|
|Worcester to Bristol||£4,030||£4,457||£5,220|
|Gravesend to London St Pancras||£4,430||£5,065||£5,080|
|Brighton to East or West Croydon||£4,181||£5,920 unrestricted, or £3,823 via Thameslink only||£3,156|
|Doncaster to Sheffield||£990||£1,132||£1,088|
|Headcorn to London Charing Cross||£5,396||£6,169||£5,504|
|Haywards Heath to Hove||£1,751||£2,001||£1,604|
|Chalkwell to Fenchurch Street||£2,539||£2,677||£3,704|
|Derby to Sheffield||£2,898||£4,306||£3,212|
|Darlington to Newcastle||£2,001||£2,153||£2,664|
|York to Leeds||£2,318||£2,650 unrestricted, or £2,194 via Northern Trains only||£2,516|
|St Albans City to London Thameslink||£2,867||£3,105||£3,808|
|Bromsgrove to Birmingham New Street||£1,013||£1,132||£1,296|
|Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester Piccadilly||£2,487||£2,843 unrestricted, or £2,291 via Northern Trains only||£2,760|
|Deal to London||£7,880||£9,674||£5,948|
|West Worthing to London Bridge||£6,847||£8,804||£5,168|
|Petersfield to London||£6,431||£8,308||£4,852|
|Hindley to Manchester||£1,183||£1,352||£1,240|
|East Grinstead to London Bridge||£3,321||£3,795||£2,876|
|Cambridge to Kings Cross||£5,506||£6,293||£5,388|
|Brighton to Bedford||£8,528||£9,674||£6,752|
|Reigate to City Thameslink||£2,693||£3,077||£3,096|
|London Paddington to Oxford||£7,345||£9,701||£5,544|
|Biggleswade to Kings Cross||£4,202||£4,802||£4,916|
|Luton to London||£3,804||£4,347||£4,544|
|Slough to London Paddington||£2,236||£2,484||£2,860|
|Bristol Temple Meads to Worle||£1,559||£1,656||£2,108|
|Blackburn to Manchester||£1,666||£1,904||£1,976|
|Eastbourne to East Croydon||£4,366||£8,045||£3,296|
|Ashford International to St Pancras International||£9,053||£10,350||£7,020|
|Weston Super Mare to Bristol Temple Meads||£1,559||£1,656||£2,108|
Where the Flexible season ticket wins, it's often very close. For example, those travelling from Hindley to Manchester would only save £57 a year compared to the annual season ticket cost.
If you're absolutely certain you'll only need to travel eight days each time, that's fine. If not, as the annual season ticket would allow you to travel during twice as many days in a year, it's worth weighing up if you think you'll definitely save money in the long run if your plans change and you need to travel on that route more often.
Travelling off-peak? Flexible season tickets are best for those commuting during weekday peak times. With more potential for flexible working patterns, if you won't be doing the typical '9 to 5' and you'll often commute later in the day off-peak, then in most cases you're best going for daily tickets and using the tips in the rest of this guide below to cut the cost of your ticket.
You won't be able to get them on ScotRail or Transport for Wales, or on Heathrow Express, London Overground, Merseyrail, TfL Rail or 'open access operators', which are non-franchised firms such as Grand Central and Hull Trains.
If you've got a 16-17 Saver or a Jobcentre Plus Travel Discount Card you'll be able to get 50% off a Flexible season ticket, but you won't be able to use any other railcard or group discount to get them.
It gives predictions for specific routes, dates and times based on data from billions of journeys, making it great for when you want a cheap advance fare but haven't finalised your plans.
We tried it on a journey from London Liverpool Street to Norwich – it showed tickets currently cost £18 and would likely sell out at that price by the following day, and could hit £81 by the day of travel.
Beware Trainline's booking fees. While Trainline's Price Prediction tool is handy, we DON'T recommend using Trainline to buy your tickets, as you could pay up to £1.75 extra in booking fees (though if you're booking via the app on the day of travel, there's no fee). See sites that don't charge.
This is the big trick everyone should know. Instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, buying tickets for its constituent parts can slash the price, even though you're on exactly the same train.
For example, if you're travelling from London to Durham, but the train stops at York in between, you could potentially save money by buying a ticket from London to York and then another from York to Durham. You could even be sat in the same seat for the entire journey – you'll just have two tickets rather than one.
It's perfectly legit according to the National Rail Conditions of Travel – the only rule is that the train MUST call at all the stations you buy tickets for.
While split ticketing gives massive savings, the problem's always been finding where and when it works. We've been campaigning on this for years and were the first to launch a split-ticketing tool in 2012 – now we think others have developed better specialist sites, so we link to them instead.
There are several tools that do this, including one from the UK's biggest train-booking site, Trainline, so you've a choice. We spot-checked prices for 15 journeys across 10 tools and found there was no single cheapest, so to find the best splits, check as many sites as you've time for.
All of the following let you check split tickets for one-way journeys, fixed returns and group bookings. All are free to use, though most charge a fee if you book via them, which we factored into our checks (see more on this below):
As far as the Trainline* split-ticketing featue goes, we found in our spot-check that it was costlier than rivals – in fact, it wasn't cheapest for any of the 15 journeys we checked once we factored in its booking fees. If you use any of these tools, let us know how you get on in the split ticketing forum discussion.
All the ticket-split tools listed above charge a fee when you buy train tickets through them, usually by taking a cut of the saving you make.
You don't have to pay these fees – you can avoid them by simply using a split-ticket tool to find splits for your journey, then buying from a train-booking site that doesn't charge booking fees or directly from the train firms involved, most of which don't charge fees.
But bear in mind it costs money to run these tools and the margins on train tickets are pretty slim. So if few users buy through them, they may not always be around to help you save – and finding split tickets yourself can be fiddly.
It normally takes five to 10 minutes to check for split tickets, but it's worth doing, especially for long journeys. And while the tools above can help, if you want to do it the old-fashioned way, here's a step-by-step guide:
If the train you want to catch stops at a lot of places, there'll be a huge combination of tickets available, and then splitting the fare comes down to time versus money. Splitting a journey into six or eight tickets might work out cheaper (one MoneySaving football supporter ended up with 56 tickets), but it'll take a fair amount of legwork if you're splitting the journey yourself.
Nailsea and Backwell – Slough
|Taunton – London||Pewsey||£105||£42.70||£62.30|
|Northampton – Leeds||Burton-on-Trent||£72||£34.70||£37.30|
|Llandudno – London (first class)||Crewe||£403||£181.20||£221.80|
|Great Yarmouth – Manchester||Nottingham||£158||£42||£116|
|Doncaster – Southampton||London||£50||£20||£30|
|Birmingham – Basingstoke||Banbury||£85||£37.60||£47.40|
|Manchester – Edinburgh||York||£150||£92.20||£57.80|
|Tiverton – London||Pewsey||£99||£55||£44|
|Newark Castle – Bridgend||Nottingham||£114||£88.40||£25.60|
Yes – buying three, four or even more split tickets for one journey can cut costs more, and these tools search for multiple splits. The biggest we've seen while testing them is nine.
Yes, but these can be more difficult to find as they require roughly the same route in each direction to save you money, or else you may just be offered an open return, which is unlikely to be the cheapest option.
There may be a problem if you need to change trains and you're delayed before you split your journey.
For example, if you're going from London to Durham via York, and you're changing trains at York, delays that make you miss your time-specific train from York to Durham could mean you have to pay extra.
However, you could also claim compensation for the delay – see our Train delays guide for more details.
In the rare event that you book split tickets and your split-ticket stop coincides with the station where you change trains, should your first train run late, your second ticket might not be valid for the next leg of the journey.
Also, off-peak and super off-peak tickets require you to travel at specific times of day. So if you split your tickets at a station where you have to change, and a delay takes you into peak time, you may have to pay again to continue your journey during this time.
Most people know that buying train tickets in advance is usually cheaper, but many don't realise you can often buy them right down to the wire – the golden rule is:
If tickets haven't sold out, seven firms now let you buy advance tickets on the day. Many more allow you to buy the day before, so never assume it's too late. Make sure you have time to get your tickets as it can take up to two hours before they're ready to collect.
Here are train firms' cut-off points for advance tickets. We update this table regularly, but policies can sometimes change in between, so always check before you buy.
|On the day||Avanti West Coast (up to one hour before), CrossCountry (up to 15 minutes before), Gatwick Express (up to 30 minutes before, online only), Grand Central (up to two hours before), Greater Anglia (up to 10 minutes before), London North Eastern Railway (up to 40 minutes before), Stansted Express (up to two hours before, online only)|
|11.59pm the day before||Caledonian Sleeper, East Midlands Railway, Northern, South Western Railways|
|6pm the day before||Chiltern Railways, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, ScotRail, Southeastern, Southern Rail, TransPennine Express (majority of tickets), Transport for Wales|
|Three days before||Enterprise (online only)|
|14 days before||Heathrow Express (online only)|
Railcards usually cut a third off the bill. You can buy them on the Railcard site* and elsewhere, and most cost £30 a year – though you can get some for £70 for three years (£23.33 a year). So if you spend more than £90 a year on trains, a railcard is worth getting.
Most railcards (see the different types available) also give you a third off off-peak travel around London.
What's more, now's a good time to get one, as there are several MoneySaving offers, including:
Don't assume every journey qualifies for a railcard discount, though – always check first, especially if travelling at peak times, as the rules vary by operator.
You no longer need to carry a physical railcard around with you – you can get a digital railcard which is stored on your smartphone or tablet.
Buy your railcard from Railcard.co.uk*, Trainline* or TrainPal*, download the relevant app, then follow the Railcard.co.uk instructions, Trainline instructions or TrainPal instructions on how to add your railcard to the app.
Bear in mind that if you're buying a digital Disabled Person's Railcard, Veterans Railcard or 16-25 Railcard as a mature student, you'll need to allow up to five working days for your application to be approved as they're checked manually.
Digital railcards can't be added to Apple Wallet or Google Pay, as they don't currently support the holograms used on railcards to prevent fraud.
If your device runs out of battery or you lose it while travelling, and you're asked to show your digital railcard to prove your discount is valid, you could be asked to buy another ticket for your journey or charged a penalty fare.
If you buy an annual season ticket for a route which starts and/or ends in the Network Railcard Area (primarily London and south-east England, but also includes parts of East Anglia and the Midlands), or if you buy an annual travelcard from Transport for London (TfL), you'll also get an Annual Gold Card.
This gives a similar discount as a Network Railcard and also gives you a third off off-peak travel in London with an Oyster card. When you buy a qualifying season ticket, it should say 'Gold Card' at the bottom. Those buying an annual travelcard on their Oyster card will be given a separate Gold Card at the ticket office, but it's worth double-checking the discount has been added to your Oyster.
Just as with a normal railcard, you'll need to take your Gold Card with you to get the discount when travelling on eligible routes.
It's worth noting you can also grab a 16-25, Disabled Person's, Family & Friends', Network, Two Together or Senior Railcard for just £10, for you or someone you know, if you have a Gold Card. See the how to get a £10 railcard deal.
The 16-25 Railcard costs £30 for a year (or £70 for three), while the 26-30 Railcard costs £30 a year. They give you a third off most rail fares, and you'll also get a third off London travelcards and off-peak Oyster travel. They can be used anytime, though if you're travelling before 10am on weekdays the minimum fare after the discount is £12.
Despite its name, there's a great loophole which lets you keep on using the 16-25 Railcard even after you've turned 26. You just need to buy a three-year railcard the day before your 24th birthday (or a one-year railcard before your 26th) to get the discount almost until you turn 27.
If you're not due to renew your existing 16-25 Railcard, which you can do up to 30 days before expiry, there's nothing to stop you buying another using a different email address if you want to use this trick.
It's still worth using this trick because if you have a 16-25 Railcard almost until you turn 27, you won't need to as many 26-30 Railcards, which is only available as a one-year card, after that. Without the trick you'd need four 26-30 Railcards to cover you from 26 to 30, but by using it you'd only need three to cover you from 27 to 30, saving you £30.
And the trick also works with the 26-30 Railcard. You can buy the 26-30 Railcard just before your 31st birthday and keep using it until its expiry date – so if you renew at the right time, you can use it until just before you turn 32.
Before buying, have a look at our Railcard deals page to see any other offers available.
Regular rail users and commuters should consider annual season tickets – National Rail's Season Ticket Calculator is a nifty tool to help you work out the cost.
Some journeys can have multiple season ticket options. Check them all, as it can make a real difference. A 12-month Guildford to London season ticket including a London travelcard for zones 1 to 6 is £6,096, yet if you restrict your travel to the Clandon and Woking routes, it's £5,052.
Also check if there are any split-ticket options, to see if you can save with two season tickets covering different legs of the journey.
To see how you might be able to save more, check out our guide to Cheaper train season tickets.
Returns should be better value, but often aren't. It's very common that cheaper fares are available by getting two single tickets rather than a return ticket, so be sure to check.
It's usually easy to find these deals online as you'll often be shown both single and return fares when searching for tickets.
As an example, a search for a return between London and Manchester train brought up a standard anytime return ticket costing a whopping £350. A quick check instantly found that, for the same journey, an outbound advance single ticket was £41, while coming back it cost £26 – a total of £67.
There are a few ways to search for cheap train tickets online, and bizarrely, different sites sometimes list different tickets, so for a belt 'n' braces check try a few.
London North Eastern Railway (LNER) is a good place to start as it sells tickets for all routes and doesn't charge booking fees.
|London North Eastern Railway||No||Free (1)||£7.50 (2)||
Sells all train companies' tickets. Gives an 'e-ticket' option, which lets you show tickets on your phone or print at home.
|Avanti West Coast||No||£2 (3)||£7.50 (4)||Sells all train companies' tickets. Gives an 'e-ticket' option, which lets you show tickets on your phone or print at home.|
|RedSpottedHanky||No||£1 (5)||£7.50 (6)||
Great reviews for customer service.
|Trainline*||80p to £1.75 on website, 35p to £1.75 via app – no fee when buying via app on day of travel||£2.75 for 2nd class (7)||£8.25 (8)||
If you can be flexible, its Best Fare Finder finds the cheapest fares around the dates you want to travel.
Gives an 'e-ticket' option, which lets you show tickets on your phone or print at home.
Allows you to toggle between cheapest and most flexible fares, also searches for split tickets.
|Train operators' own sites||N/A||N/A||N/A||
Check relevant train companies' sites before booking, as they often offer discounts.
Doesn't sell tickets, but highlights the cheapest fares. Links directly to train companies, most of which are fee-free.
|(1) Tickets must be booked at least five working days before travel. (2) Tickets must be booked by 5pm to guarantee delivery by 1pm the next working day. Tickets booked before 11am on Saturdays will be delivered by 1pm Monday unless it's a bank holiday, then they'll be delivered on Tuesday. Those booked after 11am on Saturday and on Sunday will be delivered by 1pm Tuesday. (3) Tickets must be booked at least five days before you travel. (4) Tickets must be booked by 5pm to guarantee delivery by 1pm the next working day. Tickets booked after 5pm will be delivered within two working days. Tickets booked at the weekend will be delivered by 1pm Tuesday. (5) Tickets must be booked at least six working days before travel. (6) Tickets must be booked by 4pm to guarantee delivery by 1pm the next working day. Tickets booked on Friday will be delivered Monday. Tickets booked on Saturday will be delivered Tuesday. (7) Tickets must be booked at least seven days before travel. (8) Tickets must be booked by 3pm to guarantee delivery by 1pm the next working day. Tickets booked after 3pm will be delivered within two working days. Tickets booked at the weekend will be delivered by 1pm Tuesday.|
Train peak times are usually before 10am and between 4pm and 7pm. Yet if a long train journey starts during peak time, even if a portion of it's outside peak time and you return outside peak time, you still pay peak-time price for the whole journey.
By using split ticketing based on time as well as distance, you can ensure you're only paying peak prices for the portion of your journey that actually takes place in peak hours.
How much can you save?
When we looked at this, we found we could shave £45 off a London to Manchester peak train return. On a single journey leaving at 9.20am, we found a standard anytime fare for £175. By splitting the ticket at Milton Keynes, it knocked £45 off the total fare as the remaining part of the journey was off-peak.
Megatrain* flogs hundreds of singles from £6 plus a £1 booking fee, for routes between London and Chesterfield, Derby, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham or Sheffield.
It uses the same booking system as Megabus, but the train won't be as cheap 'n' cheerful as the tickets – Megatrain is operated by East Midlands Railway, so you'll be on the same service as people who booked their tickets elsewhere. For example, we found a ticket from London to Chesterfield for £20.43 with Megatrain. The same ticket booked direct with East Midlands Railway was £31.
While normal cheap advance tickets are released 10 to 12 weeks in advance, Megatrain only releases tickets 45 days before.
A crafty MoneySaving trick is to combine Megatrain fares with split ticketing.
Offers change all the time and include everything from Kids for a Quid on Southeastern to eight-week free first-class upgrades for expectant mothers with Greater Anglia.
Cashback credit cards pay you back each time you spend on them and are a great way to shave down the cost of transport, especially as some now offer boosted cashback, but ALWAYS...
You can get up to 5% bonus cashback on everything you buy, up to a maximum £100 with our top pick American Express reward card. After the introductory bonus, cashback is then tiered up to 1%, though you need to spend £3,000+ a year to get any cashback.
Remember you'll also be credit checked if you apply. Full details and more options in Credit card rewards.
Every operator has different rules, but the majority will pay out for delays of 30 minutes or more, and quite a few will pay after 15 minutes.
The majority operate a Delay Repay policy meaning they will pay compensation of 50% of the fare, regardless of what caused the hold-up.
A few train companies still operate an old-style compensation scheme, which means they sometimes won't pay if the delay was not their fault, such as if it was the result of a track fire or strike.
Travelling first-class doesn't have to be costly – there are a couple of ways to grab a premium ticket for less.
If you book well ahead the difference in price between standard and first class can be less than you'd expect, depending on when you want to travel. For example, a single standard class ticket from London to York was £39 when we checked 11 weeks ahead, but a first-class ticket was £44.
It's worth noting the cost of the upgrade can vary by route. Avanti West Coast, for example, charges between £15 and £30 for a weekend upgrade, depending on the length of journey.
It can, however, sometimes be cheaper to upgrade on the day, as 11 firms offer a flat-rate upgrade fee on weekends and bank holidays.
For example, if a first-class advance ticket with LNER from Leeds to London is £44, but you opt for a standard-class ticket at £18, and pay the £15 upgrade fee on the day you'll save £11.
Cheap advance fares are often scarce on 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.
This is known as 'travelling short'. Sadly, it's a no-go as it's against the conditions of advance tickets and you can get fined for doing it.
Most other non-advance tickets allow you to get off early or break your journey – check the ticket's conditions or ask at a station.
Clever ways to calculate your finances