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Cheap Train Tickets

Find hidden fares & split tickets

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Jenny | Edited by Martin

Updated September 2018

Purple train

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 contains 20 sneaky ways to save on fares, including how to split tickets, beat booking fees, find hidden promotions, get the most out of railcards and much more. Also see our Cheaper Train Season Tickets guide.

Regulated rail fares, which include season tickets, anytime return tickets around major cities and some long-distance off-peak return tickets, will rise by up to 3.2% next year. For full info, see the Commuter rail fares to increase MSE News story.

Book 12+ weeks ahead for the cheapest fares

book 12 weeks early

Most people know if you book early, you can get cheaper train tickets, yet often these vanish quicker than empty seats on a commuter journey. To ensure a bargain, the key is to start looking for tickets about 12 weeks before.

Contractually Network Rail must 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, often more like 10 or 11.

Some train companies now release advance tickets even earlier – with the caveat that times could change slightly. For example, London North Eastern Railway (LNER) releases advance tickets 24 weeks ahead for routes from stations north of York into London.

Get a free alert when tickets go on sale

If you know when and where you want to go, there's a sneaky way to be first in the cheap tickets queue. If you sign up and fill in your journey details with the Trainline's ticket alert system, you will get an email when cheap advance tickets for that specific journey go on sale, which are commonly the cheapest fares.

To help, National Rail also has a future travel chart, showing the furthest date in the future you can buy advance tickets for each train firm.

Find out when cheap tickets are likely to jump in price and sell out

The Trainline has a tool which shows you when cheap tickets are likely to rise in price - as well as when they're expected to sell out. The Price Prediction tool is part of the free Trainline UK app, which is available for both Android and iOS devices.

It gives you predictions for specific routes, dates and times based on data from billions of journeys, making it great for when you want to get a cheap advance fare but haven't quite finalised your plans.

We tried it out using a journey from Edinburgh Waverley to London Euston - it showed us that tickets currently cost £30 and would likely sell out at that price in 29 days, after which the price was predicted to rise, hitting £137 on the day of travel.

Beware when you book. If you do use Trainline's Price Prediction tool to decide when's best to book, DON'T use Trainline to buy your tickets, as you could end up paying from £2.75 extra in booking and delivery fees. Other sites charge less - London North Eastern Railways (LNER), for example, sells tickets for all train companies and doesn't charge booking fees.

Split your tickets, not your journey – find the cheap tickets train firms hide

Used train ticketsWe've been shouting about it for ages and finally it seems to be catching on – split ticketing makes no sense but can slash costs.

This is the big trick everyone should know - instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, buying tickets for its constituent parts separately can, bizarrely, slash the price, even though you're travelling on exactly the same train.

It's perfectly within the National Rail Conditions of Carriage (your rights and responsibilities when using the UK's rail network) - the only rule is that the train MUST call at all the stations you buy tickets for.

Save £219 on a London-Durham return

To show how this works, we unearthed this cracking example a couple of years ago. For a London to Durham return, the cheapest ticket was an anytime return at £301, but the train called at York, so instead we found four singles:

Split Ticketing

The total cost for those tickets was just £82 - a saving of £219.

Just to make it clear, this is the same return journey – the only difference is you've four tickets covering it rather than one.

Full step-by-step guide to finding split tickets

Watch out if you need to change trains

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.

For example, if you travel from Aford to Cshire via Btown and split your tickets at Btown, and also need to change trains at Btown, then if the Aford to Btown train is late, your ticket may not be valid for a later Btown to Cshire train.

Finally, 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 times, you may have to pay again to travel during this time.

Try these tools to find split tickets

While split ticketing gives massive savings on scores of routes, the problem's always been finding where and when it works. We've recently closed our TicketySplit tool but there are now dedicated split ticket tools out there which help you uncover where you can save.

There are essentially two main services - though one, TrainSplit, appears on a number of different sites. When we did a snapshot test of them in February 2018 looking at 20 journeys across four routes, neither was the clear winner - though TrainSplit edged it. So if you have time to check both, do.

  • TrainSplit. This is a tool in its own right but it also powers other tools you'll find out there, such as Split My Fare, Split Your Ticket and Trainsplitting.co.uk. It does returns, group bookings and multiple splits, but doesn't display open returns or anytime fares. It also doesn't show you fares you CAN'T save money on, which can be annoying if you're looking for a specific one.

    Crucially, the price TrainSplit shows you factors in the 10% cut of your saving you'll be charged if you go on to buy via TrainSplit - so if you use TrainSplit for research then buy elsewhere, you'll actually save MORE than what you're shown.

  • Ticketclever. Does returns (including open returns and anytime fares), group bookings and multiple splits. More comprehensive than TrainSplit in terms of fares displayed, but when we tested it it didn't find split fares as regularly. It's completely free to use and buy tickets through though (and there's no delivery charge if you pick tickets up at the station). It's funded by commission paid by the Rail Delivery Group, which represents rail firms.

Let us know how you get on
Please report successes, fails and other feedback on the Split Ticketing forum thread so we can learn more about how effective these tools are.

What to watch out for
As with all split ticketing, the train MUST call at all the stations you buy tickets to and from via either of these tools. Beware split ticketing at stations where you change trains; if your service is delayed and you've a time-specific ticket, you may have to pay extra - see our full warning for the low down.

Quick questions

Can you save by splitting a ticket more than once?

Can you split return tickets?

What if my journey is delayed?

Book early, late

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 this:

Always check if tickets are still available the night before – you may even be able to get them on the day.

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. (But make sure you have time to get your tickets before you want to travel as with some third party sites it can take up to two hours before they're ready for collection.)

Here we've listed the cut-off points for advance tickets for most train firms. We update this table regularly, but policies can sometimes change in between, so always check.

Last time to grab cheap tickets (if available) Train companies
On the day Abellio Greater Anglia (up to 10 mins before), CrossCountry (up to 15 mins before), Grand Central (up to two hours), TransPennine Express (up to 15 mins before), London North Eastern Railway (up to two hours before), Virgin Trains (up to one hour before), Caledonian Sleeper (up to two hours before)
11.59pm the day before East Midlands Trains, London Northwestern Railway, South Western Railways, Northern
6pm the day before Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern Railways, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, ScotRail, Southeastern, Southern Railway, Thameslink
Three days before C2C (online only), Enterprise (online only), Stansted Express (online only)
Other Heathrow Express (1).
Advance tickets not available Gatwick Express (2), Merseyrail.
Table correct as of September 2018. (1) 14, 30 & 90-day advance tickets available online. (2) You can save 10% by buying online

Spend over £90/year? Consider a railcard

RailcardsRailcards can cut a third off the bill. You can buy them on the Railcard site and most are usually £30 per year or £70 for three, which works out at £23.30 a year. So, spend more than £90 a year on travelling by train, even on just one trip, and a railcard is worth getting.

All railcards, except the Network Railcard, also give you up to a third off off-peak rail and tube travel in London on either Oyster pay-as-you-go or travelcards. Just go to an underground ticket office with your railcard and either ask them to register it to your Oyster card or buy a travelcard.

Check out our Railcard deals page for more info and railcard discounts.

In December Greater Anglia started trialling the new 26-30 Railcard which could be rolled out nationally this year - for more info, see the New Railcard trial MSE news story.

Don't assume every journey's eligible for a railcard discount, although time restrictions never apply on weekends and bank holidays. Always check first, especially if travelling at peak times, as these vary by operator.

UK railcards
Travel discount Who's eligible Restrictions on use Usual price
1-yr 3-yr
A third off adult fares Under-26s or full-time students of any age Can be used at any time, but min fare of £12 payable for journeys made between 4.30am and 10am Mon-Fri. £30 £70
A third off for adults and 60% off for children on most rail fares

Up to four adults (aged 16+) when travelling with up to four children (aged 5-15)

Can't be used during the weekday morning peak-period when travelling between stations in the London and south east England area. One child in your group must have a child-rate ticket for the adult discount to apply.

£30 £70
A third off adult fares for two named persons travelling together Over-16s

Can't be used between 4.30am and 9.30am on weekdays. Both named persons must start and finish journeys together. Tickets must be purchased together.

£30 N/A
A third off adult fares Over-60s Can't be used for weekday morning peak-period services when travelling between stations in the London and south east England area. Times of such services can change depending on availability, so check before buying tickets. £301 £70
A third off for you and an adult companion

You will qualify if you receive disability-related benefits and/or have certain disabilities. Your companion doesn't need to be a carer.

None – you can use it across the entire National Rail network in Great Britain at any time on any day. £20 £54
A third off most adult fares and 60% off child fares in the London and south east England area Up to four adults (aged 16+) and up to four children (aged 5-15) travelling together. Can't be used before 10am on weekdays, though it can be used a little earlier on some services. £13 min spend per adult and £1 min spend per child Mon-Fri. £302 N/A
1. Some county councils offer discounts on the cost of this card, so check with yours using the Gov.uk council finder. 2. If you've a season ticket for London or south east England, you qualify for a gold card, which offers similar discounts to the Network Railcard.

Got a season ticket for London or south east England? Get a free gold card

If you buy an annual season ticket for a route which starts and/or ends in the Network Railcard Area (effectively London and south east England), or if you buy an annual travelcard from Transport for London, you'll also get a 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, so you don't need to buy one separately. When you buy a qualifying season ticket, the pass given to you should also 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.

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. To get the discount on tube and London rail journeys, ask an underground ticket office to check a gold card discount has been applied to your Oyster card.

It's worth noting you can also grab a 16-25, Family & Friends, Two Together, Senior, Disabled Persons or Network Railcard for just £10, for you or someone you know if you have a gold card. See our £10 Railcard deal.

Trick to get a 16-25 Railcard until you're almost 27

The 16-25 Railcard costs £30 for a year (or £70 for three). It gives you a third off most rail fares, including advance, off-peak and anytime tickets, and you'll also get a third off London travelcards and off-peak Oyster travel. It can be used anytime, though if you're travelling before 10am on weekdays the minimum fare after the discount is £12.

railcard

However, despite its name, there's a great loophole which lets you keep on using it even after you've turned 26. Put a note in your diary 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 railcard, which you can do up to 30 days before expiry, there's nothing to stop you buying another 16-25 Railcard using a different email address if you want to use this trick.

Have a look at our Railcard deals page to see if there are any offers available before buying one.

Finally, don't forget that a new 26-30 Railcard is currently being trialled and could be rolled out nationally later this year.

Regular traveller? Grab a season ticket

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.

The same journeys often have multiple season ticket options. Check them all, as it can make a real difference. A standard 12-month Bristol Temple Meads to London season ticket is £11,328, yet if you restrict your travel to the Warminster and Salisbury route, it's £7,960.

Getting a season ticket on a heavy commuter route? Check if there are any split ticket options - it could be possible to save with two season tickets covering different legs of the journey.

Don't forget, if you've an annual season ticket inside the Network Railcard Area, you get extra perks through the gold card scheme that are often under-utilised.

To see how you might be able to save on the cost of your season ticket, read our Cheaper Train Season Tickets guide.

Singles can beat returns

Searching for train ticketsReturns 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 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.

Save £275 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, brought up a standard anytime return ticket costing a whopping £332. A quick check instantly found that, for the same journey, an outbound advance single ticket was £31, while coming back, a Manchester-London advance single cost £26 – a total of £57 for the journey.

Use the top UK train booking sites

There are seven main ways to search out cheap train tickets online. Bizarrely, different sites 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 Delivery fee Advantages
First class Special Delivery
London North Eastern Railway No Free1, 2 £6.45 up to value of £500
LNER sells all train companies' tickets.
RedSpottedHanky £1 per booking £1 £10
Tesco Clubcard points stashers can triple the value of vouchers by booking via RedSpottedHanky (ends 31 Jan 2019) - find out more.
The Trainline 25p-£1.50 depending on how and when you buy. 75p-£1.50 on website, 25p-£1.50 via app when buying up to one day in advance - no fee on day of travel £2.50 for 2nd class3 £7.50 for next day delivery
If you're flexible, use its Best Fare Finder to find the cheapest fares around the dates you want to travel.
Raileasy*

Free for MSE users on fares above £10 (normally £2.50)

£1.502 £7.50
Allows you to toggle between cheapest fares and most flexible fares.
Train operators' own sites N/A N/A N/A
Check relevant train companies' sites before booking, as they often offer discounts.
National Rail N/A N/A N/A
Doesn't sell tickets, but highlights the cheapest fares. Links directly to train companies, most of which are fee-free.
1 Only if ticket on departure or self-print aren't available for your booking. 2 Tickets must be booked at least five working days before you travel. 3 Tickets must be booked at least seven days before you travel.

Triple Tesco vouchers' value on rail fares

Spend Tesco Clubcard vouchers on goods on its Tesco Clubcard partners* list and their value's up to tripled, so a £10 voucher can be worth up to £30.

Use Tesco Clubcard for rail faresOne of our top pick deals is with train ticket shop RedSpottedHanky as it's a rare discount on train tickets - swap a £10 voucher and it's worth £30. It includes cheap advance fares and you can use your railcard. There's a £1 booking fee though.

In our check, prices were similar to elsewhere, so this is still a decent saving. To book, go to Tesco Clubcard*. Vouchers are valid for six months.

It's worth noting Tesco has just confirmed customers will no longer be able to exchange points for RedSpottedHanky from 1 February 2019 - see the Top Tesco Clubcard offer to be scrapped MSE News story for full info.

Before tripling on RedSpottedHanky, check Tesco's Clubcard Partner list, as you may feel you can get better value from your vouchers elsewhere - see our Top 10 Tesco Partner Rewards.

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 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's actually takes place in peak hours.

How much you can save... £76 off a Ldn-Manc peak train return

As an example, on testing a London to Manchester return journey leaving at 8.40am and returning at 6.35pm, we found a standard return fare for £130. By splitting the ticket at Milton Keynes on the way out and Stoke-on-Trent on the return, it knocked £76 off the total fare.

This is because from Milton Keynes to Manchester on the way up and Stoke-on-Trent to London on the way down you're only paying an off-peak fare, slashing the overall cost of the journey.

Grab cheap Megatrain fares

A bit like a pound shop for train tickets, Megatrain flogs hundreds of singles for routes between London, the East Midlands and South Yorkshire from £1 plus a 50p booking fee.

Wondering why it says 'Megabus' on the Megatrain site? Megatrain uses the same booking system as Megabus, probably to encourage people to book coach tickets for the journey if there aren't any £1 train tickets available. Unfortunately you can't filter the results to only show train journeys, so you have to look through them all.

Click to see ful map of Megatrain routesAnd don't worry, the train won't be as cheap 'n' cheerful as the tickets - Megatrain is operated by East Midlands Trains, and you'll be on the same service as people who booked their tickets elsewhere.

What routes are included?

Megatrain used to go to 19 destinations, but since being withdrawn from South West Trains in August 2017 after its owner Stagecoach lost the South Western franchise, it only goes to seven destinations, mainly in the East Midlands, via two routes - you can see these by clicking on the map thumbnail to the right.

Or you can check out our list of all Megatrain routes

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 make a note in your diary to stand a chance of grabbing the date you want.

A crafty MoneySaving 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.

Grab ultra-cheap train deals

There are more promotional train fares available than people realise; for ultra-cheap deals, you have to know where to look and be flexible.

We've a regularly updated list of super-cheap train promos, vouchers and codes - see Cheap Train & Coach Deals for more information.

Also, check National Rail's special offers index; 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.

Get cashback on all train tickets

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...

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 rewards is simple - they want to encourage you to spend on the card and pay them interest, but the interest cost on all cashback cards dwarfs the cashback you'll earn. For full details of what to consider before applying, see our Cashback Credit Cards guide.

Here's one of the top cashback credit cards:

Amex Logo

5% cashback for the first 3 months on National Rail & TfL

Amex Platinum Cashback Everyday*

The American Express* Platinum Cashback Everyday card is the top fee-free card, especially if you've big spending to do in the next few months, as it has a great introductory rate, then tiered ongoing cashback. The 5% cashback covers all purchases, including spending on public transport.

  • To get the maximum intro cashback, you need to spend £2,000 within three months.
  • After the introductory offer's over, you'll automatically be put onto the tiered spending rates: £0 to £5,000 gets 0.5% cashback (the initial £2k spend counts towards this). All spending above £5,001 gets 1% cashback.
  • You need to spend at least £3,000 to get any cashback at all.
  • The introductory 5% rate is not available if you've held an Amex Platinum Cashback card at any point in the last six months.
  • Ensure you pay off in full every month, or you'll be charged 22.9% representative APR, which'll quickly wipe out any cashback gain. The easiest way to repay in full is to set up a direct debit.
Eligibility Calculator
(MSE's free tool)
APPLY*
(at lender site)

Protect your credit score and check chances of getting card

  • Cashback: 3 months 5% (max £100) | Tiered up to 1% after
  • Paid out: On card anniversary
  • Max cashback per year: N/A
  • Annual fee: None | Min spend: £3,000 a year | Card issuer: Amex
  • Rate: 22.9% representative APR (see Official APR Example)
  • Min income: N/A

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 - for more information, see our Credit Scores guide.

The easy way to pay it off in full

It's easy to do this via direct debit, which allows the card company to take a variable monthly amount that corresponds with what you owe. Sadly, some providers deliberately omit the 'pay off in full' option from direct debit forms as it makes them less money. If it's missing from your form, just write in 'pay off in full' yourself - they should honour it, but call up after a week or so to check they have.

There are a few credit cards around which pay a boosted rate of cashback for train tickets. Check out the top overall picks in the Cashback Credit Cards guide – one of these may be suitable if you spend big in other areas.

Know your train refund rights

Generally you can't get any money back if the delay is less than half an hour (although some companies will now pay out if the delay is 15 minutes or more). If it's longer, every operator has different rules.

The majority of firms now operate a Delay Repay policy which means 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.

For more details, see our guides on Train Delays and Tube Delays.

Quick questions

What are your rights if a train's cancelled?

What are my rights if a train's delayed?

Can I get a refund for London tube delays?

Find cheap first-class tickets

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 is often less than you'd expect. For example, we tried to book a single ticket from London to York 11 weeks in advance. A standard class ticket was £39, the first-class ticket £45 – just £6 more.

It can sometimes be cheaper to upgrade on the day. If you do this, most companies will charge you the difference between a standard and first class ticket, but 10 firms only charge a flat-rate upgrade fee on weekends and bank holidays – meaning that waiting and upgrading at the last minute can save you a fair whack.

For example if:

  • A first-class ticket with Virgin Trains from Liverpool to London, in advance, is £43.

  • And a standard-class ticket is £16.50.

  • And you pay the £20 on-the-day upgrade fee (if it's a weekend or bank holiday), the total price is £36.50 – a £6.50 saving.

We tried this for 20 different journeys with firms that offer flat-rate upgrades, and found upgrading on the day was cheaper in seven cases.

See a list of the companies which do this, how much they charge & what the perks are

Remember – upgrades aren't guaranteed and if first class is full you'll have to travel on your standard ticket.

Scythe down the cost of hotels

Never assume hotel or hostel prices are fixed - book right and massive savings are possible on rooms in the UK and around the world. Our Cheap Hotels guide shows you how to save £100s by using the likes of top hotel comparison sites and cheap-yet-clean hostels.

The Top Secret Hotels section at Lastminute.com* has bargains on up to five-star hotels in London and around the world where only a description and the star rating is revealed before you pay. This means rock-bottom prices to stay in some classy establishments - see our Secret Hotels guide for more details.

Travel overnight to save on hotels

Sleeper trains sound like something from days gone by, yet travel overnight and you could save on accommodation. If you're planning a trip between London and Scotland, search Caledonian Sleeper, where single fares start at £35.

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 send you back to where you came from– standard class – once you've finished eating, but it rarely happens.

Warning! Travelling short: cheap but banned

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.

A popular one, for example, was Chester to London; peak time cheap train tickets weren't usually available, but for some journeys starting in north 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 routes and it's 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.

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