Cheap Train Tickets: 15 Ways to Save Money on Rail Fares
Rail fare rises can feel out of our control but there are many ways to get cheap train tickets and save money. From booking in advance to travelling in groups, we share how to get cheap train tickets and cut the cost of your journey.
Train journeys can be expensive and with commuters facing the largest rail fare rise in almost a decade, keeping costs low is essential. Although rail fare rises can seem out of your hands, there are many ways to get cheap train tickets. From timing when you book to avoiding sneaky fees, we explain 15 tips and tricks to save money.
Book in advance to get cheap train tickets
As a general rule of thumb, you increase your chances of securing cheap train tickets the earlier you book.
Most train operators release advance tickets 12 weeks before the journey. So it’s worth planning ahead and booking as early as possible to get cheaper rail fares.
Services such as Trainline allow you to set up alerts for when advance train tickets go on sale, so you can get first dibs on budget-friendly fares.
It’s important to note that advanced discounted tickets are sold as singles, which means that you can only travel one way. So you’ll have to book two single journeys if you need a return. Advance tickets are available to buy online or from a station. And they can only be used for a train journey on a set date and time.
One thing to bear in mind is that advance train tickets are non-refundable. However, until 30 September 2022, you can change your travel time for free up to 6pm the day before your journey. You may need to pay any difference in the cost of the fare.
You can also change your journey up until your train departure. But this comes with a £10 admin fee, and you’ll have to pay any difference between the cost of your advance ticket and the new journey.
Check for last-minute cheap train tickets
Some rail companies offer discounted advance train tickets up to and including the day of travel if they are still available.
So if you have to make a last-minute trip, it’s worth checking to see if there are cheap train tickets available online.
Early or late times on the day can also be cheaper, so if you can be flexible on times it’s worth checking that too.
It’s still always advisable to book as early as possible though. So where you can, try to buy your train tickets well in advance of the trip to ensure you get a cheaper rate.
Use a Railcard to get cheap train tickets
Investing in a Railcard could help you get cheap train tickets. A Railcard can help you get up to a third off of most train tickets.
There are different types of Railcard available depending on your personal circumstances and how you like to travel. You can buy an annual Railcard for £30 a year (£20 for a Disabled Persons Railcard) or, for certain types of card, a three-year Railcard for £70 (£54 for a Disabled Persons Railcard), which works out cheaper per year.
Each Railcard has its own eligibility criteria and restrictions for use, so it’s important to check those before buying to make sure your train tickets are valid. The table below shows the types of Railcard available and the discounts they offer.
The below Railcards are for travelling by train in Scotland, England and Wales. You can find out about some of the travel cards available in Northern Ireland on the Translink website.
Source: Railcard, correct as of 1 April 2022.
How much could a Railcard save me?
As mentioned above, a Railcard could save you a third on your ticket price.
National Rail also has an online savings calculator to help you see how much a Railcard could save you.
But if you are going on a long journey, for example from Norwich to Edinburgh, it could be possible to save more than the cost of your Railcard on your first trip.
Look out for other train ticket discounts
Depending on your circumstances, you may get a discount on rail fares. Currently, rail companies offer discounts to the following groups:
- Students: Some train lines give discounts to students with an NUS or TOTUM card.
- Children: When accompanying a fare-paying passenger, children under five years old can travel free, unless otherwise specified. Those aged five to 15 get a 50% discount on most tickets.
- Unemployed: if you claim Universal Credit or jobseeker’s allowance you may be eligible for a JobCentre Plus Travel Discount Card, which gives you 50% off rail fares.
Travel during off-peak times to save money
Train journeys tend to be more expensive when you travel during peak times, which usually run from 7am-9 am and 5pm-7 pm on weekdays. So travelling during off-peak times where possible can help you get a cheaper train ticket.
Travelling on Fridays and weekends tends to be more expensive too. So if you have flexibility over when you can travel, aim for trips on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, when train tickets are usually the cheapest.
Consider buying a season ticket
Buying a season ticket could help you save money on rail fares if you commute regularly. A season ticket gives you unlimited travel between two stations (or across Travelcard Zones if you live in London). You can buy weekly, monthly or annual season tickets.
As a rough guide, if you make the same journey by train over three times a week, you may be able to save by purchasing a season ticket. National Rail’s season ticket calculator can help you find the most suitable season ticket and estimate the cost.
There are also Flexi Season tickets available that could be an option if you regularly make the same journey, but not on most days. These tickets can offer 8 days of travel in a 28 day period, which could be useful if you need to commute to the office a couple of days a week, for example.
Season tickets can have a hefty upfront cost, so it’s important to weigh up how much you could save with the cost of the pass. Plus, think about if you are likely to move jobs or house, which might mean you get less use out of your season ticket.
If a season ticket could help you cut the cost of your travel expenses but you don’t have the money to pay up front, it’s worth checking whether your workplace offers a season ticket loan scheme. This is when a company pays for your season ticket and you pay them back monthly.
You could also consider paying for a season ticket with a 0% interest credit card. This type of credit card allows you to make a purchase and pay it off without any interest for a set period of time. This means that you can spread the cost of your season ticket while getting a saving on your train journey. However, credit card debt can quickly mount up, so make sure you can afford to pay off the card in full before interest charges apply.
Use split ticketing for cheaper train journeys
Sometimes, breaking your train journey into smaller parts can help you get cheap train tickets. This is known as split ticketing.
For example, let’s say you wanted to travel from London to Norwich. It may work out cheaper for you to get a train from Norwich to Manningtree. Then another train from Manningtree to Norwich, rather than getting a direct train.
Split ticketing is legal but your train must stop at all of the stations you bought a ticket for, not just pass through them.
Websites such as Split My Fare and TrainSplitting will show how much you can save by splitting your journey.
Check if an alternative route is cheaper
If there are multiple railway stations close to your destination, it may be worth comparing routes to find the cheapest one.
A train’s journey time may also affect ticket price. Usually, longer routes work out cheaper, so if you have flexibility on your arrival time check to see if adding extra minutes to your journey could save you money.
Compare single and return for cheap train tickets
In some cases, buying two single tickets instead of a return train ticket works out cheaper. So if you have enough time before travelling, always compare journeys to help you secure cheap train tickets. It’s also worth using an online journey planner or fare finder calculator to help you compare the price of different journeys
Use cashback to save on train tickets
Cashback websites, such as Quidco and TopCashback, offer you rewards each time you purchase through selected retailers, including train operators or services. The cashback you earn could help you pay for your train journeys in the future.
Similarly, if you have a cashback credit card you may be able to use your savings to cut the cost of future train rides. However, to benefit from any savings, you need to make sure you clear your credit card balance in full each month to avoid paying interest. You should only use your credit card to spend the amount you can afford to repay, as you risk getting into expensive debt if you can’t make the payments.
Get a refund for train delays and cancellations
You may be entitled to a full refund if your train is delayed or cancelled and you decide not to travel on the journey. The train company will need your unused tickets as proof when you apply for a refund.
If you’re already travelling and experience delays or cancellations, you may be able to claim compensation from the train company instead.
Each company has its own rules on compensation and you’ll need to check the terms and conditions of your ticket for more information.
Get cheap train tickets if you travel in a group
Travelling in groups of three to nine adults could help you save a third on off-peak train tickets. The group must travel together at all times during the journey to get the discount. It’s important to note that you won’t be able to use any other discount in addition to this deal – for example, a Railcard discount.
Train companies that currently offer cheap train tickets for adults travelling in groups include:
- Caledonian Sleeper
- Chiltern Railways
- Gatwick Express
- Great Northern
- Great Western Railway
- Greater Anglia
- London Northwestern Railway
- London Overground
- South Western Railway
- Stansted Express
- TfL Rail
- West Midlands Railway
Avoid paying extra fees
Finding cheap train tickets is half of the journey. Some websites add booking fees at the checkout, which hinder your savings. It's always worth checking multiple sites to see if you can avoid adding extra costs to your train tickets.
Where possible, try to avoid paying delivery fees by using a digital ticket or collecting them in person at your chosen station.
Bring your own food and drink
Typically, food and drink sold at train stations and on trains themselves are quite expensive.
So you can save money on your journey quickly by bringing something from home. Preparing your own food for a train journey can also help you manage your food budget and save on impulse purchases.
Consider cheaper ways to travel
If you are still finding train tickets expensive, you could consider travelling by coach. National Express offers coachcards with savings of a third on standard and flexible coach fares for over-60s, 16 to 26 year olds and people who are disabled across the UK. MegaBus also offers low-cost travel in England, Wales and Scotland to many destinations, with some fares costing just a few pounds.
Image source: Getty Images
Brean is a personal finance writer at NerdWallet. She covers a range of financial topics and has written for consumer titles including Which?, Moneywise and The Motley Fool. Read more