/ Travel & Leisure

How clued up are you when buying train tickets online?

Man at computer with train tickets flying around him

When you buy a train ticket online, do you know what you’re getting? We found that people weren’t always as clued-up as they thought they were. So what are the pitfalls of buying online and how can we avoid them?

Over half the people we asked told us they were always clear on their tickets’ terms and conditions when buying online, but just 1% managed to identify all the correct attributes of the main ticket types.

Watchdog Passenger Focus found something similar. While people were confident when buying online, their confidence was misplaced and they often didn’t get the best value.

We also observed five Which? staff buying tickets on websites of their choice. None knew that an off-peak return from London to Edinburgh lets you break your journey and take a range of off-peak trains both ways. They all thought it committed you to a particular train both ways.

Is advance always an advantage?

Train ticket selling websites are timetable-driven – you put in your journey dates and times and they return a timetable with costs, based on you choosing which trains you will travel on.

This ‘airline’-style way of doing things suits train companies (they, not the government, control Advance tickets and can vary the prices to get the most revenue possible), and may well suit you if you can commit a long time in advance and get cheap tickets that way.

But we’re losing the ‘walk-up’ railway here – where you can literally walk up and buy your ticket – as more and more people buy online (we found it was the most common way of buying train tickets, four in ten buying this way). And, as a result, we’re also losing one of the ways trains compete with cars as a ‘jump in and go’ travel option.

Where’s the flexibility?

Then there’s the issue of fees for booking, using a credit or debit card. Third party sites like The Trainline, Raileasy, Quno, My Train Ticket and Red Spotted Hanky charge these. But train companies don’t.

You can buy without fees from Red Spotted Hanky if you select certain options, but with all these third party sites you’ll also be missing out on the extra discount a handful of train companies offer on their Advance tickets sold on their own sites.

Those discounts aside, you could just buy all these Advance tickets at the station or on the phone, or take a look at more flexible options.

A glimmer of it-doesn’t-have-to-be-like-this hope has come from Chiltern, which recently launched simplified fares for its new London to Birmingham service. You can pay £75, £50 or £25 return.

£75 lets you get any train any day; £50 any train any day except those arriving into London in the morning peak; £25 any train any day except those arriving into London in the morning peak or leaving it in the evening peak. And that’s it. OK, this is just on one rail line, but it’s the underlying attitude that’s refreshing.

Would you prefer a simpler pricing system like this or do you like shopping around to find the cheapest ticket you can? Do you fully understand your tickets’ terms and conditions?


And Chiltern is owned by Deutsche Bahn……..


AH, I wouldn’t be fooled by Chiltern’s pricing strategy. It only applies on their fast ‘mainline’ services between Birmingham and London (cutting out a lot of the London commuter belt) and has actually caused a lot of brum based passengers to be paying MORE due to timetable changes and changes to what Chiltern defines as peak and off-peak.

I think train tickets need more clarity on what services they’re valid on and if you can break your journey using the ticket. I don’t think a simplified system is particularly needed, especially from a business perspective, as there’s no incentive to book early in order to make savings.


I would expect express trains NOT to call at commuter belt stations, that’s what the commuter trains are for.

With the upgrade to the line and proper intercity stock (from the now defunct Wrexham & Shropshire – also DB owned) there is finally a credible alternative to Virgin West Coast


Railway fares and ticketing still far too complicated and the train operating companies are protecting their peak revenues by extending it well into the off-peak period at both ends. The 19:00 Liverpool St – Norwich [the first off-peak service after 16:00] is always standing room only as far as first stop Colchester so, when encumbered by luggage or have arrived at Liverpool Street early, we would prefer to use a peak-time train with seats available but, so far as I know, we cannot upgrade on the train by paying the difference for the return journey. This, of course, is an express service – with 30-year old slam door stock – calling at commuter-belt stations which, according to Dean, should not happen. In the real world it does. Having to stand for the first fifty minutes of a two-hour journey is no joke. Advance tickets with specified times and reserved seats are fine if you can plan your engagements far enough ahead or can guarantee the rest of the transport system will deliver you to the station at the right time. National Express East Anglia ruthlessly enforce the restrictions on Advance tickets and charge a penalty out of all proportion to any misdemeanour. When the railways were de-nationalised the government promised us that the “network benefits of an integrated railway system would be protected”; I wish someone would remind me what those “network benefits” were and show me where I can now access them. Perhaps one of them is perpetual misery.

Patrick H says:
22 September 2011

While very interesting, your details on anytime tickets are INCORRECT. You can buy an anytime ticket in advance and specify the Start Date for the ticket (this is not the Bought Date). The Return must be within 1 month of the Start Date printed on the ticket (not the Purchase Date) and the Outward Journey must be within 5 days of that Start Date (not the Purchase Date).


Hi Patrick H, thanks for your response, which refers to the magazine article in the October issue of Which? rather than the Conversation post above.

You’re right – it is the start date that counts with anytime and indeed off-peak tickets. Thanks for the clarification.


Just thought I should add an update to my previous post [22/09/11]. Today I wanted to get tickets for a journey on Saturday from Norwich to London Kings Cross changing at Cambridge. The train I wanted leaves Norwich at 0940 and there is a connexion at Cambridge at 1115 for London. This journey possibility was not shown on the National Express East Anglia, First Capital Connect, Trainline, or National Rail Enquiries websites. They only showed trains to London Liverpool Street with an Underground journey [41 minutes!] onwards to Kings Cross. Since our destination was Kings Cross it seemed sensible to go there by the the most direct route and avoid the hassle of the Underground. I eventually spoke to a very helpful supervisor at National Rail Enquiries who confirmed that the journey was valid, explained that no through ticket was available because the two separate railway operating companies do not recognise this as a “permitted route” between Norwich and London, and assured me that the ticket office at Norwich would be able to sell me the two separate tickets for the journey and I would not have to re-book at Cambridge. He also stated that the combined fare for both of us [with railcards] would be £40.40 rather than the £65-72 [dependent on departure time] quoted for the journey via Liverpool Street. It took me about an hour to wrangle my way around this curious piece of railway marketing, but it was worth it and the £25 saving pays for lunch.

Jonathan SC says:
23 September 2011

This useful functions shows you which trains a cheaper ticket can be used on – so you pick the price and then it shows you the trains.



While the train operators own website might be the cheapest option, it’s not easy to know which operator is running the train that you want to go on…

AndrewP says:
23 September 2011

The rail network is a national network, and, like all networks, is most effective when run as a whole system. Rail operating companies should be required by law to provide all relevant information about their own and competing services. Customers (passengers) then have the best opportunity to make the choice that suits them best.

silverthread says:
23 September 2011

I am a silver surfer and have no problem with buying tickets on line but I agree that it is better to take your time. As it would take me more than half an hour each way to get to a station where I would get advice, spending half that time at no cost is thus no problem. Sometimes two singles are cheaper than a return, some returns are vastly cheaper when travelling off-peak and sometimes that does not make any difference. When ordering on-line there are information buttons you can click on. We live in Staffordshire and use London Midland and therefore I need to check if I can get home on different routes in case there is a cancellation or breakdown. Having a railcard is useful not just for the discount but it also lets you travel on peak hours trains and still get a discount. I have just bought a return to London for November at £12.50, about a third of what I would have had to pay if I had booked with Virgin. It means a slower journey but who cares. People often complain that things are difficult but like with everything else, we need time to learn the skills if we have never booked tickets on line. No good blaming the rail companies for being complicated, start learning to understand the different options and once mastered it is quite easy and enjoyable, particularly when you discover the savings you can make.

Henk Smit says:
23 September 2011

Originating from the Netherlands, one of the few things I admire about Holland when I go back there is the fact that train journeys are paid for by the kilometer (and: trips to and from Amsterdam are not more expensive than those elsewhere in the country), with a return journey (day returns only) costing the same as two singles. Travellers can get off at any station they like on your route, both outward and homebound, and really – there is no clear or valid reason why that is not allowed in the UK. More importantly, tickets and seats cannot be ‘booked’ in advance, unless you purchase an ‘open date’ ticket in advance which you need to stamp on the day of departure. The price structure is very simple and fair, and transparent for all (although there are benefits for rail pass holders, elderly people and students – at least last time I checked). It does means that if one needs to travel at peak times, the price is the no different but one may – as it is extra busy – have to accept the fact that it is likely that one may have to stand the entire journey. It also means there is no costly administration and other implementation costs associated with seat bookings.
Because rail companies are privatised, this may be too radical a solution to be practical or even possible to change to. However, there may be incentives that could be imposed to make these companies seriously think about their options.
I want better, cheaper and fairer rail services in the UK as do most people. I’m not pretending the Dutch system is ideal, but it is one that does NOT favour advance ticket purchases and massively over-priced hop-on tickets, there is only ONE PRICE for your journey. SIMPLES.
An example: http://www.ns.nl shows that a single Amsterdam Airport (Schiphol) – Zwolle is €17.30 or around £15, with a distance that is similar to that of that from London Paddington to Swindon, for which a UK single ticket would cost…. £54.50 standard rate. And the Dutch complain about their train tickets being too expensive???? Hmmm makes you realise how dire our situation is in the UK. I’d say: IMPROVE ACCESSIBILITY BY ABOLISHING ALL BOOKINGS AND CREATE ONE SINGLE DISTANCE-BASED RATE FOR ALL JOURNEYS. Then see what happens!


”Travellers can get off at any station they like on your route, both outward and homebound, and really – there is no clear or valid reason why that is not allowed in the UK.”

I am not quite sure what you are saying here. On the overwhelming majority of tickets it is permitted to break your journey. On a very very small number of Off-peak tickets and all Advance tickets this is not allowed, but largely there is no problem.


Living abroad, I was on holiday in the UK this summer.
The severe crowding of the trains leaving Cambridge was a disgrace. Full of tourists who will have a terrible impression of the UK.
Going from Birmingham to London there was, at the very last moment, an announcement on the train of a long list of ticket types that were NOT allowed to travel. Created panic, especially among those of us with luggage.
I bought, with a family railcard on the train, a return ticket from Newmarket to Malvern Via London. We stopped off for several days at different places on the way to Malvern across country and then again in London before returning to Newmarket after 3 weeks. The guard ticket seller told me that doing this was a “grey area” and it was questioned a couple of times especially on the way to Malvern. I have no idea if it was cheaper than buying lots of individual tickets but it was convenient.


This email might not be all to do with the confusion with online rail companys selling there tickets!
I bought some off-peak tickets in June, unfortunately I could not go. I emailed the company
(Rail easy) Informing them of this, asking for a refund! I waited the mandatory four weeks for the money to be credited to my credit card. I dit not recieve a answer, so I emailed them again!
Waited three weeks still the money was not credited to my account. So I decided to write to them
Waited again still no answer! I cannot afford to phone them as it costs £1.00 a minute, so I have run out off all avenues to contact them to refund my money.
I would be grateful if any of your readers who have been in the same predicament,and how they
Came to a satisfactory outcome help me.

Yours Sincerly
Marion Cussen.

Sophie Gilbert says:
25 September 2011

I don’t buy train tickets on line ever. I’ve tried once or twice and found everything confusing and I was convinced I was going to get ripped off. I haul my a r s e to the train station instead and get advice and the cheapest ticket there and then. If there a problem I can walk to the station and talk to the human again and get it sorted there and then again.

janet watson says:
27 September 2011

I would like to comment on the Virgin trains website. I have used it recently to book tickets to Manchester. Be very careful when you search for your tickets – do not come out of that page as the price of the tickets will increase. The first time I searched the journey cost was approximately £50.00. I made the mistake of coming out of that page and in the few seconds that it took to go back in the price went up to just over £70. I thought at the time it was one of those things but last week my colleague was booking a trip to Manchester on the Virgin website. The first time he searched for his journey the price was £27 out and £37 return – a total of £64. I told him not to come out of the page but unfortunately he did so when he went back those tickets had increased and then unfortunately he came out again and went back in a few minutes later. The total price for the same journey had risen to £154 return – £90 more. So I think the computer remembers the search and increases the prices.Has anyone else had this experience?


When travelling between Crewe and London or Crewe and Manchester (the only rail journeys I have done for a while now) I have found Virgin Trains offers the best ticket prices. Fortunately I am able to buy in advance and have a senior railcard. Yesterday I travelled to London on peak trains (7.17am outward and 17.40 return) for £21 each way with the railcard and reserved seats both ways..
This is very different from the full walk on price and then you probably couldn’t find a seat.
It pays to shop around but it is time consuming.

granny says:
30 September 2011

I recently booked tickets on the East Coast website for a journey from Inverness to London. When asked to choose a coach and seating preferences I opted for the quiet coach but when I got to the last page – after paying – it appeared our seats were in coach E. I responded to the option to change the seats allocated (much advertised recently as a great bonus for customers) but just could not get seats in coach B. I emailed the company, got a reply saying changing seats was not easy but could in extreme circumstances be done. If I wished to discuss it I could do so by phoning a given number. As the email was signed I phoned and asked to speak to the named lady but was told she was not available though if I left my number she would get back to me. Of course, she never did in spite of a further two calls. At my last attempt I explained to the operator who had answered the phone what my problem was and after saying that there was no way seat reservations could be changed on the phone she suggested I try my local rail station. I did and was easily given seats in the quiet coach! Why present you with options on line when you are going to be allocated only those seats EC have decided the cheap advance customers should have?


This is such an interesting issue, and one that really strikes to the heart of the problems of rail booking, both nationally in the UK and in Europe. I agree that there should be nation-wide tickets for travel in the UK, with standard terms for conditions of travel and flexibility. But the multiple fares we have now are a hangover of a mismanaged de-nationalisation. The government needs to take more responsibility for regulating trains in the UK while supporting innovation and competition among the providers we already have.

I don’t believe however that the UK can realistically apply cost per mile prices due to the varying standard of available services (it seems unfair that a high-speed commuter service that whizzes cross country should cost the same as a trundling slam-door service). But it will be interesting to see how consumer malcontent and greater parity of online services affects regulation.

In Europe there are calls for centralised, multi-modal journey planners to “promote sustainable modes of transport” so perhaps this is the start of a revolution for how train tickets are sold. The sooner we accelerate the development of unbiased websites and journey planners the better. Train travel shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy, but we must establish clear and straightforward websites that remove the barriers to fair fares.

Geoff says:
8 October 2011

I simply HATE the way in which so many services, utilities and entertainments are marketed these days – to me, the complexity of their pricing and terms and conditions has nothing to do with maximising customer choice or satisfaction, but is deliberately designed to confuse, deceive and entrap those without the time, inclination or mental acuity to fight their way through their frequently immoral and unethical approaches to doing business – so I vote with my feet (or rather my car wheels in the case of the trains…) wherever an alternative exists, and if there isn’t one, whererever possible I’ll just do or purchase something completely different.


As I said above: “Going from Birmingham to London there was, at the very last moment, an announcement on the train of a long list of ticket types that were NOT allowed to travel. Created panic…”
Your “confuse, deceive and entrap” is 100% right. The fact that no ticket collector looked at our tickets kept up the tension to the end of the journey.

Henk Smit says:
9 October 2011

This is precisely why I would advocate the Dutch railway ticket and pricing system. Simple, straightforward and no seat reservation. Do away with the massive admin and reservation costs to keep ticket prices low and make prices fair by charging by the distance travelled. What would be simpler and fairer?


The online booking service sometimes works really well – but you do need access to an intelligent ticket machine.

Returning from an extended holiday abroad (last stop USA) we decided to complete our journey by train as we had gone all round the world using public transport between major destinations.

We booked online from the USA using the National Rail Enquiries planner.
We did have one problem – you couldn’t book an Advance ticket from Heathrow.
However we established that we could book from Paddington to home, and collect the tickets from a ticket machine there.
Buying a ticket for the Heathrow Express and then picking up an Advance ticket at Paddington was much cheaper than any other online method we could find and worked really well.

However I live near a rural station without ticket office or machine, so as far as I can tell I can’t book an Advance ticket from there without having enough time for the ticket to be delivered by post.
Wierd that I can get a better service by booking in the USA.

With regard to the Which? article and the number of people who didn’t understand the various ticketing options.
What was the average age of the people surveyed?
Most young adults who reached driving age in the last 10-15 years will have had early access to a car and most probably done a lot of their previous travelling in Mum’s taxi.
They probably don’t have a vast experience of travelling by train because car has been the easier option.

I suspect children of the ’50s (and earlier) will have spent a lot more time travelling by train and so would be more aware of ticket options.

Finally, it was reported that most people did not know what an ‘off peak’ ticket was.
A clue might be found in the name, perhaps?
More of a challenge is to establish what times are considered ‘off peak’ by the different rail companied for different routes.
Buying from a ‘real person’ doesn’t guarantee a better service either.
I travelled to London the other week and didn’t bother to book online because (after a long search) I established that I would have to travel back during the peak period.
So I bought a return on the train from the conductor.
He was going to charge my about £40 and I thought that was a bit low, so asked if I could come back at any time.
He said I could not travel at peak times.
So I then bought a standard return for about £60.
I had not asked for an off-peak return, just a return.
The conductor did not ask; I assume that he assumed that as I was travelling to London after the peak hours that I would be returning off peak.
Just as well I checked because otherwise I would have been facing a penalty on the return journey.




I used National Rail website to buy tickets from York to Inverness on Friday 30 Sept, returning 10 Oct. It offered me Super Offpeak tickets for those dates and my selected train times and directed me to the East Coast website where I bought the tickets. The guard on the train from Edinburgh to Inverness told me the tickets weren’t valid – he said Super Offpeak isn’t valid on a Friday, and it doesn’t matter that National Rail’s website offered them to me – the onus is on me then to check the detailed terms by clicking the link on the website before buying. However he ‘let me off’ without charging extra.

When I got home, I found the detailed terms for these tickets on the National Rail website, and it says nothing about Fridays.

There are two possibilities. Either the guard was wrong and my tickets were valid (if so, thank goodness he let me off paying more). Or he was right that they weren’t valid on a Friday. In that case I am appalled on two scores. First that the website conditions (if you’re clever enough to find them) don’t say this. Secondly, and much more seriously, that the website sold me tickets (with seat reservations) that COULD NOT BE USED: the outward half had a “start date” of Friday 30 Sept and a “valid until” date of Friday 30 Sept. Had I known this, I would not have chosen to travel on that day, but by the time I was on the train I might have been lumbered with the obligation to pay a hugely more expensive ticket price.

I still don’t know whether or not I had a valid ticket. If not, and if I had been required to pay more, I would certainly have complained at a higher level and fought to get my money back.

Mike@Raileasy says:
5 December 2011


Don’t know if followers of this forum are aware that though the new fare increases are supposedly date Jan 2 2012, they are actually in the rail industry data and systems from Dec 19th. So, if you’re planning a journey in Jan, Feb or eraly March, make sure you book before Dec 19th to avoid the 6% fare increase.

Guinea Pig says:
18 January 2013

Be careful of Cross Country trains e-tickets. Yes, they are convenient – that is until you find you want to change your journey or get a refund. You can’t. If you opt for the collect at the station option you have to pay £1 – but this at least gives you a chance to change or refund your ticket. Appalling way to treat your customers – a sure case of “buyer beware”.