/ Money, Travel & Leisure

Finding cheap train tickets is hard work

Train tickets and coins

You may have thought that acquiring a profound understanding of the UK’s rail network was simply a pastime for enthusiasts – but think again as split tickets could be the secret to discovering your cheapest journey.

With just a few days of studying the history of British Rail and its successors, plus a map and an excellent memory, you too could learn how to buy the cheapest ticket to your destination.

Our train investigation reveals how fare structures hark back to the days of InterCity, Regional Railways and Network SouthEast, which all set their own prices for their part of the network. The effect is that splitting your journey when you cross one of these old boundaries can save you up to a third of your fare. You don’t even need to leave the train.

Spliting tickets to save money

So if I were to buy a ticket to go and see my daughter in Exeter, an ‘anytime’ single would cost me £114.50. But if I split this into two legs, cutting the journey at Westbury in Wiltshire, I’d immediately save £9.80. I could still take the fastest, peak-time service from London to Exeter. Splitting a journey that starts during a peak time can mean the second leg takes place during a cheaper, off-peak period, too, as in my Exeter example.

The rail system is a topsy-turvy world where, it seems, the more tickets you get for one journey, the better the deal. Not only is it often cheaper to buy two singles than to get a return, it’s also cheaper to split each single into two legs. Yes, in the peculiar world of rail, four legs are undoubtedly better than two.

Singles cheaper than returns

We could all indulge this as a quirky old piece of our heritage, were it not for the fact that it is almost impossible for anyone to work out by the usual means how to get these cheaper tickets. The National Rail Enquiries website certainly won’t show you how. We looked at websites which specialise in this area; while these aren’t all perfect, they’re a good starting place.

The point is that you shouldn’t have to resort to finding specialist sites. It has never been easier for companies to harness data to let customers find what they want. It’s absurd that train companies are still making passengers do all the hard work to find out where to split tickets.

If these ancient rail boundaries are here to stay, then rail companies need to reflect this on their websites. We have trains in the UK which can break 200mph, but we still can’t sell people the cheapest ticket for their journey.

Have you ever used split ticketing for a cheaper train journey?

No (64%, 314 Votes)

Yes (36%, 180 Votes)

Total Voters: 494

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You say “but we still can’t sell people the cheapest ticket for their journey.”

I suggest “we”, the rail companies can but won’t, because they lose money by doing that.

It’s surprising that the “independents” like Red Spotted handkerchief and Trainline.com haven’t got onto this and that begs the question, are they really independent, or not competent, or would they suffer reprisals if they started undercutting National Rail, Virgin and the rest?

What do you expect once you privatise the rail service.
Not helped by the number of slightly different routes, permutations possible and overlapping service provision.
I suppose we should be grateful that we can actually buy a single ticket to cover a journey with changes and different providers; you can not do this if you want to fly !

It’s way past time that Which? lodged a super-complaint about train fares. What’s especially annoying is that National Rail have a tool called “Cheapest Fare Finder”, that doesn’t return the cheapest valid fares for the journey (split tickets). Surely this is violating some laws?

Some other caveats with split tickets to be aware of, apart from the frustration associated with booking them: it complicates Delay Repay and can make life harder during Engineering works.

Adrian says:
19 December 2013

A very helpful 4-page spread, but no mention of a campaign to eliminate this nonsense! Any government of whatever hue should be ashamed that this prevails on their watch.
WHICH should initiate action to lobby to resolve this. A good start would be to draw comparisons with the best foreign systems.
Do we want less car travel and more rail travel or not?

Simonc says:
19 December 2013

For those who live near London and have to commute there is can be worth looking at tickets further than you want to go. I sometimes travel from Essex to Zone 1 and found that I can save about 10% by getting a ticket to Clapham Junction, which effectively gives a ticket to Liverpool Street, tube journey to Waterloo and then mainline to Clapham Junction. I simply use the ticket to take me into Zone 1. There must be other examples of this as well.

To support other comments, Which? may be trying to be helpful by telling us how to save money given the system as it is, but you should really be trying to get the system changed. This ticket splitting nonsense is scarcely believable, and that is not all there is to it. Another huge scandal is that they can charge you less – MUCH LESS – for travelling further on exactly the same stretch of track. Example, noted on the Trainline web site five minutes ago: One-way, ‘specified train only’ fare from Birmingham to Edinburgh on Cross-Country, at 9.03 a.m. on Monday 23rd December = £59.00. Travelling on the same train, again with a ‘specified train only’ ticket, but to Dunbar, which is one station and some 20 minutes before Edinburgh = £117.00. So it costs you nearly 100% more to travel 20 minutes less on exactly the same train, and withe same kind of ticket. The same applies at 11.03, although it costs just £105 to buy a ticket to Dunbar. Notice that it is not legal to buy a £59.00 ticket to Edinburgh and get off at Dunbar to save £57. Oh no, that is a violation of the conditions of carriage. Why do we put up with this utter lunacy? When will Which? get stuck in and knock some sense into these companies?

Chris Saville says:
20 December 2013

You’ve only told half the story with split ticketing. Believe it or not you can also save money, in the South East on occasion, by buying a ticket to a station FURTHER than your destination. E.G. on a journey I frequently do, Walmer in Kent to Redhill costs £36.90 anytime return. Buy a return ticket from Walmer to Billingshurst, many miles further, an anytime return is £26!! and you would have to change trains at Redhill anyway! Quite legal as you can break your journey at any station the train stops at..

Russ T says:
21 December 2013

It is also worth mentioning that you can massively cut the cost of rail travel by getting a Railcard, if you are eligible for one.

I have a hearing problem and this does entitle me to a Disabled persons railcard – which massively cuts the cost of rail travel. Your travelling companion also gets the same discount.

It is also not widely known that Virgin Trains (I believe it is only Virgin that does this) allows railcard holders – any railcard, not just a disabled persons card – to travel using off-peak tickets on peak services. From my local station in the midlands it is possible to get the weekday 07:15 Virgin service to Euston for £29.10 travelling on an off-peak ticket. Without the railcard any Anytime Return would cost an eye-watering £162.


John Felix. says:
23 December 2013

I use Virgin regularly Birmingham-London and if you use right train and book ticket with Virgin and with a Senior railcard First single is £15.50 including all facities of First class.

There are so many anomalies with train fares. I have also found that it’s often cheaper to book a ticket for a destination further away than where you want to go, and then get off the train at the station you want.

For example travelling to Chester from Sheffield: if I book a ticket from Sheffield to Holyhead (getting off the train early at Chester which is just over half way to Holyhead) the cheapest ticket is £25. Whereas if I book the same train from Sheffield but choose Chester as the destination it costs £26.90! Not a huge saving you may think, but this is only one example – there are many many more.

How, in anyone’s mind, can that make sense?

Mike Holland says:
7 January 2014

So agree with all the above, especially Didier.

Here’s my tale: I regularly travel from Norwich to London and back again, booking my tickets from Greater Anglia’s website with my senior railcard and, being fortunate in being able to chose my times, nearly always get a good deal. So when a friend from France who’s coming to stay at the end of the month said he needed to travel to Telford on 29 January I said leave it to me, I’ll sort out the ticket.

I logged into my account with GA, decided the 10.57am from Norwich to Telford Central would be good and it came up with a ticket price of £84.80. That’s bit steep, I thought, so inspired by Which’s piece on splitting, I thought i’d give it a go. None of the websites cited in the piece were any use in suggesting alternatives so I thought I’d do it manually, as it were.

The journey from Norwich involved two changes – Norwich to Ely; Ely to Birmingham New Street; Birmingham New Street to Telford Central – with each leg run by a different operator, East Midland Trains, CrossCountry Trains and London Midland respectively. So I thought, what if I buy separate tickets for each leg?

Still using my GA account and using exactly the same trains and conditions as the £84.80 itinerary, I was offered Norwich to Ely for £5.00; Ely to Birmingham New Street for £21.30; Birmingham New Street to Telford for £9.80 – a total of £36.10. Incredulous, I decided to check it against another website, Trainline, and was offered exactly the same £84.80/£36.10 deals.

Eschewing Trainline’s £1.50 booking fee and 2% credit card fee, I bought my three sets of tickets from GA, happy with my 57% saving. But hang on a moment, this isn’t just bonkers, or even a touch of caveat emptor. This appears to be, either through c**k-up or conspiracy, a clear case of defrauding unwitting travellers.

There’s no doubt about the effectiveness of Which’s campaign on PPI; with that in the bag perhaps it is time to turn to the iniquities being practised on the increasingly hapless passengers on our hopelessly privatised railways

As the split-ticketing Guru in our family, I’m almost disappointed that you’ve given away this secret – because I am expecting the day when the train companies find a way to force you to get off the train at each destination you have a ticket for. In the case of my last such journey this would mean (starting from Norwich) at Ely, Peterborough, Manchester and Liverpool – where I had to change anyway to reach the Wirral.
Short journeys are often covered by cheap day tickets, and as you mentioned, some stretches are travelled at times where there is less congestion and where there are therefore cheaper tickets available. Sitting on the through train from Norwich to Liverpool Lime Street, the inconvenience of moving between seats reserved for each stretch of the journey and showing 4 tickets each way was more than outweighed by the saving of about £35 on the return journey (with Senior Railcard).
But shhh! don’t shout about it, because any changes to eliminate this “confusion” are sure to be to our disadvantage.

I forgot to mention – this was using advance cheap fares. This doesn’t just apply to walk-up fares – not at all!

Joe Raileasy says:
25 June 2014

Hi all, I work for Raileasy and we’ve built a dizzy new tool which finds the splits and books it for you too! We are only selling walk on fares at the moment but will be selling advance fares in the next week or two. Thanks Joe