/ 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.