/ Travel & Leisure

Bagging a better deal on train tickets – what are your tactics?

Train tickets

The cost of train tickets has risen again this year, but customer satisfaction isn’t going up in line with prices. Have you found any successful ways to beat the system and bag yourself a better deal when travelling by train?

Train tickets have increased by an average of 3.4% this year, so it’s no wonder train passengers are looking for cheaper options.

Prices go up, satisfaction doesn’t

Not only are ticket prices going up, but train companies aren’t keeping their customers happy either, according to the results of our latest survey on train companies.

One in 10 commuters tell us that the service they receive has got worse, this is despite a whopping £925 million of private investment.

Comparing for a better deal

We also found that often where there is a choice of train companies on a certain route they are more highly rated. For example, the best-rated commuter company, Grand Central, which competes on the line up to the North East with Virgin Trains East Coast, scored 68% in our overall train satisfaction survey.

Unfortunately, it’s often cheaper to fly to Edinburgh from London than catch the train if you don’t book far enough in advance, which sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. With sad examples like this to watch out for, it’s important that we learn to play the game and get the best price whatever train company we use.

How to get cheaper train tickets

Here are some tactics we like to use to make sure we’re getting the best train fare where possible, despite complex ticket machines and clunky websites.

  1. 1. Split your ticket

Ticket-splitting sites such as raileasy.co.uk, splitticketing.com, or trainsplit.com divide your journey to give the best fare. You just need to make sure you go via the stations named on the tickets, but you don’t need to get off the train.

  1. 2. Travel off peak

Provided you can be flexible on timing, travelling off-peak or super off-peak (such as travelling after 10am and before 5pm) can save you money. Booking these fares in advance will almost always mean cheaper train tickets – they’re usually available from 12 weeks before you travel.

  1. 3. Use an online tool

National Rail’s cheapest fare tool selects the best-priced journeys for the days you want to go. You’ll need to be flexible on times as you have to travel on a specific service, but this can save you plenty of money.

  1. 4. Get a railcard

Railcards, such as Family & Friends, Senior and 16-25 cost just £30 a year and save a third off most fares (Senior Railcard holders, for example, save an average of £120 per year). There are also regional railcards to help you get cheaper train tickets in tourist hotspots such as Devon and Cornwall.

  1. 5. Shop the sales

If you’re not eligible for a railcard, you can still bag a bargain in the sales. Virgin West Coast, Virgin East Coast, East Midlands Trains and Great Western Railway run seasonal discounts.

By using these fare-busting tips, we got a return ticket from Leeds to London down from £244 to £21.10 – an impressive 90% saving.

Share your top tips

Do you get frustrated that the cost of your train ticket doesn’t reflect the service you receive? We’re keen to hear if you have tried these tips and whether they have worked for you? If not, how do you save money on train tickets?


There’s also a whole range of “alternative” journeys that Trainsplit finds that other web sites don’t show. For example don’t take a Virgin Manchester train if you have to be there early, take a Liverpool train and change at Stafford. You can save £70 single. There’s other ways to save by taking advantage of what inter TOC competition there is. It finds a range of unique, cheaper journey options and should definitely be checked before buying elsewhere if you want to save money. Just like buying anything else, consumers need to shop around for the best fares, in the past fares were all the same but they very definitely are not now.

The Intro says “One in 10 commuters tell us that the service they receive has got worse, this is despite a whopping £925 million of private investment”. That’s not too bad actually. Obviously it’s just the respondents’ perception rather than the statistical truth but even so, given the extraordinary growth in the number of passengers over recent years it’s an impressive achievement to satisfy 90% of commuters.

It would have been interesting to find out whether the deterioration of the service reported by commuters was because [a] the investment was inadequate, [b] operational problems, including labour disputes, disrupted services, or [c] the sheer congestion caused by the additional people who desire to travel by train caused delays and inconvenience.

The “£925 million of private investment” – is that just the amount invested in commuter services in the last twelve months? Without a timescale that is a meaningless statement, and some definition of what counts as “investment” in this context would have been useful.

The private investment by the TOCs is largely in new rolling stock, other vehicles, IT and suchlike. Investment in the infrastructure is from Network Rail

Exactly – it’s far from clear what this £925 represents. In fact the train operating companies in general own hardly any rolling stock – it is leased from rolling stock leasing companies [mainly banks and specialist financing houses] and in most cases is not route-specific. It is paid for out of operating revenue. Its lifespan outlasts any franchise and it can be redeployed to other TOC’s when the leases terminate. Network Rail spends billions of pounds each year, split between repairs and maintenance and infrastructure enhancement with some for new developments [like reopening closed lines and additional stations]. The repairs and maintenance costs are recovered from track access charges paid for by the TOC’s out of revenue. The balance comes from government direct grants and from revenue from stations and the commercial estate.

This document gives rail financial information http://orr.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/24149/uk-rail-industry-financial-information-2015-16.pdf
Investment in rolling stock will presumably including increased leasing costs for new rail vehicles. I would think whether you borrow the money and pay interest, buy outright or lease it still counts as investment – it all reduces what is left from revenue.
P16 seems the relevant one.

It’s still impossible to pull out the figure for investment in commuter services and to see whether that is in one year or over a period.

To say that “One in 10 commuters tell us that the service they receive has got worse, this is despite a whopping £925 million of private investment”, as it does in the Introduction to the Conversation, is a non sequitur at best. New carriages don’t in themselves improve a service if the problem is punctuality although if they are additional carriages making longer trains they will reduce overcrowding. Spending by Network Rail on infrastructure and electrification should make services better but that has been falling behind schedule and run over budget causing problems elsewhere on the network where urgent improvement works have had to be postponed.

Northern inherited some of the oldest stock of diesel stock, including one of the largest fleets of Pacers. TOC’s like Northern don’t own the trains, can’t always lease trains they like, but as the ‘face’ of the rail network are the ones who get the blame. In my local area, the trains are currently running on rubber tyres, are operated by Blackpool Transport mainly and look very much like double decker buses. I know some who have complained about the extra time taken to get to Preston from Blackpool North. By May, we will have ‘new’ electric trains on some routes (albeit them actually being refurbished EMU’s previously used by Thameslink on the Bedford-Brighton route and sans their 3rd rail pick up shoes.) People will still complain, but will still use the service. I wonder what the score for Northern will be once this work – together with work on the Preston – Manchester route via Bolton – is completed?

I try to travel off-peak and book my tickets well beforehand, use a Railcard and use my local rail company rather than Trainline that charges a supplement for delivering the tickets. By far my biggest saving is to use one journey for more than one purpose. My best so far was to travel to attend three meetings in one day and then go for a meal with a friend before travelling home.

I’m impressed by Vicki’s 90% saving.

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mark says:
18 January 2018

In comparison with other train lines abroad, many of which actually own our railways! Their experience is cleaner, better, comfier, on time, with facilities, clean toilets, and polite engaged staff. We are nothing like that.
And soooo expensive

Perhaps it depends on which part of the system you travel on, but I make quite a number of train journeys every year and consider our trains compare favourably with many continental ones on similar-type services. There is always room for improvement but the railways have leapt ahead over the last ten years and are the safest in Europe by a long way.

I tend to break my journey up which makes it cheaper
Arriva have lost their contract and the delays and state on some of their older stock
Is disgusting

I wonder whether it is possible to illustrate to buyers of rail tickets just what a rip off their ticket might be? One way I could envisage is if the cost per mile is stated on the ticket. From there if there were “standard” lookup tables of typical UK journeys (say on line or printed sheets at the booking office) the passenger would then be in a position to understand how much he is paying compared with other journeys. This would be particularly interesting if the list compared other European countries too. Googling “cost per mile European railways” shows many good illustrations of how we in the UK are ripped off – or the good(?) reasons as to why we have to pay so much.

Perhaps over months/years the TOCs and the Government would start to take action to improve the fare structures if travellers could really compare prices. I want to be charged a standard pence per mile throughout the UK – and to know that it is a fair price. Like the British tax system rail ticket pricing is deliberately made as complex as possible to ensure a total fogging to the travelling public. There may be many ways to “get a bargain” but let’s start with a standardised and simple baseline.

Many European countries subsidise their railways substantially more than the UK. An average train ticket costs around 20p a mile. Buying and running your car costs around £1 a mile. Rail fares do not seem too bad. I’d be happy to subsidise freight to get heavier vehicles off our roads.

Karl says:
18 January 2018

A lot of complaints are refused, actually in last two years no one complain on the late or missing train was accepted by Greater Anglia. That way the scores are not real. I asked Mr. Eric Pickles to stop the fair increase if the company is failing to run according the timetable. He failed to make an action. It is disgrace to ran a 30 minutes journey 90 minutes during weekends and in massive inflated fee.

They always mention they are spending more to improve the services. What are they improving?
Peak times they put on 4 carriages , everyone is jammed packed into the carriage and more are trying to squeeze in. In the afternoon when hardly anyone is rushing to work they have 8 carriages.
Come on, let’s use some common sense .

Bring back British Rail(ways).
The company got all the bad press prior to privatisation in much the same way as our beloved Tory trash are treating our NHS (Backdoor privatisation). Run it into the ground & sell it off cheap to their Elite buddies’, then start funding the private companies’ once more.
British Rail got a bad name because of it’s bad timekeeping in particular, but no one outside the industry gave a thought to the possibility that the timetables’ were being adjusted to make it impossible for the trains’ to keep to time. The company was strangled.
If you compare the train times now with those in BR days’, you will see that “Make-up Time” has been written into the schedules’. You will have noticed that, in a lot of cases’, when a train arrives’ on time at an intermediate station, it remains’ stood there for a longer duration. It is often the case that an extra 10 minutes’ (e.g) has been added between 2 stations’ to catch up on the timetable when there’s a delay.
Take a look on “Realtime Trains” & notice how a train can depart 1 station 10 minutes’ late & arrive early at the next. Passenger trains’ very rarely leave early except when they are setting down only. Take a look at the last Virgin East Coast Newcastle train for 0123’ish in the morning, which leaves’ virtually as soon as it arrives’.
Virgin East Coast currently operate’s former BR stock & generally the services’ are excellent, although Virgin are mucking the whole lot up at the moment according to some sources’. The fantastically reliable BR stock is soon to be replaced with the “Clip together Airfix” Azuma units’. End of another era. Also, it says’ a lot when, the other week, a Politician made a public fuss about his train breaking down. It was one of the new “Plastic, clip together” units’ & what came to it’s assistance? A diesel, they said, but NO, it was a 1976 British Rail High Speed Train (HST).
So, STOP believing the lies’ Mainstream Media feeds’ us & open your bloody eyes’ to what’s really going on in this world. Also, if it’s labelled a “Conspiracy”, look deeper into it because you are more likely to find more truth in the subject than you will see in Mainstream News & Entertainment “Brainwashing”.

Michael Allport says:
20 January 2018

What a load of rubbish you are writing. You did not mention the filthy trains and platforms.Nor did you
mention the arrogant very rude staff. What about the absolutely dreadful food. You also seem to ignore
the endless strikes. British Rail was a disaster from start to finish. The British people do not ever
deserve this again.

I want to know why in Capitalist America a weekly season on the New York Subway costs $32 and we pay over twice that. I think the problem starts and finishes with TfL and its wasteful and inefficient organisation.

NY subway operating costs are amongst the highest in the world. https://ny.curbed.com/2017/10/13/16455880/new-york-subway-mta-operating-cost-analysis

Like all the privatisation’s all they are interested in is making the maximum profit at the expense of the travelling public who they do not give a dam about. It is an on going scandal that some of the rip off profits go to ‘state owed’ railways in other countries. The only way to get the foreign interests out of our railways is to re-nationalise it as a single entity by bringing back ‘British Rail’ It has been the public taxpayer that has payed through the nose for every privatisation including power, water, transport, telephones including overpriced shoddy broadband. With the Corillion scandal the chickens have now well and truly come home to roost, and urgent change is needed. Privatisation was the biggest theft in history.

TOC declared profits average 3% http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/times_fares/ticket_types/83871.aspx. That does not seem like a “rip off”.

Alan says:
19 January 2018

There appears be some really odd working practices and anomalies in fares. I have quoted three examples below. Not sure if any one can shed any light on them?

1.) A combination of two carriage trains, instead of four carriages ,on the Liverpool to Norwich, East Midlands Trains Service has result in station staff and on train guards preventing passengers boarding in Manchester Piccadilly. Claiming the train was overloaded and unsafe to travel

This has resulted me travelling on a later train that goes through my local station Dore in to Sheffield and catching a bus back to Dore to pick up my car. Finally arriving home two and a half hours late on a journey than normally takes under a hour!!

2.)My experience with Cross Country Trains is little better. Most trains have only 4 carriages and I regularly stand from Birmingham to Sheffield. (For some reason very similar looking East Midlands trains have at least five and often six / seven carriages). I would not expect a 30 yrs old car to be better than my current one. So why are the few old HST trains used by Cross Country so much better to travel on., than the modern ones? And you also get a seat!!!

3.) Finally I travel from Chesterfield to York on a regular basis. Mysteriously if you buy a return to Harrogate via York, but just go to York, the day return fare is over 50% less than the Chesterfield to York fare?.

I can’t see why all you commuters keep on whining, if you get a train at 8am when everybody else wants to get on then you will always have problems. They have the same problem in other countries, UK is not alone. I don’t know if the New York subway has been cleaned up in the last thirty odd years, but the first time I went there I asked where the subway was, “It’s in the cellar, just follow your nose!” It smelt like a Bombay urinal! In Wall Street It was not uncommon to see city bankers urinating onto the tracks, even Millwall supporters didn’t do that!
In the mid 70’s I used to commute out of London to Chelmsford and it was quite entertaining to see the all the noses squashed against the windows on trains going into London. With the advent of computers things seem to have got worse. As many people seem to come into London to sit in front a screen, why not build regional computer centres, or work from home, improve the infrastructure, get wideband, or whatever todays fancy name is, countrywide, it is much cheaper to dig up the pavement than to spend vast sums on things like HS2, who wants to get to Birmingham ten minutes faster anyway?
If the worst predictions of global warming ever come to pass, whoever comes up with a way to install artificial gills in people will make a fortune, either that, or it will be standing room only worldwide!

Although you mention that you must go via stations listed on a split ticket, note carefully that the train must STOP at these stations. This nicety ensures that you could get off the train there (to complete one leg of your journey) and immediately get back on (to start the next). Though as you rightly say, you don’t have to do this.

The most effective method is to boycott Southern, but as many would not agree due to having no other commuting alternatives,Southern will just continue to rip us all off whilst chuckling at us in their” bored” rooms! my alternative is by bus, only it isn’t time reliable for connections from Elephant & Castle to London Bridge. On the return journey approx. 16:00- 17:00,DistrictLline from Cannon St & Overground From Highbury & Islington to S.E are pretty Reliable with not much more than a 5 min wait, normal av. 2-3 mins

Libbie Anna says:
21 January 2018

Reading your report you give the impression that this is just a big game. It isn’t !!
If I need to travel I should be able to expect a fair service, not a gamble requiring me to spend hours, several weeks in advance to get a reasonable deal and then I should be able to expect reasonable service.
The last time I went by train , yes, I cut the cost right down so that it was cheaper than using the car, BUT it involved several hours on the computer, 3 different train companies (or was it four.) and I was finally left stranded at a station where there was only one official, who was as much in the dark as I and the passengers were. Over two hours standing hoping that at least one of the buses that passed would be going in the right direction to get me to my destination.
I’m in my eighties and can’t help comparing it with the carefree travel of my younger days, when rail was under one authority. We knew the cost of the fares. Bicycles and luggage was easily dealt with.
I travelled to Liverpool from Falmouth to go to Ghana by boat and the whole journey was a doddle. No bother or trouble with my large amount of baggage. No frantic looking for deals or trying to find help to cope with my luggage. All handled for me. In those days I had the energy and strength to cope what ever the problems, they were just an adventure, but now sadly, though I am fit and well I find all this very discouraging and a little frightening..