Cheap British Train Tickets: Here’s Why You Need To Plan Ahead

MikeachimEngland, Scotland, Travel12 Comments

ticket to lamesville

Planning to get cheap British train tickets by just turning up on the day and winging it? THAT WOULD BE INSANE – and here’s why.

If you’re using the British rail system for the first time, or if you’re unaccustomed to doing so – you’re the rail network’s number one favourite customer. Why? Because you’re overpaying wildly.

Train travel in this country is expensive enough to start with – the priciest in Europe. So it’s a tooth-loosening slap in the face to discover that you’re paying even more when you buy tickets in a hurry. It’s deeply insulting – and yet it’s a fact.

It goes like this…

You arrive at point A, and you need to get to point B. In other parts of the world, this is simply a case of trundling to a rail-ticket office and buying a ticket for the connecting leg of your journey. It’s a no-brainer – the way we’re taught to travel, the sensible, creative way of travelling in other countries, and it’s often how independent travellers keep moving round the world without collapsing under a ton of planning. It’s the way to snaffle last-minute, last-second deals, to haggle and flutter eyelashes and give vendors the full wattage of your charm and negotiation skills.

But this is Britain. We do things differently here. Unfortunately.

So, here are a few golden rules to follow if you’re planning to use the British rail system.


1. Check Out Gumtree, Freecycle and eBay

It’s a long shot, but it’s possible that for the day you’re wanting to travel, someone is either selling or giving away just the tickets you need. This could save you a good slice of the cost of travel, or even all of it.

2. Estimate How Long You’ll Need To Book Tickets, And Double It

If you’re in a rush, you’ll cut corners and spent money unnecessarily. You won’t have time to browse around for deals and experiment with ticket options, and you’ll probably say those fatal words “Oh, right now I just don’t care“.

This is financial suicide.

The following three tips all require a bit of extra time – and they’ll repay your budget twofold, at the very least.


3. Never Buy Your Tickets On The Day

This is the biggie. Worship at the foot of this rule at all times. It is absolutely vital that you follow it if you want to avoid paying absurdly inflated prices.

To demonstrate: when I was returning from Greece in 2007, I had all my tickets prebooked including my final connection from London King’s Cross to York, a single ticket costing £19. Unfortunately, my overnight Trenitalia connection from Bologna to Paris stopped on the tracks for an hour (no explanation why) and consequently I missed both my Eurostar to London from Gare du Nord and my single back to York.

I transferred over my Eurostar with no problems, but my London to York ticket was sunk. I couldn’t transfer it because it was an Advance ticket, and I had to buy a standard single on the day for £87.

And yes, this is typical.

Unless you’re taking a very short jaunt by UK rail, buy an Advance ticket (in advance, obviously – they’re not available on the day) and hunt down the best deal, choosing your own path between maximum flexibility (a more expensive refundable ticket you can use on a variety of trains) and price (the Advance tickets are much cheaper, but require you to be on a particular train and a particular time – and if you’re not, tough luck, no refund).

If you plan ahead, you’ll save at least half the price you’d pay on the day, and usually much more.


4. Never Trust Return Tickets

If you find yourself checking ticket prices at Trainline, look for a link that says “2 singles could be cheaper”.

They’re not kidding. This is the second most important rule to idolize and shout from the rooftops. Return tickets may be less of a hassle, but they’ll probably cost you a lot more than two well-chosen singles. (Oh, and try to book those singles with the rail operator directly, because Trainline charge you a fee, especially if you pay by credit card).

Remember those Advance tickets mentioned in the previous point? They only come as Singles. So they’re your best bet here. It’s not that there’s any extra charges with a Return. The problem is that a Return locks you into one ticket type – either the equivalent of 2 standard singles (peak or offpeak), or 2 first-class singles (ditto). No Advance tickets – which means, no massive savings if you book a few weeks or more before you arrive. You can’t factor in any deals you might find. You’re straitjacketed into one pricing option – and all the bargains are out of reach.

But sometimes, you may have no choice in the matter. You may be running late in booking, all the Single tickets may have been nabbed already. The only option may be to buy a Return, and pout with frustration as it savages your travel budget. Sad face.

But if you’re booking early enough, always, always check the Singles and best deals first. This is another reason you need that extra bit of time when you’re booking your journey.


5. Chop Your Tickets Up

And here’s where it gets really crazy.

Most train journeys aren’t strictly A to B – they have stops. Your journey is therefore a string of legs.

In a rational, logical corner of the world, your full-journey singles and returns would be the sum of the price of all those legs put together: A + B + C + D = Ticket. But this is Britain. The price of individual tickets for individual legs, put together, can be much cheaper than an overarching full journey. It’s another reason you need some of that extra time to book your tickets – and if you’re making a long journey across the UK, it can save you shedloads. Here’s the technique in action.


It’s a wildly eccentric system, agreed, and if you’re not careful it will take you to the cleaners – but it does encourage good thrifty habits and an open-eyed approach to rail travel, and for that reason, I’m perversely fond of it.

But I don’t trust it one bit.

Neither should you.

Useful links

Martin Lewis (Money Saving Expert) – Cheap Train Tickets

The Man in Seat 61

Images: chantrybee, slideshow bob, Joe Dunkley, maz hewitt, and Woodvines.

  • Rich P

    Number 4…..

    thats just insane.

    • Isn't it? Yet deeply British. Miss this part of the world yet, old bean?

      As I said at the end of the article, I rather like how dotty is all is. It's like having different European currencies – less efficient (arguably), less safe (arguably), but *interesting*. A touch of the Mervyn Peake about it all.

  • you missed another one. Sometimes it's cheaper to buy a ticket to a further destination (e.g. a suburban London station via the terminus) even if you don't want to go there … insane squared.

    Why isn't there a web 2.0 site that figures out the cheapest combination for you?

    • Yes, I saw that one on Martin Lewis's page after I'd written the post. Sneaky trick, that – but a good one. Have you used it yourself?

      And you're damn right. There should be a fiendishly clever web app that renders it all sensible and rational. Probably running on one of those supercomputers the Met Office recently invested in.

      • I stumbled on it by accident, when I had to go on to a suburban destination and I was trying to save myself some time. It didn’t make the tickets cheaper as such, but it suddenly made an advance fare available when it wasn’t before. I spent the whole journey in a state of paranoia that I was about to be told that ticket wasn’t valid, when suddenly the words ‘but the internet said it was okay’ didn’t sound like much of an excuse…

  • anonymous

    Slight problem with number 1 is that strictly speaking you’re not allowed to resell your ticket unless you are an authorised reseller and so buying a ticket that way could leave you open to all sorts of trouble. I know this because I once tried to resell my ticket and found a buyer…who was less interested in my ticket and more interested in who I was and whether I was authorised to resell the ticket. To cut a long story short…I learnt an extremely costly mistake! I also remember a story of a passenger who brought a ticket from someone on an online classified website and they got caught out as the ticket had a passenger name printed on it, the ticket inspector happened to ask for ID to prove it’s their ticket and of course it wasn’t…..

  • Did you hear about what happened with the Eurotrain services? They had problems because of the snow too, although the services were only reduced, not cancelled. I got back from holiday yesterday and we had taken the Eurotrain, so we missed the trouble.

  • This is a good site, I never would have thought about buying a ticket second hand from someone! And as for singles working out cheaper than a return, I totally beleieve that. Even if it’s not the case, a return is usually only £1 more expensive that a single on its own


  • Oo yes, I like this one. The British rail ticketing system is a Daliesque dog’s breakfast definitely. Planning international multi-centre trips is not much better unless you’re interrailing.

    New global rail ticketing brand Quno promises to improve it, we’ll see, but I do hope so. Some more useful sites here too:

    Smart tips and lovely pics. Bookmarked! :-)

  • Nabs

    Mtakes longer ike it also maybe worth highlighting to anyone coming to Britain that you could turn up to the station, buy a full-fare ticket to find its not valid until 0930/1000/Friday etc. And that the rules are not universal.

    Railcards also good to cover. Ie any journey that will cost £90+, do a selfie, fill in the online form, save 1/3rd on all travel. For old, young, parents, those with disabilities, military (possibly just UK).

    Don’t forget plus bus/Ferry.

    Mega train?

    Regional rovers, great value for visitors to UK.

    Oh and another big of UK rail madness. Direct trains with one company can be longer and more expensive. E. G. Aberdeen to Birmingham with cross country takes longer and costs more than changing at Edinburgh and York with scotrail, East coast and virgin /cc

  • Andy Keen

    Some good points, but it’s not just Britain that does this. In fact Britain got the idea from other countries! The golden rules aren’t as clear cut as made out, certainly look at all those options, but remember, only advance tickets are cheaper if bought in…well, advance. All other ticket types are the same price if bought on the day or twelve weeks before. Advance tickets are only sold as singles, which is why two singles can be cheaper, but don’t be lured into buying other ticket types before travel, they are the same price-why give the train operators your money before you have to? Unless buying an advance ticket, always buy on the day.

    Splitting your journey can be cheaper. But remember, a through ticket lets you travel on any route. If you’ve split tickets your trains must call at the stations you have tickets too. For example, if I wanted to book a ticket from Stoke-on-Trent to York, I could travel via either Derby or Manchester. With a return, I could go one way & come back the other. With splitting the tickets and buying Stoke to Manchester & Manchester to York, it may be cheaper, but I have to go that way. Should there then be a delay through Leeds, I can’t change my plans and go via Derby. Another reason not to buy in advance if you you’re not buying an advance ticket.

    One final piece of advice, don’t forget, it’s sometimes cheaper to book further than you need to! For example, Birmingham to Newton Abbot can be cheaper than Birmingham to Exeter.

  • Andy Keen

    And don’t forget, if your arrival at your destination (as printed on your ticket) is more than 30 minutes late, you get compensation. This is usually in money off vouchers for future tickets, but many people don’t bother! It’s quick & easy, simply visit the website of the train company that delayed you, and you can usually fill the details in online & scan your tickets.