For the tourist in the UK, one of the most exciting parts of travel (in my mind, anyway) is getting to take trains everywhere. While the UK does also have a bus system, I’ve found trains to be faster, more spacious, and more fun.
At first glance, train tickets might seem outrageously expensive. I still remember when my friend and I arrived at Paddington in London to get a ticket to Bath for travel that same day, only to discover a return ticket would cost £60—each!
After living in England, I would never dream of making such a green mistake now. And after working as a writer for Faremaster (a UK train ticket start-up), I’ve gleaned even more tips and tricks. Keep reading to learn how to save a buck while you travel!
1. Passes for Foreign Travelers
If you’re a foreigner traveling in the UK, you have the option of buying a BritRail Pass. These passes are good for any journeys within select regions over a select period of time. Sometimes they’ll save you money, but if you aren’t careful, they might end up costing you more than normal tickets.
Here’s the gist of how it works: You select the pass that works best for your journey—for instance, a consecutive three day South West Pass. You buy that pass before you leave your home country (you can’t have it mailed to you within the UK). When you arrive in the UK and are ready to travel, you have the pass signed at the box office or by the train conductor. For that day, you can travel wherever you want on the pass. If you’re on the three day consecutive, that means you have tomorrow and the next day to travel before your pass expires.
The BritRail Passes are good if you:
- Are traveling far distances every day (or almost every day) of your trip.
- Are traveling far distances at all, period. For example, when my mom visited me in England we went from London to Scotland and back, including a trip from Inverness to Reading, which was over nine hours long and would have cost us £150 each (and each way) if we had purchased our tickets at the box office the day we traveled. Needless to say, we used our passes instead.
- Don’t want to be tied down to specific dates or times for travel (as you will be with the cheap advance tickets).
- Catch the passes during a sale season.
- Are traveling with children under 15 and want to take advantage of their free child tickets (one per paying adult).
The BritRail Passes won’t help as much if you:
- Plan to stay within one smaller region.
- Are unafraid to take advantage of other discounts (like advance tickets, railcards).
- Are already in the UK and/or a student who will be studying there for over six months. (Spoiler: If your mom is coming to visit you, she can bring you a pass.)
- Will be traveling exclusively on the London Tube.
Passes are great for the flexibility and convenience they bring. But definitely compare the price of the pass with the price of your tickets before you commit to one or the other.
2. Advance Tickets
If you type in station names and put in the dates of travel, one thing will become clear very fast: The further away your date of travel, the cheaper the tickets. Sometimes the change is quite dramatic. For instance, I mentioned before that my friend and I bought our return tickets from London to Bath for £60 when we got them at the box office on the day. If I had bought a week in advance, that would come down to £40. If I bought it three weeks in advance, the same journey could go as low as £28.
Advance tickets work well if you’re the sort of person who likes to have an itinerary for travel. You know where you’re going, where you’re staying, when you want to leave. I always make my travel plans for big trips at least a month or two in advance, which meant that I could buy the cheap tickets almost as soon as they were being sold.
The biggest disadvantage to advance tickets is that if you miss the train, you’re out of luck. You have to buy a new ticket— at full price.
I’ve had this happen a handful of times when I booked the travel for the wrong day, stopped to buy coffee because I thought I had time, or made another brainless mistake. Once my friend and I barely made our train north—we had paid £40 advance for our tickets, but if the service car hadn’t kept their doors open and yanked us on right as the train rolled into motion we would have been out of pocket for that £40 and an additional £80 ticket. (Thanks again, service car!)
However, those times were the exceptions. I’ve traveled a few hundred times on advance tickets, and can count on one hand the times I’ve had to buy another ticket.
I also like advance tickets because they guarantee you a seat. An unspoken rule of train travel is that if you don’t want your reserved seat, you can sit wherever you want (that’s not reserved by someone else for the journey you’re on). But if you do want your seat (for instance, if you’re on a crowded train), you’ll have one when you board.
National Rail offers numerous railcards for travelers, and they’re available even if you’re international! For about £30, you can buy a card that will give you about 30% off all your ticket needs. There are a lot of different types of card, but I’m betting you can find one you’d be able to use.
It’s important to note that you cannot order a railcard online unless you have a UK address (they won’t deliver the cards internationally). However, if you don’t have a UK address, you can buy a railcard at a staffed ticket office in England, Wales, or Scotland. Pretty sweet.
“But wait!” you say. “I’m only going to be in the UK a week. There’s no way I’m going to spend £30 just to get 30% off.”
Well, that depends on what you’ll be doing, my friend. While pricing tickets for a recent short trip to England, I was faced with the prospect of paying £145 for a return ticket to Northumberland. Throw a railcard on that puppy, and the ticket becomes £95—enough to pay for the card and still save me some money. I also got to use my railcard on my other train travel during my stay, which probably saved me an additional £50 in the course of two weeks.