Travelling by train

Britain is served by an extensive railway network with trains operating frequently. Travelling by train is often the most efficient way to get around.

While train services are operated by a range of different companies, the vast majority of tickets and timetables are co-ordinated by National Rail. In most cases, this should be your first port of call when planning a journey by train.

For those who have not travelled by train before, this page aims to answer any questions you might have and make your journey quicker and easier. For those who do travel by train, some of these hints and tips can make your journeys a lot cheaper.

Catching the Right Train

Many people worry about catching the right train, but keeping the following key pieces of information in mind, it is actually very simple.

The most important thing is the train's final destination, as this will be shown on the departure board and announced on the station tannoy. When booking your ticket, make sure you find out the final destination of any trains you plan to take.

Another important piece of information is the scheduled departure time. This will be printed on your ticket and displayed on the departure boards in the train station. Trains are timetabled to the minute and it is unlikely that more than one train wll be departing at exactly the same time. Note that if a train is delayed, it is still referred to by its scheduled departure time, although the actual departure time will also be displayed on the board.

National Rail's live departure boards are useful for checking whether your train is late or on time before you arrive at the station. Simply enter the station you're leaving from and your destination and all the trains scheduled for this journey will be returned. To the left of each station name is an estimated time of departure from that station and if the train is running late, the approximate delay time is listed on the right. The platform your train will be arriving at is also shown. This site can also be used from mobiles so you can check it on the go. It is often more up to date and accurate than the departure boards in the station!

When a train is arriving, the station tannoy will play a message which names the final destination, departure time, train operating company and a list of all the stops. It also tells you which platform it's arriving at. This is probably the most useful source of information on a station, so make sure you can hear it!

The departures board is usually a screen hanging from the roof, showing a list of the next few trains leaving from that station and from which platform. Sometimes, each platform has its own departure board as well, with more detail such as stops.

When catching trains, be aware that they like to leave precisely 'on the dot' and the doors can be locked up to 45 seconds before they are supposed to leave. So don't cut it too close!

If you have any trouble, station staff are always willing to help. Show the guard your ticket and they ought to be able to tell you which train you want and the platform it is departing from.

Booking Tickets

At the Station

Booking tickets at the station is pretty easy, but can be more expensive than other methods of purchasing tickets, especially if you purchase on the day of departure. Go to any manned station with the name of the place you want to go to and a rough idea of when you want to travel, and they will help you with your booking.


Booking in advance online is also easy and can often be cheaper than booking in person. Simply input your starting point and destination, the dates and rough times you want to travel, and it will give you a list of trains to choose from. Note how some journeys take longer than others, have more changes or cost more.

If you have a 16-25 Railcard, don't forget to select this option on the website to get your 1/3 discount. Keep in mind however, that some advance fares can be cheaper without a railcard, so check the cost both with and without.

Select the ticket you want and pay via debit/credit card. You may need to register an account with the website before you can pay, but this is a simple process. At the end you will be given a summary of your journey to print out.

When you buy online, you have a choice of ways to get your ticket sent to you. If there's time, you can get them posted. If not, then you pick them up from the station yourself, using a ticket vending machine. You will be given a reference number to enter on the machine, and you will also need to take your credit card with you. The card will not be charged, but you have to put it in the machine to get the tickets. You are supposed to use the same card that you paid with, though in fact you can often use any old card. Don't rely on this at the last minute though!

On the Train

At some small stations, the ticket office closes fairly early (17:00 for instance). At these stations you have to simply get on the train and purchase a ticket from the conductor, if they show up! You can actually buy tickets from the conductor on most trains, but it's best to get them at the station when you can.

Keeping it Cheap

Train tickets in Britain can be very expensive, however there are ways of working the system which can seriously reduce the price by half or more.

Most of these tips assume that you are booking the tickets online. You can buy any ticket from any train operating company, but avoid third party retailers such as Raileasy and The TrainLine because they charge an extra booking fee.

All tickets, including cheaper advance fares, are available from station booking offices.

16-25 Railcard

This is the easiest way of reducing the cost of train fares. Costing just £26 for a one year railcard, it saves a third off most rail tickets. This means if you will spend £78 or more per year on train travel, the railcard will essentially pay for itself. You can also buy a three year railcard for £65, saving you £13 as opposed to renewing a one year railcard three years in a row. The cut off date for buying the three year railcard is the day before your 24th birthday, meaning you could keep using it until just before your 27th birthday.

Some Student Bank Accounts, notably NatWest, offer a valuable five-year railcard as part of their freebie package. However, Natwest no longer offers this for new account holders from 2011. More details regarding the railcard are available here.

If you have a railcard, you should always carry it with you on the train because the conductor will want to see it if you show him/her a discounted ticket.

Booking in Advance

It is possible to find very cheap train tickets online at websites such as Megatrain or on the train operating company's own website if you book in advance of your travelling date. Not only does this get you cheaper tickets, it also allows you to reserve seats on busy services, ensuring travel is as simple as possible.

You can book train tickets up to 12 weeks in advance, and in theory the cheapest tickets go on a first-come-first-served basis, however this isn't guaranteed. Sometimes cheap tickets don't become available until nearer the departure date. Sometimes they sell out quickly, other times there are still some left the night before. As a rule of thumb, check as early as you can and if no cheap tickets are available, wait until they do become available (unless the day of travel is less than a month away, in which case the cheap tickets are probably already sold out).

Certain companies such as East Coast and Virgin Trains offer advanced tickets that can only be bought from their websites. Virgin Trains and Stagecoach (which includes East Midlands and South West Trains) run a website called Megatrain, which sell cheap tickets. East Coast often have discounts on their own fares, only available through their website.

Most reserved seats are marked by a ticket at the top of the seat, but Virgin Trains as well some CrossCountry trains put their reservations on an LCD display above the seat.

If you do reserve seats, be warned that train companies sometimes screw up their seat reservation systems and other passengers often simply ignore the reservation tickets. You may find you have to negotiate your way into the seat you've reserved, but most passengers will oblige and move for you.

Note that cheap advance tickets are usually restricted to one particular train, whereas with a regular ticket you could catch any train you like, as long as it's going the right way. If you miss your train, your advance ticket will not be valid on the next one. If you do miss your train it is important not to travel without the authorisation of rail staff first otherwise you could leave yourself open to prosecution.

Beware when booking a long time in advance that the timetable can change at short notice, especially on Sundays. Always check the day before because your trai could be rescheduled to a different time than it was when you bought the ticket!

The Right Ticket

When buying on the day, return tickets are sometimes cheaper than singles. However, there are no cheap advance return tickets, so when buying in advance, it's often cheaper to get two singles instead of a return.

The Right Time

A little bit of timing can help save you a lot of money. Trains are more expensive during rush hour, so if you can avoid travelling before 10am and between 5pm and 7pm, you will find more cheap tickets available.

If your journey is long or you can't avoid travelling during rush hour, you should definitely consider split ticketing.

Split Ticketing

This little-known trick may be the one that saves you the most money. It is based on the principle that not all train journeys are equal. A lot of factors go into the price of a ticket. Some routes or areas are more expensive. Some times of day are more expensive. Some phases of the moon might even be more expensive. Who knows?

For example, if your journey is made wholly within off-peak hours, then it should be pretty cheap. However if only a small part of the journey takes place during rush hour, the whole journey will be charged at the higher rate.

With split ticketing, you aim to cut the journey up into sections, so that only the peak-time section is charged at peak-time rates.

By doing this, you don't alter the journey itself at all - you stay on the same train as if you had one ticket. You just have a bulging wallet full of tickets to show the conductor!

Here's an example of how to try it for yourself. On a long journey, try to work out the last station you pass through before you get into rush hour. Look up the price of just travelling as far as there. Note the time of arrival. Then look up the price of travelling from there to your destination, on the same train as it departs 2 minutes later. Add them together and see if the total is less than the price of one whole ticket.

This doesn't work every time, and takes a bit of trial and error, but it has saved me hundreds of pounds this year alone. On my regular route (a return journey), advance tickets are only cheap on half of the journey. So I buy two advance tickets for this part, and one ordinary return for the other part. It saves me about £5-£10 every time. -- iMacThere4iAm
Also, this does not necessarily have to apply to rush hour. Another good example is that fares in some large urban areas are subsidised, so a couple of examples. Say your going to Stalybridge from Warrington for the day (just for example), get a ticket from Warrington to Irlam and a ticket from Irlam to Stalybridge, it's likely to be cheaper. Also, one that Ive done before (when I went to the beach one day) is getting a ticket from Warrington to Hough Green and Hough Green to Freshfield.-- DMed

Text Tickets

Some rail companies are now implementing "text tickets" meaning its quicker and easier to purchase your tickets, as text tickets are new you can often save a lot of money on them as the rail companies are trying to get people to use them. When you purchase a text ticket the rail company will send you a barcode which you scan at the ticket barrier or a number which you show to staff around the barriers. Just be sure to make sure your phone has enough battery before you set out. Chiltern Railways Text Tickets FAQ

Refund Vouchers

If your train is delayed for an unreasonable length of time, you may be entitled to compensation. This will usually be in the form of vouchers which you can redeem for tickets at station kiosks or over the telephone (not online).

Normally, a delay of half an hour is considered unreasonable, so if your train is over half an hour late (which can happen frequently on Sundays), ask at the station for a complaints form. You will need to know which company operates the service, as each one has a slightly different policy and a different form.

To claim back, you will need to know when the train you wanted was timetabled to arrive at your destination, and when it actually did arrive. You will need to send off your tickets with the form, and a few weeks or months later, you will get back a bundle of vouchers.

To spend the vouchers, telephone the National Rail call centre on 08457 484950 or you can use them at a staffed ticket office instead of cash. When buying tickets using vouchers via the National Rail call centre - make sure you leave enough time to post the vouchers to them and for you to recieve the tickets back. It generally takes about a week.

Travelling Short

Travelling short means buying a ticket to go further than your destination, but alighting before this station. Why would you want to do this? Because it can be cheaper.

This is permitted under the National Rail Conditions of Carriage, which state "You may start, or break and resume, a journey (in either direction in the case of a return ticket) at any intermediate station, as long as the ticket you hold is valid for the trains you want to use. You may also end your journey (in either direction in the case of a return ticket) before the destination shown on the ticket. However, these rights may not apply to some types of tickets for which a break of journey is prohibited, in which case the relevant Train Companies will make this clear in their notices and other publications."

However, the cheaper tickets (e.g. advance fares) and outward portions of some off-peak returns, do not permit a break of journey. In these circumstances, you can be charged an excess fare or penalty fare. Make sure you always check that a break of journey is permitted on your ticket before travelling.

There are some excellent examples of savings to be made by "travelling short" which can be found using little effort. However, always make sure your ticket allows a break of journey BEFORE you board the train!

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