The only way to find the cheapest rail ticket is to throw all logic out of the window.
Ask at a station or online: “What’s the cheapest train ticket from Pennyhill to Walletsworth?” and sadly you can’t rely on the answer.
In many cases there are far cheaper options than the answer given.
Things are improving a touch.
Some train firms have recently announced simplification trials from May so you don’t pay more for travelling “any permitted route” and “airline-style” mix-and-match ticketing, so if you change trains and see that the price of two journeys is cheaper than one, it’ll show you that.
Yet even this won’t guarantee when you book a ticket you’ll get the cheapest price. So here are my key tips to keep ticket costs on the rails…
1) Try splitting your tickets (it won’t be shown even under the new system)
Split-ticketing is where instead of buying one ticket for the journey, you buy multiple tickets for different parts of the same journey, which perversely, illogically and ridiculously, often works out cheaper.
The exact journey routes vary train by train and by journey, so it isn’t always consistent. The best example I’ve ever seen was London to Penzance when an anytime day return cost £250. Yet the train stops at Plymouth, so buy London to Plymouth, Plymouth to Penzance and the same for the return journey and the total was just £50. So it’s the same train, same time, even the same seat, just £200 cheaper.
Savings aren’t always that high, but I checked while writing this, and a Durham to London single travelling was £131.50, but splitting at Peterborough made it £97, a saving of around £35. The only rule is the train must call at the stations you buy tickets for. To check if you can slash the cost of your train by split-ticketing see mse.me/ticketysplit.
And you don’t have to stop at two splits. Recently one man went the whole hog and reduced his Newcastle to Oxford journey cost by £60, using 56 tickets in total for him and his girlfriend.
2) Book 12 weeks early for cheaper fares
Most people know if you book early you’ll get cheaper train tickets. But the key time to look is 12 weeks before you want to travel, as that’s when the timetable is set so most operators start to launch their advance tickets then – meaning you get the best availability on cheap fares.
3) Get a (discounted) railcard
Annual national railcards usually reduce the bill by a third, so as they normally cost £30, if you’re spending over £90, even on a one-off trip, it’s worth it. The main cards are: Family & Friends Railcard: You and up to three other adults (two can be named on the card) get a third off the fare, providing you’re travelling with between one and four kids, who get 60 per cent off. 2Together Railcard: This works for two people travelling together and both named (and photographed) on the card. So you could have one with your spouse, and another with someone you go to the football with. Senior Railcard: This gets over 60s a third off the fare. 16-25 Railcard. Gives a third off fares travelling at any time. Disabled persons railcard: Gives a third off for you and an adult companion, any time. Network Railcard: This is for those living in southern England as it covers journeys in the Network Railcard area. Up to three adults can travel with you and get a third off and up to four children get 60 per cent off.
4) Get early booking discounts – late
There’s generally a certain number of advance tickets available. Don’t assume you can’t get these if you’re travelling tomorrow, always check. If they’re still available, most train firms let you book them up to 6pm or 11:59pm the day before travel, and CrossCountry trains until 15 minutes before the train leaves.
5) Train delayed, get your money back
Usually if you’re delayed over 30 minutes (it varies by firm) most companies operate a “Delay Repay scheme”, which if you ask pays out at least 50 per cent of the fare regardless of whether the delay was its fault or not (though some now pay 25 per cent for 15 minute delays). If you’ve a season ticket, again it depends on the firm, you can sometimes claim per delay, for a cluster of delays, or not at all.
6) If you paid for your season ticket (or even part of it) on a credit card, you could get compensation
Recently American Express refunded one traveller half the cost of his Southern Rail season ticket (around £2,400), due to the fact that 50 per cent of his journeys had been delayed or cancelled.
This is all due to Section 75 rules, which mean if you pay or part-pay for something on a credit card for something that costs between £100-£30,000, then the credit card company is jointly liable along with retailers for making sure customers receive the goods or services they paid for.
If you’ve had continual bad delays with your season ticket, this can be more lucrative than complaining to the train firm (but less guaranteed). More help and templates at mse.me/section75.