Itinerary ideas for making the most of using an Explore Wales rail pass to see the best of beautiful Wales by train,
If you want to put the rather wonderful idea of using an Explore Wales pass for a multi-stop train travel itinerary around the principality into practice, then the two optimum ideas are:
(1) Following a circular route around the country by train, or
(2) A looping route, which has the advantage of minimising the number of different locations in which you’ll be spending overnight stays.
The slight negative of the circular route is the need to transport luggage with you on most of the journeys you will be taking – and as will be seen, to make the most of a tour around Wales you’ll need to hop and off multiple trains (and buses).
None of the stations you will be taking trains to and from will have left-luggage facilities.
The delightful towns of Chester and Shrewsbury both make for good starting points of a round Wales by train itinerary; the trains from Shrewsbury will call at Chester.
These two towns are in England, but the routes between them and Wales are covered by the Explore Wales pass.
Both Chester and Shrewsbury have direct trains from London, Birmingham and Manchester, while Chester also has trains from Liverpool.
Shrewsbury OR Chester > Bangor > Caernarfon > Porthmadog by the Welsh Highland Railway > Barmouth
Only possible on Fridays and Saturdays
On the train to Bangor, sit on the right so that you can take in the spectacular views of the North Wales Coast.
In Bangor the bus stop is adjacent to the railway station, so a relatively straightforward connection will be available into the frequent 5C bus route/line which will take you on to Caernarfon, where the bus station is a five minute walk from the station that the Welsh Highland Trains depart from; the afternoon departure on Fridays and Saturdays leaves at 14:20
On arrival in Porthmadog, you could check-in to overnight accommodation in the town, OR head on to delightful Barmouth by train in order to spend the night there.
(Though The Welsh Highland Railway station in Porthmadog is a 12-20 min walk away from the mainline station which is where the trains on to Barmouth will depart from).
If you want to take a ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway then it’s best to follow the suggested routing above, but wind up your day one of travel in Caernarfon.
On arrival in the town, you’ll then have time to explore Caernarfon Castle.
Then on the next day, exploit the fact that you don’t have to use the Explore Wales pass on consecutive days by making return trip on bus route/line S1 to Llanberis.
Because from there you can take a ride on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and/or the Llanberis Lake Railway.
The Explore Wales Pass isn’t valid on this bus route or on these trains.
If you do opt to include Llanberis, you won’t miss out on a journey on the Welsh Highland Railway, because you’ll be travelling by it on Day 2.
If you want to include a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway instead of a journey on the Welsh Highland Railway on a round-Wales circular itinerary, then follow the itinerary of Day 1 of the looping route.
On this day you’ll be heading to Aberystwyth by taking the railway along the gorgeous Cambrian Coast.
If you’ve overnighted in either Barmouth or Porthmadog you can take a train to Machynlleth and connect there for Aberystwyth.
In Machynlleth the station is a 10 min walk from its centre, so if you want to explore this charming town between trains, you won't have to go far.
Or if you have spent the night in Caernarfon (because you added the option of going up Mount Snowdon), you can take the morning Welsh Highland Railway train to Porthmadog and then travel on from there to Aberystwyth via Machynlleth.
When heading towards Machynlleth, take a seat on the right hand side of the train, to make the most of the glorious views of the coast.
Then while you’re in Aberystwyth, a ride on the beautiful Vale of Rheidol Railway is highly recommended.
If you’ve headed to the the town from Barmouth or Porthmadog, you’ll have time to squeeze in an afternoon return trip by the steam trains before the end of the day.
But if you’ve travelled from Caernarfon, you’ll need to spend the night in Aberystwyth and ride the steam train on the next day.
Though taking some time out to relax in Aberystwyth regardless during the trip is highly recommended, a fabulous excursion is to take a ride on its funicular railway!
The T1 bus line/route from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen is the best option for travelling on to Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales.
It plugs a gap in the current rail network, since the closure of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway line back in the 1960s, hence the Explore Wales can be used on this bus route.
Then from Carmarthen station you can take a train to either of the two locations that are good choices for an overnight stay:
A plus of staying in Swansea is the access it has to the beautiful Gower Peninsular.
Bus line/route 118 from Swansea Bus station crosses the centre of this Outstanding Area of Natural Beauty on route to and from Rhossili.
Stopping off to visit the Gower Peninsular when passing through Swansea is compromised by its rail station having no left luggage facilities; and the city’s bus station, which the 118 bus departs from, is a 15min walk from the rail station.
Also if you opt to stay in Swansea you don’t have to miss out on seeing Tenby, as it’s an easy day trip by train from Swansea.
The journey’s short enough for it not to be worth using the pass for that trip.
There are two routes available for heading back to Chester or Shrewsbury by train from south-west Wales.
(1) For those that don’t want to miss out on making the most of the Welsh scenic railway journeys, the better option is to take the direct route across central Wales on the beautiful Heart Of Wales railway line.
However, if you opt to spend the night in Tenby, the theoretically available connections at Llanelli station into the trains which take that Heart Of Wales route, are awkwardly timed.
Though if you overnight in Swansea or on the Gower Peninsular, you then won’t have to worry about making any connections when taking that Heart Of Wales route, as its trains commence their journeys in Swansea.
(2) Or a more frequent (and usually much easier) option is to take a direct train from Swansea back to Shrewsbury or Chester (or take a train from Tenby to make the connection in Swansea).
Or if you want to explore the Welsh capital during the trip, you can stop off in Cardiff, while on route from Swansea or Tenby back to your starting point in Shrewsbury or Chester; both towns have direct trains from Cardiff, on which the Explore Wales pass can be used, despite much of the journey being through England.
Though a Cardiff stopover is compromised by the lack of left luggage facilities at Cardiff Central station.
So if Cardiff is a must, you could make a trip there by train from Swansea, by booking separate tickets (if you've opted to spend the night there instead of Tenby).
If time and budget are available the ultimate means of seeing Wales by train, is to exploit the fact the Explore Wales Pass is valid for an 8 day period.
So on the 4 days on which the pass won't be good value for money, you can make other optional journeys.
On the summaries below the four days on which you will be using the rail pass are marked with an*.
1 – Chester or Shrewsbury to Caernarfon via Bangor *
2 – day trip to Llanberis for Mount Snowdon
3 – Caernarfon to Aberystwyth*
4 – A day in Aberystwyth, including a ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line
5 – Aberystwyth to Swansea*
6 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular
7 – A day trip from Swansea to Tenby or Cardiff
8 – Swansea to Shrewsbury or Chester on the Heart Of Wales line*
1 – Chester or Shrewsbury to Porthmadog via Blaenau Ffestiniog*
2 – A day trip from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.
3 – Porthmadog to Aberystwyth*, taking the ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line when you arrive there.
4 – Aberystwyth to Tenby*
5 – A day relaxing in Tenby
6 – Tenby to Swansea by train
7 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular
8 – Swansea to Shrewsbury or Chester on the Heart Of Wales line*.
Note that due to a a reduced timetable on the Welsh Highland Railway for the 2022 season, this itinerary is only available if day one is a Thursday or a Friday.
This day of rail adventure includes a ride on the utterly charming Ffestiniog Railway to Porthmadog
The schedule which is only available on a Monday to Saturday, usually involves taking these trains.
* To minimise the risk of making the vital 13 min connection at Llandudno Junction, check the train times on arrival at Colwyn Bay, if the 13:10 departure is delayed, you can take an earlier train on to Llandudno Junction.
A break of journey at Colwyn Bay has been suggested, as doing this avoids having to wait for more than an hour between trains at Llandudno Junction.
The station in Colwyn Bay is opposite the main street in the town, which is home to a choice of cafes.
**If you do want to head on to Barmouth, (if you don't you can spend the night in Porthmadog), the Ffestiniog Railway station in Porthmadog is a 12-20 min walk to the mainline station.
From Barmouth or Porthmadog you can follow this suggested routing to head back to your starting point in Shrewsbury OR Chester; or you can pick up Day 2 of the circular route and head to Aberystwyth.
(But if you take this looping route you won’t miss out on the delights of Aberystwyth and south-west Wales, as you'll be heading to them on Day 3).
The first stage of day two on the loop is to take the morning departure on the Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon, which leaves at 09:40 on Fridays and Saturdays only
So if you’ve spent the night in Barmouth, you’ll need to head back to Porthmadog to make the connection; departing Barmouth at 07:47.
Then from Caernarfon you can return to Shrewsbury or Chester by taking;
(1) the 5C bus route/line on to Bangor
(2) Then a train on from there (there are usually hourly trains to Chester, most of which have connections on to Shrewsbury) – take a seat on the left for the lovely views of the North Wales coast
The bus stop in Bangor is adjacent to the railway station.
Because you’ll be looping back to Shrewsbury or Chester, at the close of both days two and four, you can split your luggage, so that on your travel days you’ll only need to have the equivalent of an overnight bag with you.
The looping route is also better value for money, because you will be travelling further by train compared to the circular route, but will be using the same pass.
Or if you want to include the Snowdon Mountain Railway or the Llanberis Lake Railway on the looping itinerary, then your final day one journey will be taking bus route/line T2 on from Porthmadog to Caernarfon (and heading there instead of Barmouth).
Then on the following morning you can head to Llanberis on bus route/line 88, in order to access the Snowdon Mountain Railway and / or the Llanberis Lake railway.
Having done so, you can then either:
(1) Spend another night in Caernarfon (having not used the Explore Wales Pass for the day trip to Llanberis; because the pass isn’t valid on the bus to Llanberis or its railways) and then take that Day 2 routing back to Shrewsbury or Chester, OR
(2) Head back to Shrewsbury via Bangor in the early evening – on Mondays to Saturdays the final direct train of the day to Shrewsbury usually departs Bangor at 20:00.
On the third day on which you will be using the pass, depart from Shrewsbury on a direct train to Aberystwyth on the lovely Cambrian Line route.
If you opted to base yourself in Chester, taking a train to Shrewsbury, n order to make the connection, is an straightforward journey which takes around an hour.
Take the mid-morning train, which is usually scheduled to leave just before 10:30 and you’ll be arriving in Aberystwyth around 12:20; in good time to take journey on the beautiful Vale of Rheidol Railway.
You could exploit the fourth day of the using the pass to:
1 - take the T1 bus line/route from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen
2 - take a train from Carmarthen to Llanelli or Swansea (depending on the optimum connections)
3 - take the train along the Heart Of Wales railway line.from Llanelli or Swansea back to Shrewsbury (connecting in Shrewsbury for Chester if need be).
Or add Swansea (for the Gower peninsular) or Tenby to your adventures, by heading to either of those locations from Aberystwyth, but don't use the pass and buy tickets for those journeys instead.
1 - take the T1 bus line/route from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen
2 - take a train from Carmarthen to Tenby or Swansea.
Then use the fourth day of using your Explore Wales Pass(es) to travel back to Shrewsbury or Chester, as per Day 4 of the circular route.
Four days of travel
1 –Shrewsbury → Blaenau Ffestiniog → Porthmadog → Barmouth
2 – Barmouth → Porthmadog → to Caernarfon by the Welsh Highland Railway → Bangor → Shrewsury
3 - Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth
4 - Aberystwyth → Camarthen → Llanelli or Swansea → Shrewsbury.
Follow this routing and the only tickets not covered by the pass will be the journeys on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways..
So it is this 4 days of travel, on which an Explore Wales Pass provides particularly good value in comparision to tickets per journey.
Eight days of travel
You can exploit the fact the Explore Wales Pass is valid for an 8 day period to pursue this ultimate looping route itinerary – the four days on which you will be using the rail pass are marked with an *
1 – Shrewsbury to Barmouth via Blaenau Ffestiniog and Porthmadog*
2 – Barmouth to Porthmadog and then by the Welsh Highland Railway to Caernarfon.
3 - to Llanberis for Mount Snowdon and then from Caernarfon back to Shrewsbury via Bangor *.
4 – Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth*, taking the ride on the Vale Of Rheidol Line when you arrive there.
5 – Aberystwyth to Swansea.
6 – A day trip from Swansea across the Gower Peninsular.
7 – A day trip from Swansea to Tenby or Cardiff.
8. - Swansea to Shrewsbury or Chester on the Heart Of Wales line*.
Using Explore Wales Passes to travel around Wales by train will very likely be cheaper than buying tickets for the journeys by the Transport For Wales trains and the bus routes covered by the pass.
To be certain of whether the pass will save you money, there's no substitute for spending around 10 minutes to look up the train journeys you want to take on the Transport For Wales website, then comparing them to the pass price(s).
Though add on an additional £10-15 to the train ticket calculations, to cover the cost of the bus journeys (not covered by the pass) you will be making.
However, ShowMeTheJourney has made a comparison between the likely costs for those suggested itineraries outlined above.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.
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