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Train Ticket and Rail Pass Guides Good to know about buying and using train tickets in Great Britain

Good to know about buying and using train tickets in Great Britain

This will help you save money, time and confusion.

| Last Updated: 2 months ago
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This guide to tickets for travel by train in England, Scotland and Wales, and how to buy them online, covers the basics of what you can expect to encounter when making bookings.
The aim is to provide context for the tickets and journey options you should encounter, in usual circumstances, when making a booking either online or at the station.
SMTJ has striven to ensure that the advice presented is as accurate as possible, but a guide such as this cannot cover every combination of journey options.

The intention was also to provide some simple explanations of how to make the most of British train tickets and save money, but pointing out how to do this has required a weight of text.
That's because there's no getting away from the fact that booking a ticket for a British rail journey at the cheapest possible price, or with the greatest scope for stress-free travel, can be complicated.

What can get lost in the confusion are the multiple positive aspects of using British rail tickets, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Day return tickets (not available on all routes) typically costing less than £2 more than one-way (single) tickets;
  • No charges for seat reservations, even though they are optional;
  • The numerous offers around travelling with friends and children at weekends.

So the advice is to read on and use the Contents menu to jump to what you need to know.

When booking British train tickets is conventional:

Some aspects of how tickets can be booked for train journeys in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) aren’t particularly unusual.

In common with the likes of France, Germany and Italy, if you will be travelling long-distance on a direct train, you can typically save money by booking ahead and committing to a specific departure.
And because you will be travelling on a specific train these Advance tickets include a seat reservation.
(As the reservation will have the time of the departure, it validates that you are committed to this specific train).

Or if you will be making a local train journey, you simply buy a ticket for the next train and jump on board.
The ticketing staff at the station, or on the trains, will endeavor to ensure that you are travelling at the cheapest possible price - though they won't offer 'Split tickets' - see below.

On some routes there is no means of saving money by booking in advance so the choice of tickets can be limited to;

  • booking a single ticket;
  • booking a return ticket and travelling back to your starting point later that day (these Day Return tickets aren't much more expensive than booking single tickets);
  • a return journey which involves travelling back on a later date (tends to be slightly cheaper than booking two single tickets).

Also as in other countries, there are also general ‘rules’ of how tickets can be used and sold, including different types of ticket being available, with some being cheaper than others.

And in common with long-distance train services worldwide, first class train tickets are available for most British train journeys.

When booking British train tickets isn't so ordinary

Many of the unconventional aspects of British train tickets are connected to the fact that British train services are operated by separate companies, known as Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
Each company manages how tickets are sold and can be used on its services; and they typically mix their own separate approaches to ticket sales with those national ‘rules'.

These variations can include:

  • deals for travelling in a group of adults, or with children;
  • whether seat reservations in specific assigned seats, will or won’t be, included when booking;
  • the prices which each operator will charge for the exact same journey - because when there is a choice of operator on a route, travelling by one company's trains can be cheaper than travelling on another's;
  • the types of tickets which will be made available for a journey - Advance tickets aren't always available;
  • the time period ahead of travel that the discounted Advance tickets are taken off sale, so will no longer be available;
  • how far ahead of a travel date that discounted 'Advance' tickets will be placed on sale.

This variation of the time period in which a specific type of ticket will be made available is one of the most unusual aspects of how British train tickets are sold, because even when looking up a journey ahead, the more expensive types of tickets can be all that's available.
That's because the cheaper 'Advance' tickets are often placed on sale at a later date to Off-Peak tickets.

Because there is no national rail operator, booking British train tickets can also be particularly unusual in these circumstances:

  • Journeys which require connections; especially when transferring between trains provided by different TOCs.
  • When there is a choice of routes between a start and end point, with a different TOC providing the services over each route.

There's much more information about this on the detailed guide

Why when you will be travelling matters:

Another aspect of booking British train tickets that isn’t typical of how train tickets are usually sold in Europe, is the impact of the time at which you will be travelling, on both ticket availability and prices.

British trains are inevitably busy before and after the working day and travelling in these hours of peak demand is usually more expensive.
So the reverse is also true, when Mondays to Fridays are working days you can typically save money by travelling outside of those peak hours - and peak hours don't apply at all at weekends.
Therefore most train operating companies offer a distinctive type of ticket known as an Off-Peak ticket(s), which if you will be travelling on trains departing at those times, are cheaper than Anytime tickets.
Because of this, when travelling at weekends on long-distance routes, a wider choice of departures is typically available at cheaper prices.

Some, but not all, companies also sell Super Off Peak tickets, which can be used on typically less busy times such as the middle of the afternoon on Monday to Friday, and/or Sunday mornings.
However, each TOC (train operator company) sets the times of day at which it applies peak hour travel rates, so there is no national standard for this.
Though the peak hours are typically between 07:00 and 10:00 in the morning and 16:00 and 19:00 in the evening.
There also aren't 'rules' as to when the Super Off-Peak rate will be available.

travelling in Scotland and Wales

These differences in how train tickets are sold particularly apply when taking train journeys within England.
That’s because all rail journey routes which are solely within Scotland are operated by Scotrail - and until June 28th ScotRail has abandoned Anytime tickets, meaning that the cheaper Off-Peak prices are available on any train all day.

in Wales

All routes solely within Wales and the direct trains between North and South Wales are operated by Transport For Wales (TFW), and it has a seemingly inconsistent policy on when the cheaper Advance tickets will be placed on sale for its longer-distance routes.
The period of time can be less than 4 weeks ahead - and it doesn't indicate whether Advance tickets will become available at a later date.
However, at off-peak times, those aged 15 and under can travel for free on TFW trains instead of at the usual 50% reduction.

The different types of booking services:

For the time being, there are three main types of online booking services available for journeys by train in England Scotland and Wales.

1: The National Rail website

When different companies offer trains between your starting point and a destination it can pay off to compare prices when booking advance; which is easily done if you look up a journey on the National Rail website because it offers an online ticketing service.

All of the booking services operated by each TOC are plugged into the National Rail website, so it provides a comprehensive overview of all the tickets and journey options.
The trains operated by one TOC may be slower, but cheaper, than those of a rival company, but using National Rail can help with decisions such as whether a faster journey justifies a higher price.

The number of steps required for making a booking when using National Rail is no different to booking direct with a TOC; so it can be a particularly useful tool to use if you don’t know which TOC will be operating the train service(s) you will be taking.

2: Booking with ticket affiliate companies

These independent companies, such as Trainline, sell tickets nationwide; in other words they sell journeys regardless of which TOC (Train Operating Company) is providing the service you will be travelling by.
These websites are those listed below which have '(national)' beside the company/brand name.

The positives of using these services are;

  • a lack of a need to know which TOC operates the route or trains you will be taking;
  • you don’t have to register with multiple TOCs in order to buy tickets;
  • the same consumer protection that a TOC will offer will also apply to a booking with these third party sites.

The core negative is that this type of website usually charges booking fees, and these additional charges are not applied by the Train Operating Companies on their respective ticket booking services.

3: Booking direct with a TOC

Each TOC (Train Operating Company) operates its own independent ticket booking site through which it sells tickets for journeys by its trains, AND they usually also sell journeys nationwide, regardless of which TOC is operating the service.
When a TOC does also sell tickets for journeys that it doesn't operate don't be surprised to see it highlight faster and/or cheaper services provided by another company.

The key positives of booking direct with a TOC for travel by the trains it operates, are;

  • no booking fees;
  • access to exclusive offers such as discounted weekend break journeys, or savings when travelling as a group of more than three adults, or when travelling as a family;
  • occasional access to unique services, such as selecting a specific seat(s) from a seating plan;
  • particularly if you are in resident in the UK you may have a wider choice of delivery options, including receiving tickets by post;
  • the peace of mind of dealing directly with a TOC, if you need to manage your booking by amending it to a different train, or seek recompense for a train delay etc.

The 3 main types of ticket:

There are only three core types of ticket placed on sale for British train journeys; though not all three types may be available when you look up a journey.
And the TOCs (train operating companies) can also other types of ticket for sale.

1: Off-Peak tickets

Off-Peak tickets aren’t typically discounted when booking ahead, but they are cheaper than Anytime tickets, because they can only be used on trains departing outside of peak business hours.
Note that unlike any other European country, Britain has a core type of ticket that can only be used at certain times of the day.

If you book Off Peak tickets ahead, you usually won’t be restricted to travelling by a specific departure; as long as the train you board is leaving during the ‘off-peak’.
Though LNER is no longer selling Off-Peak tickets for its long-distance routes such as London <> Leeds, Edinburgh and Yoork

They can also be purchased at stations immediately before departure, so outside of peak hours, they become the default type of last-minute walk up tickets.
If booked ahead, online or at a station, they can also be refunded.

2: Anytime tickets

Anytime tickets also aren’t discounted, but they are the most expensive type of ticket, as they live up to their name by being valid on any train on a travel date.
Meaning that they can be used on departures leaving at peak business hours; hence the higher price.

So if you will be booking last minute at the station during peak hours, for the next train to your destination, the only type of ticket that will typically be available are Anytime tickets.
If booked ahead, online or at a station, Anytime tickets can also be refunded with no fees.

3: Discounted departure specific Advance Tickets

Advance tickets are the discounted type of ticket, so they’re typically cheaper than Off-Peak tickets and always much cheaper than Anytime tickets.
Advance tickets are most typically only made available when journeys between cities on fast express trains, take at least 45 - 60 minutes.
Though the use of the word ‘typically’ is being stretched to its limits in this instance.
Some sort of national definition for long-distance and short-distance journeys would be useful, but they don’t exist.

Other types of ticket:

When looking up a journey online or before booking at a station, it can be good to know that other types of ticket may be available - but whether they will or won't be, depends on multiple factors, such as:

  • the distance you will be traveling,
  • the route you will be taking,
  • the company providing the service
  • how many people will be travelling,
  • a one-way or return journey.
  • if the journey requires a change of train; these other types of ticket are less likely to be an option for indirect journeys.

These other types of ticket, which can be money savers, include:

  1. Off Peak Day Return tickets = commonly available for shorter-distance day trips
  2. Open Return tickets = commonly available if you will be returning on a later date
  3. GroupSave tickets = commonly available when more than two adults will be travelling together

When booking return journeys online you may seem multiple types of ticket at difference price points and the Advance ticket price will often be cheaper, but often you will need to work out if two x Advance tickets, one for each direction of travel, will or won't be cheaper than other types of ticket.

When booking last minute at a station for return journeys on which multiple operators provide the service, Flexible tickets can be option - they enable journey to be made on any train, regardless of which operator is providing the next service to depart.

Good to know about Advance tickets:

The key thing worth knowing about using Advance tickets is that they are train departure specific, they will only be valid on the train(s) you choose when booking.

But how and when they are placed on sale AND on which routes they will or won't be available is more flexible.
Great Northern and Thameslink don't sell them at all, so they are not available when making comparatively long-distance journeys such as

  • Brighton ↔ Luton Airport
  • Gatwick Airport ↔ Cambridge or Peterborough
  • London ↔ Ely or King's Lynn

Avanti West Coast, Cross Country, Grand Central, Hull Trains, LNER and TransPennine Express are the TOCs which offer discounted Advance tickets on all of their routes; while Chiltern Railways, Greater Anglia, EMR, Great Western Railway, Northern, ScotRail, Southern, Southeastern, South Western Railway and TFW are the TOCs which offer Advance tickets on most of their longer-distance routes.
So when looking up a journey which takes less than 60 minutes don’t be surprised if Advance tickets aren’t an option.

Why booking as far in advance as possible is cheaper

Advance tickets tend to be priced according to demand, so prices typically rise after they have been initially made available.
This is because batches of tickets will be released for sale, with those at the cheapest price on sale first - when they sell out they're replaced with tickets at a slightly more expensive price.
It's why, when looking at the prices of Advance tickets, you will often see the equivalent of 'only 6 left'
This doesn't always mean that this is the number of Advance tickets which remain on sale for travel by the specific train - instead it more commonly indicates that is the number of tickets still available at that particular price.

Therefore typically the further ahead you book the cheaper the Advance tickets will be - as those released for sale at the cheapest possible prices inevitably sell out most quickly.

Though for particularly popular departures, it's also possible for the entire allocation of Advance tickets to sell out days or weeks ahead.

When are they placed on sale

Knowing Advance tickets will be placed on sale is a fairly crucial piece of information, but there are no fixed rules for this, it's up to the train operating companies, which typically offer Advance tickets, when they will make them available.
Advance tickets are usually placed on sale 8 -12 weeks ahead, but they can be made available up to 24 weeks ahead as a promotion - in particular, Avanti West Coast, GWR and LNER can do this.
Conversely Cross Country, Northern and Transport For Wales can release Advance tickets for sale only 3 to 6 weeks ahead, which is why it's useful that the periods of time can be now be looked up with National Rail.

Travelling at weekends

Advance tickets won't be placed on sale at all if a journey will be interrupted by engineering works on the railway, because they aren't valid on replacement bus services.
In Britain this work is typically carried out at weekends.

A pre-booking check which can save money

Off-Peak and Anytime tickets are typically placed on sale twelve weeks ahead.
However, because the period of time ahead of the travel date when the Advance tickets are placed on sale is more flexible - when looking up a journey on which Advance tickets are typically made available, three or more weeks ahead, you may not see them offered for sale
But despite the more expensive Anytime and / or Off Peak tickets being available to book, there will usually be no indication of when, or if, the Advance tickets will be made available at a later date.

So if you will be travelling long-distance on trains operated by:

  • Avanti West Coast
  • Chiltern Railways
  • Cross Country
  • EMR
  • Grand Central
  • Greater Anglia
  • GWR
  • Hull Trains
  • LNER
  • Northern
  • ScotRail
  • Southeastern,
  • South Western Railway
  • TFW
  • TransPennine Express
    and looking up a journey 4 - 12 weeks ahead - don't automatically assume that because you are booking ahead, that the tickets you are seeing offered for sale must be Advance tickets.

Look twice, if they are Off-Peak tickets or Anytime tickets, don't rush to book them!
The Off-Peak and Anytime tickets won't typically be coming down in price, so you usually won't lose out financially if you hang back to see if Advance tickets will be made available.
It can be worthwhile to check back weekly to see if the Advance tickets have been placed on sale.
If they are still not on sale less than two weeks ahead, you'll know that the only option will be booking the Anytime or Off Peak tickets.

When are they taken off sale

Advance tickets also live up to their name as they are usually only available to purchase until at least a few hours ahead of departure; so they’re not typically available when booking last minute at stations.
Though each TOC (train operating company) sets its own policies for when Advance tickets, for journeys by its trains, will be taken off sale prior to departure.

  • Avanti West Coast = 60 mins
  • Chiltern Railways = 23:59 on the previous day
  • Cross Country = 10 mins
  • EMR = 5 mins (on most routes inc journeys to/from London)
  • Great Western Railway (GWR) = 18:00 on the previous day
  • Greater Anglia = 10 mins
  • LNER = 5 mins
  • LNWR = 23:59 on the previous day
  • Northern = 23:59 on the previous day
  • Scotrail = 18:00 on the previous day
  • Southern = 18:00 on the previous day
  • Southeastern = 23:59 on the previous day
  • South Western Railway = 23:59 on the previous day
  • TFW Rail = may still be available on the travel day (if they haven't sold out)
  • Trans Pennine Express = 15 mins

Check which routes these companies operate

So note that if you're planning on booking walk-up tickets at a station, when travelling on trains operated by Avanti West Coast, Cross Country, EMR, Greater Anglia, LNER, TFW Rail and Trans Pennine Express, it can be worth checking online to see if Advance tickets are available for upcoming departures.
At the station if you're not offered an Advance price by the booking clerk, ask on which subsequent departures the Advance tickets are still available.

Change of plans

Aside from price, the other key aspect of Advance tickets is that they will also only be valid on the specific departure selected when booking
They can’t be refunded if you change your plans; but can usually be exchanged for a fee and/or or paying the price difference with the replacement ticket.

Good to know about booking return journeys:

Six things to look out for when using tickets for a return (two-way) British train journey:

1: When looking up a two-way journey, be aware that in Britain you don’t have to book a return ticket, despite making a return journey.
As a consequence, when booking a return journey, there is often a choice of different types of tickets available for each direction of travel.

2: Advance tickets are only ever available for one direction of travel, but when booking a two-way trip, you will often be offered them for the outward AND return journeys; so you will actually be booking TWO separate tickets.

3: Or if you will be travelling back at a later date to your outward journey, you may be offered the option of booking Open Return tickets, particularly on routes on which Advance tickets aren’t available.
Though when there IS a choice available between Advance AND Open Return tickets, booking Advance tickets for each direction can be cheaper than booking an Open Return ticket.

4: Or If you will be making a day trip look out for Off Peak Day Return tickets, which are offered by many TOCs over shorter-distance routes.
When this type of ticket is available, the price is typically only a few £s more expensive than booking a one-way/single journey ticket.

5: When both Advance tickets AND Off Peak Day Return tickets are available, look twice at the pricing.
If you will be booking sufficiently far ahead that the cheapest Advance ticket prices are still available, booking two x Advance tickets for each direction of travel can be cheaper than than booking an Off Peak Day Return ticket.
However, the ticket agents won't off a price for the two x Advance tickets, so you will have to make the calculation over whether it will save you money - and you may need to make an entirely separate booking for the return journey
Though keep in mind that you will then be committed to taking a specific departure for the return journey.

6: Tickets for two-way journeys can also be simply listed as ‘Return’ tickets on the booking websites regardless of whether they are being sold at Anytime, Off-Peak or Super Off-Peak rates, or at Day Return rates.
If need be, seek out the info for each price, so you are sure what type of ticket you will be purchasing; and it’s associated T&Cs.

Five more tips for saving money when booking British train tickets:

No matter the journey you will be taking, it’s worth being aware of the following six things if you want to travel by train in Britain at the cheapest possible price; in usual circumstances.

1: Make long-distance day trips at weekends or on national holidays:

If you can travel at a weekend, or on a national holiday, on most routes there will usually be a much wider choice of departures with tickets at cheaper prices, compared to when Mondays to Fridays are working days.
That’s because peak business hours on those working days have such a significant impact on pushing up prices.
So if you will be making a long-distance day trip, with an early morning departure, it can pay off to travel at a weekend.

2: Explore the possibility of using rail cards

If you typically take more than two long-distance train journeys per year, or will be making more than two such journeys while visiting Britain, it’s worth checking to see if there is a type of annual Railcard which will suit you.
UK residents can purchase these Railcards online or at a staffed ticket desk at a station, while visitors to the UK can purchase them at stations.

A range of railcards are available which can be used by visitors to the UK on train journeys within England, Scotland and Wales and the discounts which apply to tickets also apply to many regional rail passes, including Spirit Of Scotland passes.

Family & Friends Railcard:

  • Cost =£30
  • Valid for one year, but at least one child aged 5 to 15 must be part of the travel party for the pass to be eligible
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off adult Standard class tickets for up to 4 adults and 60% off child rate tickets for up to 4 children aged 5 to 15.

26-30 Railcard

  • Cost =£30
  • Valid for one year
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off adult rate on all Standard Class tickets + 1/3 off adult rate on First Class Advance tickets + 1/3 off when using Oyster cards in London off-peak

Two Together Railcard

  • Cost =£30
  • Valid for one year, can be used by the two people named on the card
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard and First Class tickets at the adult rate

Senior Railcard

  • Cost =£30
  • Valid for one year, can be used by people aged 60 and over
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard and First Class tickets at the adult rates + 1/3 off when using Oyster cards in London off-peak.

Network Railcard (ideal for day trips from London)

  • Cost =£30
  • Valid for one year and can be used for journeys within the shaded area on this map.
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard Class tickets at the adult rates for journeys within the area + you can take up to three more adults with you who also qualify for a 1/3 off + take up to four children aged 5 to 15 and receive a 60% discount on the child ticket rates.

Despite being valid for a year using a railcard can be a significant money saver even when taking just one holiday.

For example, if two people aged 40 wanted to take a holiday involving London and Scotland:

  • A Two Together Railcard
  • and a pair of Advance tickets for the journeys each way to and from Glasgow booked a month ahead
  • and 4 day trips across Scotland from Glasgow using 2 x Spirit Of Scotland passes booked at the railcard rate, .
    The savings on ticket prices and the passes would typically be around £150, more than enough to offset the purchase of the card at £30.

3: Booking Advance tickets at the cheapest possible price

Advance tickets are typically placed on sale in limited numbers for each departure, so generally the further ahead you can book, the more money you can save.
For departures at peak business hours when the more expensive Anytime tickets are the only other option, they can sell out weeks in advance.
Though if a train operating company does typically offer Advance tickets, they can be placed on sale at various periods time before the travel date, and this can range from 6-24 weeks ahead.

A range of prices is also applied to batches of Advance tickets, so the quantities of cheapest tickets will inevitably sell out faster.
Meaning that typically, the less popular a train departure is, the cheaper it will be, so it can pay off to be as flexible as possible re: departure and arrival times.

4: Look out for deals offered by the Train Operating Companies

Because the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) manage which type of tickets will be sold on each of their routes and services; they often offer deals such as:

  • Cheaper ‘Super Off-Peak’ tickets being available at particularly quiet travel times (more common on routes on which Advance tickets aren’t available)
  • 'Group Save’ deals, enabling multiple adults travelling together to save.
  • Many TOCs also sell travel with kids deals with tickets (for 5 - 15 year olds) at only £1 or £2 - when children travel with adults outside peak times.
  • The availability of Off-Peak Day Return tickets, ideal for day trips on shorter routes, or for journeys on which Advance tickets aren't available. Will typically cost the same price when booking last minute at the station and often only cost £1-2 more than single tickets.

So take time to compare the types of tickets when you are looking up journeys, don’t solely focus on the initial prices you will see.
Particularly as the ticket price tends to be more dominant than the information for how a ticket can be used.

5: Using regional rail passes

If you'll be spending more than a couple of days in a particular area, there will usually be rail passes available, which can be money savers if you want to take multiple journeys by train.
The most popular of these can be accessed on the buttons below.

If you will be changing trains during a journey

Because the majority of TOCs operate trains in specific areas of Britain, many end-to-end journeys across the country involve combinations of trains managed by different companies; especially when not travelling to and from London.
There can be price discrepancies for tickets for journeys which involve bundling together trains provided by different operators.

So if you want to save money when taking this type of journey, it can pay off to compare prices on the different types of ticket booking services.

The National Rail website will enable easy comparison of different prices, routes and travel times and provides links to the TOC, which is providing the cheapest combination of trains

It can also be worth checking the prices being offered by the split-ticketing services; though when comparing prices be aware of any booking fees, which may also be payable.

Also check the connecting times between trains; though no matter what type of ticket booked, you should be able to take a later train at no extra charge in the event of delays, according to the National Rail conditions of travel.

Good to know when there is a choice of train services:

When travelling between destinations, multiple Train Operating Companies (TOCs) can provide the train services, and this can impact on how tickets can be sold and used.
What can affect prices is whether the trains provided by the different TOCs

  • share the exact same route;
  • make more station calls and are therefore slower than an alternative service;
  • whether they take different, alternative routes.
    But unless you have a good knowledge of British railway geography, this can be confusing.

When different companies share the exact same route

These longer routes include:

  • Bristol ↔ Exeter and Plymouth
  • Bristol ↔ destinations in Cornwall
  • Leeds ↔ Newcastle
  • Leeds ↔ York
  • London ↔ York
  • London ↔ Edinburgh
  • York ↔ Newcastle and Edinburgh
  • Newcastle and Berwick upon Tweed ↔ Edinburgh
  • Edinburgh ↔ Aberdeen
  • Preston ↔ Edinburgh and Glasgow

Booking Ahead:

When two or more companies provide services on the exact same route, if you can book ahead it’s usually worth comparing the prices of Advance tickets being offered by each company.
Though if you want to save by booking an Advance ticket, you will be committed to travelling only on the services provided by that company; so in the event of a delay, you won’t be able to take a train managed by an alternative operator

Also if you subsequently need to exchange tickets, you will only be able to transfer your booking to other departures operated by the same company.
(Though if you book Anytime tickets ahead, you can refund them and then book with a different TOC).

Though because each company can set its own prices it wants to charge for a travelling on a route, it can be possible to save by booking end-to-end journeys which involve making connections between trains provided by different operators.
This particularly applies when travelling to destinations on the East Coast route between York and Edinburgh and on the West Coast route between Preston and Glasgow.
When travelling to and from these locations both Trainline and National Rail will typically offer cheaper alternatives with a change of train, in addition to more expensive direct journeys.

Booking last minute at the station:

If you book an Off-Peak or Anytime ticket at a station at the last minute , you will likely be offered a ticket(s) which can only be used on the train's operated by one specific company - this particularly when booking longer-distance journeys
The booking clerk can assume you will want to take the next departure, regardless of which company is operating that specific service, so it can be worth confirming that you're being offered the cheapest possible price
Trains leaving later operated by alternative companies may be cheaper.
Or if you'd rather not be restricted to taking trains, solely being offered by one company, you can request a 'flexible' ticket(s).

It can also pay off to look the journey up on a ticket machine before heading to the counter and then compare the prices offered by the machines, with the prices offered by the booking clerk; it seems bizarre but price discrepancies are not unknown.

When trains take different routes between stations

Alternative routes can also be available between destinations, with different TOCs offering the trains on each route.

These longer- distance routes include:

  • London ↔ Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter, Liverpool, Oxford, Portsmouth and Southampton
  • Leeds ↔ Manchester
  • Glasgow ↔ Edinburgh

This can also affect how tickets can be used.

When booking ahead online for these journeys it’s usually worth comparing the prices offered by each operator and also including other factors into your journey planning; the slower route may, or may not, be cheaper

When booking a ticket last minute at the station, if the ticket has the wording ‘Any route permitted’ you can take any train regardless.
However, the slower route operated by a specific company may be cheaper than another, and when that is the case, you have to take care to travel only on train services provided by that company.
So if you haven’t travelled on a particular route before, it can be a good idea to book tickets at a staffed ticket counter, rather than using a ticket machine, and check with the booking clerk that you're booking a journey which would suit; cheapest or fastest etc

Booking journeys with children:

Children aged 5 – 15 travel at a 50% discount on any UK train, and those aged 4 and under can travel for free when accompanied by an adult ticket holder, though the terms for how those 4 and under can travel, can vary between the TOCs; you either will or won't have to travel with the child on your lap.
Though if you will be traveling as a family and make two or three long-distance journeys during a year, it can be worth investing in a Friends and Family RailCard.

Some TOCs including c2c; Greater Anglia; LNWR; ScotRail; Southeastern and Thameslink offer deals in which child tickets can cost only £1 or £2 when children aged 5 - 15 travel with an adult.

Tickets for seniors:

There is no national train ticket policy for senior travellers (aged 60 and over), but it's possible to save money on rail tickets by using a RailCard.
So if you’re visiting from outside the UK no discounts are available if you’re 60 and over; unless you purchase this Railcard at a station.

Good to know about seat reservations

The eleven things most worth knowing about seat reservations on British trains are:

(1) Seat reservations are not usually mandatory on any British daytime train service, so you don't have to make reservations if you will be travelling with a rail pass such as a Britrail or Eurail pass, or if you will be using any type of 'Rover' ticket.

The exceptions when reservations are mandatory include a few summer Saturday express trains to Devon and Cornwall; and reservations are also required on The Night Riviera and Caledonian Sleeper services.

(2) Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, EMR, Great Western, Hull Trains, LNER, ScotRail, TFW and TransPennine Express are the TOCs Train Operating Companies which make seat reservations available for long-distance journeys.
Greater Anglia also offers seat reservations on its London <> Norwich route.

(3) Reservations are automatically included when booking Advance tickets for journeys by those eight TOCs (train operating companies), because you need to travel by the specific departure(s) you selected when booking, in order to use that type of ticket

Seats are also assigned when booking Advance tickets for the longer-distance routes operated by London North Western Railway, Southern and South Western Railway, though when travelling with these operators, the reservations won't be marked on the trains.

(4) If you opt to use e-tickets which can be stored in mobile phones, the details of the seat reservation = the coach + seat number(s) may not be shown on your ticket.
Instead they may only be included on the booking confirmation email.

(5) If you book Anytime or Off-Peak tickets on the longer-distance routes operated by Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, EMR, Great Western, Hull Trains, LNER, ScotRail and TransPennine Express and on the London <> Norwich route, seat reservations won't automatically be included.
That's because the usual key selling point of these two types of ticket, is the freedom they typically provide of being able to choose between departures.
Though if you book these two types of ticket for journeys by those companies, you can opt to add a complimentary reservation, either when booking the ticket online, or later.

(6) However, the time limit for booking reservations at stations ahead of travel depends on the TOC providing the train service you will be travelling by; it can vary from a couple of hours to just 10 minutes
So if you will be departing the following morning, SMTJ's advice is to book reservations by the end of the previous day.

Keep this is mind if you will be using a rail pass, such as a Britrail Pass or an InterRail or Eurail pass, because it typically won't be possible to book reservations at a station, just prior to boarding.
Though when using rail passes you won't be charged for booking reservations at stations, but you will need to use a staffed ticket desk and not a ticket machine.

(7) The need to book reservations ahead, is why they are not typically available when booking walk-up Anytime or Off-Peak tickets at stations, just prior to boarding.

(8) On services/routes on which seat reservations are an option, information for whether each specific seat has been reserved or is available, is typically displayed on board the trains.

(9) You won't usually have to travel in the seat(s) you have been assigned for your ticket to be valid.
So if alternative seats are available for your journey, you can sit in those instead.

(10) Reservations aren’t always available at all on some fairly lengthy regional services, particularly those operated by Northern AND on most 'commuter' routes to and from London - including trains operated by Chiltern Railways, Southeastern, Southern, South Western Railway and Thameslink.

(11) Despite the comparatively high frequency of departures, British trains can be overcrowded.
Therefore when reservations aren't available, try to avoid travelling into any major city between 08:00 and 09:30 and away from them between 17:00 and 19:00.

Also try to avoid travelling on long-distance train services, on which reservations aren't available, on any route at these times;

  • between 15:00 and 20:00 on Fridays and Sundays,
  • on routes to/from coastal resorts on summer Saturdays.

Rail passes for visitors to Britain

If you are not resident in the UK you can use Eurail and InterRail 'global' passes to see Britain by train in addition to other countries of your choice; though you'll need to be sure that your trip to and from England / Scotland / Wales falls within your selected period of time that your pass will be valid for.

For European citizens InterRail for Great Britain passes are available for 3, 4, 5, 6 or 8 days of non-consecutive travel.
Everybody else who solely wishes to explore Britain by train can make use of BritRail passes; and if you meet the InterRail criteria and aren't resident in the UK, there are BritRail passes valid for two days of travel which are cheaper than those InterRail passes valid for 3 days.
Eurail passes are not available solely for travel in Great Britain.

With any of these passes you can hop on any daytime national rail service, reservations are available but optional on most long-distance routes; and on daytime trains there will be no charge for making the reservation; special rates are available to rail pass users on the Caledonian Sleeper and Night Riviera services.

Users of Eurail and InterRail 'global' passes can book reservations on Eurostar, which can seem pricey, but the cost per day of using the pass + the reservation fee, is often much cheaper than booking Eurostar tickets.
However, BritRail passes are not valid on the Eurostar.

Comparison with using combinations of railcards and tickets

Thanks to the extraordinarily high prices of walk-up tickets for long-distance rail journeys, both InterRail passes for Great Britain and Britrail passes can be great value for money if you want to take spontaneous rail journeys.
However, if you are happy to book ahead and commit to specific trains with Advance tickets, then it's possible that a combination of railcard + rail tickets; or railcard + rail tickets + regional rail passes will be money saver, even when visiting Britain for a holiday.

Railcards which can be used by visitors to Britain include
Family & Friends Railcard:
Core benefits = 1/3 off adult Standard class tickets for up to 4 adults and 60% off child rate tickets for up to 4 children aged 5 to 15.

26-30 Railcard
Core benefits = 1/3 off adult rate on all Standard Class tickets + 1/3 off adult rate on First Class Advance tickets + 1/3 off when using Oyster cards in London off-peak

Two Together Railcard
can be used by the two people named on the card
Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard and First Class tickets at the adult rate

Senior Railcard

  • Valid for one year, can be used by people aged 60 and over
  • Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard and First Class tickets at the adult rates + 1/3 off when using Oyster cards in London off-peak.

Network Railcard (ideal for day trips from London)
Can be used for journeys within the shaded area on this map.
Core benefits = 1/3 off all Standard Class tickets at the adult rates for journeys within the area + you can take up to three more adults with you who also qualify for a 1/3 off + take up to four children aged 5 to 15 and receive a 60% discount on the child ticket rates.

For example, if two people aged 40 wanted to take a holiday involving London and Scotland:
A Two Together Railcard + a pair of Advance tickets for the journeys each way to and from Glasgow booked a month ahead + 4 day trips across Scotland from Glasgow using 2 x Spirit Of Scotland passes booked at the railcard rate, would have a total approximate cost of £410 / €480.
But two x 2nd class Adult InterRail passes valid for six days of rail travel in Great Britain = €524

If the two people aged 40 were to be travelling with an 8 year and a 10 year old, the InterRail cost would still be €524, because there would be no charge for the two child rate InterRail passes, but the total tickets costs when using a Freinds and Family railcard would be approximately £515 / €605.

So as can be seen there are no 'rules' around whether rail passes will or won't be money savers, but if a holiday to Britain includes just two long-distance rail journeys, it's likely that a railcard + tickets will be a money saver.
On the London and Scotland example above, the savings on the journeys between London and Glasgow, paid back the costs of the investment in the railcard.

Booking international tickets.

Booking international rail passes:

Author

Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.

ShowMeTheJourney

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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