Seven tips for cheaper rail travel

With the New Year came another bout of train fare rises as the rail companies pleaded poverty once again. The fare hikes – 6% on average – are apparently needed to help pay for improvements to the rail network, although many passengers might be hard-pushed to recognise any improvements since the last inflation-busting rise in 2007.

But don’t despair – there are ways you can avoid these rises. You just need to be a little more savvy about how you buy your tickets. Thanks to a few simple tricks, I haven’t paid more than £15 for round trips between London and the family homestead in York in the past six months. My ticket for a trip travelling on Christmas Eve (one-way) cost me just £6.50.

So how do you do it?

Get organised

To get the best ticket prices you need to book in advance. Tickets usually become available 12 weeks before the travel date and the best deals get snapped up fast, so you have to get in quick. If you are planning a trip a long way into the future – holidays or Christmas trips for example – then write a reminder to yourself to check for tickets three months before travelling.

If you are travelling on the East Coast Mainline, National Express will do this for you. See ‘Advance Ticket Alert’ on the National Express site, fill in the dates you want to travel and they’ll email you when tickets go on sale. Remember to fill out separate alerts for both your outgoing and return journeys however – otherwise you’ll only be told when both sets of dates are available, by which point you might have missed the best deals for the outward journey – this is especially important at Christmas.

Research railcards

This is the easiest way to enjoy discounts on your rail journeys. Check to see the five different railcards available. The three main cards will benefit anyone who is under 25, over 60 or travels with children. If you happen to be approaching your 26th birthday – or you know someone who is – here’s a quick tip: buy or renew your 16-25 railcard the day before your 26th birthday. It will be valid for another year, regardless of the fact you are no longer within the age bracket.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of rail users – commuters – can’t get a railcard unless they start taking their children to work, something which is neither practical nor particularly cost-saving once you’ve paid for the child.

Get a season ticket

So for those who use the train to commute, look into buying a season ticket to save money. If you aren’t sure whether you travel by train regularly enough to benefit, check National Rail’s season ticket calculator, which will show you what a season ticket will cost you for your journey preferences.

Stay single

Don’t assume that a return ticket will be cheaper than two singles – often the opposite is true, especially as cheap returns are the first tickets to sell out. So when you are searching for a fare, don’t forget to search for single tickets too.

Shop around

Don’t just look for tickets via your train operating company’s website. Both thetrainline and raileasy have search facilities that will help you find the cheapest ticket. But once you’ve found your ticket, don’t buy it through these sites, as both charge booking fees. Find the ticket then buy it through your train operating company to avoid extra charges.

Or to avoid all this hassle, you can just use the National Express site. The company allows you to buy tickets for journeys around the country, not just on the services it operates. Its website is well laid out with the search results page having all the different fare options across the top, so you can look up single fares and return fares without having to do a new search. It also lists all the different train times available and the different prices for each. If you still don’t think you’ve found the best deal, click on the ‘lowest fare finder’ button to check. And once you are ready to pay, National Express doesn’t charge a booking fee or postage.

Split your journey

If you still can’t find a cheap ticket and have the spare time, you can try splitting your journey into sections and buying tickets for each section. As long as you get your timings right, you won’t have to change trains (you’re just buying two or more tickets for the same journey, rather than one) and you can save a fortune.

For example Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert worked out the savings on a return ticket from London to Penzance. The cheapest return cost £257. But by buying four singles (London to Plymouth, Plymouth to Penzance, Penzance to Plymouth and Plymouth to London) he cut the cost to £50.

To find out where your train stops check Transport Direct. Search for your journey then click on the word ‘train’ beneath the picture of the train on the results page, and it will list the stations the train calls at.

Take the coach

Finally, if you want a really cheap journey and aren’t travelling too far, check coach times and prices. For example, a coach between London and Bristol takes two and a half hours and is considerably cheaper – between £1-£10 for a single – than a train, which takes around two hours. See  to check coach fares and times.

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• Merryn Somerset Webb is away