The best ways to save with railcards

The cost of train tickets keeps going up, but there are ways to save. We’ve rounded up all the railcards you can use to cut costs.

train leaving london
(Image credit: © Getty Images)

The cost of train tickets has spiralled in recent years. However, it’s possible to save a third on ticket prices with railcards.

The problem is, the railcard system is very complex. National Rail says it sells nine main railcards. That seems mad by itself: how many ways do we need to get a discount? Yet once you include all those that only give discounts in some regions, the total rises to around 30.

Here we look at the best railcards and how you can save money.

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How to use railcards to save money on train tickets

Lack of space means we’ll just look at the nine major ones, plus the Gold Card that comes with some season tickets. Unless otherwise stated, all cost £30 per year (some also have three-year deals for £70) and give one-third off fares. Several also give useful discounts on London Underground fares.

First, there are three aimed at young people: the 16-17 Saver, the 16-25 Railcard and the 26-30 Railcard. These are valid nationwide and are mostly sensible in their terms. The 16-17 is the most generous, with 50% off. The 16-25 and 26-30 give one-third off, but are subject to a minimum £12 fare in morning peak hours, so don’t use them when booking short trips. Mature students (15-plus hours per week) can get a 16-25 card, regardless of their actual age.

Next, there are three nationwide cards for specific groups of users. These are the Senior Railcard (for over 60s), the Disabled Persons Railcard (which costs a reduced £20, or £54 for three years) and the Veterans Railcard (anybody who’s served in the UK armed forces).

The Senior card only gives a discount for one person, but the Disabled card covers two people and the Veterans card covers the holder, a named companion and up to four children. The Disabled card is valid at any time. The Veterans one has a £12 minimum fee during peak times. The Senior one cannot be used in peak times within the Network Railcard area.

The benefits of the Network Railcard

Take the so-called Network Railcard, which you’d assume from the name gets you a discount across the whole network. Of course not: it only covers London and the South-East. From Monday to Friday, it can only be used off-peak and there’s a £13 minimum fare (weekends are unrestricted). You can use the card to buy tickets for up to three companions travelling with you.

The Two Together Railcard is issued to two named people who must travel together, which seems less than ideal for balancing demand when trains are often full. It works nationwide, but from Monday to Friday it’s only valid off-peak.

Finally, there’s the Family & Friends Railcard, with a third off for two named adults and 60% off for up to four children aged 5-15. Again, it is not valid in Monday-Friday peak time in the Network Railcard area. Only one adult has to travel, but there must be at least one child with them. Children under five normally travel free on trains – but if the only child in your group is under five, you’ll need to buy a child ticket to use this railcard. Hats off to the bureaucrat who came up with that gloriously petty restriction.

Cris Sholto Heaton

Cris Sholto Heaton is an investment analyst and writer who has been contributing to MoneyWeek since 2006 and was managing editor of the magazine between 2016 and 2018. He is especially interested in international investing, believing many investors still focus too much on their home markets and that it pays to take advantage of all the opportunities the world offers. He often writes about Asian equities, international income and global asset allocation.

Cris began his career in financial services consultancy at PwC and Lane Clark & Peacock, before an abrupt change of direction into oil, gas and energy at Petroleum Economist and Platts and subsequently into investment research and writing. In addition to his articles for MoneyWeek, he also works with a number of asset managers, consultancies and financial information providers.

He holds the Chartered Financial Analyst designation and the Investment Management Certificate, as well as degrees in finance and mathematics. He has also studied acting, film-making and photography, and strongly suspects that an awareness of what makes a compelling story is just as important for understanding markets as any amount of qualifications.