Unravelling the mysteries of UK rail fares

Travelling by train is usually fast and stress-free, especially if it’s for leisure, outside the rush hour, and not during major public holidays! You can sit back and enjoy the journey without having to worry about luggage allowances or staying alert for the whole journey. Or hop on a sleeper and wake up just in time for breakfast at your destination.


In my experience, buying tickets in a country like Italy with its state-owned railways is stress-free too: you go to the station, pay an X amount for a single ticket to your destination and twice the amount for a return (the price depends on the distance). Add a supplement if you want a faster service and off you go – once you’ve validated your ticket. (If you forget, just look appropriately sheepish and apologise when the conductor comes to check the tickets.)

In the UK, however, the fare system is much more complicated, partly because there are 20+ different train operators across Great Britain for passenger services. You can buy peak, off-peak, and super off-peak tickets with sometimes considerable price differences between them; singles cost only slightly less than returns; walk-up fares cost more than advance bookings; the ticket price does not merely depend on the travel distance; day returns are cheaper than open returns; you can save money with a so-called split ticket, and a railcard can give you further discounts on off-peak travel. Slightly more confusing than the Italian way, isn’t it?!

It took me a while to get my head around the fare jungle and find ways to avoid spending a fortune on tickets. (Having a husband familiar with the system helps, too!) Some of the methods only require flexibility with your travel times or routes, others take a bit more effort. If you are considering rail travel in the UK, the following tips, based on my own experiences and mistakes, could make your journeys cheaper and more enjoyable. (Please note, none of these are meant as financial advice, and you should always check ticket/railcard terms and conditions as restrictions may apply.)


Unless absolutely necessary, avoid travelling at peak times when most commuters are on the move. The fares are much higher and trains full. Off-peak tickets are usually valid after 9.30 am although that varies between train companies. As walk-up fares can be high, look for cheap advance tickets, which are generally available  about 12 weeks before you travel but even as late as the night before. Just keep in mind advance tickets are restricted to a specific train. It’s also worth comparing route prices: a return from Oxford to Bristol, for example, costs more if you go via Reading instead of Didcot.

Different train companies have their own prices for different parts of the journey, which means you can often save money with a ‘split ticket‘ if you travel across the franchise boundaries. Instead of having one ticket for the whole trip, you can break your journey down into two or more parts with a separate ticket for each section. The only rule is that the train must call at all the stations you buy tickets for. For example, if you split your trip from Stirling to Dundee at Perth, the train needs to call at Perth in both directions.

So how do you know where the boundaries are and if a split ticket is an option? The easiest way to find it out is to use a ticket split app or website. It will suggest a route and calculate the cost, which you can then compare with an ordinary ticket price. If your journey straddles both peak and off-peak times, try to split it so that the largest possible part is off-peak. Remember to specifically ask for a split ticket if you are buying the ticket at the station as it’s usually not automatically offered.

If you spend £90 or more a year on off-peak rail travel, consider buying a national railcard or, if you live in southern England, a network railcardMost of them cost £30 a year and give you up to 1/3 off  adult fares.  The different railcards I’ve had over the years have always paid themselves back within a couple of months, mainly because of my regular trips to the bright lights of London.

Speaking of London, I really enjoy walking there as I explained in my previous post but if I know I’ll be using its local transport a lot during my visit, I buy a Travelcard instead of a return ticket. (A railcard gives you a discount on that too!) It’s valid on bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground and most National Rail services within London.

Finally, I’d also recommend you buy tickets from train companies’ own websites as third party websites often charge a booking fee as well as a card fee.  Look for promotions, vouchers and codes. Many train companies also offer discounts for groups of people travelling together.

Welcome aboard!

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4 thoughts on “Unravelling the mysteries of UK rail fares

      1. That’s absolutely true for all cities and countries. If you invest some time into understanding the systems, you can save a lot!


  1. […] Trains: Rail travel is fast and convenient but ticket purchasing  can sometimes be a challenge in more ways than one: in addition to comparing ticket types and checking possible restrictions, it’s good to be aware of accepted payment methods. In The Netherlands, for example, you need either coins or a Dutch bank card to buy tickets from a self-service machine. It’s not a major problem at a big station with a ticket counter but if you have arrived at The Hook of Holland early in the morning without having bought a ticket on the ferry, the situation changes slightly…! (At that time I hopped on the train and got the ticket on-board although I was asked why I hadn’t bought it on the ferry. Yes, why hadn’t I?!) In the UK the rail fare system can be puzzling but once you are familiar with its basics, you can avoid paying too much unnecessarily. (I have listed a few tips in Unravelling the mysteries of UK rail fares.) […]


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