How to get cheap train tickets this summer

I saved a bundle on my recent staycation by knowing where to go for my train ticket. Don’t let the glitzy adverts or confusing websites mislead you – here is how to make a real saving using split ticketing, free sites and a bit of forward planning

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I’m just back from beautiful Cornwall, and spent yesterday on my longest ever continuous train journey in the UK – 10 hours 40 minutes from St Erth to Edinburgh. A tough ride, but the trip with Cross Country Trains was made a lot easier knowing I had saved £28 on my ticket. I just needed to book at the right time on the right website with the right method.

The cost of a standard ticket bought online with a railcard was £128, single or return, though the latter was only available on certain trains. However, I had actually bought a total of five tickets to save money – so-called ‘split ticketing’.   By buying singles between Edinburgh, Birmingham and Plymouth (on the way out), but travelling on the same trains, and striking on the internet as soon as bookings opened back in April, the total came in at around £100.

This kind of nifty saving should be encouraging more young people to take to the trains and enjoy a “staycation” this summer, particularly when the euro is weak and airlines are piling on extra charges for customers.

But just a few days ago Passenger Focus, the rail consumer watchdog, published a report into online ticket buying, warning that many people are paying too much because ticketing websites are too confusing.

It says passengers have a “misplaced confidence” in the tickets they click to buy. If they go for the bargain, they too often discover too late that the ticket cannot be used for the journey or the time they want. Or if they pay the bigger prices, they may not realise there is a cheaper route or better deal.

The report says train companies should allow us to make “better informed choices between times, routes and price”, offering greater clarity on ticket restrictions and permitted routes. Some online train booking sites, for instance, fail to show the time and the fare on the same screen.

According to the report, most websites show a London to Manchester return ticket at £70 and a single ticket at £69 – just £1 cheaper. Only the Virgin and Trainline websites offer the discounted single ticket fare to Manchester at £35 – half the return fare.

But many of the fares quoted in the report, and on various websites such as splityourticket.co.uk and cheaptrain tickets.co.uk, can be misleading.

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The fact is that you can travel from London to Manchester on a young railcard for £20 once it hits 9 a.m., and in the other direction for only £11 if you pick the right train – that’s a bit less than the £49 total (with railcard) quoted in the report.  

Even the holy grail of money advice, moneysavingexpert.com, can give you a bum steer in this area. According to their advice section on split-ticketing, you can save £57 on the £150 cost of the standard single between Manchester and Edinburgh if you book separate tickets to and from York. But hang on a minute, why would anybody pay £150, or £300 return, to go via York at all when it’s 45 minutes quicker and a lot cheaper via Carlisle?!

The best website out there by a long chalk is the award-winning East Coast Trains, which you can use to book for any train journey in the UK, contrary to what its name suggests.

Here, you can see clearly the best on offer – in this case, a young person’s off-peak return between Manchester and Edinburgh for £42 or two cheap singles for £28.40.  This site gives you all the journey and price information you need on one easy-to-read screen and will show you the calling points for every train, which is uber useful. It will also allow you to choose your seat in a carriage before booking it, which is important if a mild form of OCD dictates you must be sat facing the direction of travel like me.

The only charge made by this site is a £1 fee for sending tickets in the first-class post, but you can collect them from the station for free or print them out yourself.  On top of that there is as 10% discount for online booking.

Compare and contrast with a certain commercial site, which has recently spent a lot of money on glitzy “choo-choo-choo” TV ads. Here, you have to pay £1 just to book tickets and an outrageous £3.50 to pay with a credit card. Why anyone would use this, rather than a website with no fees, is beyond me.

Only this month the Office of Fair Trading issued a critical report on ticket sites, such as easyjet, Ryanair and thetrainline.com, which slap on a card fee at the end of the buying process. Be wary when using travel booking websites, as these are the worst offenders by far for whacking on extra charges when you pay by card.

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As for the split ticket advice sites, much of the information is no more than a breakdown of the standard single fares between different points on a route. That pays no attention to where you can really make the savings, which is to buy advance or off-peak tickets as far ahead as you possibly can – even if it is only a day or two –  and time your journeys airline-style according to the prices on offer. If you use a route regularly, keep tabs on how long cheap tickets are available and when prices go up prior to that journey, as knowing these rough patterns will help you to book at the best time.

A word of caution: if you do book split tickets for your journey to benefit from the advance purchase discounts, you must allow plenty of time for any connections you have to make. If you miss one and are forced to get on another train you haven’t booked for, most train guards will have no mercy and say your ticket is invalid, forcing you to buy a new one at the maximum price. Rumour has it that some train companies pay guards commission for any extra revenue they can extract. So don’t give them the satisfaction, and play safe when planning your journey.

HERE ARE MY TRAIN TIPS:

Keep the receipt for your railcard

When getting or renewing your Railcard, keep the paperwork issued with it.  If you lose it, it will only cost you £5 to replace, not £28.  The same principle applies with Oyster cards in London – register it and reclaim any lost value.

Learn nifty railcard tricks

You can get the 16-25 railcard for £25.20 online until September 30.

If you are coming up to 26, get yourself a brand new railcard, multi-year if possible, on the day before your 26th birthday.

Watch out for giveaway ticket offers in national papers

If you get the tokens and buy at the right time, you could save a lot. But you’ll need the tokens with you on the train.

Go to the right websites

Buy from the train operators, particularly East Coast or Cross-Country, and never pay any booking or credit card fees.  Ticket alerts, telling you when bookings open for a particular date, can be requested from these sites.

For complex trips, go to the ticket office

If you have a complicated journey, consider turning the clock back and actually buying from a station ticket-office. You should get clear guidance on the cheapest options.

Know your options…

Remember that you can amend an advance ticket, at a cost of £10, but you can’t change the journey or get a refund.  If it’s only the return trip that needs changing, you’ll have to do it before the outward trip is made. Offpeak tickets are more flexible, and allow great choice on return journeys, but you still have to commit to a day, and probably a train, for the outward journey.

…and your rights!

Keep any ticket for a journey delayed more than 30 minutes, download a delay compensation form from the train company’s website, e-mail or post it, and train vouchers will follow.

www.16-25railcard.co.uk/online

www.eastcoast.co.uk

www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk

www.moneysavingexpert.co.uk

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