Cheap train tickets: tips and tricks for getting the best price

Buying in advance isn’t the only way to find cheap train tickets, as this handy guide explains

Father and child on a train

Rail passengers will be searching for cheap train tickets as the cost of travel rises at a time when money is tighter than ever.

From 1 March 2022, the price of train tickets rose by 3.8% in the biggest hike since January 2013, with train operators claiming the extra cash is needed to recover the pandemic’s impact on travel. Whether it’s rising fuel costs (opens in new tab) or energy bills (opens in new tab), households are feeling the pinch across the board as the cost-of-living rockets.

The government has refused to promise that fares will rise by inflation or less over the coming years. However, experts hope that the introduction of the new body the Great British Railways could see some price cuts when it starts running services in 2023. Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, says: "Great British Railways, when it is set up, must give life to the Government’s ambition to make rail fares better value for money. Boosting passenger numbers and revenue through innovative rail ticket retailing and offers will be vital.”

The good news is there are plenty of ways to slash the cost of train travel. Here are some tips, from how to find the cheapest train tickets, to using railcards to cut costs.

Cheap train ticket tips for savvy shoppers

1. Book 12 weeks in advance for the cheapest train tickets

Book as early as possible to get cheap train tickets. You’ll usually find that tickets are available up to 12 weeks in advance, so note the date in your diary. Network rail usually releases a set timetable 12 weeks ahead of travel, but keep checking if tickets aren’t yet available to book. If you’re travelling with London North Eastern Railway (LNER), tickets may be on offer 24 weeks ahead for some journeys.

Of course, it’s not always possible to plan that far ahead, but advance tickets may still be available up until your travel date. However, book as soon as you can, as prices usually gradually rise over the weeks. Even if you’re only booking the night before, it’s worth doing so as you could potentially save money.

But before you book, check the train company’s website for any particular discounts. For example, Northern Rail is offering 25% off when two travel on its duo ticket.

2. Splitting tickets

Long train journeys can be enormously expensive. But often, you can cut the cost if you divide your journey by buying two or even three tickets covering different parts of the journey. You may not even need to change trains, if you’re lucky.

Peter Walls (opens in new tab), director at Split My Fare, says: “Split ticket savings can be made on over 60% of journeys. With sites like Split My Fare offering a quick and easy booking process with no hassle, it doesn’t take any longer to find cheaper tickets. Normally you’ll stay in the same seat but can save over half the cost.”

On a recent booking from Bristol to Liverpool, for example, a customer saved £48 on a £94 ticket by splitting their tickets at Worcestershire Parkway and Birmingham. A customer booking from Bristol to Manchester also saved £50 on a £99 ticket by splitting their tickets at Cheltenham Spa, Birmingham, and Wilmslow.

There are several websites that make splitting fares easier. Check out TrainPal (opens in new tab), (opens in new tab), Split My Fare (opens in new tab), and Split Your Ticket (opens in new tab).

3. Avoid booking fees

When you’re booking train tickets on any website, check for extra fees, as you don’t have to pay these, and they can add up. You can find train tickets fee-free on London North Eastern Railway (opens in new tab). Also check out RedSpottedHanky (opens in new tab) and Avanti West Coast (opens in new tab) for cheap ways to book ahead.

If you’ve a specific journey in mind, check a few sites to find the cheapest ticket you can. It should only take a minute or two, and since sites sometimes list different tickets, it’s worth doing to be sure you’ve grabbed the best deal.

A spokesperson for London North Eastern Railway (LNER) says: “Customers can book direct and reserve their seat, fee-free, and also find the best value fares using LNER’s mobile app or website. They can also sign up for LNER’s loyalty reward scheme, LNER Perks, which offers a number of exclusive benefits.”

4. Use a railcard

Railcards slash a third off the majority of fares and cost from around £30 a year. Check out (opens in new tab) for the different types. You can easily find the one that’s most suitable for you using the search tool, putting in your location station, age, and whether you usually travel with kids.

For example, the Network Railcard offers a third off journeys in London and the South East, the 16-25 Railcard is specifically for younger people, and the Family and Friends Railcard cuts costs if you’re travelling as a group. Up to four adults and four children can travel together, with adults getting a third off fares, and kids getting up to a 60% reduction. That’s a massive saving on a big trip. You can even use your Tesco Clubcard (opens in new tab) points to get money off railcards.

Railcards are usually valid for a year, and can be easily renewed at your local station. They usually pay for themselves after a few uses, so they’re really worth having. If you’re a couple, the Two Together Railcard is another option that can save up to £129 a year on travel, and comes with special partner discounts.

Check out our sister brand MyVoucherCodes for Railcard promo codes (opens in new tab) to see if you can save even more. 

a screengrab of different rail cards to buy cheap train tickets

What time of day are train tickets cheaper?

Train tickets are cheapest if you travel off-peak from around 09.30 to 16.00, and after 19.00 Monday to Friday. But the exact times depend on your train operator and location. You’ll usually find weekends and Bank Holidays are off-peak all day. If there’s more than one off-peak fare for a journey, the cheapest one with most restrictions on when you can travel will be called ‘super off-peak’.

Generally, off-peak and super off-peak tickets apply during quieter times. The trains you can catch and times you can travel off-peak depend on the train operator, journey and date of travel. But bear in mind that they’re not as cheap as advance fares, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. However, you don’t have to travel on a specific train with an off-peak ticket, unlike an advance ticket bought well ahead of your journey.

For example, if you buy an anytime ticket from London to Swansea departing at 18:18 this will cost you £182.10. But if you travel just one hour later, a ticket for the off-peak 19:18 service will set you back £103.80. That’s a saving of £78.30 for travelling off-peak.

Do train ticket prices go up on the day?

Train operators usually release advance tickets around 12 weeks before the date of travel, and these rise in price up until the day. So, it’s best to book well ahead if possible. If you download the Trainline’s app (opens in new tab), you can use its live tracker to find the cheapest prices right up until the day. To use this, type the two stations you are travelling between and search for trains for the day you want to travel. This will find the cheapest tickets for your journey. But remember not to book through Trainline to avoid booking fees (see above for sites that don’t charge these fees).

Some train operators let you buy advance tickets on the actual day of travel, if they haven’t already sold out, or the day before. So make sure to check if there are any available at a cheaper price before you travel. Remember, though, that advance tickets are for specific trains and are usually non-refundable.

How can I get my money back if my train was cancelled or delayed?

If the train you were meant to travel on is delayed or cancelled and you then don’t travel, you can claim a full refund. You should be able to get this immediately by going to the ticket office if you’re at the station. You can also claim a refund by post if you submit a claim form to the train operator within 28 days of the ticket’s date. Forms are usually found at ticket offices or you might be able to submit a claim online, which is the best option if you bought your ticket online or through an app. Go to the site you bought your ticket from, and find the refund section. Your refund should be with you within 10 days.

Even if you still took the train, you may be entitled to claim for delay. The scheme Delay Repay (opens in new tab) enables you to claim compensation if your arrival time is delayed for any reason. It entitles you to 50% of your ticket price if your arrival is between 30 minutes and an hour late, and a full refund if you’re more than an hour late. Some train operators also pay out 25% compensation if your train is delayed between 15 minutes and half an hour.

And with the next train strike (opens in new tab) for this summer looming - brought about by disputes over rail workers and train drivers pay (opens in new tab) - this final tip is bound to come in handy.

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Harriet Meyer is an award-winning freelance consumer finance journalist. She has more than 20 years’ experience writing about personal finance for a wide range of broadsheet newspapers, consumer websites and magazines. Harriet’s work can mainly be read in the Guardian, and on various money websites and women’s lifestyle magazines. Previously, she worked as editor of The Observer’s ‘Cash’ section, and was also part of the Daily Telegraph’s Money team. In addition to print, she’s worked as a BBC producer on radio money shows such as Wake Up to Money. She’s won several awards, including the Santander Media Awards Freelance Journalist of the Year. Harriet has a passion for helping people to make the most of their hard-earned cash (particularly after her mum asked her what an ISA was), and understand the complex stuff such as pensions and investing – without the jargon! She can be found tweeting at Harriet_Meyer (opens in new tab).