With the cost of petrol; it is no surprise that people are having to give up their private cars and rely on public transport to get them around. With costs going up though, public transport operators are finding it just as difficult to keep costs down and are cutting back on train-travelling deals for customers.

There are ways around this though and you can get cheap train travel if you buy in advance, buy in bulk or simply buy smart. This time we are looking at cutting the cost of rail travel, although others will prefer to travel by air or road; but with train travel there are ways to save money, sometimes looking at specific operators, sometimes looking at specific modes of transport and in at least one case how different modes of public transport compliment each other.

cheap trains

Steam TrainIf you are looking for long distance or inter-city travel, one of the prominent British public transport methods is that of the train. Since the turn of the 20th Century train travel has been more and more effective, but privatisation has meant that private companies are not only trying to exploit the Government's subsidies on rail travel operations, but fight among themselves to get the most custom.

Firstly a thought. If a train operator could fill an off-peak train with full fare paying passengers they would give huge discounts to make you buy train tickets, but they do! This says that train operators struggle to make off-peak trains profitable and squeeze every penny they can out of rail travel, often tempting passengers from other operators services.

advance fares

Advance fares do exactly what they say on the .... ticket. You pay in advance to travel on a specific train and the further you book ahead, the cheaper the ticket generally is. There are a number of conditions attached to these cheap train tickets in that it will be expensive to alter them and if you miss the specified train, once it's departed the ticket is worthless and you will have to buy another one.

Buy these tickets 12 weeks before you travel though and you can travel even peak times on cheap trains. Each train operator offers their own cheap rail tickets specific to their services and in one instance; Megatrain.com offer seats on a selective number of trains out of London Waterloo and London St Pancras operated to compliment their MegaBus services. 

Advance fares can also be used if planned meticulously to save even more money using our next headline;


Split-ticketing is not frowned upon by the rail industry, but they do not encourage you to book train tickets for it. What it means is that on a longer journey, you might find you are actually passing though areas that are managed by different train operators, or a single operator that has a slightly different agreement with the rail regulators and train operators.

An Example of Split Ticketing

The reasons for this go into quite complex calculations and a system called ORCATS; far beyond what we need to know for this discussion. What it does mean is you can split your train ticket booking to make it cheaper, as shown above in the real examble above taken from April 2012.

There are some things to remember if you do this when you book train tickets. If you are buying lots of seperate train tickets, missed connections are not always honored; this would include such examples as combining a train operators Advance ticket with a MegaTrain booking. As MegaTrain is not a train operator, their contractors South West Trains and East Midlands Trains can refuse you onward travel on a different train.

If you are travelling on one train throughout and are just splitting the train ticket booking, this is easier and not as complicated; all it might mean is that when you come to the point of the split, you might have to change your seat to the one that you have booked.


Something which people do not always think about is the Railcard. Most railcards come from the 1980's yet continue to cut the cost of rail travel, even if you only travel a few times a year. You pay for a years use of the railcard and get 33% off many train prices (depending on the specific railcard) for that period. The current railcards are:

  • Network Railcard: Valid in an area across London and the South East[1], this ticket is not valid before 10am on weekdays, but at all other times gives a 33% discount.
    One thing to watch: There is a minimum fare on weekdays. 

  • Two Together Railcard: a new offering for 2014 allows two names people to travel together and get 33% discounts on off-peak fares. This is more useful in the north of the UK because it carries similar conditions to the Network Railcard, but is valid countrywide.
  • Family & Friends Railcard: Travel with a child between 5 and 15 years old and you can get 33% off your fare and 60% off the children's fare.
    One thing to watch: Not valid in London and South East during the morning peak.

  • 16-25 Railcard: This railcard offers you 33% off rail travel at any time. Full-time students over the age of 26 are also eligible for the railcard with evidence of education.
    One thing to watch: There is a minimum fare for travel before 10am, except August and September.

  • Senior Railcard: Anyone over 60 can get a Senior railcard for cheap train prices. This will give you 33% off tickets.
    One thing to watch: Peak time trains in London and the South East are not valid.

  • Disabled Railcard: There is a list of eligibility criteria for the Disabled Persons Railcard and tells you what documentation you need to provide to be eligible[2]. For those that are eligible the 33% discount is available off of the majority of tickets for yourself AND a companion.
    One thing to watch: Eligability rules and "evidence" differ from those that might qualify you for a Blue Badge or other disability schemes.

Unfortunately, railcards do not offer cheap travel deals on Eurostar International services to Paris and Brussels. There are a different range of tickets that Eurostar offer though which provide similar discounts on selected trains.


We have already mentioned MegaTrain and MegaBus above, so it's only fair that we head to them next. As you have already read, MegaTrain is not strictly a train operator. The Stagecoach subsidiary purchases blocks of seats from South West Trains and East Midlands (both owned by Stagecoach) for re-sale; placing them outside of many of the regulations governing train operators in their customer service levels.

Likewise, because MegaTrain is not a train operator, you can not buy their tickets from rail stations. You must book train tickets online via their MegaTrain.com website or a premium rate telephone number and instead of tickets, your travel authority is a reference number which must be shown to ticket barrier and on-train staff. These can be presented in any form, from a text message sent from MegaTrain to your mobile, to even just writing the reference number on a piece of scrap paper.

For those that sound concerned, it is not the ticket that is important, but the reference number; the conductors receive a list of the references to expect on their train.

Buying Direct 

Train operators are now private companies and each company needs to make money. Most of the companies sell excess off-peak seats privately at a discount to avoid the complex ORCATS regulations we noted above. One example of this is East Coast Trains who often offer their own Advance tickets at a 10% discount because in most other cases a train operator will be paid a small cut for promoting each others tickets.

Some operators will also have cheap travel deals. One recent one by Southern Railway meant that anyone renewing a monthly or annual season ticket with them would receive an iTunes voucher; promoting their online season ticket sales against buying at the station.

Red Spotted Hanky

One specific company who also need a mention for train travel tickets is Red Spotted Hanky (.com) who are the customer facing side of the Association of Train Operating Companies. Customers going direct through the website can uniquely for the rail industry earn loyalty points for future payments towards tain fares. If you travel often on these services then you might want to consider this as although it is only a 1% loyalty payment every penny counts.

Something else to help save you money is the fact that Red Spotted Hanky now have an agreement with the Tesco Clubcard Rewards scheme. Anyone with clubcard vouchers can apply to Tesco to have them converted for double their value (correct at August 2014) which can then be used on tickets like any debit or credit card payment.

This means effectively your cutting the cost of your rail travel in half! 

Update: RedSpottedHanky now make a small charge per booking which some of the other providers do not. If you are using Tesco Clubcard Rewards to purchase tickets then it may still benefit you, however if you are not it will be cheaper elsewhere.

onward travel

Not only can train travel become inexpensive, you can also use a train to get cheaper onward travel on both buses and ferries.


A London Routemaster BusPlusBus is an add-on ticket that rail users can buy to allow various levels of travel on buses within the town that the rail journey either starts or finishes in. In many instances the PlusBus ticket allows the ticket holder unlimited travel on one or more operators in a town for the day of issue, although some limit this to a single or return journey.

One such example is Oxford where the PlusBus ticket is valid on Stagecoach in Oxfordshire, Oxford Bus Company and Thames Travel services within the city. The ticket is actually cheaper than the equivalent "all-operator" bus ticket sold by the companies within the city boundary and this means that in some areas, it is cheaper for local bus users to buy a one-stop ticket and a PlusBus. 

Ferry At SeaIrish Ferries

SailRail is a through ticket offered for travellers heading across to Belfast and Northern Ireland via the ports of Holyhead or Cairnryan.

From most parts of the UK it works out cheaper than flying, although takes considerably longer. Fares from London start at a reasonable £50 for the all-inclusive rail travel and ferry ticket and are available from normal ticket outlets.

You Really Can Make Travel Cheap

Travelling by train need not always be expensive. I travel often on the trains and I try as many tricks in the book as I can to make sure that I am getting the best deal. Only recently I have been able to cut the cost of travelling in London by booking through RedSpottedHanky and paying using Tesco vouchers!

If you are looking for cheap train tickets then do so fairly, railway fraud costs everyone in higher fares and you a criminal record if you get caught.