Rail travel can be quick and convenient, whether you’re visiting friends or relatives in the UK, or planning a family holiday to the continent.
But getting the cheapest fares isn't always so simple. Ticket pricing, especially in Britain, can be very complicated and it’s easy to end up paying way over the odds.
So how can you grab a rail-travel bargain?
As with airlines, there is no fixed price for a seat on a train. Groups of places on each service are sold at varying prices, enabling the operating companies to fill their trains and maximise their profits by charging less to those who book early, but much more for passengers who buy tickets on the day.
So to get the best price, you need to plan well in advance.
Tickets normally go on sale 12 weeks before the departure date for UK trains, and 90 days in advance in Europe.
Booking websites such as thetrainline.com offer email alerts that warn you when tickets are being released on your chosen route.
The sooner you can purchase your ticket after it goes on sale, the cheaper it’s likely to be, so find out when you can buy and make a note in your diary.
The most expensive way to travel is by buying your ticket at the station minutes before your train is due to leave.
Be flexible with travel times
The time of day you travel has a big impact on the cost of tickets – if you’re sharing your train with commuters, you stand less chance of getting one of the cheaper advance tickets.
Certain types of discount tickets prohibit travel at peak times – typically up to 9.30am, and from as early as 3pm in the afternoon until around 7pm.
Peak times vary from network to network, and from service to service, so make sure you check in advance if you are planning to travel with an open off-peak ticket.
Single fares could be cheaper
Even if you’re planning a return trip, a return ticket may not offer the best value in the UK.
When you’re booking, make sure to compare the cost of two singles with a return – for advance-purchase tickets in particular, it can work out much cheaper.
If you’re booking online, the website will normally highlight any cheap single tickets, but if you buy in person at a station you may not be given this useful tip.
Split your journey
Another anomaly in Britain’s train-booking system is the fact that it can be cheaper to buy tickets for your journey in stages.
For example, if you’re travelling from London to Leeds, you may find it cheaper to buy a ticket from London to Peterborough, and from Peterborough to Leeds.
Although your tickets are split, you don’t have to get off the train in Peterborough. But you have to make sure your service does actually stop in the mid-point station – if not, your tickets will not be valid.
Heading to Europe
The high-speed link from London’s St Pancras station to Paris and Lille has made train travel a more realistic option for foreign holidays.
Aeroplanes may be faster, but once check-in and security procedures are added to the length of a typical flight, rail can appear a reasonably quick and hassle-free alternative.
There are a number of websites that can help you plan and book a European rail trip. The Man in Seat 61’s website explains how to get to more or less anywhere in the world by train, with details of sleeper trains, rail passes, and how to obtain the best fares.
The German rail service, Deutsche Bahn, has an English-language timetable for journeys all over the Continent, while Rail Europe can help you make bookings.
Did you know?
Travel insurance policies cover you for domestic journeys too. So don't wait until your next foreign holiday to cover yourself.