We are now in the unenviable position of having some of the highest rail fares in the world and it's set to get worse. The Government continues to increase regulated fares (which include season tickets and overnight returns) above inflation each year. In fact, fares are now rising twice as fast as incomes.
The good news is there are still some bargains to be had if you know where to look. With literally millions of combinations of tickets available it can be a minefield to find the best deal, so here are some tips to help you find the right fare – along with ways we're campaigning to make the system fairer.
If you can plan your journey in advance, book your ticket as soon as possible. Tickets go on sale up to 12 weeks before the date of travel (find out how far ahead you can currently book) so the earlier you can book the better deals you'll be able to find. Be warned though, always check the terms and conditions of your ticket carefully before you commit to buy, as advance tickets restrict you to travelling on the train you book on so there's no room for last minute changes of plan.
"If you buy your ticket from a railway booking office, buy it during a quiet time of day. If there's no queue, booking clerks will usually happily spend 15 minutes trying to knock off a further few quid for you" - Jamie Graham
What we're campaigning for: advance tickets should be sold closer to the time of departure – it's technically possible, so why not?
The right ticket
Making sure you have the right ticket is vital. Advance tickets can be cheap, but tie you to specific dates and times. Anytime tickets are the most flexible, allowing you to travel on any train at any time. Off-peak tickets don't tie you to a particular train on your outward journey, and you can usually return within one month of the day you buy your ticket – but you can't travel during peak times, and beware, these vary significantly across the network. Check the cost of both singles and return tickets as sometimes buying two single tickets for each leg of your journey is cheaper than a return.
What we're campaigning for: if you buy an advance ticket but then miss your train, the money you've already paid should be deducted from any new ticket you have to buy.
"It's often cheaper to buy two or more tickets to make a journey, breaking the journey up into shorter ones. This is called split ticketing and you don't have to get off the train where you change tickets. There are internet sites that do this automatically for you and book your tickets without charging booking or card fees, such as TrainSplit.com" - Nick
If you travel regularly and qualify for a railcard (see if you could benefit – it's more than just students and seniors!) it's worth investing in one. They generally save you around a third and could work out cheaper even if you only use it for one journey.
What we're campaigning for: reward passengers who travel regularly with a national railcard open to everyone, or a frequent traveller loyalty card.
If you're buying your ticket online don't use a third party website as they will charge you extra. We like East Coast's best fare matrix, and don't forget Megatrain's £1 tickets on selected routes. But be aware; sometimes the very cheapest tickets are only available from a particular train company's website so always start at National Rail Enquiries, which will help you find the train you need and then direct you to the appropriate fee-free website to buy your ticket.
What we're campaigning for: websites should tell customers how many tickets are available at certain prices, so people don't go hunting for fares that don't exist.
"Travelling abroad by rail and sea can be quick and affordable if you travel overnight. For £29 people can travel from London Liverpool street to any station in the Netherlands, or from the UK to Ireland" - Paul Bright
Not in a hurry?
Slower trains can be cheaper than faster ones (hint: tick 'include slower trains' on the National Rail Enquiries site) and a non-direct route may be cheaper than the most direct one. So if you're not in a hurry, spending a bit longer on the train can save you pounds. Equally sometimes buying a ticket for each individual leg of your journey can be cheaper than buying one through ticket and you won't have to change trains. If you're buying at a ticket office, make sure to ask specifically about these options. And avoid ticket machines at the station – they often don't sell you the cheapest available ticket.
What we're campaigning for: you should always be clearly offered the cheapest ticket – whether you buy online, at a ticket office or from a ticket machine.
Of course if you're using the train to commute to work five days a week you'll have less flexibility about when you can travel and season tickets are normally the best choice. You can get weekly, monthly or annual tickets. Season ticket prices go up on January 2nd so you can save big by buying your next one before the prices go up.
What we're campaigning for: not everyone works full-time, so there should be carnets or special season tickets that make commuting affordable for part-timers.
We've been campaigning hard for affordable rail fares: join our campaign for Fair Fares Now.