Over the past four years I have been a regular user of the British rail network. During this time I have regularly been frustrated with the pricing, which can vary from guilt inducing cheapness, to exorbitantly pricey, even for exactly the same journey. Finding the cheapest tickets isn’t easy, and it seems that every time I’ve traveled home, or to see a friend I’ve had to use a different technique at reducing the price from something that makes me reconsider my plans, to something more affordable.
The following post was made by me on a message board, but I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to someone else. It already assumes that the reader is familiar with sites such as thetrainline and knows that advance purchase of tickets can save them a lot of money. Advance tickets are made available at some indeterminate time before travel and will often sell out quickly.
I’m assuming that when checking for advance tickets you are looking at the price for singles, rather than returns? If not you’ll want to do so, as thats where the savings are.
I’ve had a lot of experience trying to book cheap rail tickets, and it seems I’ve used a different method each time. However most of my tips are better suited for considering long distance travel. However, In case they are of use to anyone:
1) Megatrain.com is great for travel between major stations, assuming you are flexible about travel times. The also provide coach travel, which might be worth a look. Particularly consider it in concert with the next tip.
2) Split tickets. For reasons that are beyond me, cheap advance tickets aren’t always available for the entire route, even on services with no changes. Try looking at splitting the journey. I’ve always had most luck when splitting at major stations, such as Birmingham. I’m not entirely sure of liability should you miss a connection on a split ticket. You’ll obviously avoid this issue is the two tickets are for the same service, although it’ll require you to change seats. In other cases I’ve got an open return for the second half of the journey, which has been short enough that its not a significant enough cost.
3) Buy from the appropriate website. Thetrainline.com is great for finding tickets, but once you know who runs the service you need, try looking at the operators website, as they may offer discounts if you buy direct.
4) Keep an eye on prices. Tickets are made available three months before the date of travel, however the cheapest tickets will not be available at this stage. Instead, the train operator seals a cat in a box with a vial of cyanide gas, which will be shattered by a hammer on the decay of a radioactive isotope. On the death of the cat the train operator also releases the cheap tickets. However, as no one can know when the cat dies without opening the box they instead end up resorting to the point at which they know they’ll be able to annoy the greatest number of people possible. Co-incidentally this ends up coinciding with the point of radioactive decay, as physics is shifty like that. To avoid being disappointed, check regularly. The trainline can actually notify you for popular routes. Once the cheap tickets are out the prices will slowly tick up as each price point sells out, however on journeys with multiple routes different operators will make their tickets available at different times due to their use of different cats. I’m not sure how the hell you are supposed to deal with this. I just stop looking at the prices the moment I jump in to buy a ticket and remain in ignorance.
4) Be flexible. Make sure you check every time, and every route, because the cheapest tickets are elusive and like to hide.
5) A tip which is probably not available to you: Buy a Railcard. You’ll save 30% and can regain your investment. But remember, when searching for tickets to also have a look without your railcard. Some tickets are stubborn and are scared of discount cards. This’ll sometimes mean that you need to buy the tickets separately if the return is cheaper with a railcard. Also, while you only get a Young-persons railcard up to the age of 25, you can buy one on the day before your 26th birthday and it’ll be valid for a whole year.
6) Goat sacrifices may help your cause. However the public transport gods are fickle. Prices may go up, as well as down.
Edit: Just thought I’d clarify, that all by talk of the advance tickets being sneaky tricksy buggers was not exaggeration. Often I have sat back distraught, thinking I’ve exhausted all avenues and will have to pay almost £100 to get to see my family. Then, just as I’m about to give up and throw it all in a tiny change in search parameters, such as using a different website (despite the fact they all go through the same system) and then suddenly a ticket appears for a tenth the price, with no obvious rhyme or reason why it didn’t show up before.
Oh, and be wary of clicking ‘back’ once you’ve selected a ticket. I did that once, and it seemed that it allocated the last cheap tickets to me, and failed to release them when I went back to change seating preferences. I then had to wait a tense half an hour while the system sorted itself out, during which it would just produce an error if I tried to select said tickets, even from a different browser. Finally the system reset itself. Seemingly the tickets I was initially going for had sold out in the meantime, but the band B cheap tickets were available for only a couple of pounds more, instead of the £20 more of the standard tickets.
In addition to the recommendations here, I’d also suggest playing with some of the fare finding features over at nationalrail.co.uk, it requires a bit of patience, and doesn’t always make it apparent as to exactly when the cheapest tickets are available, but should give you indications as to what prices you can expect for the route.
In other news, I have take todays and yesterdays photos for the twenty ten photo project, however will be waiting until I get my desktop set up again before I upload them.
I invite any further tips in the comments.