Tips for hunting down the cheapest rail fares

People queuing for train tickets at Victoria station, London.
People queuing for train tickets at Victoria station, London.
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Train ticket prices are to logic what reindeer are to scrabble. In other words, they’ve nothing in common. If you want to save money on the train, take the logic book and throw it out of the window.

While travelling by train can be cheap, efficient and easy, the pricing system is a mess. So to really hone down the cheapest priced tickets you need to understand and combine first the simple tips, then the bizarre.

Book 12 weeks early for cheaper fares

Most people know if you book early you’ll get cheaper advance train tickets. Yet it’s important to understand these are generally sold in tranches, in other words there’s a set number of each type, so the aim is to buy them before they go.

The key time to look is around 12 weeks before you want to travel, as that’s when the timetable is set so most operators launch their advance tickets then or within a couple of weeks giving you maximum choice. So if you know you’ve got something pencilled in you need to travel to, diarise so you can be ready to pounce.

Grab a (discounted) railcard

There are more national railcards available than there used to be. These normally cost £30 (though often there are codes to discount this check on and reduce all fares by a third. Therefore if you’re likely to spend over £90 even on a one-off trip it’s worth it.

The main cards are:

Family & Friends Railcard. Two people can be named on this, and then a named person and up to three other adults can travel and get 30 per cent off the fare, providing you’re travelling with between one and four kids, who get 60 per cent off.

Two Together Railcard. This one’s relatively new. It gives two named people on the card providing they’re travelling together a third off. If you often travel with different people, you could be named on more than one card to cover the combinations.

Senior Railcard. This gets over 60s a third off.

16-25 Railcard. Also a third off, though it’s often cheapest to buy the three years card (and worth remembering to do it before your 24th birthday to give you maximum time).

Get advance discounts late

Never assume that you’re too close to travel to book an advance or discounted fare. Walk on fares are often far costlier than those even booked a day or so in advance. Always check via the rail companies own site. Check via sites like,, and

Trade £5 of Tesco points in for £10 of train tickets.

The Tesco Clubcard Partners allows you to swap Tesco vouchers in for double their face value to use at train booking website RedSpottedHanky (

Singles can beat returns

Lots of top deals are only available on one-way fares and cheaper fares are often available for two single tickets, but not the return. Do a quick search for both options and work out the difference in price before you finalise your booking.

Split tickets, not the journey

Now it’s time to really throw the logic book out of the window to make some really big savings. Instead of buying tickets for the whole journey, instead bizarrely buying tickets for its constituent parts separately can slash the price – even though you’re travelling on exactly the same train, at the same time, possibly in the same seat.

It’s perfectly allowed within the National Rail Conditions of Carriage and the only rule is that the train must call at the stations you buy tickets for. I’ve built a tool that searches for variants for you to see if you can save.

One of the best ever examples I’ve seen of this was on a direct London to Durham return when the cheapest ticket was £301. Yet buying four singles for the same journey: London to York, which was one of the stops, York to Durham, and then in reverse, was £82 for the same train at the same time - possibly even the same seats.

However, it’s important to understand that this is an example - the savings vary train by train. Even an hour later the same split may not work, so you need to check each time or use the various web tools available to find your split.

Look for hidden promos

Lots of train companies have hidden promotions buried on their websites – which you won’t find if you’re going through a ticket booking website, such as or

For example, at the time of writing East Coast has 10 per cent off some advance online fares and 50 per cent off selected super off-peak tickets to London, while on Southeastern up to four kids can travel for £1 off-peak with an adult. For a full list of hidden promos go to

Buy rail tickets when not travelling by train to get discounts

This sneaky trick sounds bizarre but it works. National Rail offers 2for1 discounts on a host of attractions across the UK – you just download and print out a voucher and present it with a train ticket. Attractions include Ascot Racecourse, Alton Towers and Madame Tussauds.

For example, if you wanted two tickets to London Zoo, as an adult ticket costs £24, providing the train ticket is less, it’s worth buying one even if you won’t actually go by train (just pop to a station on the way). Though of course it’s an even better saving if you’re actually using it.

Know your train refund rights

You may be entitled to money back for delays over 30 minutes, every operator has different rules. Technically the delay or cancellation needs be the operators fault, such as train or signal failures. Yet even when not, such as weather, strikes or maintenance work, some firms will pay out if you claim (as for a claim form when you arrive). More help in

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Kids go free to West End

Visit to get a ‘free’ child’s ticket (for under-16s) to any one of 37 London theatre shows in August when you buy a full-priced adult ticket (which can cost around £50). In addition, you’ll get 50 per cent off for up to two more children. 10 per cent off new customer code

Enter the code LENSES32 online at Valid till 30 Sep 2014, delivery’s £2.99.