Money mensch: How to work the rail system

By Martin Lewis, December 4, 2008
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Train companies are taking us for a ride! The train ticketing system in this country is a joke: two singles are often cheaper than a return, and long journeys cost less than shorter ones on the same route. Much of the system makes no sense at all.

So, if you’re trying to find the cheapest train ticket, you need to forget common sense, and learn the tricks to beat the system.

Get early-booking discounts late
If this sounds odd, let me explain. Everyone knows that you can get fares more cheaply if you book early. Yet you might not realise just how late it’s still possible to get a discounted “early” fare. I once got an advance ticket while I was on the way to the station.

Let me prove how powerful this nugget of info is. On my TV show It Pays to Watch, I was challenged to save money for a small business owner who spends £12,000 a year on train tickets, and my biggest focus was when he booked.

He usually finds out where he’s going a day or so in advance, so would just turn up and buy the ticket at the station on the day of travel. For one of his regular journeys, early morning London to Sheffield, he’d typically pay £140 return. Yet on the show, I got him to ring up the evening before, when he could still buy “advanced” tickets on the same train for just £64. The golden rule is never assume it’s too late to try for an advance.

Split your tickets, not the journey
The big savings come from split ticketing — buying tickets for the separate parts of your journey, rather than the whole trip. You may end up with four, six or more tickets instead of two, but you’ll travel on exactly the same trains, and it’s perfectly legal.

Split ticketing works particularly well on journeys to or from large cities, as fares on commuter routes tend to be higher. In August I looked at the journey between Manchester and Edinburgh Waverley. The standard return is £150. Yet the train stops at York. Buy a Manchester to York ticket, and York to Edinburgh and vice-versa for the return, and the total cost was just £92.

The savings can be even bigger. Splitting a London to Penzance journey at Plymouth reduced the fare from £257 to an astonishing £48. Remember that’s on the same train at the same time — only the tickets have changed.

You’ll need to do a bit of work to find out what is possible and which split gives the best deal, but it’s worth it. Ten minutes online should be enough.

The first step should be to see where your train stops: visit Transport Direct, at www.transportdirect.info; National Rail, at www.nationalrail.co.uk; or call National Rail Enquiries.

Then price up the tickets for the various bits of the journey. There’s a list of routes this works well on at www.moneysavingexpert.com/trains.
The only possible snag is if you split your ticket at a station where you change trains. If the first train is delayed and your onward ticket is only valid for a specific train, you may need to pay extra. It rarely happens, but it’s worth knowing.

Only pay peak at peak times
To increase your savings, only buy peak-time tickets for the part of the journey that’s during peak time. If you are starting a two-hour journey at 9.30am, for 1 ½ hours you’ll be travelling off-peak. Split your tickets so that you buy a peak ticket to the first station you’ll call at after 10am. The rest of the journey can be at off-peak rates.

Cheap train deals
As well as the above techniques to cut the cost of any journey, often, if you know where to look, you can get journeys of hundreds miles for as little as £1. Many train companies run one-off travel promotions for short periods. There is a full list of vouchers and codes updated once a week at www.moneysavingexpert.com/traindeals

    Last updated: 12:22pm, December 4 2008