Train fares are set to rise by 6.2% in January, as confirmed by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC).
This means the average price paid for a single journey jumps from £4.89 to £5.19, according to the Office of Rail Regulation.
The current cap on fare increases is set at inflation plus 1%. However, George Osborne announced during the Spending Review that from 2012, the cap on regulated fare increases will be upped to inflation plus 3%.
But don’t be fooled by this black cloud. There are still lots of ways to get your hands on a cheap train ticket – the secret is knowing where to look.
According to thetrainline.com, you could save up an average of 43% by booking your tickets in advance. Most train tickets go on sale 12 weeks in advance, as this is when Network Rail set their timetables. A certain number of advance tickets at a discounted price are available so you need to plan ahead.
The old adage of the earlier you book, the cheaper it will be rings true. There may be advance tickets still available right up until the train departs, so always check out websites such as thetrainline.com or phone National Rail Enquiries before you travel.
Lots of websites promise to offer you the cheapest tickets, but many will tack on booking fees that may come as a nasty surprise. Commercial booking sites thetrainline.com and raileasy.com offer a simple booking system, although booking fees do apply.
National Rail shows train timetables and then gives the option of booking through the train company that operates that particular journey. Crosscountrytrains.co.uk and Nationalexpresseastanglia.com also sells tickets for the entire rail network –without a booking fee. Budget coach company Megabus.co.uk also offer cheap fares on several train routes. The cheapest tickets will usually be found by going to the train company direct.
While these sites may offer cheap tickets, remember to take into account any credit card and booking fees.
Invariably, trains during peak hours (usually those running before 10am and between 4.30-6.30, although these can differ depending on the company) are going to be triple the price of off peak fares. While being flexible about when you travel may not be an option, it’s worth checking how much a train an hour later or earlier might save you.
Get a railcard
With railcards available from just £26 and offering a third off rail journeys in the UK for a year, there is no excuse not to buy one if you’re eligible. If you’re aged between 16 and 25 or a full-time student, you can get a young person’s railcard, which offers a third off rail journeys as well as a slate of other discounts, see railcard.co.uk.
A special three-year young person’s railcard available online can be bought up until the day before your 24th birthday. Other discount cards include the disabled persons railcard, the family and friends railcard and the senior railcard.
If you don’t fit into one category, the Network Railcard offers a third off journeys within the London and south-east area, and allows three adults and four children to travel with you and receive a discount. Go to railcard.co.uk for full details.
These railcards also offer a third off off-peak day travelcards within the London Fare Zones area – ask at the local London Underground station for details.
There are some drawbacks, however. Railcard discounts can be quite limited – often holders will still be subject to a minimum train fare during peak times. Off-peak hours usually start at 10am and include weekend travel.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that a return will always offer better value than two singles. While often this is true, when booking in advance, you may find the opposite. Train companies often offer advance single fares for a few pounds, whereas the return fares may still be a flat rate.
While booking two singles can offer great value, it allows little flexibility in your journey. If you have a fixed idea of when you want to travel and don’t need an open return, then start searching for two singles.
If you’re travelling a long distance journey, then look into ‘splitting’ your tickets. Train companies often charge a flat fare for a long journey, which can be broken down into many different smaller journeys.
For example, a journey from London to Edinburgh will travel through York and Durham. Rather than paying a one-size-fits-all fare, check out the price difference of splitting the fare from London-York, York-Durham and then Durham-Edinburgh.
You should be able to travel on decent local fares rather than a more expensive packaged ticket. A word of warning however – split ticketing requires patience to check all the different fares online.
There are several alternatives to train travel, if you’re willing to try them. Coach travel offers great value for money, although travelling times will be considerably longer. National Express coaches offers discounted ‘fun fares’ from £1 to destinations all over the UK, and Megabus offers fares from £1 to selected cities in the UK.
Again, limitations apply and these prices can usually only be found during off-peak hours, but it’s worth checking what other options there are. While it isn’t environmentally friendly, flying with a budget airline may be better value than the train, if booked far enough in advance.