catching trains

Thanks for all your health-wishing comments.  I’m finally almost well again, and am now out of bed for a few hours at a time in between naps.  Hurrah!

I was worried that I wouldn’t be well enough for my “summer holiday”: a walking weekend in the Lake District.  I’m heading up next weekend, so need to get my strength back ASAP.  I’m travelling by train, and I’d postponed buying my ticket for two reasons: firstly, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to go, and secondly, the train costs more than driving, even getting an advance purchase ticket.  My teeny tiny hatchback car will get me there for less, but citing environmental concerns (and knitting time!), I finally bought my ticket today.

For those not familiar with buying train tickets in the UK, it’s an absolute minefield.  Different companies, different pricing structures and exorbitant prices (the most expensive in Europe) all make for a lot of confusion.  In there interests of helping out fellow travellers, I’ve put together a few hints on how to get the best deals.

  • The UK rail system has been kindly chopped up and sold off to private companies, each running services to different bits of the country. Don’t worry too much about this when booking tickets, as the various sites allow you to purchase tickets on different networks too.  A good starting point to figure out routes and times is National Rail, and their website also has links to special deals and offers.
  • Generally speaking, the cheapest fares become available 12 weeks in advance.  If you’re planning a trip that far ahead, I’d highly recommend signing up for an email alert for when the cheap fares are online.  Then pounce!
  • Generally, off-peak tickets are cheaper.  Specific restrictions vary, but it’s usually best to avoid travel before 9.30am on a weekday.
  • Cashback websites such as Quidco and TopCashBack offer cash back for purchases through particular ticketing companies.  Currently though, they don’t offer the best deals, if you factor in the meagre 1% or so cashback compared to the booking fees for the companies that are linked with them.
  • Companies such as thetrainline charge a £1 booking fee, as well as a credit card fee.  These fees can be avoided by purchasing exactly the same tickets through individual company websites, such as East Coast, Virgin Trains or TransPennine Express.  (You’ll notice they even use exactly the same search and booking software).
  • Generally, websites allow you to specify a seating preference (forward-facing, window/aisle) but without letting you actually select a specific seat.  Click on through and the booking will state which seat you are allocated, but that’s pretty useless without a seating plan.  Here’s where Seat 61 comes in very useful with seating plans for trains in the UK.  When booking my trip up to Cumbria I went through three different ticket bookings until I got the seat combination I wanted! (forward facing, window, but sadly the quiet carriages were mostly full).
  • Apparently it can sometimes work out cheaper to split the journey, buying separate tickets for individual portions of trip, particularly where different sections are run by different franchises.  I haven’t personally had this to be the case though (but it might be especially useful if part of your journey is during peak times).
  • I’ve recently discovered the network railcard, which costs £28 per year and gives a discount of a third on travel across South-East England during off-peak periods.  It doesn’t seem to be very well known, and I’d assumed that railcards were only available for particular ages or those with a disability.  Costs all gets a bit confusing in London with different prices for travelcards and Oyster tickets, but from what I can gather, it would be worth me getting one just for pootling across London on weekends.  Does anyone have any experience of these cards?

If you’ve got any more UK train travel tips, I’d love to hear them.

(As an aside, I’m purposely avoiding the topic of the London riots.  It was very very close to home, and so much has been said by so many people, I’m not sure I can add anything useful).