How to save money on rail fares in Britain – ticketing experts Chester-le-Track share their best tips
As you’ll know from the various railway stations that we pop up at on social media, we’re big fans of travelling by train – especially when we’re able to get a good deal on a ticket.
Sometimes, though, it feels like finding the right train fare is a combination of luck and magic, where for every great-value journey there’s another one that’s eye-wateringly expensive.
Fortunately, we’re good friends with Chester-le-Track, a business that runs two independent stations on the National Rail network, but also sells train tickets between any stations in Great Britain.
Led by stationmaster Alex Nelson, Chester-le-Track has eight staff working at its two stations here in the North East – Chester-le-Street, on the East Coast Mainline between Newcastle and Durham; and Eaglescliffe, on the Tees Valley Line near Stockton – and serves customers by telephone, online at NationalRail.com, and via its two ticket offices.
Though Alex is naturally a big fan of train travel, he is first to admit that buying rail tickets can be complicated – which is why Chester-le-Track prides itself on making the buying experience less stressful.
“Trains often beat planes for domestic city centre to city centre travel”, he explains. “From Newcastle to London, trains are usually quicker. Remember, easyJet recommends that you get to the airport two hours before a flight, and, unlike on flights, WiFi is available on many trains allowing travellers to work effectively during their journey.
“It’s true that Britain has some of the highest rail fares in Europe, but also some of the lowest. Many tickets are capacity controlled, and the most expensive are 13 times the price of the cheapest.
“At Chester-le-Track, we listen to what you want and advise the best fare – you don’t have to be an expert; that’s our job!”
Advance, Anytime or Off Peak?
“To save money on rail tickets, you first need to understand the main types of ticket that are available”, says Alex.
“An Advance ticket is from a specific station of origin to a specific destination, and is only available on a specific train service and in a reserved seat.
“There are limited numbers of these available – try booking two seats together but from separate origins and you’ll find it’s virtually impossible.
“Then there are Anytime or Off-Peak tickets that may be valid on a range of routes, or allow a break of journey. Away from the main business flows, you can find that off-peak might be available all day.”
Singles versus returns
“Then there are single and return tickets“, Alex explains.
“Advance tickets are only sold as singles, so two Advance singles are usually cheaper than an Anytime or Off-Peak return – but that’s comparing apples and pears.
“If considering a single, check the return fare: it might only be a little more.”
Standard or First Class?
We all enjoy travelling in First Class sometimes – the seats are usually comfier, there’s more room to spread out, and on some networks, such as Virgin Trains East Coast, First-Class travellers are plied with complimentary drinks and snacks.
Even here, though, you need to be alert to ticketing quirks – and Alex once again has some useful advice.
“On routes where you can choose Standard or First Class, always check the First-Class fare – it might not be much more, particularly for a single journey. For example, Chester-le-Street to Darlington is £9.60 Standard Class, and £11.60 in First.”
Take advantage of Railcards
From our own experience, we know that the different Railcards that are available – 16-25, Senior (>60), Family, and Two Together (for two named people travelling together) – which all offer a third off normal fares, can deliver great savings.
Last year, for example, we bought an annual Two Together Railcard for £30 and immediately saved £40 on the cost of two return tickets from Newcastle to Scarborough – all the savings after that have been a bonus.
Alex agrees: “Anybody eligible for a Railcard should hold one if they spend more than £90 a year on train travel, and photographs are only required for the 16-25 and Two Together railcards.”
As Alex points out, though, you don’t have to be a couple to get a Two Together Railcard – any two people who regularly travel together can benefit.
“You can hold more than one Two Together Railcard, so they’re ideal for colleagues who travel together.” Bear in mind, however, that these Railcards can’t be used on weekday services before 09:30.
In recent years, the concept of split ticketing has become very popular, with dedicated websites – including NationalRail.com’s own – designed to help you break your journey up into cheaper chunks.
So how does it work?
“Split ticketing is where you have two (or more) tickets to make a journey”, explains Alex. “For example, Chester-le-Street to York is cheaper if you buy tickets from Chester-le-Street to Northallerton, and Northallerton to York.
“When you change between tickets, you do not have to put both feet theatrically on the platform, and you can reserve a seat all the way through. However, the train MUST stop (in both directions for a return ticket) where you change from one ticket to another.”
Strange though it sounds, UK rail travellers can also sometimes save money by buying a ticket for a journey that is longer than the one they actually intend to take – known as ‘booking beyond’.
“Booking beyond is where you buy a ticket further than you wish to go, but do not actually complete the journey”, explains Alex.
“One popular example was to book to Penrith on a route via Manchester, though that was recently abolished. But if you’re buying an Off-Peak or Anytime ticket from the North East to Birmingham, it is cheaper to buy a ticket to Telford Central – you would simply exit the barriers at Birmingham New Street with your Newcastle to Telford Central ticket, rather than change there for the onward service to Telford.”
Be careful, though – booking beyond only works when you have an Anytime or Off-Peak ticket, as these ticket types explicitly allow you to break your journey. If you try the same ruse with an Advance ticket, you’re likely to get into trouble.
Of course, if you’re booking ahead and don’t require flexibility, an Advance ticket is likely to be cheaper anyway. However, if you’re travelling at short notice or buying on the day, booking beyond can save you money.
Check out local ticketing options
Depending on where you are in the country, Alex points out that there might be other deals worth checking out.
“In London, everyone should have an Oyster card, or keep one in the petty-cash tin.
“For regular travellers in the South East – including as far north as the West Midlands area – invest in a season ticket to benefit from the Annual Gold Card concessions. Currently, the cheapest season ticket is £164 (65p per weekday) between Lichfield City and Lichfield Trent Valley, but this also gets you an Annual Gold Card that offers a third off Anytime and Off-Peak fares across the whole of the Annual Gold Card area.”
Be flexible with your timings
Being able to save money on trains at busy times is great, but, as Alex points out, being clever in how you plan your days can also make a big difference.
“My single best advice for business travellers is to arrange your meetings in the afternoon.
“For early-morning meetings, consider travelling late. For example, the 21:27 from Durham to London is the cheapest train of the day, and is cheaper than a peak fare even if you stay overnight in London or Stevenage. If you need to, consider buying an Advance ticket one way, but a more flexible ticket in the other direction.”
Of course, all our best-laid plans can go awry if the trains that we’re supposed to be travelling on are delayed or cancelled, and Alex’s advice here is clear.
“Always apply for refunds if a train is late. Delay Repay allows 100% refund for an hour’s delay.”
Get in touch with Chester-le-Track
If this article has piqued your interest, why not drop Chester-le-Track a line? Their advice is free, and when you buy tickets from them there is no booking fee, no postage charge, and no credit or debit card fee.
Give Alex and his team a call on 0191 387 1387, or visit the website at NationalRail.com.