If you’re looking to travel around Britain by train, here are some of my best recommendations, to make your trip as easy and affordable as possible.
Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. All this means is that if you make a purchase through one of the links I have provided, I will earn a small commission as a result but the cost to you will remain exactly the same.
This is a collaborative post with Age UK, but all views are my own.
Over the last couple of years (yep, on the 11th of March, it will officially be two years since the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic), we’ve all been forced to explore a little closer to home. Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that the UK is my home. The historic town of Shrewsbury, to be more precise. And one of the best things about living in Shrewsbury is that it’s well connected to the rest of the country by the UK’s extensive rail network.
And, seeing as though I don’t have a car (how do people afford to run cars AND travel?!), I use trains to make the majority of my trips within the UK. Trains are also the means of transport I use to get to any one of the seven different airports I fly from when I travel abroad. Birmingham International is my closest airport, just one hour and 15 minutes away by train, and both Manchester and Liverpool are one hour 45 minutes and two hours 30 minutes away, respectively. But, I also use four of the London airports because, whilst the journey may take a little longer, advance fare prices from Birmingham to central London can make the cost of the ticket cheaper than it is to some of the closer UK train stations.
And this is where a little knowledge of our rail network and ticket pricing can come in handy.
So, if you’re visiting the UK and are not familiar with travelling around Britain by train, here are a few tips and recommendations to make your trip as easy and affordable as possible. If you struggle with your mobility, or travel with somebody who does, you may also want to take a look at the most accessible train stations in the UK, to help you plan your trip.
So, without further ado, here are my top tips for travelling around Britain by train.
Travelling Around Britain by Train
1 | Book your tickets in advance
Advance tickets are usually the cheapest way to travel around Britain by train, and generally go on sale around 12 weeks before the date you are due to travel. The closer to your date of travel that you leave it to buy your tickets, the more expensive it tends to become, with the cheaper advance fares having sold out.
In the example below, you can see that, looking at a single ticket from Birmingham New Street to London Euston on 21 April 2022 (so, approximately eight weeks before my date of travel), there are very limited numbers of cheap tickets available. However, you’ll also notice that you can travel in first class for just £18.50 by purchasing your ticket this far in advance.
2 | Book a specific train at a specific time
Unfortunately, flexible tickets (where you can travel any route at any time) cost a lot more than those which you can only use on a specific train at a specific time. You can usually sort fares by ‘cheapest’ and ‘flexible’ and whilst, for some shorter journeys an off-peak return may be cheaper than the price of two single fixed tickets, you really do notice the difference when booking tickets for longer trips.
3 | Learn the art of ticket splitting
Ticket splitting is one of the wonderful little quirks of UK train travel. Essentially it involves buying separate tickets for individual legs of the journey, rather than a conventional ‘through’ ticket, and it can save you A LOT of money. You don’t even have to split your tickets at stations where you are physically getting off one train and on to another — as long as you are bypassing the station, it makes no odds whether you are staying on the train or not.
Let me explain.
Say, you want to travel from Shrewsbury to York. Ordinarily, you would buy one ticket for the whole journey. However, by buying three separate tickets — one from Shrewsbury to Stockport, one from Stockport to Manchester Piccadilly, and one from Manchester Piccadilly to York — you can save 45% off the normal fare. Both journeys only involve one change at Manchester Piccadilly; it’s just the method of purchasing the tickets for this journey that is different.
You used to have to spend hours fiddling around with different journey itineraries in order to find the cheapest way of splitting your journey, but now there are companies who will do the hard work for you, taking a small percentage of your fare (although only a fraction of what they actually save you) as commission. I find Split My Fare the easiest to use, but I’ve noticed recently that a pop-up box in the Trainline app will alert you to the fact that there are SplitSave tickets available to you on relevant journeys.
4 | Check out fares from ALL stations in major cities, not just the most central and well-known ones
I spotted this hack when I was travelling down to London a lot to visit a friend who was living there. I always used to look at fares solely from Birmingham New Street to London Euston, because they’re the major stations in each city. But then I realised that by choosing ‘all stations’ in Birmingham to ‘all stations’ in London, cheaper fares were appearing from Birmingham Moor Street station to London Marylebone, with Chiltern Railways.
A bit of research alerted me to the fact that Birmingham Moor Street station is just a five-minute walk from Birmingham New Street station, which meant that I could arrive into New Street from Shrewsbury and then make the connecting train at Moor Street down to London Marylebone.
5 | Get a Railcard
For years, I always thought that the Young Person’s Railcard (available to buy from your 16th right up until your 26th birthday) was the only kind of Railcard available. And, perhaps it once was. But there are now many more to choose from, and they generally save you around a third off most rail fares in Britain for a cost of £30 per year (the exception being the Disabled Persons Railcard, which is £20 for the year).
When I was at university in Chester, I regularly travelled back home by train to work and to see my long-term boyfriend, which made the Young Person’s Railcard an invaluable investment. And, although I am no longer classed as a ‘young person’ (and probably haven’t been for some time!), I can still benefit from the same savings by purchasing a Two Together Railcard.
If you regularly travel with one particular person (a partner, close friend or family member), the railcard costs you just £15 each per year and, for any journeys you make together, you get a third off the fare. You can store the railcard electronically in the Railcard app on your phone, and you’ll need to show it to the conductor when he or she asks to see your tickets.
Due to the high level of discount (a third is a significant saving, considering the cost of rail travel in the UK), I often find that the railcard has paid for itself after just one journey, which makes it one of my top tips for travelling around Britain by train.
You can browse all the different railcards available and obtain any further information about them here. However, you may want to make your actual purchase through one of the cashback sites I use. Keep reading to find out how!
6 | Use a cashback site to purchase your Railcard and book tickets
So, how do cashback sites work?
If you’re not already registered, you’ll need to create an account first. Once you have an account, just search for the retailer you’d like to purchase from, click through to the retailer from the cashback site and make your purchase as normal. The advertised cashback will then be payable to you once your purchase has been confirmed by the retailer. It’s a form of affiliate marketing. The retailer pays cashback to Quidco or Top Cashback for sending customers their way, and the cashback site then passes a percentage of the commission on to you.
I’m not going to mention specific cashback amounts at specific retailers, because these change so frequently, but a lot of the retailers from whom you can purchase rail tickets and Railcards from will be registered on these sites (Trainline, Railcard, Raileasy, Chiltern Railways and Heathrow Express, to name but a few).
7 | Ensure that your journey goes as smoothly as possible by downloading the Trainline app
Even if you don’t purchase your tickets via Trainline, I recommend downloading the app for the free access to live train times and platform/railway station information.
If your train is running late and you have a reduced amount of time with which to make your connection, it really helps to know which platform your connecting train is leaving from, in advance of you arriving at the station. It also helps to know if there are any delays to your journey, so that you can plan an alternative route while you’re still on the train. Or, if someone’s meeting you at the train station, you can let them know your expected arrival time and what platform your train is scheduled to pull into.
If you do buy tickets via the Trainline website or app, these are stored electronically in the app, so that they can be easily accessed. If, for any reason, you need to make any changes to your journey prior to making said journey, you can amend ticket details via the app, too.
8 | If things go wrong, know your rights regarding compensation
Unfortunately, Britain’s trains don’t have the best reputation for their reliability! And, the problem is that if your train is delayed and you miss a connection, it can create a knock-on effect to your whole journey — sometimes meaning that you arrive at your final destination much later than you expected or planned for.
I’ve been travelling around Britain by train for many years now and although I have experienced some shocking delays in the past, I can safely say that the majority of the journeys I’ve made have passed without consequence.
However, if you do experience disruption to your journey as a result of unexpected delays or cancellations, it’s useful to know that you can claim compensation.
- If you arrive at your destination 30 minutes to one hour late, you are entitled to compensation equivalent to 50% of your ticket price.
- If you arrive at your destination over one hour late, you are entitled to a full refund of the price you paid for the ticket.
According to a survey commissioned by Trainline in 2021, 27% of respondents were unaware that they could even claim compensation at all.
You’ll need to make your claim through the train operator that ran the delayed or cancelled service, not through the retailer from whom you bought your ticket. Trainline have published a helpful guide to making a compensation claim — also known as ‘Delay Repay.’ You can claim compensation for a delayed or cancelled journey up to 28 days after said journey.
And that’s a quick summary of my best money-saving tips for travelling around Britain by train! If you know of any more that I haven’t mentioned in this post, please let me know in the comments below.
Alternatively, if you’d like to have a read about some of the amazing places you can visit in the UK by train, then please check out the growing number of posts I’ve published about UK travel – both in England and Wales. Scotland, sadly, at the moment, remains one of my largest travel oversights. I’ve visited Edinburgh (a long time ago!) and actually have a second trip to the city planned for this year (another bargain Travelzoo deal!), but nothing else on the horizon just yet. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to see more of Scotland (the NC500 has been on my travel wish list for some time, and the country is home to some incredible castles!), it’s just that it’s always been cheaper and easier to hop on a plane and head overseas — where there is more of a guarantee of better weather, too.
Sorry, Scotland — I’ll get there soon!