We may be a small island, but cheap UK travel isn’t always easy to come by. Here’s my local’s guide to making the best of your travel pounds for affordable travel in and around Britain.
Revised and updated July 2019
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- 1 Cheap UK Travel: Taking the Train
- 2 Choosing Your Train Tickets
- 3 Chosing Your train company and route
- 4 Split Ticketing on Trains
- 5 Railcards on Trains
- 6 Buy a Ticket, get a 2 for 1 offer
- 7 Tracks then Two Wheels
- 8 Cheap UK Travel: Coaches and Buses
- 9 Other public transport options
- 10 A quick Word about Cheap UK Travel In London
- 11 Great British Train Journeys
Cheap UK Travel: Taking the Train
As is often the case, you’ll pay more for your ticket if you simply walk up to the counter or ticket machine on the spur of the moment. Even by buying online the night before, you can often achieve a discount. The UK is served by a number of different train companies, all with their own routes and discounts (and all in trains bearing their own livery). You might find that some meet your needs better than others.
Collecting Tickets You Buy Online
If you buy online, you can collect your tickets at a nominated station by punching in an alpha numeric code that is supplied by a confirmation email. You’ll need the credit or debit card on which you purchased your tickets. Simply use the touchscreen machine at the station. Tell it you’re collecting your tickets, slip in your card for verification (don’t worry, it won’t charge you twice) and punch in the code from your email when requested. You’ll hear your tickets printing away inside the machine. Depending on your route, it might give you rather more pieces of card and paper than you were expecting, so be sure it’s finished all its handiwork before you collect your tickets and go.
The ticket machine at our local train station. You can buy or collect your ticket here if you have a debit or credit card.
Choosing Your Train Tickets
If you want to explore the width and breadth of the UK, we strongly recommend the train network. There’s a whole art to traveling cheaply (or at least less expensively) by rail in Britain. Firstly, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t travel in peak times, usually before 9.30am and between 4.30pm and 6.30pm. That’ll help, although there are some exceptions to this rule. Secondly, try and plan even a little bit in advance. If you are able to commit to specific train services, you can normally save at least a little and often a lot of money. Also don’t be surprised if two single tickets work out better than one return ticket. That’s not unusual.
Be aware that if you are travelling in the evening from suburban or rural stations, the ticket office may not be staffed. You’ll need to use the machine, or buy your ticket on the train if there is no machine available. Most machines will take contactless cards or cards using a pin, and some may also take cash.
It’s All About The Timing
Let me give you an idea of the savings you can make by booking in advance. Train ticket bookings normally open 12 weeks in advance of the day of travel. When I first looked for a ticket from Birmingham to London at the start of this time window, I would have been paying three times as much as I actually paid closer to the due date. Fares start to rise again near the travel date. This is, of course, affected by demand, so it’s a bit of a gamble to know when best to book.
My advice? Book early, or book late. Browse incognito online, and when the price reaches a level you can live with, book then. And if you absolutely must travel on a specific date, lock in your ticket reasonably soon after bookings open. Don’t forget to check if two single fares are cheaper than one return. And if you are ok to travel later in the evening, you can find your fares to be a bargain. It’s not unusual to find a ticket from London Marylebone to Birmingham for less than £6 after 2000 hours.
If you want to be alerted when the cheap tickets for your journey go on sale, you can sign up here at the Trainline ticket alert service.
Cheap Tickets at the Last Minute
Some UK train companies allow you to buy advance (and cheap) tickets right up to the last minute. Always remember to check this out before going to the ticket machines at stations. Currently the following companies offer this service:
On the day of travel (sometimes three hours before the time of travel, so check your options beforehand)
- Abellio Greater Anglia (up to 10 mins before)
- CrossCountry (up to 15 mins before)
- Grand Central (up to two hours)
- London North Eastern Railway (up to two hours before)
- Stansted Express (up to two hours before, online only)
- Virgin Trains (up to one hour before)
On the day before travel to 2359
- East Midlands Trains
On the day before travel to 1800
- Chiltern Railways
- Great Western Railway
- Hull Trains
- Southern Rail
- TransPennine Express (majority of tickets)
- Transport for Wales
On the day before travel to 1200
- Caledonian Sleeper
Three days before
Chosing Your train company and route
Let’s talk about London and Birmingham as an example. It’s actually not that simple. You can choose three different train companies and two different routes for this journey, meaning a little research is needed to find the best cheap UK travel option. They have very different prices.
Option 1: London Euston to Birmingham New Street by Virgin Trains
Fastest, likely to be most expensive, most comfortable trains
Option 2: London Euston to Birmingham New Street by London North Western
Likely to be slowest with the most station stops, moderately comfortable seats, but with the option of first class sections for a modest extra fee, less expensive.
Option 3: London Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street with Chiltern Railways
Likely to be the least expensive, with more comfortable carriages than London North Western, but also slow.
My recommendation if time is less important is to lock in the savings by choosing a slower route.
Don’t forget to check out Virgin Trains’ Best Fare Finder. Local knowledge or persistence can sometimes find you cheaper options, but this is a very good choice to keep your rail costs low.
Our Top Tip: Try all your options. There are vast differences in price between routes and train companies. If you can spare an extra hour to travel a slower train, you could save lots of cash. You can also save substantial amounts by committing to a specific train time and booking in advance.
A typical regional train in Birmingham UK.
Split Ticketing on Trains
This painful sounding, but entirely legitimate option can help you save money. If, and only if, your train stops at an intermediate station, you may be able to buy two cheaper local tickets to cover the whole journey instead of one long distance ticket.
Ticketing sites have been created to help you work this out, and will charge you a small fee (much less than you are saving) to work out the options for you.
Read more: Split Ticketing
In my experience, this is more likely to work for journeys over two hours. If you are heading north from London, or travelling cross country, this is well worth checking out. I just tested out a sample single fare from Birmingham to Manchester, which resulted in a 33% saving.
Railcards on Trains
There are a whole selection of railcards designed to reduce your journey cost, normally by a third. Currently I’ve spotted the following:
- Two Together Railcard, for you and a travel companion who must travel together
- 16-25 Railcard for everyone between those ages
- Senior Railcard for people aged 60+
- Family and Friends Railcard, for up to four adults and four children with at least one adult and one child traveling at any time ,which gives 1/3 off adult fares and 60% off child fares
- Disabled Persons Railcard, for a person with disabilities and their travel companion.
All cost £30, except the Disabled Persons Railcard which costs £20. I’ve also seen reference to over 50s discounts on ScotRail, so be sure to check out that option if you are north of Hadrian’s Wall.
You might also find unexpected local discounts to boost your cheap UK travel savings. Four of us traveled from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon and found ourselves on a group ticket, saving 20% over the published fare.
Buy a Ticket, get a 2 for 1 offer
At many stations you’ll see a stack of leaflets with 2 for 1 offers. By filling in a small form in the leaflet and showing your train tickets, you can save money on admission to various attractions. If you are heading to Stratford-upon-Avon, for example, you can get discounted entry to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and four other Shakespeare-focused attractions, two different river cruises and the MAD (Mechanical Art and Design) museum.
In London, the 2 for 1 offers would probably need a post all of their own, but include the Churchill War Rooms, the Cutty Sark, HMS Belfast, Kew Gardens, the London Transport Museum, London Zoo, the Tower of London and the Wembley Stadium Tour.
Tracks then Two Wheels
Many cities now offer bike hire for the day: London’s “Boris bikes” (actually Santander Cycles) for example, and foldable versions in Birmingham outside Snow Hill Station. Santander Cycles have a number of docking stations, so you can just rock up, tap your card (at a minimum cost of £2) and later deposit the bike back at another docking station. There’s even an app to guide you. Adding your own pedal power is definitely a great way to achieve cheap UK travel, while doing your bit for the environment.
Many cities also offer good options of cycle paths. Sustrans gives you an overview of what is available, such as the traffic free Rea Valley route in Birmingham, ideal for getting some fresh air and a spot of countryside.
Cheap UK Travel: Coaches and Buses
If you are happy on more than four wheels, then coaches and buses often offer a cheaper alternative to trains. The Check My Bus website gives you the opportunity to compare fares from companies such as National Express and Megabus. Cheap UK travel indeed, especially with fares ranging from a bargainous £1 to less than £10 on some buses. Many routes offer a variety of destination endpoints, so if, for example, you are headed to or from London, you’ll have plenty of choice. Buses are generally cheaper than trains, and may be particularly useful for journeys of around 3-4 hours. For longer journeys, it really depends on your liking for long distance bus travel.
The major players in UK coach travel are:
- National Express
Megabus: Not Just On Wheels
It’s worth knowing that Megabus provides Megatrains as well as Megabuses. Sadly the wonderful travel hack of catching the Megatrain from Birmingham New Street to Edinburgh for pennies is no more, as this was a favourite overnighter of ours. Instead, Megabus is now partnered with East Midlands trains, offering routes from London via East Midlands Parkway and onwards to the North East and Yorkshire via connecting bus services.
Be aware that some bus companies only accept either Travelcards or the use of a contactless debit card (e.g. London, Birmingham) or Travelcards/exact change. Check this before you board. Many local buses offer cheap day tickets (called Daysavers in the West Midlands, or One Day Travelcards including train services), where you can travel all day on the network for a flat fee. Some travelcards need to be bought before you board (London) while others can be purchased from the bus driver. This could just be a normal ticket, so have a pocket to hand to stow it away safely, lest it be a crumpled scrap within an hour.
Local Bus Routes In Rural Areas
Don’t write off the idea of finding bus routes in rural areas. Often these are subsidised by local councils, giving you access to some splendid isolation. They can also be designed to meet leisure needs, such as the minibuses that meet the trains on the Yorkshire Dales routes to convey walkers to trail heads. Check out the local tourist website for your destination to see what is available.
Other public transport options
It’s not all trains and buses. In addition, many UK cities are now covered by a tram network. You can pick up a tram in:
- Manchester (Metrolink)
- Sheffield (Supertram)
- West Midlands between Wolverhampton and Birmingham (Midland Metro)
- South London (London Tramlink)
- Nottingham (NET)
- Edinburgh (Edinburgh Trams)
They may not always be the cheapest local service (the Midland Metro is often more expensive than the train between its termini), but they give an interesting option for your journey.
The Midland Metro tram in Birmingham City Centre
A quick Word about Cheap UK Travel In London
This is a smartcard that you can only buy outside London, and enables you to pay as you go on most London public transport such as the tube, buses, Docklands Light Railway and even the Thames Clippers. The daily amount you pay for travel is capped. The card costs £5 plus postage, and can be topped up with the amount of your choosing from £10-£50. Transport for London suggests £15 for a two day trip.
Most tube stations can add an accompanying child to your Visitor Oystercard. Anyone under 11 travels free, and the child fare applies to 11-15 year olds.
You can top up your card where needed at tube and rail stations, plus some shops. Remaining balances can be retained until your next visit, or else returned to you in cash (under £10) at tube stations or by returning the card to a visitor centre or Transport for London
You can find out more about Visitor Oystercards here.
Traveling Without An Oystercard
You don’t have to buy an Oystercard. If you have a contactless bank card, you can use this on the tube and buses. Just tap in and out on the tube, and in only on the bus, and you’re sorted. We’ve been using this for several years now, and have found the tapping totally reliable. When you tap in and out, your daily spend is capped to the maximum for a Travelcard over the time period you’ve used the services. If you don’t use all the Travelcard value, then you pay less, and you won’t ever pay more than the Travelcard cost.
Insider Tip: And if you’re taking the bus, try routes 11 and 453 for many of the top tourist attractions.
A Local’s Guide to Affordable Travel in Britain
Great British Train Journeys
Don’t forget that there are plenty of classic railway journeys to enjoy in Britain, such as the Snowdon Mountain Railway to the rooftop of Wales. You can read about our trip on the overnight sleeper train to the Scottish Highlands here, and our journey on the beautiful Settle Carlisle line. Let someone else do the driving, while you marvel at the beauty of this small island.
Read More: 10 Day UK Trip Itinerary – a choice of itineraries including some options by public transport
Further Afield: Great Rail Journeys Of The World Waiting To Be Discovered, as shared by travel writers
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