We may be a small island, but affordable travel in Britain 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.
Affordable 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 with a PIN.
Choosing Your Train Tickets
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 that 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.
Also 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.
It’s all about the timing
This October, I’m heading to London. Train ticket bookings normally open 12 weeks in advance. When I first looked for tickets at the start of this time window, I would have been paying £26 or more each way. When I actually booked last week, I paid £7 for my ticket down to London, and £12 back. If I’d have left it later, I might have got it cheaper. But as I’m committed to an onward journey and return, I didn’t like to leave it to chance. I appreciate that mostly you won’t have that much opportunity to book early. But if you do, it can be worth your while.
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 tickets allow you to buy advance (and cheap) tickets right up to the last minute. 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
- Grand Central
- TransPennine Express
- Virgin East Coast
- Virgin West Coast
- Caledonian Sleeper
On the day before travel
- East Midlands Trains
- London Midland
- South West Trains
- Arriva Trains Wales
- Chiltern Railways
- Great Western Railway
- First Hull Trains
- Southern Rail
Choosing 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. And they have very different prices.
Here are your options for journeys from London to Birmingham. Let’s assume we’re taking a return trip. I’m writing this post on 28 August 2017, and these are the prices available today.
Option 1: London Euston to Birmingham New Street by Virgin West Coast
Swish fast trains here. I used to use this service when I commuted daily. If I were to travel outbound from London to Birmingham tomorrow, it would cost me £72 on the 0843. Ouch. The following day returning to London would cost £16 on the 1850. That’s more like it. The journey time is just over 1 hour 20 minutes.
The same journey outbound on 31 October returning the next day will cost £11 outbound and £8 return.
Option 2: London Euston to Birmingham New Street by London Midland
These are less swish local trains that stop at many stations. Therefore the journey will take you longer, normally from just over 2 hours to 2 hours 15 minutes. Trains departing at 1013 tomorrow and returning the next day at 1833 will cost you £7.50 each way. That’s a massive saving at the last minute.
The October dates would cost you £6 each way for this journey.
Option 3: London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill With Chiltern Railways
More swish than London Midland, and taking around the same amount of time. Heading out tomorrow on the 1010 will cost you £29.40 outbound and £5.50 return on the 1840 the day after.
The October dates would cost you £6.50 outbound and £5.50 return.
The TLDR Version
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. Even better, you don’t have to work this out for yourself, as the lovely team from Money Saving Expert have done it for you here. Check their website for all the best advice to see if it will work for you, and be reminded of their warning to check terms and conditions. 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.
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.
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. These can be a great way of exploring the city and its environs greenly and cheaply. 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.
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.
Affordable Travel: Coaches and Buses
If you are happy on 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. 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.
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 (London) or Travelcards/exact change. Check this before you board. Many local buses offer cheap day tickets (called Daysavers in the West Midlands), 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 will 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.
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 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 etc. The daily amount you pay for travel in Zones 1 and 2 is capped at £6.60, whereas a Travelcard for the same zones will cost you £12.30. The card costs £3 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 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.
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 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.