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.

UK Ticket Machine at Local Rail Stations

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
  • CrossCountry
  • Grand Central
  • Northern
  • TransPennine Express
  • Virgin East Coast
  • Virgin West Coast
  • Caledonian Sleeper

On the day before travel

  • C2C
  • East Midlands Trains
  • London Midland
  • South West Trains
  • Arriva Trains Wales
  • Chiltern Railways
  • Great Western Railway
  • First Hull Trains
  • ScotRail
  • Southeastern
  • 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

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
  • Eurolines
  • Megabus
  • Easybus

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.

Local Buses

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.

A distant bell means it's the Midland Metro tram in Birmingham City Centre

The Midland Metro tram in Birmingham City Centre

A quick Word about London

Visitor Oystercard

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.

getting the best travel deals: travel hacks and tips from 50 years on UK roads and rails

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.

Author: Bernie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

40 thoughts on “How To Find Affordable Travel in Britain: A Local’s Guide to Public Transport

  1. We have been thinking of visiting UK recently. One of the main problems that arises is always the cost of transportation. It can get quite daunting when you are on a budget. Thanks for the tips. Pinning them for further reference.

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 7:48 am
    1. There’s so much variation in price that it really helps to shop early and shop around. Hope you have a fab trip! 🙂

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 9:08 am
  2. Very helpful! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 8:45 am
    1. Thanks. 🙂 I thought that if even we Brits find it confusing…

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 9:07 am
  3. I used to live in the UK and loved travelling to different cities via train… but the prices were pretty frightening at times! I ended up saving a heck tonne of money using the 16-25 Railcard – you can buy it right up until the day before you turn 26 and from recollection, it takes a third off the price, which is nice. Unfortunately too old now, so good tips for future reference.

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 9:54 am
    1. Great tip about the pre-birthday purchase; I think I remember doing that. I’m closing in on the 60+ railcard now. 😀

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 10:30 am
  4. Wow! Super helpful tips… It’s always great to know travel hacks such as these when you are traveling somewhere new! 🙂

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 11:23 am
    1. Thank you. 🙂 If anyone knows the Belgian version of this info, I’d love the link. All I’ve managed there so far are the cheaper at the weekends tickets.

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 1:14 pm
  5. This is so informative! I think this is a must read for anyone thinking of travelling to England. Coaches all the way – you can end up saving so much money!

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 1:00 pm
    1. Thanks! 🙂 Coaches are such a bargain, aren’t they?

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 1:12 pm
  6. This is a great piece to bookmark for later. We stayed in Berkshire for 8 weeks and got ourselves a rail pass into London for only £27 return and it worked on the buses, tubes and trains at off-peak hours. Not only that but we got deals on 2 for 1 on Thames cruises, the London Eye and other activities which is brilliant. However a warning for tourists at Stansted airport the British Rail advice counter won’t tell you about this pass – they try to sting you for a full £58 2 way ticket which is a royal rip off.

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 3:07 pm
    1. Advice centres here are a bit variable. So glad you managed to bag yourself a decent fare, and all those 2 for 1s – love the Thames cruises. I’d highly recommend the Money Saving Expert website I’ve linked in the article for other savings too; the guy who runs it is a real consumer champion, and there is loads of information on there about great deals in the UK.

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 8:22 pm
  7. I went to London back in 2001 and took the tube, but have not travelled within the UK! So helpful though, because I know we do things different in the states and I always try to research articles like this before going abroad!

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 3:28 pm
    1. Hope it’s useful if you head back. 🙂 It seems so wrong to me that we welcome visitors by not telling them how to get the best prices, especially as the system is a bit complicated.

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 8:17 pm
  8. Wow – I had no idea there were so many options, nor that it could be so complicated! Thanks for sharing all of these tips. I’ve not been to the UK, but when I go this will definitely come in handy.

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 9:32 pm
    1. I’m sure someone sat down and wondered just how complicated they could make it. 😉 But I like a challenge…

      Posted on September 9, 2017 at 9:37 pm
  9. This is so good to know. I was lucky that I had friends in England to help me but it can be very confusing – I’m sure they don’t even know all of this information! Anywhere you can save money in England is definitely a plus!

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 10:02 pm
    1. I have an eye problem and don’t drive, hence my dedication to doing public transport cheaply. 😉 I try to think that the peak price is like the rack rate in a hotel, then see what I can do to cut it back. It must be really difficult as a non-UK traveller to pick up some of the information, so I was determined to do my best to make it more available.

      Posted on September 10, 2017 at 9:41 am
  10. Very useful guide, thank you!

    Posted on September 9, 2017 at 11:20 pm
  11. Very informative! Thanks for sharing all this info @backpackingkiwis

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 6:59 am
  12. Thanks for creating such a comprehensive guide to transport in the UK! I never realised how affordable it was to get around – we visited London a few years ago, but never had the chance to venture out of the city. After reading this, we’ll definitely need to explore more when we visit again!

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 12:09 pm
    1. Ah, come back and visit again. 🙂 Within a couple of hours (and for under a tenner each way with good timing), you could be anywhere from Birmingham to Cambridge or Oxford to Bristol. There’s so much waiting for you!

      Posted on September 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm
  13. This is such a useful and detailed guide! I had no idea train tickets were so complex in the UK…I assumed you could just walk up to the ticket window and get on a train. Will definitely save this for my trip there.

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 2:18 pm
    1. You absolutely can walk up to the counter and buy. But unless it is a very local journey, it will could cost more without a little planning upfront. I hope you get to have some fun here without spending lots!

      Posted on September 10, 2017 at 2:24 pm
  14. I love reading locals guides because they’re so informative! I had no idea there were so many options, and for the trains, specifically. I’ve heard that transportation in Britain can be expensive if you don’t know what you’re doing, but having never been there myself, I wasn’t sure what that entailed. Now I know what to look back to if I get the chance to visit 🙂

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 7:13 pm
    1. Deregulation of public transport to a series of different private companies has made it all more complicated here than it used to be. But I am determined to pay as little as possible for my trips, and even more determined that anyone visiting shouldn’t be stung by unnecessarily high prices. 🙂

      Posted on September 10, 2017 at 7:52 pm
  15. Awesome info here! Thanks :]

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 7:21 pm
    1. Thank you. 🙂

      Posted on September 10, 2017 at 7:49 pm
  16. This is so helpful! I’ve always found the train system to be confusing so I love how you’ve laid out all the options so I can save some money next time.

    Posted on September 10, 2017 at 10:35 pm
    1. Wishing you a fab next visit, and lots more £s in your pocket.

      Posted on September 11, 2017 at 7:55 am
  17. I didn’t realize there were so many different train services in the UK! These tips are great for saving money as transportation is often a major expense when traveling (especially in Britain!) Thanks for sharing!

    Posted on September 11, 2017 at 12:07 pm
    1. There are quite a few! 🙂 And sometimes the franchises change hands, and your train changes colour and livery. But quite a few of the train companies sell one another’s tickets, and at the station counter or its machines you can buy tickets from any operator.

      Posted on September 11, 2017 at 6:27 pm
  18. This is actually so helpful! I would have spent hours trying to google all of this myself, so thank you for such a comprehensive resource! I will be in the UK next month and have pinned so I can revisit and plan my transport 🙂

    Posted on September 11, 2017 at 3:05 pm
    1. Ah, that’s great news. 🙂 Hope it helps save you some pounds on your journeys. And welcome for next month!

      Posted on September 11, 2017 at 6:24 pm
  19. I’ve laways wondered the best ways to travel through the UK! I’ve never been, but hope to go sometime soon! Thanks for the insider’s scoop 🙂

    Posted on September 15, 2017 at 10:46 am
    1. Do come and visit the Brits; we’re friendly! 🙂 Hope this is useful when you do.

      Posted on September 15, 2017 at 11:32 am
  20. What a helpful guide! I just got gouged on a last minute ticket I had to change due to a family emergency, so I’m not ready to bank on last minute discounts any more… But I loved the example about choosing your route and the hint on split ticketing!

    Posted on September 15, 2017 at 10:57 am
    1. Ah, emergency changes are always difficult – I hope everything is ok with you and yours. If you have a long way to travel, the split ticketing really is magic.

      Posted on September 15, 2017 at 11:30 am
  21. What a helpful article!! I’m going to visit Britain next year!!

    Posted on September 15, 2017 at 4:09 pm
    1. Ah that’s great! Hopefully you won’t be spending too many pounds on getting around this beautiful country. 🙂

      Posted on September 15, 2017 at 4:11 pm