Ticketing arrangements on the UK's railways are notoriously arcane, but you can use the rules to get cheaper fares. Independent rail expert Barry Doe details 10 popular journeys on which you can save money by asking for your ticket in the right way.
Seeking a cheaper ticket?
If you turn up at Penzance and ask for the cheapest return to Birmingham for immediate travel, the clerk will sell you a saver return at £106. That seems a good buy compared with the single of £85.50, and the saver return can be used either way on any train, any day, without restriction.
If, however, you ask for a saver return from Penzance to Cheltenham and a saver return from Cheltenham to Birmingham, it will be a lot cheaper.
So before 0900 the total is £85.50 - saving £20.50 over the originally-asked-for £106 - and after 0900 or at weekends, the total is £76.50, saving £29.50.
- Up to 0900, the saver to Cheltenham will cost £68
- After 0900 (or any time weekends) it will cost £59
- The saver from Cheltenham to Birmingham will cost £17.50
These are not "fiddles" but perfectly legitimate savings, because it is the customer's right to
ask for any combination of tickets. However, it is also the clerk's duty not to advertise them, should he or she know they exist.
The only rule connected with the use of such a combination (other than the fact the tickets
must be valid, of course) is that the train must stop at the place where the tickets join, although you do not have to alight.
OTHER TIPS TO SAVE
Avoid peak times - 6.30-9.30am and 3.30-6.30pm
Buying two singles can be cheaper than a return
Travelling off-peak can mean good first class deals
Book as far in advance as possible - or travel in a group of 10 and book a week ahead
Buy tickets for two parts of your journey - a combination ticket
Book on a specific train
Get a railcard for discounts on even saver tickets
Source: Passenger Focus
The background to all this is that Penzance-Birmingham fares are set by Virgin Trains,
Penzance-Cheltenham fares by First Great Western (FGW) and Cheltenham-Birmingham
fares by Central Trains (CT). Both FGW and CT have cheaper fares per mile than Virgin.
If these were bus companies or airlines, buying cheaper fares with cheaper operators often means opting for fewer frills or a longer journey. By rail, a ticket to travel is just that, valid on any operators' services on the line of route (this only applies to walk-on tickets like savers and not to advance purchase fares, which are much cheaper and are for a specific seat on a specific train).
The same rules and reasons apply to all these journeys, taken during the week - details correct at time of publication.
You need to take a day trip from Plymouth to Reading using the first train of the day at 0548.
The booking office rightly says the cheapest return is £188 open return - remember they
must only tell you the cheapest through fare to the place you ask for in one transaction,
NOT by re-booking.
Through fares are more expensive
Ask for a standard day return to Exeter (£14.60), then another from Exeter
to Taunton (£9.70). You have to buy the full fare open return to Reading as the train
does not stop anywhere again (£113). But these three tickets cost £137.30, saving £50.70.
The way to find this out? Look at intermediate stops and see if fares to that station, and from that station to your destination, cost less than the throughout fare - the trick here is to use standard day returns (only valid for shorter journeys of 50 miles maximum) and only pay the open return for the
longer leg. This only works for day trips, of course.
For a day trip arriving at about 0900, an open return costs £82. Book a standard day return to Winchester (the last call for peak-hour trains before London) for £23.60. Then ask for a standard day return Winchester-London at £43.40. The total, £67, saves £15.
This is because non-London fares tend to be at a cheaper rate per mile than those into London itself.
A Network Railcard gives 34% off fares after 1000, but if you need to go to town earlier, there's no discount on the £43.40 standard day return.
So buy a single (without your railcard) at £23 and then ask for a London to Winchester single WITH your railcard for the homeward journey (or buy it in London) at £15.20. Total £38.20, saving £5.20.
To get to Manchester from London early, the only throughout return fare is the open return at £219. The train's first stop is Stoke-on-Trent so you can't split it into short sections.
Instead, buy an open return to Stoke-on-Trent (£182) then a saver return Stoke to Manchester (£12.30). Total £194.30, saving £24.70.
This works because the cheap saver return from Stoke is valid on any train, any day - and for
the homeward journey this is no problem as all bar one train a day calls at Stoke-on-Trent.
You have to leave London for Newcastle on the 0800 train and the open return costs £224. The train calls at Peterborough - and savers to the north from Peterborough are available any train, any day. So book an open return to Peterborough (£68) then a saver from Peterborough to Newcastle (£76.90) - that's £144.90, saving £79.10. Just make sure the train on which you return calls at Peterborough (most do).
You want to do a single journey from Chester to London on the 0715 through train. The only
single at that time is £89.
But saver returns from London to stations in Wales are valid any train, any day and Chester
is near the Welsh border. You may break you return journey with savers - but not the outward leg.
So buy a saver return FROM London TO Shotton and throw away the outward half. You are then "returning", resuming your return journey at Chester. That is all legal. The saver return is £59.70, £29.30 less than the full single.
8. WOLVERHAMPTON-MILTON KEYNES
Most of the above examples are to/from London as that is where most anomalies occur
because it is the main business market, and so fares tend to be highest and therefore allow
room to undercut.
It is possible to save elsewhere, particularly if your journey involves travelling through large conurbations like West Midlands or West Yorkshire, where fares tend to be very low.
A single in the morning peak from Wolverhampton to Milton Keynes is £35. So buy a full single to Coventry for £4.50, and then another from Coventry to Milton Keynes for £18, totalling £22.50 and saving £12.50.
It can sometimes pay to see if one operator has cheaper fares than another. This is not so
common with walk-on fares but, for example, a first class return from
Newcastle to York is £86, valid on any train. The two inter-city operators are GNER and Virgin.
If you buy a GNER-only first single it is £31.50 and if you buy a Virgin-only first
single it is £29. So with Virgin both ways, it's £58, saving £28. Even if you travel GNER, it's still only £63.
10. LONDON-MANCHESTER FIRST CLASS
Very few savings can be made in first class as the cheaper short-distance fares don't exist, but to show how crazy the current system has become, take this example. A first class open return from London Euston to Manchester is £337 for 185 miles each way. But a first open return to Falkirk - yes, in Scotland - is £320.
This is because West Coast fares are priced by Virgin. London-Manchester is £337 return,
and £355 London-Glasgow. BUT London-Falkirk is priced by GNER who have cheaper fares - and yet fares from London to Falkirk are available via either the West or the East Coast routes. So use your Falkirk ticket to Manchester, where you can break your journey (never to go on to Falkirk later).
So you pay £17 less to travel 420 miles to Falkirk than the 185 miles to Manchester. You know it makes
A spokeswoman for the Association of Train Operating Companies agrees that combination fares are legitimate, but points out that on long distance trips, open single or return fares - used in the examples above - account for 2% of journeys.
"Ninety-eight percent of passengers travel on the wide range of discounted fares available, and which do not involve making complicated enquiries about the purchase of combination fares. Nationally, more than 80% of rail journeys are made using discounted tickets including cheap day returns, savers, and advance purchase tickets."
Is his ticket cheaper than yours?
With millions of possible fare combinations, it is not practical for ticket retailers to give out every single combination of single and return tickets, she says. "Also, this might severely limit the number of trains that the passenger could use, depending on the time of day they wish to travel."
A spokeswoman for Passenger Focus, an independent consumer watchdog, says that the above examples show just how complex the fare structure has become.
"These are just a tiny proportion of the many anomalies there must be. If you know the system, you can bend it to your advantage but most passengers wouldn't know that you can get cheaper fares by buying a combination of tickets.
"Passenger Focus is concerned that longer-distance passengers are perplexed by a complicated system so are never sure that they're getting the right ticket. There are great deals out there but it's no wonder that passengers, particularly first-time train travellers, feel bewildered by a range of tickets with a multitude of names."
She adds that the group is working with the rail industry to simplify the fares structure.
Are We There Yet? is broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesday, 13 March, at 1930 GMT.
Here is a selection of your comments.
The 1970s BBC sitcom Old Gas and Gaiters had something very similar in the form of the Railway Game - except in that case it was supposed to be absurd fantasy.
Graeme Dobie, Edinburgh
And you wonder why so many people still decide to travel by car? Train ticket pricing should incentivise people to travel by rail rather than prohibit them, yet generally when more than one person is travelling at a time, it is always considerably cheaper, reliable and more convenient to take the car. Don't get me wrong, I prefer to take the train and read/work, its just that a) I rarely get a seat b) I simply can't afford it.
Oliver Wright, Oxford
The best way to save money is book in advance on the internet. Being a student I often have to travel to Cardiff (my home town) from my university in Southampton. As long as you book your tickets in advance you can get a return for £12. On a direct train.
One problem with purchasing tickets online is when they then cancel your train several hours before but do not notify you. If they can confirm your booking and send you a reference, surely they can also advise if a train is cancelled through an automated system. I had this happen recently where I turned up at the station, collected my tickets from the fast ticket machine and found that my train was cancelled.
Luke, Milton Keynes
It now costs more for me to buy a weekly ticket to Chelmsford, than buying five daily return tickets. The whole of the pricing structure needs addressing, so that rail companies give discounts to commuter that buy monthly or weekly advanced tickets. After all, the rail companies are receiving interest on the money from these advance orders. I am currently so disillusioned with the rail companies that I am considering driving to work, as it would work out cheaper for me (more costly for the environment).
Gareth Jones, Brentwood
Planning is the answer! I booked a single to from Truro to London for next month and it cost me the princely sum of £14!! The return was the same price too, Truro to London and back for 28 quid, about a third of the price of putting diesel in my car and I can sleep all the way!
Kev Glenister, Falmouth, Cornwall
Sorry I'm just gobsmacked that for price of a ticket to Plymouth I could fly to any destination in western Europe instead.
Inter-City rail journeys should be priced by the mile. A range of options such as half-price cards and season tickets could be made available to frequent travellers, but the basic fare should be based purely on distance travelled.
Mike Easley, Telford, UK
The whole rail system is stupendously complex, not just the prices but the journey routes as well. I have often travelled from Lancaster in Cumbria to Chichester on the south coast, and the 'best' journey between the two have varied from £30 to £100, taken between 3 and 5 hours and involved between 1 and 5 changes seemingly at random.
Ben Mansell, Lancaster, UK
The very fact that we're expected to buy an elaborate series of different tickets in order to get the cheapest fare shows what a farce the current system is. Just standardise it based on distance between stations. How hard can it be?
Adam, London, UK
Yesterday I travelled from Richmond to Reading with South West Trains. The lunchtime journey cost me £10.50 for a same day return ticket. Last week, I paid about the same price for a single - actually, said the helpful SWT clerk, it's only £10.40 for a single. Lesson: when you need a single, buy a return in Richmond and give it to someone as a random act of kindness in Reading.
Neil Benson, Richmond, Surrey
Of course, it also relies on the train companies educating their on-board staff. Only last month I was made to feel like a fare dodger on a journey between London and Bristol with First Great Western. Along with two other passengers, I was forced to upgrade by the overly officious train manager (as conductors/guards now called) despite the fact we all had valid tickets. This led to a number of letters, phone calls and e-mails in order to get a refund, and a grudging apology for the inconvenience.
Lauren Silverwolf, Canary Wharf, UK
Where the rail companies really make their money is in nailing the commuter. In 99.5% of the time I will not use the "weekend" part of the ticket I buy. In other words I have to buy a whole weeks worth of ticket (7 days) to use it for my normal commute of Mon-Fri (five days). I give to the rail network two days of every week that I buy. I do not know anyone who commutes with me who is not in the same boat; everybody I have talked to on this subject does a standard commute. If we were allowed to buy our ticket in days and every time we used our ticket for that day then it gets reduced by one day, imagine how much the commuter would save. I have worked out I would save about £1,000 a year.
If commuters were able to pay per-day instead of per-week, or fares to be more transparent, all that would happen is they'd all go up. If travellers paid less, then either fares rise to compensate or subsidy rises to compensate. It's strongly arguable that subsidy should rise to enable cheaper fares and more and longer trains so more people can use public transport, as part of a congestion and carbon-cutting plan, but any individual saving simply gets passed on somewhere else - at the end of the day, staff must still be paid and fuel and power bought in order for the trains to run.
Jack Howard, Leeds, UK
With all the effort to try reduce global warming, why is it that flights within the UK, more often than not, work out cheaper than going by train? Surely, the government should try and tackle this area and make rail travel cheaper so we might be more persuaded to use it rather than fly.
Lauren Schewitz, Bristol
I recently travelled from my home in Livingston to Aberdeen. According to the FirstScotrail website the cheapest return fair was £58.00. In the end I booked a cheap day return from Livingston to Edinburgh £4.10 and a supersaver fare from Edinburgh to Aberdeen £20.00. £24.10 paid saving of £33.90. How can they justify this??
Elizabeth Thomson, Livingston, Scotland
I used to live in Bath and travel regularly to Coventry or Birmingham. The ticket to Birmingham (one change) was more expensive than the ticket to Coventry, which was further away and involved changing trains twice. I made the error once however of saying this to the customer service agent who asked me to confirm that I was actually travelling to Coventry as she couldn't sell me the Coventry ticket if she knew I was only going to Birmingham.
B Harrett, Coventry
The last few weeks I have needed to make return trips between Luton and Birmingham, leaving during peak time. Standard open return fare via London: £138 (£233 First Class). Same fare via Leicester: £102. Standard open return to Leicester: £57.50 plus £6.90 cheap day return to Birmingham equals £64.40 (both tickets purchased at Luton station). Enough said.
Chris Garrand, Luton
Here in Germany the trains are not cheap, and as in the UK there are ways of obtaining cheaper fares such as buying in advance and in a group. However, the German fares system is transparent (compared to the UK), logical, and the rail staff are well informed, polite and helpful. Quality of public transport in Germany is just one of the reasons I never want to return to live in the UK.
John Weir, Heidelberg, Germany (ex UK)
Unless it's changed recently, German railways are run by the Deutsche Bundesbahn. Same as the railways in France are run by the SNCF - only their staff aren't so polite and helpful. With just one company, you only have one ticketing system. What I want to know is: how could anyone think it was a good idea to privatise a PUBLIC service?
Why isn't there a website that can work out all the permutations and combinations for you and tell you the cheapest fare and what strange combination you need to ask for? Alternatively, the rail fares could be fairer, simpler and more realistic. Second thoughts - right, how do I design that website...
Lee Pike, Cardiff, UK