This guide to tickets for travel by train in England, Scotland and Wales, and how to buy them online, covers the basics of what you can expect to encounter when making bookings.
The aim is to provide context for the tickets and journey options you should encounter, in usual circumstances, when making a booking either online or at the station.
SMTJ has striven to ensure that the advice presented is as accurate as possible, but a guide such as this cannot cover every combination of journey options.
The intention was also to provide some simple explanations of how to make the most of British train tickets and save money, but pointing out how to do this has required a weight of text.
That's because there's no getting away from the fact that booking a ticket for a British rail journey at the cheapest possible price, or with the greatest scope for stress-free travel, can be complicated.
What can get lost in the confusion are the multiple positive aspects of using British rail tickets, which include, but are not limited to:
So the advice is to read on and use the Content menu to jump to what you need to know.
Most train operators have temporarily changed aspects of their specific ticketing policies in response to the pandemic.
Though when travelling long-distance the typical scenario is that you will still save money by booking Advance tickets ahead of the travel date.
Here are the links to the Coronavirus information pages which have been published by these train operators - many of these new pages now have details of changes to train schedules, or give access to revised timetables.
Some aspects of how tickets can be booked for train journeys in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) aren’t particularly unusual.
In common with the likes of France, Germany and Italy, if you will be travelling long-distance on a direct train, you can save money by booking ahead and committing to a specific departure.
And because you will be travelling on a specific train these Advance tickets include a seat reservation
(As the reservation will have the time of the departure, it validates that you are committed to this specific train).
Or if you will be making a local train journey, you simply buy a ticket for the next train and jump on board.
The ticketing staff at the station, or on the trains, will endeavor to ensure that you are travelling at the cheapest possible price.
On some routes there is no means of saving money by booking in advance so the choice of tickets can be limited to;
Also as in other countries, there are also general ‘rules’ of how tickets can be used and sold, including different types of ticket being available, with some being cheaper than others.
And in common with long-distance train services worldwide, first class train tickets are available for most British train journeys.
Many of the unconventional aspects of British train tickets are connected to the fact that British train services are operated by separate companies, known as Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
Each company manages how tickets are sold and can be used on its services; and they typically mix their own separate approaches to ticket sales with those national ‘rules'.
These variations can include:
These discrepancies mean that the use of words such as ‘usually’ and ‘typically’ on this guide, often couldn't be avoided.
Though these differences in how train tickets are sold particularly apply when taking train journeys within England.
That’s because all train journeys solely within Scotland are operated by Scotrail and all journeys solely within Wales are operated by Transport For Wales.
Because there is no national rail operator, booking British train tickets can also be particularly unusual in these circumstances:
There's much more information about this on the detailed guide, which you'll find below.
Another aspect of booking British train tickets that isn’t typical of how train tickets are usually sold in Europe, is the impact of the time, at which you will be travelling on both ticket availability and prices.
British trains are inevitably busy before and after the working day and travelling in these hours of peak demand is usually more expensive.
So the reverse is also true, when Mondays to Fridays are working days you can typically save money by travelling outside of those peak hours, so on long-distance routes a wider choice of departures is typically available at cheaper prices, when travelling at weekends.
But each TOC (train operator company) sets the times of day at which it applies peak hour travel rates, so there is no national standard for this.
Though the peak hours are typically between 07:00 and 10:00 in the morning and 16:00 and 19:00 in the evening.
For the time being, there are three main types of online booking services available for journeys by train in England Scotland and Wales.
1: The National Rail website
When different companies offer trains between your starting point and a destination it can pay off to compare prices when booking advance; which is easily done if you look up a journey on the National Rail website because it offers an online ticketing service.
All of the booking services operated by each TOC are plugged into the National Rail website, so it provides a comprehensive overview of all the tickets and journey options.
The trains operated by one TOC may be slower, but cheaper, than those of a rival company, but using National Rail can help with decisions such as whether a faster journey justifies a higher price.
The number of steps required for making a booking when using National Rail is no different to booking direct with a TOC; so it can be a particularly useful tool to use if you don’t know which TOC will be operating the train service(s) you will be taking.
2: Booking with ticket affiliate companies
These independent companies sell tickets nationwide; in other words they sell journeys regardless of which TOC (Train Operating Company) is providing the service you will be travelling by.
These websites are those listed below which have '(national)' beside the company/brand name.
The positives of using these services are;
The core negative is that this type of website usually charges booking fees, but the fees per booking tend to be less than £2.
However, RailEurope (formerly known as Loco2) is an exception, as it doesn’t charge booking fees for UK journeys and still offers access to every departure and route, regardless of which TOC is providing the service.
3:Booking direct with a TOC
Each TOC (Train Operating Company) operates its own independent ticket booking site through which it sells tickets for journeys by its trains, AND they usually also sell journeys nationwide, regardless of which TOC is operating the service.
When a TOC does also sell tickets for journeys that it doesn't operate don't be surprised to see it highlight faster and/or cheaper services provided by another company.
The key positives of booking direct with a TOC for travel by the trains it operates, are;
There are only three core types of ticket placed on sale for British train journeys; though not all three types may be available when you look up a journey.
And the TOCs (train operating companies) can also other types of ticket for sale.
1: Off-Peak tickets
Off-Peak tickets aren’t typically discounted when booking ahead, but they are cheaper than Anytime tickets, because they can only be used on trains departing outside of those peak business hours.
Note that unlike any other European country, Britain has a core type of ticket that can only be used at certain times of the day.
If you book Off Peak tickets ahead, you usually won’t be restricted to travelling by a specific departure; as long as the train you board is leaving during the ‘off-peak’.
They can also be purchased at stations immediately before departure, so outside of peak hours, they become the default type of last-minute walk up tickets.
If booked ahead, online or at a station, they can also be refunded.
2: Anytime tickets
Anytime tickets also aren’t discounted and they are the most expensive type of ticket, but they live up to their name by being valid on any train on a travel date.
Meaning that they can be used on departures leaving at peak business hours; hence the higher price.
So if you will be booking last minute at the station during peak hours, for the next train to your destination, the only type of ticket that will typically be available are Anytime tickets.
If booked ahead, online or at a station, Anytime tickets can also be refunded with no fees.
3: Discounted departure specific Advance Tickets
Advance tickets are discounted, so they’re typically cheaper than Off-Peak tickets and always much cheaper than Anytime tickets.
They live up to their name as they are usually only available to purchase until at least a few hours ahead of departure; so they’re not available when booking last minute at stations.
Though each TOC (train operating company) sets its own policies for when Advance tickets will be taken off sale.
They will also only be valid on the specific departure selected when booking and can’t be refunded if you change your plans (but can usually be exchanged).
Unlike the typical prices of Anytime and Off-Peak tickets, the prices of Advance tickets aren’t fixed, so other factors can affect whether you can book Advance tickets for the cheapest possible price.
How far you will be travelling can also impact on the type of tickets that will be available for a journey.
Some sort of national definition for long-distance and short-distance journeys would be useful, but they don’t exist.
So ShowMeTheJourney’s attempt to explain this is, Advance tickets are most typically only made available when journeys between cities on fast express trains, take at least 45 - 60 minutes.
Though the use of the word ‘typically’ is being stretched to its limits in this instance.
Avanti West Coast, Cross Country, Grand Central, Hull Trains, LNER and TransPennine Express are the TOCs which offer discounted Advance tickets on all of their routes; while Chiltern Railways, Greater Anglia, EMR, Great Western Railway, Northern, ScotRail, Southern, Southeastern and South Western Railway are the TOCs which offer Advance tickets on most of their longer-distance routes.
So when looking up a journey which takes less than 60 minutes don’t be surprised if Advance tickets aren’t an option.
Also the means of saving money on shorter-distance journeys tends to differ from how to save when travelling longer-distances
Six things to look out for when using tickets for a return (two-way) British train journey:
1: When looking up a two-way journey, be aware that in Britain you don’t have to book a return ticket, despite making a return journey.
As a consequence, when booking a return journey, there is often a choice of different types of tickets available for each direction of travel.
2: Advance tickets are only ever available for one direction of travel, but when booking a two-way trip, you will often be offered them for the outward AND return journeys; so you will actually be booking TWO separate tickets.
3: Or if you will be travelling back at a later date to your outward journey, you may be offered the option of booking Open Return tickets, particularly on routes on which Advance tickets aren’t available.
Though when there IS a choice available between Advance AND Open Return tickets, booking Advance tickets for each direction can be cheaper than booking an Open Return ticket.
4: Or If you will be making a day trip, look out for Day Return tickets, which are offered by many TOCs over shorter-distance routes
When this type of ticket is available, the price is typically only a few £s more expensive than booking a one-way/single journey ticket.
5: When both Advance tickets AND Day Return tickets are available, the price of Day Return tickets can be seemingly more expensive than Advance tickets, but the price shown for the Advance ticket will usually be the cost of solely booking a one-way journey.
Keep a look out for this, as it can be one of the more confusing aspects of the pricing of British train journeys.
6: Tickets for two-way journeys can also be simply listed as ‘Return’ tickets on the booking websites regardless of whether they are being sold at Anytime, Off-Peak or Super Off-Peak rates, or at Day Return rates.
If need be, seek out the info for each price, so you are sure what type of ticket you will be purchasing; and it’s associated T&Cs.
Seven things that are good to know about when tickets will become available:
1: How far ahead of a travel date that tickets are placed on sale for British train journeys, is a question with no fixed answer.
Off Peak and Anytime tickets are typically released for sale 12 weeks ahead, but some TOCs including Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express will place them on sale further in advance; though these types of tickets aren’t typically cheaper when booking ahead.
(Off Peak tickets sold by LNER are a key exception).
2: The on sale periods for Advance tickets are somewhat ironically, more variable.
If a TOC wants to offer a promotion of the availability of its Advance tickets, it may also place them on sale MORE than 12 weeks ahead of the travel date.
However, it’s not unusual for Advance tickets to be placed on sale 10 - 11 weeks ahead.
3: If you haven’t been able to book Advance tickets before your travel date, don’t assume that you will have to book last-minute at the station.
Advance tickets used to be taken off sale the day before travel, but these TOCs: Avanti West Coast; Cross Country; Grand Central; Greater Anglia; LNER; Northern and TransPennine Express, now sell them until a couple of hours (1 - 4 hours depending on the operator) before departure.
(Note that GWR does not offer Advance tickets on the day of travel, it takes them off sale at 18:00 on the previous day).
Though if you leave booking Advance tickets until your travel date, they will have almost certainly sold out on the peak hour departures; and perhaps on other particularly popular trains.
4: So if you don’t see Advance tickets available for a journey, it will USUALLY be because one of these three scenarios apply:
Travelling long-distance at weekends:
5: Also worth knowing is that Advance tickets aren’t made available until train schedules have been confirmed; partially because when maintenance works are disrupting the usual service, this type of ticket won’t typically be valid on replacement bus services or alternative routes.
Hence on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays, which is when such work is most likely to be carried out, Advance tickets may not be released for sale until 2 - 6 weeks ahead.
That’s because the TOCs often wait to be sure that no works will be impacting on a route.
Advance tickets won’t be made available at all if the usual service has to be altered.
6: On a route on which Advance tickets are USUALLY an option, the Anytime and Off-Peak tickets will be placed on sale, regardless of whether the Advance tickets have been, or will be, made available.
However, the non-availability of a typical option to book Advance tickets may not be obvious.
So avoiding assuming Advance tickets won’t be available on other dates, particularly if you will be traveling long-distance.
7: Also avoid booking Off-Peak or Anytime tickets more than 4 weeks ahead when travelling on a Saturday or Sunday.
The price of those types of tickets will usually be fixed, so you won’t lose out if you hang back and wait to see if Advance tickets are released at a later date.
No matter the journey you will be taking, it’s worth being aware of the following six things if you want to travel by train in Britain at the cheapest possible price; in usual circumstances.
1: Make long-distance day trips at weekends or on national holidays:
If you can travel at a weekend, or on a national holiday, on most routes there will usually be a much wider choice of departures with tickets at cheaper prices, compared to when Mondays to Fridays are working days.
That’s because peak business hours on those working days have such a significant impact on pushing up prices.
So if you will be making a long-distance day trip, with an early morning departure, it can pay off to travel at a weekend.
2: Explore the possibility of using rail cards
If you typically take more than two long-distance train journeys per year, or will be making more than two such journeys while visiting Britain, it’s worth checking to see if there is a type of annual Railcard which will suit you.
UK residents can purchase these Railcards online or at a staffed ticket desk at a station, while visitors to the UK can purchase them at stations.
3: Booking Advance tickets at the cheapest possible price
Advance tickets are typically placed on sale in limited numbers for each departure, so generally the further ahead you can book, the more money you can save.
For departures at peak business hours when the more expensive Anytime tickets are the only other option, they can sell out weeks in advance.
A range of prices is also applied to batches of Advance tickets, so the quantities of cheapest tickets will inevitably sell out faster.
Meaning that typically, the less popular a train departure is, the cheaper it will be, so it can pay off to be as flexible as possible re: departure and arrival times.
4: Look out for deals offered by the Train Operating Companies
Because the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) manage which type of tickets will be sold on each of their routes and services; they often offer deals such as:
So take time to compare the types of tickets when you are looking up journeys, don’t solely focus on the initial prices you will see.
Particularly as the ticket price tends to be more dominant than the information for how a ticket can be used.
5: Using regional rail passes
If you'll be spending more than a couple of days in a particular area, there will usually be rail passes available, which can be money savers if you want to take multiple journeys by train.
The most popular of these can be accessed on the buttons below.
6: Explore Split-Ticketing
The complexities of how British train tickets are managed and sold provides other opportunities to travel at a reduced cost.
When travelling long-distances, booking separate tickets for different sections of a journey can save money.
This can be the case when multiple trains need to be taken to complete an end-to-end journey, OR when trains commence their journeys at peak hours, but then make other station calls at times when Off-Peak and Advance tickets are still available.
This is known as ‘split ticketing’ and multiple ticket booking services, including TrainSplit.com or Splitticketing.com specialise in enabling travellers to book these separate tickets in one transaction.
Find out more on the in depth-guide above.
If you will be changing trains during a journey
Because the majority of TOCs operate trains in specific areas of Britain, many end-to-end journeys across the country involve combinations of trains managed by different companies; especially when not travelling to and from London.
There can be price discrepancies for tickets for journeys which involve bundling together trains provided by different operators.
So if you want to save money when taking this type of journey, it can pay off to compare prices on the different types of ticket booking services.
(RailEurope also have a ‘price-hack’, which can save money when the cheaper Advance tickets have sold out).
The National Rail website will enable easy comparison of different prices, routes and travel times and provides links to the TOC, which is providing the cheapest combination of trains
It can also be worth checking the prices being offered by the split-ticketing services; though when comparing prices be aware of any booking fees, which may also be payable.
Also check the connecting times between trains; though no matter what type of ticket booked, you should be able to take a later train at no extra charge in the event of delays, according to the National Rail conditions of travel.
When travelling between destinations, multiple Train Operating Companies (TOCs) can provide the train services, and this can impact on how tickets can be sold and used.
What can affect prices is whether the trains provided by the different TOCs
When different companies share the exact same route
When two or more companies provide services on the exact same route, if you can book ahead it’s usually worth comparing the prices of Advance tickets being offered by each company.
Though if you want to save by booking an Advance ticket, you will be committed to travelling only on the services provided by that company; so in the event of a delay, you won’t be able to take a train managed by an alternative operator
Also if you subsequently need to exchange tickets, you will only be able to transfer your booking to other departures operated by the same company.
(Though if you book Anytime tickets ahead, you can refund them and then book with a different TOC).
Booking last minute at the station:
If you book an Off-Peak or Anytime ticket at a station at the last minute, you will likely be offered a ticket(s) which can only be used on the train's operated by one specific company.
The booking clerk can assume you will want to take the next departure, regardless of which company is operating that specific service, so it can be worth confirming that you're being offered the cheapest possible price.
Or if you'd rather not be restricted to taking trains, solely being offered by one company, you can request a 'flexible' ticket(s).
When trains take different routes between stations:
Alternative routes can also be available between destinations, with different TOCs offering the trains on each route.
This can also affect how tickets can be used.
When booking ahead online for these journeys it’s usually worth comparing the prices offered by each operator and also including other factors into your journey planning; the slower route may, or may not, be cheaper
When booking a ticket last minute at the station, if the ticket has the wording ‘Any route permitted’ you can take any train regardless.
However, the slower route operated by a specific company may be cheaper than another, and when that is the case, you have to take care to travel only on train services provided by that company.
So if you haven’t travelled on a particular route before, it can be a good idea to book tickets at a staffed ticket counter, rather than using a ticket machine.
Children aged 5 – 15 travel at a 50% discount on any UK train, and those aged 4 and under can travel for free when accompanied by an adult ticket holderl though the terms for how those 4 and under can travel, can vary between the TOCs - you either will or won't have to travel with the child on your lap
Though if you will be traveling as a family and make two or three long-distance journeys during a year, it can be worth investing in a Friends and Family RailCard.
There is no national train ticket policy for senior travellers (aged 60 and over), but it's possible to save money on rail tickets by using a RailCard.
So if you’re visiting from outside the UK no discounts are available if you’re 60 and over; unless you purchase this Railcard at a station.
To ensure social distancing, on all long-distance services, the operators of trains on which reservations are typically available, have temporarily introduced their own amended specific seat reservation policies.
There is no national standard for this, so before booking and travelling it can be worth checking the current policy of the company you will be travelling by.
The links to the respective policies are available on this guide to UK train operators, on which you can also check which company will be operating the train that you will most likely be travelling by.
It's worth doing so, as the temporary policies range from seat reservations being mandatory, meaning that seats will be assigned when booking any type of ticket, to seat reservations being suspended so that when boarding, passengers can choose between distanced seats, which are clearly marked as being available for travel.
The seven things worth knowing about seat reservations; in usual circumstances.
1: Not all of the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) offer a seat reservation facility for British train journeys; those which do so are Avanti West Coast*, CrossCountry*, EMR, Grand Central*, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains*, LNER*, ScotRail and TransPennine Express*.
*Available on all departures, other TOCs only offer seat reservations on their long-distance routes.
The lack of mandatory reservations and no charges for the routes on which they are optional, also makes Britain an exceptionally straightforward location in which to use rail passes and Rover tickets.
2: However, on routes when reservations are an option, seats can usually* only be assigned when booking tickets a minimum of a couple of hours before departure; though this time limit can be as long as four hours ahead.
*TransPennine Express offers a seat reservation facility up to an hour prior to departure
3: Because of this need to book reservations in advance, they are not available when booking last minute Off-Peak and Anytime tickets at stations; despite the higher prices charged for those types of tickets.
4: When booking Off-Peak or Anytime tickets at least a couple hours ahead of the departure time, seat reservations are included as a complimentary benefit.
Though because Off-Peak and Anytime tickets aren’t typically restricted to a specific departure, it’s possible to swap reservations to another departure and there is no charge for doing so.
5: Seats are always assigned when purchasing Advance tickets online or at stations.
Because Advance tickets are only valid for travel on a specific departure, the seat reservation, which will be issued separately, is in effect an extension of the ticket.
You will need to board with the ticket and the seat reservation for the ticket to be valid, as the train conductor will need the seat reservation details, as proof that you booked tickets for the specific departure that you have boarded.
6: Rail pass users also need to book seat reservations at least a couple of hours in advance of departure, but they can often be arranged by using the social media channels of the TOC providing the train service on the route you will be taking.
Despite seat reservations not being mandatory on British trains, there is no charge for arranging an optional seat reservation.
7: When on board the train you don’t have to occupy the seat(s) you have been assigned for the ticket(s) to be valid; even when using Advance tickets, the conductor will check the time of departure shown on the seat reservation and not the seat number.
Whether specific seats have or haven’t been reserved is indicated by displays on the train, so if you would prefer to occupy an alternative available seat during a journey, you can do so.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.