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How to Cut the Cost of Train Travel

We all see the reports on the TV, especially in January that Train Fares are going up yet again. From the reports you also get the impression that the service is getting worse instead of better and although there are now, in theory, many more train companies competition may not be working as well as it could. On top of that you get the reports where politicians and campaigners are trying to encourage us to use the trains more and apart from unreliability, and the fact that unless you live in a town or city access to the trains is limited, the pricing reports do not encourage us to use it more. So it was a surprise to see on my local news a couple of weeks ago, a story which got my interest, running with the headline 'How to Cut the Cost of Train Travel'.

This was intriguing as we all know about buying tickets earlier (Apex Fares) and many of us will be aware of various SAVER fares either by having specific railcards or limited offers that are running on the day. However few of us are aware of the really low fares as the train companies do not highly publicise them and with the various train companies operating today it's not easy to keep track of their prices or get access to them when at the station. Searching the internet can pick you up some bargains either by using discount travel websites or The TrainLine website. But this report was different, it wasn't looking at any of these type of options, but the fact that if you are making a return journey, it could be more cost effective to break the journey down by buy two return tickets over getting a single journey return. So how did they do this.

The example given was a trip which involved travelling from Birmingham to Manchester in Peak Times. Normal Open Return fare on that days was 49, but they travelled for just 24.50, a saving of 19.50. They did this by buying two tickets, a return ticket from Birmingham to Stoke on Trent for 11.50 and a return ticket from Stoke on Trent to Manchester for 13.00. They purchased both tickets in Birmingham before making the trip, it didn't involve getting off the train at Stoke to purchase the second ticket, so did not involve them having to wait around beyond normal for the next train to arrive.

So I thought this was worth some investigating. Was this really a way of getting train travel cheaply.

So this report is what I found out, by just doing a mornings research. As you can appreciate there are many many combinations of what I could have done from the type of ticket I wanted, to when I am travelling, the time of day I am travelling to the number of changes I want to make and all having an effect on the price. So I set myself some parameters in order to be able to do a meaningful comparison, these were:-

  • to use Direct trips with no changes
  • to travel at Peak Times, before 9am
  • outward trip being a Monday
  • to use Standard Open Day Return tickets.

I could of course buy any of these tickets online if I wished.

I started by checking out the short trip from Birmingham to Manchester to make sure it worked, but I also decided to research some longer trips to see if the same principle would work as well.

I found by doing the same Birmingham to Manchester trip, buying return tickets to Stoke on Trent, I got a saving of 21.20.

I then wanted to look at some longer journeys, so I chose Cheltenham to London, Birmingham to Plymouth and London to Edinburgh.

Cheltenham to London Direct costs 125 return, I could make a saving for 37.20 by breaking it down into the following stages:

        Cheltenham to Swindon    19.40

        Swindon to Didcot           30.00

        Didcot to Reading            07.40

        Reading to London           31.00

          TOTAL OF                          87.80

Birmingham to Plymouth Direct costs 147 return, I could make a saving of 56.20 just by breaking it down into 4 stages:

        Birmingham to Cheltenham         23.40

        Cheltenham to Bristol Parkway   11.80

        Bristol Parkway to Exeter          41.00

        Exeter to Plymouth                  14.60

          TOTAL OF                                    90.80

London to Edinburgh Direct costs 252, I couldn't make a saving on a train trip buying the Standard Open Day return by using this method or even buying single tickets for each journey, the price would either come out the same or cost more. The cheapest way I found of getting to Edinburgh in the time span by train was to travel on a SAVER RETURN ticket (off peak services) at a cost of 102.40.

In conclusion

It would appear that for most trips when travelling by train if you are able to break your route down into smaller steps and buy all the tickets in advance of your trip, you can make a considerable saving on the direct single return price, but add little or no more travel time to your journey. To be able to do this though you do need to check out the rail routes in some way to be able to break it down, as it is not something promoted by the rail companies or TheTrainLine, you need to be able to put the options yourself. This link goes to the National Rail Enquiries website where amongst other things you can get maps of the rail routes including a link to a PDF containing the latest Rail Passenger Operators Map.

For the Edinburgh analysis it would appear that the DIRECT train prices from London are already quite heavily discounted as these prices are coming out at the same price or usually cheaper than breaking the journey down into smaller pieces or buying one way tickets.

Is Coach or Plane more cost effective on longer trips like the London Edinburgh Return.

For the trip from London to Edinburgh travel by train is still a strain on the wallet and takes around 4 hours and 30 minutes, again this varies depending on the time of day you travel and whether direct or changes involved. So for this trip only I also looked at the cost of travelling by coach and by plane.

For the Coach option I used National Express and found that it would cost me 47 for a return journey leaving London at 9.30am and was a direct route, not changes. This was using an open dated return ticket, which means my return journey could be done at any point within 3 months of my outward journey. The only downside is I would have to spend 9 hours and 40 minutes travelling.

For the 'travelling by plane' option the cheapest flight I could find, again for a Monday morning, was with a 'no frills' package at a cost of 76.93 return including taxes and fees. However there may be a baggage fee of between 2-10 charged at the airport. The trip would only take 1 hour and 30 minutes.

At first sight travelling by coach appears the cheaper option, but you have to be prepared to spend over 9 hours on the coach. On the other hand travelling by plane is also cheaper than train, and appears to be the shortest travelling time, but we all know that UK airports are not the friendliest of environments and there will be extra travelling time added by booking in/waiting/delays etc at the airports.

So is it the strain on your time or your wallet that will determine your next trip.


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