How do you navigate the complex UK train system?
Before writing this article, the decision that needed to be made was this article going being written for those in the UK or those traveling to the UK from countries like the US? After much thought I have decided to approach it from the framework of this site, which is someone traveling to the UK. This means the article is written for someone who is unfamiliar with the system. Nonetheless, it can provide some useful information for those who are familiar with traveling by train in the UK but are seeking more information
For those who are coming to the UK, from countries such as the US, where train travel is something that is romanticized and something that went out of fashion with the arrival of the jumbo jet. The UK transport system still heavily relies on trains for carrying passengers within England, Wales, and Scotland. This type of system can pose challenges for who do not understand how the system works.
Train travel in the UK is similar to how the budget airlines operate, the earlier you book the cheaper the ticket and the closer you get to your departure date the more expensive it gets. This is especially true if your travel requires traveling a good distance (e.g. Leeds to Cardiff, London to Newcastle, York to Plymouth). Fares also vary depending if it is peak-travel or off peak travel. At least from my experience, peak travel is 06:00 – 09:00 and then 15:00 – 18:00 M – F. This can mean a ticket bought at short-notice for travel during peak time can be over £100 / $150 per person and much more for first class. However, many train companies will provide reduced First Class ticket prices for those who travel on the weekends. Tickets can either be bought online from meta-engines (e.g. qjump, train line, or national rail), the train companies themselves (e.g. Arriva wales, Virgin, East Coast Mainline), or it is possible to buy the ticket at the station.
How to buy
This leads to the next question when is the best time to buy the tickets? Generally speaking, tickets are only sold up to 12 weeks prior to departure but there is a slight fluctuation, with 12 weeks being a good starting point. Also, where to buy them? If the station is a larger station (e.g. St. Pancreas, Kings Cross, Waterloo, York, Leeds, Manchester Piccadilly, etc) speaking to someone might help you identify the cheapest ticket for the route but if that is not possible then I have found, especially for longer journeys, going to the train company website gives me better results for prices. Especially if the journey is long and I am booking travel less than six weeks prior to the departure date. Regarding the meta-search sites, I have found works great for buying tickets well in advance of the departure date and for shorter journeys (e.g. Manchester to Leeds). Final question, what is better open return or buying for a specific time? From my experience, I tend to purchase tickets at specific times since it allows me to get a much lower fare and it allows me to reserve a seat. The drawback is if you are delayed getting to the station whereby you miss the train then, depending on the terms of service, you potentially loose the booking and fare.
How to get the cheapest price
I have already mentioned two ways booking early and the possible methods for purchasing. There is another way, breaking the journey into segments and purchasing a ticket for each segment. Breaking the journey into segments works when the meta-sites do not capture all of the routes (e.g. York to Gatwick) or when the journey is long. The trick is understanding the routes, train service providers, and where the major stations lie in order to make an onward connection. Also it is important to understand where stations are in relationship to each other in large cities. For example St. Pancreas, Euston, and Kings Cross are very close to each other, which can mean transferring between stations to make a connection. Sometimes by breaking the route into segments ticket prices might be cheaper this is especially true for tickets for long journeys being bought on short-notice. A potential drawback to this late running trains that make connecting for your onward journey difficult and it is important to understand the terms of service regarding taking a later train how it may impact your ticket.
There are five ways in finding the cheapest train tickets: booking early, booking off peak, booking a specific time, using various methods to find the cheapest fare, and by breaking the journey into segments whereby each segment is purchased as a journey all help in finding the cheapest fare. If you are traveling to the UK then booking your tickets as early as possible will help in getting the best price possible along with booking the tickets for specific times instead of open returns.