Updated Nov 2019


It’s that time of year again when people talk about next year’s annual train fare rises, so here’s a range of ways to save money on your travel costs.

Including at the end, an exceptional deal for people commuting around London.

Many of the savings on longer trips outside London need a bit of thinking and forward planning, but the money saved on rail trips can be quite substantial.


For London Commuters

Annual train tickets

All the train companies, and TfL offer a discount to buyers of annual travel cards, typically the equivalent of 52 weeks travel for the price of 40 weeks.

Some examples, based on prices for 2019

Zones Annual Travelcard 12 Monthly Travelcards You save
1 to 2 £1,404 £1,617 £213
1 to 4 £2,020 £2,328 £308
1 to 6 £2,568 £2,952 £384
2 to 3 £1,052 £1,212 £160
2 to 5 £1,396 £1,609 £213

Additional benefits

Buying an annual travelcard not just saves money on the regular commute, but gets you also a third off rail trips outside London with a Gold Card. Just a few trips per year can add up to a considerable additional saving on your travel costs.

You’ll also get 1/3 discount on off-peak fares on the TfL network, so weekend trips outside your usual travel card zones will be cheaper. You can also buy discounted off-peak day travelcards for yourself, up to three adults and up to four children.

Chiltern Railways also have a remarkable offer for annual travelcard buyers, about which more at the bottom.


How to save money on an annual travelcard

Interest free loans

Many employers offer staff benefits that include an interest free loan to buy an annual travel card.

You’ll need to speak to your Payroll/HR dept to see if your employer offers that benefit — or to harangue them into starting it if they don’t.

Interest free credit card deals

If buying an annual card yourself but struggling to secure the hefty upfront cost, it can be worth hunting around for an interest free offer on a new credit card, or a balance transfer deal.

You’ll need to pay the balance off over the time frame the card company is offering their 0% interest rate offer to avoid high credit card rates, but it can be a very cheap way of being able to afford the cost of an annual travelcard.

Take out a bank loan

We tend to think of bank loans as long term agreements, but most banks will lend for just one year.

An example would be a bank loan for a Zones 1-2 travel card costing £1,364 has monthly repayments typically around £123, which compares to buying a monthly travelcard at £131 per month. So you’d save £96 per year.

Be careful though, as some banks interest rates for one-year loans are not far short of a credit card, and that wipes out any savings you might make.

Yes, you could take out a loan for more than a year, but that’s not wise financial planning.

Whatever funding option above that you take, do NOT buy your annual travelcard from TfL — for reasons at the end of this article.

Commuter Club

This is a finance offer that lets you have an annual travel card with the monthly payments that you’d expect from a monthly travel card, but also getting the discount available to annual card holders.

They charge an interest rate on what is technically a loan, but it is a way of saving money on your travel if you can’t stump up the cash in one lump sum. The representative APR is 14.1%, which compares favourably with credit cards and bank loans.

Season Direct

If commuting on Greater Anglia to Liverpool Street, and NOT using the London Underground, then they offer an annual season ticket that can be paid for with monthly direct debits.

For example, they claim savings of £412 for people commuting from Cambridge to London if switching from Great Northern.

SouthWestern Railway

This is an offer that enables you to pay as normal for 11 monthly travelcards, and then you get the 12th month for free.

For example, a Zones 1 and 2 travelcard for a whole year under this scheme would cost (11x£131) £1,441 vs £1,364 if you paid for the annual card upfront in full. Saving you £77 per year.

Refunds

The railway companies will offer refunds on annual travel cards if your plans change.

However, if for example, you seek a refund after six months, you don’t get half your money back, but a percentage based on what you would have paid had you bought six monthly tickets instead.


Avoid Zone 1

Sounds obvious, but have you ever seen just how much you can save by avoiding Zone 1?

Someone with, for example, a Zones 1-4 travelcard could save £830 per year if they could use a Zones 2-4 travelcard instead.

If you travel into Zone 1, then my tip is to commute to the edge of Zone 1, then grab a hire bike for the last mile. Annual bike hire is just £90. Save money and get fit!

Obviously, not everyone can avoid Zone 1, but if for example you live on one side of London and work on the other, that means you’re paying a premium in traveling through Zone 1. If renting, the savings from moving to the other side of London can justify the initial inconvenience.

Avoiding Zone 1 can also be possible with the London Overground for some journeys, as you can loop around the edges of Zone 1 — although that usually means a slower commute. At least the trains are air-conditioned.


For travel outside London

Once you decide to arrange a trip outside the capital, the fares can be more complicated, but there are a number of ways of saving money on train fares, and some of the savings can be quite substantial.

Split tickets

This is the gold-standard way of getting huge savings on train tickets, but will also involve some effort in seeking out the deals.

For example, what if you were to want to travel from London to Warminster (via Salisbury) for Imberbus.

If you tapped that into a train ticket website, you might be offered a return fare for £44.

But if you split the ticket, into returns from London to Salisbury (£20.70) and buy a separate return from Salisbury to Warminster (£7.70), then the cost is just £28.40. A considerable saving.

That’s just one example, and the savings tend to be highest when swapping between different train companies along a route — but there are many opportunities to split fares.

It’s easiest to work out that a split fare option exists when you are having to change trains at stations, as you can check each leg of the journey.

However, you can split fares on a single train trip, even if you don’t get off the train. This is particularly useful if you are on a long trip that starts during the rush hour.

Lets take a trip from London to Leeds, leaving in the morning and returning in the evening.

A standard return fare leaving at 8am can be found for £54, but if you buy return tickets London to Doncaster (£39.50), and return tickets Doncaster to Leeds (£5.50)… the fare would be just £45.

That’s because the London to Doncaster leg is billed at rush hour rates, but once we reach Doncaster at 9:44am, the second — now separate — ticket can be charged at off-peak rates.

Even though you have two separate tickets, you don’t have to get off the train at Doncaster. The only rule is that the train must call at Doncaster — or at each station where your ticket stops and starts from.

For example, for that particular trip to Doncaster, splitting the fare at Retford would have given us an even cheaper trip, but because that train doesn’t stop there, just passes straight through it, we can’t split the fare at that station.

If it doesn’t stop there, you can’t split it there.

Splitting fares can be a bit of effort — my personal tip is to check the train times on Trainline and click on the bit where it tells you how many changes there will be on the journey to see which stations it calls at, then do a second set of searches based on splitting at those stations.

However, don’t buy a ticket on the Trainline, as they have a booking fee – go Virgin or LNER to avoid that.

It’s also worth noting that split fares don’t always save money, but when they do, the cheap train tickets are worth the effort to find them.

There are some split ticket pricing websites, TicketClever and TrainSplit, but unless I was particularly unlucky, they were unable to beat what I could find by manual searching.

One caveat — if you do split tickets, and need to change trains at a station, if one train is late, your next ticket might not be valid on a later train, so always include some flexibility in your planning.

More complicated to work out, but worth the effort if on a very long trip is that sometimes, buying a collection of single tickets can be cheaper than buying returns, and it does open up some interesting options for trips as you can take different routes back rather than going there and back on the same line.

Split ticketing is undeniably the best way to save big time on specific trips.

Discount RailCards (see below) can also be used with split ticketing — so the savings can be even greater.


Booking early

Network Rail typically release Advance tickets to the train companies 12 weeks in advance, and those go on sale shortly afterwards.

As these are limited, and you’re planning sufficiently far in advance, then make a note of when the tickets will be released, and try to book then to get the best saving.

Network Rail maintain a page listing the release dates for each batch of tickets, which is here.

You can also sign up for Trainline’s cheap ticket alert service, and they also offer a prediction tool on their mobile app that tries to work out when prices are likely to go up as tickets become scarce on a specific trip.

Just don’t book the tickets with Trainline as they have booking fees.


Discount Rail Cards

Railcards offer one-third off journeys on the National Rail network.

If you buy an annual season ticket (see above), then you would usually get a free Gold Card as part of the package, offering 1/3 off most rail fares across much of Southern England.

If not, you can buy a Railcard for just £30, and get the same 1/3 off rail fare discount. If you expect to spend at least £90 on train fares in a year, then you’ll save money.

16-25 Railcard

For people aged between 16-25. Tip, if you’re 25, you can buy a 3-year Railcard and keep the discount savings until you’re nearly 28.

Weirdly for it’s name, the card can also be used by anyone aged 26 and over, if they are in full time education.

26-30 Railcard

If you’re aged 26-30, offers 1/3 discount on “some” fares. Also very limited availability.

Two Together Railcard

For two named adults on one ticket.

Network Railcard

Covers the South-East of England for 1/3 off rail fares, no age or name restrictions, so ideal for Londoners.

Family & Friends Railcard

Up to four adults and four children aged between 5-15 can travel together on one card – and you don’t have to be be related.

Senior Railcard

Senior Railcards are available for any persons over 60 years of age.

Disabled Persons Railcard

If you have a disability that makes travelling by train difficult you might qualify for the Disabled Persons Railcard, which offers 1/3 off for you and a friend/carer.


Megabus

Not obvious for a bus company, but they also offer train tickets, and sometimes very cheap tickets, but only on lines they are affiliated with — mainly Stagecoach services.

It’s also not easy to find on their website – go to Products, then select trains — or just click here.

A random search found return fares London to Derby on 22nd Sept for £29 versus £41 for the same trip on railway websites.


Cheap Fare Finder

If you have some flexibility in when you travel, then some of the train companies can show you the cheapest fares around a number of days.

The data is based on previous searches by other people, so it can be a bit hit-and-miss at times, but it’s often a good way of spotting a cheap deal if you are willing to travel a day earlier or later than originally intended.

There’s a Fare Finder on Virgin Trains and Trainline.


Roamer Tickets

A bit like the unlimited travel on London zones, these let you travel around an area for a single ticket price and stop off at multiple stations.

Kent Rover

Three consecutive days of unlimited Off-Peak train travel on Southeastern services in a selected area of Kent for £45 per adult, plus up to 4 children at £5 per child.

Southern Railway

A DaySave ticket gives you unlimited Off-Peak travel on all Southern services on the date shown. It’s only available online, and costs £19.50 for an adult.

When booking online, just select the ‘other tickets‘ tab on the booking engine.

Thames Rover

This off-peak 3-day deal covers most of the lines out of Paddington to places such as Banbury, Oxford, Guildford, Redhill, Basingstoke. Currently costs £49 per adult.

Thames Branches Day Ranger

This allows you to travel along the Great Western Main Line from London Paddington to Reading and beyond as far as Tilehurst for £20.60.

I cannot seem to find out how to book this online, so you need to buy at a ticket office.

Weekend only deals

Southeastern

Travel outwards on Fridays after 9.30am or anytime Saturdays, returning on Sat or Sun  Stop off at any station on your way home only.


Children’s Tickets

Some of the rail companies offer cheap tickets for children when accompanied by an adult.

C2C

Up to four children can travel for £2, when an adult ticket is purchased, or download a form if you want to use your own travelcard.

Great Northern

Book an adult off-peak ticket and up to four children can travel for £2 each.

Greater Anglia

Up to four children can travel for £2 each, and travelcards can be used by the adults.

Thameslink

Up to four children for £2 on off-peak trips. Can be booked online if buying adult tickets, or if using your travelcard for your own trip, buy the children’s tickets at the station.

Southeastern

Buy one valid adult ticket on Southeastern services and take up to four children with you for £1 each.

Southern

Book an adult off-peak ticket and up to four children can travel for £2 each.


Often but irregular travel

If you travel to a location regularly, but not often enough to buy a season ticket — such as regular weekend visits to family — then some railways let you buy a batch of tickets in advance.

Chiltern Railways

Buy 10 tickets for the cost of 9, and the tickets will be valid for 3 months. Only available from London Marylebone ticket office.

Great Northern

Buy a book of 5 or 10 tickets for a discount of 10% on the price. Valid for 3 months.

SouthWestern Railway

Buy 10 tickets for a 5% discount, but they can also be used to stop off at any station along the route as often as you like. Only works with the SWR Touch Smart card.

Thameslink

Buy a book of 5 or 10 tickets for a discount of 10% on the price. Valid for 3 months.


And finally for London commuters…

Free weekend travel on Chiltern Railways

This is a remarkable offer from Chiltern Railways that is available to anyone who buys an annual travel card that costs at least £150 per month or £1,500 per year.

In addition to the usual Annual Gold Card discounts, Chiltern Railways offer free travel at weekends and on Bank Holidays across their entire rail network.

That’s weekend trips to Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon or even up to Birmingham for free!

I’ve checked with them and if you own an Oyster Card you don’t necessarily need to use Chiltern Railways stations to take advantage of the offer, but you do need to buy the annual ticket from their ticket offices, and keep their paper record card with your Oyster Card when travelling at weekends.

Details here


If I’ve missed any tips, let me know below:

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28 comments on “How save money on railways and find cheap train tickets
  1. Another discount fare which is worth considering, London Overnight Return from Greater Anglia stations:
    https://www.greateranglia.co.uk/london-overnight-return

    £23 from most Greater Anglia stations, valid for off-peak travel when spending a night or weekend in London.

  2. John Morgan says:

    This is much better written than most websites offering “advice” on how to save money on train tickets.
    There’s one serious error and something missing.

    You wrote:
    “If you buy an annual season ticket (see above), then you would usually get a free Gold Card as part of the package, offering 1/3 off most rail fares across the UK.”

    No! It gives 1/3 off most off-peak rail fares only in the south-east of England (stretched a bit) – see here for the area: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/Gold%20Card%20Dgm%20Key.pdf.
    The Annual Season Ticket must be purchased from a station inside the area and the Origin or Destination must also be inside the area.

    You also wrote:
    “do NOT buy your annual travelcard from TfL — for reasons at the end of this article.”
    But I can’t see the explanation later in the article.

    • Simon Lukes says:

      Your last point – this perhaps refers to the Chiltern Railways Deal?

    • Ian Visits says:

      The explanation is the very last item in the article, which explains the benefits of buying an annual travelcard from Chiltern Railway.

  3. ChrisC says:

    I tried one of the ticket websites listed upthread to see what it could offer me against the national rail enquiries website.

    Yes it offered me ticket split options BUT more expensive than the non split trip!

    Best do your research before buying.

    Also split tickets could affect your ability to get delay repay or reduce the amount payable.

  4. JP says:

    Once again you’ve produced a thundering piece of research; thanks.
    I’d just like to add to the network railcard information. As far as it is concerned, “Discover London and the South East” includes all the way to Exeter, up to Northampton and across to Harwich. Well worth the thirty quid.

    • JP says:

      If you can book 12 weeks or so in advance, savings can also be made on first class fares ~ to the extent that the price is the same as near as makes no difference to a standard class ticket.

  5. PY says:

    It might be worth mentioning Changeovers in the refunds section – my understanding is that you can change the start or end of the season ticket journey for a pro-rata refund without admin fees (instead of the refund which charges admin fees and the refund is calculated in monthly, weekly and daily tickets)

  6. Chris says:

    Regarding split ticketing, I think you will find that since November 2017 the service you are travelling on does not have to stop at a station but just simply pass through it in order for it to qualify as a ticket splitting point.

    • That’s not quite the whole story – see National Rail Conditions of Travel:

      14. Using a combination of Tickets

      14.1 Unless shown below, you may use a combination of two or more Tickets to make a journey provided that the train services you use call at the station(s) where you change from one Ticket to another.

      14.2 If you are using a Season Ticket, daily Zonal Ticket, or another area based Ticket such as a concessionary pass, ranger or rover in conjunction with another Ticket and the last station at which one Ticket is valid and the first station that the other Ticket is valid are the same, then the train does not need to call at that station for your combination to be valid.

      Source: http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/National%20Rail%20Conditions%20of%20Travel.pdf

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Stephen. Well spotted, you are quite right. I usually split using a London zones 1-6 Day Travelcard, hence the confusion.

  7. Andrew Gwilt says:

    I still have got my Network Southeast RailCard which I can use it in London and the Southeast. But I can’t use it outside the Southeast such as heading up to Norwich which I have to pay full fare to use Greater Anglia from Chelmsford to Norwich. Because I support a football team and I used to live near Norwich before I moved down to near Southend-on-Sea, Essex.

    • Andrew Gwilt says:

      Plus I want to apply for a Disabled RailCard not because I am disabled. But I got Autism and I want to save 1/3 off train travel.

  8. Steve says:

    Given that Chiltern have no stations in zones 2 or 3 would a regular London commuter need at least a Zone 1-4 season ticket or beyond to be able to take up the free weekend travel on their services?

    Mulling over if it would still make sense for me to head to Marylebone for my next Zone 1-3 season ticket.

    • Ian Visits says:

      As there’s a minimum spend of £150 per month or £1,500 per year — a zones 2-4 travelcard wouldn’t qualify anyway as its under the minimum spend.

      You need a travelcard covering at least zone 1-3 or 2-6 etc.

  9. Gabrielle says:

    Regarding ‘Avoiding Zone 1’ on the London Overground it might be with mentioning it only works if you touch the pink validaters at certain stations.
    Great article.

  10. Gerald says:

    Re: the chiltern railways offer, would an annual season ticket of £1764 from East Croydon to St Pancras still let you use the offer? As it is it doesn’t go anywhere near Chiltern services but the wording is unclear.

  11. Gerald says:

    Gerald notes no reply 🙁

  12. John Usher says:

    Zone 2-X Season Tickets allow free Zone 1 bus travel, so no need to take a bike!

  13. Miles T says:

    Additional point for split tickets. In some cases, it can be better to travel to a major interchange hub a short distance beyond your intended destination, and then travel back. Can be true of branch lines as well.

    This is because on some franchises, the fast trains offer advance tickets but the stopping trains do not. Travelling beyond may not make the journey longer, either, depending on schedules

    Specific case in point: Greater Anglia. Quite a few journeys to intervening stations or branch lines are significantly cheaper if you get and Advance on the fast train to Colchester, and then a separate off peak ticket to the nearby stations (e.g. Marks Tey, Witham, Braintree, Sudbury etc.)

    The split ticket search sites don’t seem to offer a “just beyond” as a potential split.

    Of course, you have to ensure you leave enough connecting time to not miss your nominated Advance ticket train when that train is your second or following trains

  14. ADS says:

    I was looking up the 2019 prices for the favourite cheap Gold Card routes … are they any better ones ?

    Hatton – Lapworth 164 gbp
    Newhaven Town – Newhaven Harbour 172 gbp
    Pevensey Bay – Pevensey & Wesham 172 gbp
    Lichfield Trent Valley – Lichfield City 180 gbp
    Ryde St Johns Road – Ryde Esplanade 184 gbp

  15. Dan says:

    You can buy the Thames Valley Branches Day Ranger at https://tickets.gwr.com/gw/en/journeyplanning/roversandrangers

  16. CLOG says:

    There is another type of ticket that is well worth getting – the Ryde card! It is for people who use London public transport frequently but not every day so it is not worth getting a normal season ticket. It gets you a third off off-peak tubes and trains (and reduces the Oyster off-peak daily cap) plus 6 all-day free travel vouchers on SouthWest trains for Fridays, weekends and public holidays plus it gives you a gold card. It costs around £185 per year but if you do enough off-peak journeys by tube or train it is worth it.

    It is the famous annual season ticket from Ryde Esplanade to Ryde St Johns on the IOW.

  17. Paul Stevenson says:

    You haven’t mentioned Grand Central Trains. They are significantly cheaper from Stations Bradford to Doncaster and on to London. Also Stations from Sunderland to York and on to London. They also offer a Carnet of ten tickets for irregular users at a discount.

  18. VouchersTree says:

    explains everything in detail,the article is very interesting and effective.Thank you and good luck for the upcoming articles

  19. Dan says:

    You can buy a Thames Branches day ranger at https://tickets.gwr.com/gw/en/journeyplanning/roversandrangers and have it posted to you.

    You forgot to mention the 16-17 Saver that gets you 50% off most tickets and season tickets (within England and Wales)

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