I hate the way trains operate. I hate that if I buy my ticket on the day I could be paying far more than the person sitting next to me. Not only that, but they’ve got the window seat and a plug socket; there's just no justice.
So exactly how do I make sure I get the cheap seats and how far in advance should I book?
I have an expensive journey coming up, so I’m particularly keen to find out. I need to travel to Edinburgh and back in the same day and it’s not going to be cheap, so I want to spend as little as possible on my ticket.
Because I used to live in Edinburgh, this is a journey I have to make a lot. I normally book five days in advance and pay between £60 and £70.
At the moment, a standard class return is priced at £70.30, no matter which day I book it.
But what about these advance tickets that supposedly go for a fraction of what the rest of us pay? How do I get those?
Finding the advance fare bargains
I have never once managed to get hold of one of the heavily-discounted advance tickets. I’ve never even seen one advertised, perhaps because my most regular journey is so popular.
Train tickets tend to go on sale 12 weeks before the journey, so clearly it’s essential to book well in advance.
Looking on a bookings website, I can see that the latest date I can book my Edinburgh journey on is November 1st. So what’s the best price?
That’s not a saving. That’s not a saving at all! It turns out that the very cheapest tickets aren’t necessarily immediately released, so simply booking the latest available date won’t help you score cheap travel.
So I’ve signed up to thetrainline.com’s Ticket Alert service, which will email me as soon as the cheap advanced tickets are made available. If I can reach a computer in time, I could still find a bargain.
Another tool offered by the website is the Best Fare Finder which looks for the cheapest journeys rather than specific dates and times. It won’t be useful for everyone but if you can be flexible, it could save you some cash.
So how else could I bring the price down?
Sometimes buying two singles can be cheaper, but on this occasion each way costs £35.15 – there’s no saving to be made there.
But if I was travelling from Birmingham to Brighton for the weekend, the cheapest off-peak return is £67.20. If I buy two singles, I’d pay £63.60, and it can sometimes be even cheaper.
Split your ticket
A quirk of the train network is that sometimes it’s cheaper to travel stop-by-stop than direct.
For example, according to the website Split Your Ticket, if you’re travelling from Birmingham to Manchester directly, an off-peak return will cost you £32.90. However, getting an off-peak return from Birmingham to Stafford, then another from Stafford to Manchester costs a combined £29.60. A saving of £3.30 for the same journey on the same trains.
Over longer – or peak – journeys these savings can really stack up. For the above journey, you could save more than £30 on an Any Time Return journey as opposed to an off-peak one.
It’s perfectly legal, as long as the train you’re on stops at the destinations you have tickets for.
Don’t travel at peak times
Because I need to be in Edinburgh for lunch, I’m looking at tickets that set off first thing in the morning. But this is one of the most expensive times!
If you can, avoid peak travel times. Having said that, the times and trains that qualify for off-peak travel vary depending on the journey, the date and the train company, so make sure you’re clear about which train you can catch.
Book at least the day before
While you may have to book months in advance for the very cheapest tickets, it’s always worth booking early. Even if it’s just the day before, you could still save money compared to just rolling up on the day.
To be certain of getting a cheaper ticket, you’ll need to purchase it before 6pm the day before, but it does seem to be possible occasionally to buy advance tickets online even on the day.
Get a railcard
I don’t qualify for a railcard, although I am counting the days until my son is five and I can get a family and friends one … If you qualify for a card and you don’t buy one then you could be wasting money every time you board a train.
A 16-25 Railcard is available to anyone in that age group and also mature students in full-time education. It costs just £28 for a whole year and gives you 1/3 off most rail fares.
There are other railcards available, including a Family and Friends Railcard, which also costs £28 a year. You need to be travelling with a child aged five or over to use it, but up to four adults and four kids can travel under the one card.
It gives you 1/3 off most adult fares and 60% off your children’s tickets.
Finally, anyone aged 60 and over can pay £28 for a Senior Railcard and also save 1/3 on fares throughout Great Britain.
With a railcard, my Edinburgh journey would cost just £47, meaning it would have almost paid for itself in the first trip.
Even if you don’t travel that regularly, consider buying a travel card if you’re allowed one. If you’re travelling far then you could offset the cost in one trip.
What are your tips for cheap travel? Share them with other readers in the comments below.