Travelling by train can be one of the most convenient and best ways of seeing Britain. However, the variety of different trains and tickets can be quite confusing. Also, locals f***ing hate it! Like really. They’re 80% of the time late and commuters usually take the hit every single morning.
But for anyone wanting to travel through the UK, I’ve put together this handy guide to tell you everything you need to know about making your way round Britain by train. And as a tourist, it’s great!
Which is hopefully the next best thing to having a local train traveller sitting next to you on every leg of your journey…
The National Rail Network
Britain is covered by a rail network of over 2,500 stations linking almost all of its towns and cities. You can find a map of the network showing all its major stations here.
The network is privatised so different train companies operate the trains in different parts of the country, but they all link up and if you’re travelling from one part of the country to another you don’t need to purchase separate tickets for separate operators.
Most of the lines originate from London, which has several major terminals, so before you travel it’s worth checking which terminal the trains for your destination leave from.
It’s also likely that you will have to change trains at least once to get to many parts of the country.
This is why you will need to make sure you plan your journeys carefully, to make sure that if you need to change trains there is enough time between your connections, as many train tickets are only valid on a specific train and if you miss it you will probably have to pay full fare.
Tips on Buying a Train Ticket
All train stations sell tickets, as do some large travel agents.
You can also purchase tickets in advance online, which tends to be cheaper; we’ll talk more about that and the different types of tickets in the next section.
If you’re going to be travelling on a Mainline route (the main train routes connecting all the major British cities) it’s worth booking in advance as these services get booked up quickly.
If you are purchasing a ticket from a train station on the day you’re travelling you should leave plenty of time before your journey, as there are often queues, especially at peak times.
When you’re buying your ticket, it’s worth asking about any reductions or special offers, as you might be able to save yourself some money.
It’s also worth remembering that if you’re also travelling back by train, it’s usually cheaper to buy a return ticket than separate one way tickets.
If you are travelling with children, those under five travel free, while children aged five to 15 travel for half the adult fare.
Some smaller stations, especially in less populated areas, close their ticket offices at weekends.
If you can’t purchase a ticket at the station there should be a conductor who can sell you a ticket on-board the train at the regular price.
It is illegal to travel without a valid ticket and if you’re caught you will have to pay a fine.
Types of Train Tickets
These are the most expensive train tickets and are only available on the main train lines. They cost around one-third more than Standard tickets and offer more comfortable and spacious seats, and usually a three-course meal.
First class train tickets are also avaialble on some local services or non-mainline routes. Companies such as First TransPennine Express offer first class seating, but this only offers you a table seat, more comfort and possibly a warm drink and a snack.
First class carriages have a yellow line above the windows and are plusher. If you’ve only purchased a Standard ticket you can’t sit in First Class even if there are no free seats in Standard; if you do you will be eligible to pay the rest of the First Class fare.
These are the most expensive Standard tickets and are usually purchased on the day you are travelling. Their numbers aren’t limited so there’s no need to book in advance.
Anytime tickets allow you to get any train run by any operator at any time of day. One way tickets are valid for two days, return tickets are valid for five days for your outward journey and one month for your return.
3. Off peak
These are cheaper than Anytime tickets as they are not valid during the busiest commuting times on Monday to Friday.
In the week you can usually get any train after 10.30am, although this varies in different parts of the country so it’s worth checking with the train company.
An Off Peak ticket allows you to get any train at weekends, and there’s no need to reserve in advance as numbers aren’t limited. Return tickets are valid for one month.
These tend to be the cheapest, as you have to book them online before the day you travel, and they are only valid on the day you’ve booked.
Some are only valid on specific trains, and you can’t get a refund if you need to change your plans. You can usually book up to 12 weeks before your journey, although sometimes bookings open later than this.
Book Advance Tickets Online If You Can
Online booking will almost always SAVE YOU MONEY!
Advance fares do vary on different days and times, so if you can be flexible in your journey times you’re likely to get a better deal.
There are several places where you can book advance tickets online:
National Rail: here you can book tickets for any train at face value price.
Virgin Trains: these cover most of Britain and also allow you to purchase tickets for regional travel without charging a booking fee.
There are also a variety of good third party websites who can sometimes give you a cheaper deal on train tickets.
It’s not always guaranteed, however, and they do tend to charge booking fees.
If you book your tickets in advance online, you can have them sent by post to any address in the UK or abroad but there is a charge for this service.
The easiest way is to pick them up from the station on the day you’re travelling, but remember to leave enough time in case there’s a queue.
You will also need some form of I.D. (passport, driving license or credit card) to pick up your tickets.
If you’re going to be travelling by train in Britain a lot, it’s worth looking into getting a rail pass, as these offer discounted travel depending on your circumstances. If you qualify, they can save you a lot of money. Some of the most popular ones include:
1. National Rail All-Line Rover
2. Family and Friends Railcard
This offers one-third off adult fares and a 60% discount for children aged five to 15.
This gives one-third off train travel to anyone aged 16 – 25, or students of any age who are studying full-time in the UK.
4. Senior Railcard
This offers discounted travel to anyone aged 60 or over.
5. Disabled Person’s Railcard
This offers one-third off train travel for disabled people. You can get more information here about who is eligible.
It’s worth noting here that if you are a wheelchair user or you’re registered blind, you and a travelling companion are both entitled to 34% off standard tickets without a railcard, even at peak times.
If this isn’t mentioned to you when you’re purchasing tickets you should point it out.
How to Get Cheaper Train Tickets
Some different parts of the country also offer passes to give you discounts if you’re travelling by train regularly.
For example, if you’re using the train a lot in London it’s worth getting an Oyster card. This is a prepaid card that you can top up with extra money as needed, and it’s valid on buses as well as trains.
Details of how to get one can be found on the Transport for London website.
All rail passes have to be shown when you purchase your ticket in order to qualify you for the discount.
Occasionally it can work out cheaper to buy different tickets for different parts of your journey than one ticket for the whole way.
If you’re doing this, you have to make sure the train calls at all the stations specified on your tickets, and that if you have to change trains, you have enough time to meet your connecting train, as if you miss a train and your ticket is time-specific you will be eligible for full fare.
If you want to see whether splitting your tickets could save you money, you can find a guide here.
Seat Etiquette on Trains
If you have never travelled by train in the UK before, or it’s been a long time since you’ve used one, there are a few things it’s worth knowing before you make your journey.
If you have reserved your seat in advance, make sure your seat number corresponds to the one on your ticket, as you could be sitting in someone else’s seat who is getting on at a later station.
Some trains split part of the way through the journey, with different sections going to different destinations.
If your train is one of these, it’s highly important to make sure you’re in the right section for where you want to go; otherwise you could end up somewhere you’ve never heard of and it could be tricky to get back.
It’s worth asking someone if you’re unsure.
Trains only stop at each station for about a minute, and the doors usually close 30 seconds before the train leaves, so it’s wise to have all your belongings ready in advance before you’re due to get off the train.
This is especially important if you have a suitcase on the luggage rack, as often the aisles on trains are narrow and it might take you a while to retrieve your case.
Most trains have displays and announcements of the next stop so you can be ready, and most passengers get up and wait by the doors when the train is approaching their stop.
Fewer trains run on Sundays and Bank Holidays than on other days, and they tend to be slower than usual.
Sometimes maintenance work is done on train lines and stations at weekends which can slow your journey down.
It’s always worth checking online ahead of your journey to see that trains are running smoothly and all the stations you need are open.
Don’t expect the same levels of service from different train companies!
Mainline trains are always the most comfortable and usually have food and drinks available onboard. Regional trains vary greatly from each other in how reliable their services are.
A recent survey by Which? shows which train companies passengers are most and least satisfied with.
If you’re disabled and will need assistance at a station, it’s advisable to call National Rail enquiries on 0845 748 4950, at least 24 hours before you travel to arrange assistance, as porters are not common at British stations.
Underground Trains in London (aka: The Tube)
Most train services in Britain are overland services, making them great for seeing the sights! However, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool and London all have underground systems for getting around the cities.
The first three are easy to navigate and are circular routes round the cities and their outskirts.
London’s system, known as the Tube, however, is much larger, covering just about all of the capital, with over 270 stations.
It can be confusing to use at first, but all lines are colour-coded and maps the same as this one are displayed at all Tube stations to make journey planning easier.
All Tube trains run from around 5.30am until after midnight, with many now running 24 hours a day.
If all else fails, this app is FREE and it works offline too.
Getting the train around Britain might seem daunting at first, but it’s quick and easy to get used to, and can be a relaxing way to travel.
If in doubt, you can always ask someone; there are staff at every station who will be willing to help you.