Getting a discount: railcards, children, groups, buses

This is the third part of “British railways. Visitor’s manual”

Railcards

Railcard is a discount card. If you have one, you can buy tickets, including Advance, at prices reduced by one third (33%-34%). If the railcard covers a group with children, each child gets an 80% discount off the adult fare.

There is, of course, a catch. Actually, three of them:

  • Railcards are sold for a fee. The price is £30 and the card is valid for one year.
  • Railcards come with eligibility requirements that you must satisfy (such as your age or a number of people in your group).
  • Railcard’s validity may be restricted by area and/or by time (peak vs off-peak). There could be more fine print for any particular type of railcards.

With these complications, not every visitor coming to the country for a relatively short period of time will have a chance to save money with railcards. Getting a railcard is justified if you are a group and/or intend to travel frequently or go long distance.

The table below is a rundown of the types of railcards. The links will take you to the official sites where you can find more details.

The rightmost column in the table indicates the threshold when a railcard becomes economically viable. The threshold is the total cost of undiscounted tickets for all your planned journeys for one adult. If you or your group are eligible for a certain railcard and the cost of one adult person’s tickets is going to get above the threshold, then the railcard will save your money. I added a margin of about five pounds to cover rounding of discounts and the effort required to obtain the railcard.

For example, if you travel as a couple and don’t take peak trains, you are eligible for Two Together railcard. Without the railcard, you are going to pay £50 per person for train tickets. With the railcard, these tickets would cost £33. For the two of you, this will amount to £66 plus the cost of the railcard of £30, the total being £96. It is less than £100 you would pay without the railcard for both of you. So, if you are going to spend at least £50 per person for train tickets during your visit (plus any other visits within the following 12 months), buying a Two Together railcard makes sense. Consequently, the threshold of this railcard is £50.

Railcard To be eligible you need to … Area & time of validity / other restrictions Threshold
Two Together travel in a group of two adults (16+ years old) everywhere after 9:29 Mo-Fr, all day Sa, Su 50
Family and Friends travel in a group of minimum 1 adult and one child aged 5-15, maximum 4 adults and 4 children. One or two adults can be designated as the holders of the same card. At least one adult cardholder and one child are required to travel in the group everywhere anytime except London and South East area during morning peak time1 / cannot be used in First Class or with GroupSave fare 32 (for 1+1 group)
18 (for 2+2 group)
16-25 be 16-25 years old. The discount applies only to the cardholder everywhere anytime but £12 minimum fare applies for journeys starting between 4:30-10:00 Mo-Fr excluding Advance fares. This minimum fare does not apply on Public Holidays or throughout July and August / in First Class can be used only with Advance tickets 96
Senior be 60+ years old. The discount applies only to the cardholder everywhere anytime except London and South East area during morning peak time1 96
Network be adult (16+). You may take up to 3 adults and up to 4 children aged 5-15 with you - they’ll get the discount too Valid in London and South East area only / Travel after 10:00 Mo-Fr, all day Sa, Su / The minimum discounted adult fare payable is £13 on all journeys Mo-Fr / Cannot be used with Advance tickets / Cannot be used in First Class 96 (if traveling alone)
50 (for 2 adults + 0 children group)
32 (for 1+1 group)
18 (for 2+2 group)

1 See London and South East area map. Definition of peak time varies by route; use National Rail journey planner to ensure that the railcard can be used on a specific train.

You can buy a railcard at any railway station that has a ticket office. You will have to:

  • provide a 35x45 mm photo for each cardholder (two persons for Two Together railcard, one or two adults for Family and Friends railcard);
  • show your passport as the proof of your age (for 16-25 and Senior railcards);
  • fill an application form. You may download the application form from the appropriate railcard’s website to speed up the process and guarantee yourself against the station having run out of blanks.

Note that as a visitor to the country you cannot buy a railcard online because railcards are sent by mail to UK addresses only.

You will have to buy your railcard before the start of the journey covered by a discounted ticket. If you fail to provide the railcard together with the ticket on the train, you will be deemed riding without a ticket.

However, you may buy a railcard-discounted ticket online before you’ve got your railcard. All you need is to select the appropriate type of railcard in a journey planner. This makes a lot of sense if you are planning to take advantage of Advance fares, as you will not be able to obtain a railcard until your arrival at the UK. Just don’t forget to take photos with you; push them into your wallet as soon as you’ve bought a discounted ticket.

Traveling with children

Standard discounts

Children 0-4 years old travel for free and do not need a ticket.

However, if the train is busy, the child will have to sit on your lap. If you want to entitle your child to a seat, you’ll need to buy him/her a child ticket as if your kid were 5-15 years old.

Also, if you accompany more than two little kids, you’ll have to buy child tickets to for everyone except two of them.

Children 5-15 years old need to have tickets but they enjoy 50% discount off the adult fare on all types of tickets. When buying a ticket you just need to indicate how many adults and children are going, and the system will apply the discount automatically. If the child looks older than 15 you’ll probably need to carry a proof of their age.

Standard child and adult tickets Standard discounted child ticket and a corresponding adult ticket for the same route (to be exact, these are the outward coupons of the Return tickets). Note the price difference

Using Family and Friends railcard

To further reduce the cost of traveling with children, you may buy a Family and Friends railcard. It will cover a group up to four adults and four children.

For example, if an adult fare to your destination is £30 and you travel with one child, without the railcard you’ll pay £45 (=30 + 30*0.50) for both of you. The railcard will give 34% adult discount and 80% child discount, so the total cost will be £25.80 (=30*0.66 + 30*0.20).

If you travel only with children who are under five years old, you still can use the Family and Friends railcard. To be eligible you must buy tickets for your kids as if they were 5-15 years old. This way, you will save if there are less than two children per one adult. Also, your children will be entitled to occupying seats.

Of course, you remember that you will have to accrue at least £30 in savings to offset the cost of the railcard.

Child Flat Fare

On some routes, if a child is traveling with an adult who has an Off-Peak ticket in Standard class, the child’s ticket will cost £2 or even £1 regardless of the adult’s ticket price. Up to four children per one adult may benefit from this offer. It is marketed as “Kids for £2” or “Kids for a Quid”.

Child Flat Fare is offered by train companies serving the territory to the south, south-east, east, north-east of London and short-distance routes to the north.

Yet this offer is somewhat elusive. Greater Anglia, a company serving the north-eastern sector, sells “Kids for £2” tickets only at station ticket offices. Thameslink, on the contrary, requires that you buy them online. So do Southern and Great Nothern (which are actually managed by the same company as Thameslink). Southeastern offers “Kids for a Quid” both online and at ticket offices but not from ticket machines. However, I could not find Child Flat Fare tickets for Southeastern trains in National Rail journey planner unless I got redirected to Southeastern’s own website. c2c, running trains along the north bank of the Thames to the sea coast on the east, restricts “Kids for £2” validity on weekdays to the periods of school holidays.

Child Flat Fare ticket “Kids for £2” ticket and the accompanying adult’s ticket

If your group qualifies both for Family and Friends railcard and for Child Flat Fare, there are two options:

  • if the adult fare is £10 or less, you just use the railcard for the entire group;
  • otherwise, it is cheaper to use the railcard for only one child and buy the flat fare tickets for the other children. Note that you must have at least one child riding under the railcard to legitimize the discount for the adults.

Online journey planners are usually able to automatically offer you the cheapest option, just indicate how many adults and children are in the group and that you’ve got a Family and Friends railcard.

Group travel

On some routes groups of 3 to 9 adults traveling off-peak receive 33% discount. This is called Groupsave. No railcard is needed; moreover, Groupsave is mutually exclusive with the railcards used for group travel.

Groupsave is not a separate ticket type. You will be buying Off-Peak or Anytime tickets, as you normally do. Indicate the number of adults and the system will apply Groupsave discount if it is available.

Groupsave ticket

Groupsave is offered by train companies serving the southern part of England. If you are traveling to the west, south, east or north-east of London, Groupsave will be available pretty much everywhere. To the north or north-west, the same destinations may be served by companies who offer Groupsave and who don’t. This is why in a journey planner some trains will be shown much cheaper for your group than the others, with the same ticket type.

Obviously, if each member of your group buys a ticket for himself/herself, you will miss the opportunity to get the discount. So, one particular individual must be designated as the ticket buyer for the entire group.

Your group must travel together on all trains covered by the Groupsave ticket.

Groupsave is offered only in Standard Class.

Groupsave does not extend to children. If there are children in the group, either a 50% discount from the full adult price or a Child Flat Fare, if available, will be applied to their tickets.

Children do not count toward Groupsave qualification: for example, a group of two adults and one child does not qualify for Groupsave. However, you can buy an adult ticket for a child, thus forming a legitimate Groupsave. National Rail journey planner will do this trick for you. So don’t be confused when, having asked for two adult and two child tickets, you get three Groupsaved adults and one child - this way, it is cheaper.

Some train operators offer additional group discounts, see details here.

PlusBus

PlusBus is a discounted bus ticket which you may buy together with your train ticket. It may be useful if you have to take a local bus at any end of your railway journey.

PlusBus is a day ticket entitling you to unlimited rides on buses (or trams) across the town where you begin or end your train journey, as shown on your train ticket. The PlusBus is valid on the same day as your train ticket is. You cannot buy a PlusBus without a train ticket to/from the station in the corresponding town.

For example, if you are in London and going to visit Ely and Cambridge, you have two options with train tickets. You may buy either a Return ticket to Ely and break your journey in Cambridge, or you may buy two Return tickets, one London to Cambridge and the other Cambridge to Ely. From the railway’s point of view, both choices are equally valid. However, if you want to take buses in Cambridge, only the latter option can get you a PlusBus ticket for Cambridge. With the first option, Cambridge is not shown on your train ticket as the origin or the destination.

PlusBus ticket Example of PlusBus ticket

There are a few more catches:

  • Not all towns participate in PlusBus (London does not).
  • Not all bus operators in a participating town may be accepting PlusBus tickets.
  • PlusBus is valid within a certain area in or around a participating town. If you need to go farther, you will need to buy another ticket on a bus.
  • A PlusBus ticket certainly costs less than a day ticket bought directly on a bus but is likely to cost more than a single ticket on the same bus. So, if you need to take a single ride on a bus, a PlusBus may be not a saving.
  • If you have a Return ticket with the return part valid for a month, you will have to specify a concrete return date to buy your PlusBus ticket. Should you choose to return on another day, your train ticket will be valid but the PlusBus won’t.

You can find all the details about participating towns, covered areas, and ticket prices on PlusBus website.

If you’ve obtained a discount on your train ticket because you have a railcard or travel with children, the same discount will be applied to the price of PlusBus.

Next chapter: “Planning a journey, buying tickets”.