Understanding train tickets

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

When dealing with National Rail, the most important and tricky business is getting the right ticket at the cheapest possible price.

The ticket prices for the same journey may vary wildly. For example, my best deal so far was a Berkeley to Lincoln ticket. I bought it online for 8 pounds while a walk-up ticket for this journey would cost me 46.50. Effectively, I got the 83% discount. On average, with careful and early planning you can cut your ticket costs by half or more.

Types of train tickets

We will consider only the tickets suitable for occasional trips made by visitors to the UK as opposed to the regular commute made by local residents. This excludes seasonal tickets from our scope. Also, we focus on intercity travel rather than using railway as a part of a metropolitan transit network. Consequently, we won’t cover travel cards, Oyster and other tools used to pay for rides within Greater London and other large cities.

This leaves us with two major classes of tickets: Advance tickets and everything else which is called “walk-up” tickets.

Advance tickets

An Advance ticket entitles you to a single one-way journey between a pair of stations on a specific train. You may be required to change trains at intermediate stations. In this case, the Advance ticket will tell you what train you must take on each stage of your journey. (Well, mostly. There are some loopholes which we will discuss in “Planning”.) The trains are identified by their times of departure.

For longer distance trains, an Advance ticket always comes with a seat reservation but on local trains seats are not reserved.

Below you can see an example of an Advance ticket. This ticket was for a journey from Newark to Hexham which consisted of two legs with the connection in Newcastle. Consequently, the ticket specifies two trains to be taken: the long distance 16:44 service from Newark North Gate to Newcastle, and the local 19:25 service from Newcastle to Hexham. Seat 4 in coach B is reserved on the first train. On the second leg, the local train does not provide seat reservations.

Advance ticket

You may have noticed that the type of ticket is not just Advance but Advance Single. This is a purely technical nuance. “Single” means “one-way”. As all Advance tickets are one-way, they are all Single tickets.

Being nonrefundable and tied to specific trains, Advance tickets are the least flexible but they are several times cheaper than walk-up tickets, especially for one-way travel.

Advance tickets become available in 8-10 weeks before the date of travel. They may be available as late as the day before travel’s date if they have not been sold out earlier. Naturally, Advance tickets for longer trips get sold out faster as they offer more significant savings.

The prices of Advance tickets for the same route and the date of travel may vary. They depend on the time of date (off-peak trains are cheaper), on the train operator and on how much in advance you buy them: the earlier the cheaper. However, don’t go too far: once I bought advance tickets in 6 weeks, but in a month before my trip the train company announced a ticket sale cutting prices in half. Also, if you try really early, it may happen that Advance tickets are not yet on sale but walk-up tickets are. This may draw you to a wrong conclusion that Advance tickets have already sold out.

The full terms and conditions of Advance tickets can be found on National Rail site.

Walk-up tickets

Walk-up tickets come in two flavors: Anytime and Off-Peak. The choice between these is defined by the time of the day when you are traveling - we’ll get to the details shortly.

A walk-up ticket can be either one-way (this is called “Single”) or round-trip (this is called “Return”). In other words, a walk-up ticket entitles you to either one (“outward”) or two (“outward” and “return”) journeys between two stations - the origin and the destination - printed on the ticket.

Unlike Advance tickets, a walk-up ticket does not require you to take a particular train or even a particular route.

You can go by any reasonable route between the origin and the destination. The exact definition of “reasonable” for each pair of station can be looked up in a directory called “Routeing Guide”, which is not particularly user-friendly. But in most cases, your common sense and a look on a map should be enough.

Your return route, if any, need not be the same as the outward route.

You can take any train and change trains if needed provided that your rides fall within the time frame when your ticket is valid.

Moreover, you may leave the train on any intermediate station and resume your journey later - this is called “journey break”. You can make as many journey breaks as you like, both during the outward and the return journeys, just make sure that your ticket stays valid time-wise.

Sometimes a walk-up ticket may, nevertheless, limit your choice of the route or the train operator. It happens when one route/service is much faster than the others or when different routes are served by different train companies who cannot agree on a unified fare. The route restriction will be shown on the ticket with wording like “Also valid / not valid on … “. Alternatively, it can be printed after “ROUTE” keyword, for example:

  • ROUTE LNER ONLY - you have to ride only on trains operated by London North Eastern Railway
  • ROUTE VIA BIRMINGHAM - on your way from the origin to the destination you have to pass Birmingham
  • ROUTE EVESHAM/STROUD - on your way from the origin to the destination you have to pass either Evesham or Stroud
  • ROUTE WARMSTER-SALSBRY - on your way from the origin to the destination you have to pass both Warminster and Salisbury

If there is no restriction, “ROUTE ANY PERMITTED” is printed or ROUTE is not mentioned at all.

A walk-up ticket can be bought at any moment up to the train’s departure. The supply of walk-up tickets is unlimited. They are changeable and refundable. You can also buy a walk-up ticket in advance rather than on the day of travel; it makes sense if you expect long queues at your origin station or will be short of time before train’s departure.

A type of walk-up ticket is a combination of two features. The first feature defines when you are allowed to travel: Anytime or Off-Peak, and the second feature sets the direction of travel: one-way (Single) or round-trip (Return).

Anytime vs Off-Peak

The type of walk-up ticket indicates the time of the day when you can travel with this ticket. There are two options:

  • Anytime - your ticket is valid at any time of day.
  • Off-Peak - your can ride a train only during off-peak hours.

You can also encounter “Super Off-Peak” type which is used when there are two different off-peak tariffs.

Anytime tickets are the most expensive, Off-Peak ones are cheaper, and the Super Off-Peak being the cheapest and most restrictive time-wise.

So, when exactly are the off-peak hours? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

When you’ll be searching for trains on National Rail website, it will show what trains can be ridden with a particular off-peak ticket. Make a note of that.

If you’ve got an off-peak ticket and wonder when you can use it, the rule of thumb is:

  • any train on Saturday or Sunday is certainly Off-Peak and probably Super Off-Peak;

departing from or arriving at London on a weekday:

  • a train departing from / arriving at a London terminal station between 10:31 and 15:00 or after 19:00 is almost certainly Off-Peak and may be Super Off-Peak;

  • the intervals 9:01 - 10:30 and 15:01 - 16:30 are a grey area; a train departing / arriving within this intervals may be Off-Peak or may be not;

traveling elsewhere on a weekday:

  • a train departing after 9 AM is almost certainly Off-Peak.

To be 100% sure, especially when traveling into or out of London, look at your ticket and find a note “This ticket can only be used at certain times, for details ask staff or go to …” followed by a web address looking like http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/4A or similar. The link will take you to a page which describes the restrictions of your ticket in detail, “4A” being the restriction code of your ticket.

Single vs Return

The second feature of a walk-up ticket indicates whether this is a one-way or a round-trip ticket, and on what dates you can travel there and back. Usually, you can select from three options: Sinlge, Return, and Day Return.

  • Single - this is a one-way ticket. It is valid on the day of travel which is printed on the ticket.

Anytime Single tickets Anytime Single tickets bought over-the-counter (left) and printed by a self-service machine (right)

  • Return - this is a round-trip ticket. The outward part is valid on the day of travel which is printed on the ticket. The return journey must be completed within one calendar month. You may as well return on the same day if you wish.

  • Day Return - this is a round-trip ticket. Both the outward and the return journeys must be made on the day of travel which is printed on the ticket. It is cheaper than Return.

Don’t be confused by the usage of the word “return”. When it is applied to a ticket from A to B, it means that the ticket is valid both for the outward journey A->B and for the return journey B->A, so a return ticket is a round-trip ticket. If the word is capitalized, it refers to Return ticket type, valid for 30 days, as opposed to Day Return ticket valid for one day.

Whatever type of a return ticket you buy, the ticket will be printed in two coupons labeled “Outward” (or “OUT”) and “Return” (or “RTN”). Each coupon is effectively a one-way ticket which you will use on the appropriate part of your trip.

Off-Peak Day Return ticket printed by a self-service machine:

Off-Peak Day Return ticket printed by self-service machine

Off-Peak Day Return ticket bought over-the-counter in the ticket office:

Off-Peak Day Return ticket bought from a clerk

The return coupon of an Off-Peak Return ticket showing the 31 day period of validity:

Return coupon of an Off-Peak Return ticket

Putting it all together

Ticket type Can buy in advance? Can buy on the day of travel? What train can I take? On what day can I return?
Advance Yes, until sold out No Only specific train shown on the ticket This is a one-way ticket
Anytime Single or Anytime Day Single Yes Yes Any train on any permitted route on the day shown on the ticket This is a one-way ticket
Anytime Return or Anytime Short Return Yes Yes Any train on any permitted route on the day shown on the ticket Within one month from the date of the outward journey
Anytime Day Return Yes Yes Any train on any permitted route on the day shown on the ticket On the same day when you make the outward journey
(Super) Off-Peak Single Yes Yes Any off-peak train conforming to the restriction code, on any permitted route, on the day shown on the ticket This is a one-way ticket
(Super) Off-Peak Return Yes Yes Any off-peak train conforming to the restriction code, on any permitted route, on the day shown on the ticket Within one month from the date of the outward journey
(Super) Off-Peak Day Return Yes Yes Any off-peak train conforming to the restriction code, on any permitted route, on the day shown on the ticket On the same day when you make the outward journey

The fine print:

  • For the ticketing purposes, a railway day ends at 04:29 on the following calendar day, thus overlapping with the next railway day. So, if you board a train at 00:05 on Tuesday, you can do it either with an Anytime or Off-Peak ticket valid on Monday or with Anytime (but not Off-Peak) ticket valid on Tuesday. With the ticket from the previous day, you must complete your journey by 04:29.

  • Anytime Single ticket is valid for two days while Anytime Day Single is valid only for one day. The outward coupon of Anytime Return is valid for five days while the outward coupon of Anytime Short Return is valid only for one day. I could not think of any plausible scenario when it made economic sense to take advantage of the extended validity of Anytime Single/Return tickets. Therefore, for the practical purposes, Anytime Single shall be the same as Anytime Day Single, and Anytime Return - the same as Anytime Short Return. The outward parts of Off-Peak tickets are valid only on the day shown on the ticket.

The official information about the ticket types can be found on National Rail site.

Not all types of fares are offered on all routes. Sometimes you may stumble across apparent glitches in the system. For example, there are routes (such as London - St. Albans City) where the best rate for the one-way journey is Anytime Single even when you travel off-peak. But if you buy a return ticket for the same destination, you will be offered an Off-Peak Return. Actually, if you dig deeper, you’ll find that Off-Peak Single exists but is more expensive than Anytime.

Comparison of ticket prices

With such multiplicity of ticket types, you may expect that their prices vary noticeably, the most restrictive types being the most economic. Indeed.

Let’s take a sample medium-distance route and examine all ticketing options available on a weekday.

We’ll be traveling from London to Bath both one-way and return. The railway station in Bath is called Bath Spa, it is situated on the Great Western main line in 172 km from London. The fastest way to get to Bath Spa is by direct train from London Paddington station; the journey takes one and a half hour. There is also a longer route from London Waterloo via Salisbury and Warminster which takes two and a half hours, also by direct train.

The diagram below shows a range of ticket prices, in pounds, for a one-way trip to Bath.

Single ticket prices

You can see that there is six times difference between the most expensive ticket (Anytime) and the cheapest of the Advance tickets.

You can also note that traveling during peak times is twice more expensive than taking an off-peak train.

Finally, you can spot two Anytime fares, the other one being significantly cheaper. There is no free lunch: the cheaper ticket will come out with restriction “ROUTE WAMSTER-SALSBRY” meaning that it is valid only on the slower train going via Salisbury and Warminster. The expensive Anytime ticket is also valid on this train as it is valid on any reasonable route between London and Bath (“ROUTE ANY PERMITTED”).

The next diagram shows the cheapest Single ticket option by the time of day, separately for Advance and walk-up tickets.

Lowest Single ticket price by time of day

Finally, let’s examine the options for the round-trip. In this case, you can buy either two single tickets (Advance or walk-up) or one walk-up return ticket. I’ve put together both variants to compare in the following diagram.

Return ticket prices

For a round-trip two Advance tickets are still the cheapest option. However, on some routes, where Off-Peak Day Return is offered, it may turn out even cheaper than the pair of Advance tickets.

For shorter journeys Advance tickets are not sold (but stay tuned and you’ll know how to get one).

Seat reservations

There are three types of trains with regard to seat reservations:

  • The train offers reservations, and a specific seat is reserved. Usually, these are long-distance trains. If you require a reservation they will reserve the seat even if your ride on such a train will be short.
  • The train offers reservations but a specific seat cannot be reserved. This is called “counted place” reservations. Seemingly meaningless from the practical point of view, it is used to bind an Advance ticket to a particular train. We will discuss the implications in the “Planning” chapter.
  • The train does not offer seat reservations. Local short-distance services are usually not reservable.

Note. There is also the fourth type, sleeper trains, which require a reservation for every ticket. They are out of the scope for now.

With Advance tickets, seat reservation is obligatory if the train is reservable. The assigned seat will be indicated on the ticket, or “No specific seat” will be printed in the case of the counted place reservation.

If you are buying a walk-up ticket you may request seat reservation as well. The seat will be assigned on a specific train of your choice if it’s reservable. You are not obliged to travel on this train. Seat reservation does not limit the validity of your walk-up ticket to one train; you may instead travel on any other allowed train, thus leaving your reserved seat unclaimed. You may reserve a seat while buying a ticket, or later, in any ticket office. Seat reservation is done free of charge. With a walk-up ticket, a seat reservation comes in the form of a separate coupon.

On the train, reserved seats are marked with paper flyers stuck into the tops of seats. Alternatively, some types of carriages provide the reservation information on an electronic display above the seat.

Seat reservation coupon and flyer

Rover/Ranger tickets

There is also an exotic type of tickets called Rover (or Ranger). Such ticket entitles you to unlimited travel within a particular area. The ticket is valid for a specified number of days, for example, any three days of the consecutive seven days. Usually, you can use the ticket only for off-peak rides.

A list of all available Rover ticket offerings can be found on National Rail website. If you click on each offering, you will find its price, terms and conditions, and the map of the area where the ticket is valid.

The problem with Rover tickets is purely economical. I failed to find a Rover ticket whose price justified its purchase. You’d do way too much traveling over the area to make a Rover ticket more cost-efficient than a set of Off-Peak tickets let alone Advance ones.

For example, assume that you are based in Bristol. Nearby places of interest reachable by train are Bath, Salisbury, Gloucester, Worcester, and Exeter. The first four are within the area of “Freedom of Severn & Solent 3 in 7 Day Rover” ticket priced £59. All five are covered by “Freedom of the South West 3 in 7 Day Rover” ticket priced £102.60.

With the first Rover ticket we can do Gloucester and Worcester in day 1, Bath in day 2 and Salisbury in day 3. However, if we bought separate Off-Peak Day Return tickets we’d pay £14.00 for Worcester (making an allowed break of journey in Gloucester), £7.90 for Bath Spa, and £23.00 for Salisbury, spending £44.90 in total. This is 14 pounds (24%) less than the price of the Rover ticket.

If we skipped the cheapest journey (Bath) and instead headed for Exeter (£29.60 for Off-Peak Return) we’d spend £66.60. Yet to include Exeter we’d need the Rover ticket that costs £102.60.

I am not saying that Rover tickets never make sense. If your routes fan out from one base for several days or, preferably, if you’re making a one-way cyclic tour through an area, it may be worth to check Rover tickets available for this area. However, I’d suggest that in most cases Rover tickets are not economically viable.

Next chapter: “Getting a discount: railcards, children, groups, buses”.