British Rail travel with a BritRail Pass makes a lot of sense if your vacation plans involve crisscrossing the UK from one major city or region to another. Train travel in the UK is faster, cheaper and easier than long distance road travel. Here's why:
- Britain may seem comparatively small, but distances are deceiving. Motorways are always busy and traffic, often and unexpectedly, reaches urban rush hour proportions in what can seem to you to be the middle of nowhere.
- If you are used to driving on the right, driving on the left while barrelling along at 70mph plus on congested roads, surrounded by high-sided, double-trailer semis (they call them articulated lorries here), can be nerve wracking.
- Secondary roads go through town centers or pass through rural areas where you can get caught behind farm vehicles or little old ladies traveling at 15 mph. You could spend an hour traveling 10 miles. They are fun for local sightseeing but don't expect to get anywhere fast.
- British gasoline (petrol) is very expensive. In April 2007 it neared £1 per litre - that's a little over a quart. Imagine paying more than $2 for a quart of gas. Motorway driving eats up a lot of fuel.
Even if you rent cars locally for sightseeing and getting around, trains are the way to go for longer distance vacation travel. And a BritRail Pass is the cheapest, most convenient way for visitors from abroad to travel by rail in the UK.
What is a BritRail Pass?
It's a prepaid pass, only sold outside the UK - you have to buy it before you leave home. It's valid for unlimited UK rail travel, during a specified period. BritRail Passes are available for four to one month's worth of consecutive days travel or, as flexible passes for a fixed number of days travel over a longer period of time - four days over two months, for example. There are youth, senior and group versions, as well as England-only, Scotland-Only, England and Ireland and London region passes.
Why Buy a BritRail Pass?
For Cheaper Travel: If you're touring, you probably won't be using return (round trip) tickets much and single tickets (one-way) are usually more expensive.
If you traveled from London to York to Edinburgh and back to London during a two week vacation in April, conventional tickets would cost about $500.00, traveling on the first train of the day in each case and buying the cheapest standard fare readily available.* A consecutive BritRail Pass for 15 days would cost $559** but you could add as many extra rail journeys as you liked without adding to the cost if the fancy struck. A flexipass for four days train travel in a two month period would cost only $329 and you would still have an extra day's travel available for a spur of the moment trip.
*Some operators offer temptingly cheap promotional fares but there are only ever a few seats at that price and they must be bought well in advance
** Based on 2008 prices
For Freedom: Buy the pass before you leave the USA and you're free to travel whenever you like. There's no need to make a reservation. Figure out what train you want by visiting National Rail Enquiries, online, and then just show up at the station and hop on.
There are only two situations where you might want to book in advance:
- to guarantee a seat during peak travel times. If you ride the rails during off-peak hours - which are most of the time - finding a seat is easy without a reservation. But for travel during rush hours, you need to book. Seat reservations are free.
- for an overnight journey in a sleeper berth or reclining seat. But overnight rail trips within the UK are rare. ScotRail's Caledonian Sleeper, between London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and points north, is really the only one. A small additional charge applies to sleeper berths. Reclining seats are free but still have to be reserved.
Keep in mind that if you do plan to book a seat or sleeper berth, it must be done in person, after you arrive.
A spokesperson for the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), confirmed that online ticket sales and booking systems can't take confirmed seat bookings without also collecting the cost of the ticket. My quick phone round of several of the train companies' telephone information and booking services produced only fruitless conversations with overseas operators who had no idea what I was talking about.
Not to worry. Just stop by any station with a manned ticket office a day or two before your trip to book your seat. Advance Ticket Queues are usually short. In the case of a sleeper berth, book it as far ahead of your journey as you can.
How to buy a BritRail Pass
BritRail Passes are only sold outside the United Kingdom. In the USA they are available from Rail Europe. Click here to find out which BritRail Pass might be for you.