British Trains - How to Buy Tickets, Book Trips and Get Around

British trains are the easiest and, usually, the fastest way of getting around England, Scotland and Wales. The Brits love to complain about their trains, but the truth is:

  • unless you are a commuter riding the rails during the rush hour - when seats may be at a premium,
  • or you need to get someplace so tiny and remote that three train changes are required,

you are likely to find British rail travel a convenient and a remarkably spontaneous way to get around.

The Fast, Easy Way to Get Around

Cross country service passenger train at Dawlish Devon UK
Universal Images Group / Getty Images

You Can Get There From Here

British train travel has been around a long time so the network is well established and extensive. Most major towns are connected to London and to each other by either direct services or links to regional hubs. Smaller communities may have less frequent service or may require changing trains a few times but chances are there's a train station nearby.

Tickets are easy to buy and useful journey planning tools are available online. If you are visiting the UK from abroad and think you will make more than two or three train trips, you can buy a variety of BritRail passes before you leave home. They may offer savings for unlimited travel during specified periods as well as other perks and benefits. But do check ordinary train fares online as well. You may find that BritRail passes are less of a bargain than they once were.

Insider tip: Check a detailed map when you are planning a complicated rail journey. You may find that a community with more frequent or direct UK rail service is just a few miles or an inexpensive taxi ride away from one that can only be reached twice a week by changing trains six times!

How to Plan a Trip and Choose a Fare

Train journey
Jill Tindall / Getty Images

Sources of Tickets and Trip Planning Information

In the 1980s, British Rail, which was the national railway company, was broken up and privatized, separating ownership and maintenance of the tracks from the companies that operate the trains. Today there are dozens of different UK train companies serving different areas of the country. It can seem very confusing and overwhelming but it's easier than you think.

Any UK train company can take your booking and payment for any other train company on the system. The British train fares are nationally regulated so, other than special promotional fares a particular company may be running, the fare for a given journey will be the same regardless of which train company books or operates the trip.

Types of British Train Fares

Most services are offered on a 1st or 2nd class basis. Britain is a small country and there are only a few overnight train journeys. Unless you are taking one of these and want the option of a dining car, an included breakfast or, at some stations, a first class lounge where you can wait between trains, there is little point in spending extra on first class service. But you will want to pay attention to the difference between advance fares and anytime fares because the savings can be considerable.

Main Categories of Train Fares and Ticket Prices

Dispatcher at Manchester Piccadilly Station
Courtesy of ATOC

What you pay for a British train ticket usually depends on when you buy it and when you plan to travel. Here are the main categories of ticket prices:

  • Anytime - These are buy anytime, travel anytime tickets with no restrictions on the date or time of travel. They are the most expensive for any particular journey. These flexible tickets include Open tickets and some Day tickets. Unless you are traveling on business or need to travel during the rush hour, they are best avoided - for some trips they can cost ten times more than an advance purchase or off peak ticket..
  • Off-peak - You can buy off peak tickets at any time but you can only use them to travel on off peak services.  They are cheaper than Anytime tickets but are not the cheapest.  One confusing aspect is that what time is considered "off-peak" is not standard but varies from one train company to another and from one service to another. Fortunately, trip planning tools such as National Rail Enquiries can find you the off-peak services for the trip you want to take.
  • Advance Advance fares are economical, one-way (called single) tickets purchased and booked in advance for specific trains. They are the cheapest way to travel by train. How far in advance depends on the popularity of the journey. For some trips - a few days in advance is enough to get you the cheapest fares while for others you need to plan and book your train at least 14 days in advance. These tickets commit you to a specific train at a specific time. If you miss your train, there may be another one coming right along but catching it will cost you the top-whack, full fare for the trip. And the difference can be gobsmackingly huge. For example, in February 2017, a one-way ticket to from London to Lincoln at midday purchased a week in advance would cost £25.  Show up at the last minute and the same trip would cost £83.50

Check National Rail Enquiries, for a fuller explanation of the many kinds of rail tickets. The website also has all the information and tools you need to plan your journey along with handy links to detailed British rail maps.


Where to Buy Tickets and How to Pay

First ScotRail Ticket Office at Aviemore, Scotland
Courtesy of ATOC

If all this has you reeling, don't worry. The National Rail Enquiries website includes an excellent trip planning tool and staff at the manned railway stations can suggest best fares.

How to Pay

You can buy a UK train ticket for most off-peak journeys minutes before you board, but discount tickets are available in advance for all but the shortest local journeys so it's a good idea to check the National Rail Enquiries online tool to see the range of fares available. If you see a really cheap, advance fare and you're sure you will take that trip - buy it online or at the ticket office. The cheapest fares don't last long.

Buy a Standard Open, Cheap Day Return or Saver ticket:

  1. Online: Choose journey and fare and let the National Rail Enquiry tool guide you to a train company to buy your ticket, using a credit or debit card. You'll get an email with a confirmation number. Print and save it. Then get your ticket:
    1. By mail if purchased four or five days in advance from a UK address.
    2. At a fastTicket machine at the station. Bring the credit card you used to pay for the ticket, along with the confirmation number you've printed out and saved, and follow the directions on the machine.
    3. At a manned ticket booth. If fastTicketing isn't available at the station, or if there's no time for mail, present credit card and confirmation at a manned ticket window.
  2. When the station is unmanned Smaller stations may not be manned all the time. If you board at an unmanned station, you can buy a ticket on the train. But make sure because if staff is available and you board without a ticket, you may be fined or have to pay the highest available round-trip fare.
Insider Tip: National Rail Enquiries' How do I Get There is a list of key UK visitor attractions, cathedrals, parks and zoos with links to more websites for detailed addresses and maps.

BritRail Passes for Prepaid, Unlimited Rail Travel

At Paddington Station London
© Ferne Arfin

BritRail Passes are prepaid tickets valid for unlimited travel for specified periods of time. They are sold as:

  • Consecutive Passes, good for a fixed number of days of unlimited British rail travel.
  • Flexipasses, for a specified number of days (4, 8 or 15) - not necessarily consecutive - during a longer period, currently two months.

BritRail passes are available for UK, Scotland-only or England-only travel; and as Senior, Youth, Party or Family passes. They are not sold in UK and must be purchased online or through a travel agent before you arrive.

Because the tickets are prepaid, most of the time all you have to do is show up on time and hop on the train. If you want to book a seat or sleeper accommodation, you need to do that at a manned railway station. Seats are usually free, as are reclining seats in overnight trains, but there is a charge for sleeper births.

Happily, unless you are partial to traveling during rush hours, you almost never have to book a seat, and there are only a handful of overnight journeys, most of which can be taken as day trips as well.

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