If you need to get around the United Kingdom without a private car, there are several options to choose from. Will it be trains, buses or long-distance coaches? Time, cost and environmental concerns are all part of the mix. This guide will help you find the travel choices that best fit your plans, time, budget and conscience.
Using British Trains to Get Around
British trains have been around, in one form or another, since the early 1800s. The network is well established and extensive, making train travel the easiest and, usually, the fastest way of getting around England, Scotland and Wales. It is also acknowledged to be the most eco-friendly way to travel in Britain. Most major towns are connected to London and to each other by either direct trains or by links through stations that are 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.
How to Plan a Train Trip
Government-owned Network Rail is responsible for the tracks and the 20 largest train stations, managing timetables and regulating fares. Many different private companies own and operate the trains themselves. Figuring out which train company goes where can seem confusing but it's easier than you think.
The private companies belong to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and one of the great services they provide together is National Rail Enquiries. This is a website and an app that enables you to find trains and fares and directs you, by link, to the train companies to buy tickets. It has tools to find the cheapest fares and service alerts.
The good news is that 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 the fare for a given journey will be the same regardless of which train company sells you the ticket or operates the trip.
Types of British Train Tickets
Tickets are 1st or 2nd class or classless. Unless you are taking one of the few overnight train journeys, there is little point in spending extra on first-class service.
Most trains have open seating; once you have a ticket, you can sit wherever you like within the class of service you've bought. An exception is for particularly busy routes when you may have to book a seat along with your travel ticket. Usually this is free or costs a nominal fee.
Do pay attention to the difference between advance fares and anytime fares, single (one-way) or return (round trip) tickets, because the savings can be considerable.
Main Categories of Train Fares and Ticket Prices
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 - The most expensive tickets are "buy anytime-travel anytime". They have no restrictions on the date or time of travel. For some trips, they can cost ten times more than an advance purchase or "off-peak" ticket.
- Off-peak - Buy off-peak tickets at any time but only use them to travel on off-peak services. They are cheaper than Anytime tickets though not the cheapest. One confusing aspect is that "off-peak" time is not standard but varies from one train company to another and from one service to another. 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 the cheapest. They are one-way tickets purchased and booked in advance for specific trains. How far in advance depends on the popularity of the journey. For some trips, you can book the cheapest fare as little as the day before while for others you need to book your train at least 14 days in advance. These tickets commit you to a specific train at a specific time. If you miss that train, there may be another one coming right along but catching it will cost you the full fare for the trip. And the difference can be gobsmackingly huge. For example, in January 2020, a one-way ticket from London to Lincoln at 8 p.m, purchased a week in advance would cost thirty-two pounds and 50pence. Show up at the last minute and the same trip would cost eighty-eight pounds and 50 pence.
Where to Buy Tickets and How to Pay
At the station: Most of the big mainline train stations have ticket offices where agents sell tickets. But, unless you are buying advance tickets, you won't be offered any discounts or savings.
By Phone: The train companies that National Rail Enquiries directs you to usually have phone numbers on their websites but you may be left hanging on for quite a long time.
Online: Choose journey and fare and let the National Rail Enquiry tool guide you to a train company to buy your ticket, using a debit card or (for international customers) a credit card. You'll get an email with a confirmation number. Print and save it. Then get your ticket:
- By mail, if purchased four or five days in advance from a UK address.
- 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. Follow the directions on the machine. Arrive early enough for the queue at the automatic machine. Any fastTicket machine can dispense booked tickets for any departure station as long as you have your booking number and credit card. So as soon as you are at a station, save time and pick up all your tickets at once.
- At a manned ticket booth. Present credit card and confirmation number at a manned ticket window.
- When the station is unmanned Smaller stations may not be manned. If you board at an unmanned station, you can buy a ticket on the train. But make sure the station really is unmanned 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.
Using Rail Passes
BritRail Passes are prepaid tickets valid for unlimited travel during specified periods. 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 the 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.
Are they worth it? - So many cheap rail fares are now available when purchased online in advance, you may not save anything by buying a BritRail Pass. It is worth comparing the cost of the pass with the fares listed on National Rail Enquiries before buying one. If, however, you like to travel spontaneously, you probably should buy a pass because last-minute train tickets bought any other way are much more expensive.
Public Transportation in Northern Ireland
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, all public transportation in Northern Ireland is operated and coordinated by one umbrella organization, Translink. They provide coach, bus and train services connecting at a province-wide network. That includes urban mass transit in Belfast, airport transfers from Dublin or Belfast airports to Belfast city center and, in partnership with Irish Rail, cross border routes into the Irish Republic. Buy tickets online because they are much cheaper. A mid-day train from Belfast to Dublin (February 2020) cost ten pounds and 99 pence online but 30 pounds for cash at the station.
Use the integrated travel planner on their website. It gives a choice of searching for bus, train or combined services and an easy link with to buy tickets.
Other Ways of Getting Around Britain
Coach Travel - Long-distance buses are known as coaches in the UK. Several intercity bus companies provide some of the cheapest ways to get around. Fares vary with operators, generally ranging from five-pound promotional fares to upwards of 35 pounds for longer trips. Coach tickets are usually offered as one-way or "singles."
These are the main coach operators in the UK:
- National Express- Intercity travel in England and Wales, tickets online or at main coach terminals
- Megabus - A stripped-down service offered to some destinations with tickets only available online
- Scottish Citylink - Intercity services across Scotland
- TrawsCymru - Medium and long-distance express buses in Wales
- Ulsterbus - Part of Northern Ireland's Translink service described above.
Regional Bus Services - Different bus operators run networks of regional buses. Tickets for some of these buses can be purchased online but usually you just buy them on the bus. Finding out fares for these services is pretty hit and miss but you can get a general idea from the operator's website. Some of the main companies for regional buses are:
- The Oxford Tube One of the most popular long-distance bus routes, this is an express service between several stops in Oxford and several stops in London. It runs 24-hours a day, with peak time buses leaving every 12 to 15 minutes. Tickets can be booked online or from the driver using contactless credit or debit cards, or via mobile payment apps. Single adult fare is nine pounds.
- Stagecoach A major operator of regional bus services all over the country. They use a variety of local names but their website has a very good journey planner that integrates all the information with maps, timetables and a ticket-buying widget.
- Arriva - Another major operator of regional bus services in London and the home counties, England's northwest and northeast, and Wales. Their website has maps, journey planners and ticket buying options.
- Check a map - Sometimes a better (cheaper, more direct, faster) train may be scheduled for a station just a short taxi ride from your chosen destination.
- Compare prices Two singles can be cheaper than return tickets.
- Buy before boarding. You can be fined for boarding without a ticket or be made to pay the highest price for the tickets.
- Keep your train ticket even after it has been checked on board. You may be asked to show your ticket or put it through a machine to leave the platform.
- Use online information sites to plan coordinated journeys using different modes of transportation. The two most useful are:
- Traveline - a partnership of transport companies, local governments and passenger groups. With its journey planner, you can plot door-to-door journeys that include trains, buses, walking and local taxis.
- Trainline - An international organization of 270 train and coach companies across the UK and Europe that helps you combine train and coach travel and book tickets.