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Long distance train travel




There are a number of rules to follow to get the best fares:

1) Always use the web site of the company that you will be travelling with for most of your journey. They will always have the cheapest prices and may have special offers not advertised elsewhere. (However at the beginning of 2016 the Southern Website was not offering the cheapest tickets on their services.)

2) Book as far in advance as possible (up to 12 weeks in advance)

3) Be as flexible as you can about your times and avoid peak travel times like rush hours and Friday evenings.

4) Consider splitting your ticket.

Let’s illustrate this by looking at a journey to Manchester from Lewes booked on 3/1/16 going out on Wednesday 3rd March 2016 and coming back the next day.   I will assume that you do not have a railcard, but reductions are available on all by the cheapest fares if you have. 

The company running express trains from London to the North West is Virgin Trains, so the best deals will be on their web site.  Like many companies they quote most of their fares as single tickets. The usual way to travel is to get a southern train to Victoria, the Victoria Line to Euston and a Virgin train from Euston to Manchester.

A single ticket you can use any time from Lewes to Manchester will cost you £202.50 each way, a total return cost of over £400. You can turn up and buy these tickets on the day at the station and you are not tied to a particular train.  If you are prepared to avoid trains leaving Euston before about 8.30 in the morning or between 3.30 and 6.30 in the afternoon on the way out or leaving Manchester before 8.55 in the morning you can cut the cost to £42 each way and still buy your ticket on the day and not be tied to a particular train.

But if you are prepared to commit yourself to a specific Virgin train then fares start at £26.50  each waye, depending on the train you chose.  The cheapest tickets going out tend to be in the morning and the cheapest coming back are in mid afternoon. Not all off peak trains offer advance fares and some of those that do charge more than £26.50..

Advance tickets are valid on the tube and on Southern trains back to Lewes. These days your ticket will specify a particular Southern Train that you have to travel on..

The later you leave it the less likely you are to be able to get an advance ticket.  

Split your ticket

When you read articles in the press about how to get cheap tickets they will usually tell you the real secret is to split your ticket.  So if you are going from Bognor to Worlds end you buy one ticket from Bognor to Muddlecome on Slush and another one from Muddlecome to Worlds End.  This is because they couldn’t be bothered to do their research and just got their ideas from Martin Lewis’s web site.  I’m a big fan of Martin Lewis, but I think he overdoes this.

The main thing Lewisians travelling through London have to decide is whether or not to buy their tickets from Lewes to their final destination or whether it is better to buy tickets from Lewes to London and then tickets from the London terminal to their final destination.  One reason for doing this is that there are often more cheap tickets from London than there are from Lewes. For example, on the same days as I chose in the example above Virgin were offering quite a few advance tickets at £11 each way.

Now bear in mind that you have to get to the London terminal.  So you need to make a big saving to make this worthwhile and certainly isn’t worth doing if you are travelling to or from Victoria in the rush hour.  But it may be worth trying if you can’t find a cheap through ticket.

It may also be worth thinking about booking to the nearest big station to your destination.  For example if you were going somewhere in Greater Manchester it may be worth booking to Manchester and then getting another ticket to your destination.  You can book these tickets on line or at Lewes Station.

Failing all these I have booked split tickets to other points in the middle of my journey and sat miserably on Peterborough station for half an hour on a cold Sunday night to save £30 on a journey to York, but I’m not sure that was worth it.  You need to split your ticket at a point where the train stops and, if you are travelling on an advance ticket, you may have to get off and wait for another train or change your seat.  Good places to consider splitting if you want to try this include Swindon, Peterborough, Doncaster, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh if any of these are on your route.

Splitting tickets is entirely legal.  Buying a ticket to a station further on and getting off early is not, although a lot of people do it and buy a ticket on line from a local station to their actual destination to get through any ticket barrier.

Here you will find some very nerdy discussion about splitting tickets.  Latest posts are on the last page.

If you can’t commit yourself to particular trains

Your cheapest tickets may be the off peak tickets.  But bear in mind that you often know when you are going- it iss just coming back that is uncertain.  You could buy an advance single ticket and get an off peak single ticket to come back.  And it might be worth buying two advance return tickets for the journey back, since the price may be less than the cost of an off peak ticket.  This gives you two choices. Providing that you know the day you are coming back you only have to buy two tickets for the part of your journey where you have to specify trains.  For example if you are returning from Manchester to Lewes and think that you might not be delayed on your return and so miss the train then just buy a later advance ticket from Manchester to London.  Your other ticket is valid from Euston to Lewes on any train that day.

If you have to travel peak times

Get someone else to pay!  Peak fares are designed for people who don’t care how much the ticket costs because they are not paying for it.  But remember that what matters is what is peak time for the company that you are travelling the main part of your journey with.  Suppose you need to go to Bristol to arrive at 10 and to come back the same day at 5pm.  The quickest route is via London Paddington.  You will be travelling up to London in the rush hour.  But so far as first Great Western, who run the trains from Paddington to Bristol,  are concerned, this is off peak, because most people are travelling the other way.  So they will sell you an off peak ticket for cheaper than their peak time fares (This is why it can be cheaper to buy a ticket to Swindon than Victoria if you want to travel to London in the rush hour.

Alternatively buy an anytime return to Aldershot.  This costs much less than a peak return ticket to London and is valid via Clapham Junction as well as via Dorking.  With anytime tickets you can legally get off where you like, so you could get off at Clapham, although you may have a dispute with the barrier staff.  It may be better to buy an onward ticket from Clapham in advance.  You could buy a return to Waterloo, or Victoria for a small sum, or get a travelcard if you are travelling on and will arrive at Clapham in time for an off peak travelcard.

Splitting tickets so that only part of your journey is in peak times may be helpful.  For example I’ve often bought an off peak ticket from Haywards Heath and an ordinary return from Lewes to Haywards Heath if I want to get a cheaper ticket leaving on a train just before the cheaper tickets kick in.  You can buy tickets from Haywards Heath on line or from Lewes ticket office.

It can also be cheaper to buy tickets on trains run by companies who run slower trains or on slower routes.  For example, you could do the journey to and from Bristol that I have just described going via Salisbury for £47 return.  It takes about a quarter to half an hour longer though. London Midland offer cheaper fares to Liverpool but take 3 hours 20 minutes from London instead of 2- 2 and a half hours on the fast trains. Companies you might try include

  • Chiltern trains to Birmingham (specify that you want to go via Banbury)
  • London Midland Trains to Birmingham, Stafford, Crewe and Liverpool (specify that you want to go via Northampton)
  • Hull trains to Hull, Doncaster and Selby
  • Grand Central Trains to York, Northallerton and Sunderland (no through tickets from Lewes, no advance tickets- but you can pay on the train)

These routes may be cheaper for advance tickets as well.

If you’ve left it late

Even the evening before you travel there may be advance tickets available. You can pick up tickets at the Lewes station ticket machine.  If you can’t find a reasonably priced ticket try one of the alternative routes or companies I’ve suggested above or splitting your journey.  You could try looking for first class tickets. Sometimes reasonably priced advance first class tickets are available at less than the standard ordinary fare.

Going to the west country or south Wales

The main company is first Great Western Trains.  It will always be quicker and often cheaper to go on their trains via Paddington.

But if you are travelling at peak times, or have left it late, or want a scenic route you can avoid London and travel via Salisbury, travelling either via Southampton or Clapham.  Search for trains via Salisbury to see these options.

Note that if you are travelling to central Bristol you need to make sure you are searching for fares to Bristol Temple Meads.  If you just search for Bristol then you can end up at Bristol Parkway, which is miles from anywhere

If you are not going west of Exeter you will be covered by the network south east area.  See my article on this for further information, including the possibility of splitting your ticket at Southampton or Exeter.

The usual way of going from Lewes to Bristol or South Wales is to get the train up to Victoria and then cross to Paddington and go from there.  But it can sometimes be cheaper and as quick to go via Brighton and Salisbury, especially in peak hours. The trick is to book advance tickets on this route from Brighton and then get a separate ticket to Brighton from Lewes.  There are through trains from Brighton to Bath and Bristol and these may have cheap fares when the usual route has none.  It can be as quick or quicker to Bristol or Bath, although this route is slower to Cardiff and Swansea.  The best thing is that you avoid the hassle of having to get through London.

Going north west, west Midlands, Glasgow or to north Wales

The main company is Virgin Trains who run from London Euston. Virgin trains are quick but horrible, designed so that the seats only fit very thin people and with so few windows that many of the “window” seats have no view outside.

Slower  but sometimes more pleasant companies include London Midland, Wrexham and Shropshire and Chiltern Trains.

Going to Sheffield, Nottingham, or Leicester

The main company is East Midland Trains, who run from St Pancras, although you can also get to Sheffield via the East Coast Main line.

You can get first capital connect trains direct from Haywards Heath to St Pancras, although you cannot use Southern cheap tickets on these trains.

East Midlands Trains are owned by Stagecoach, who operate a brand called “Megatrain”  This brand has its own web site and offers tickets on the very least popular trains on the route at prices lower than advance tickets.  These tickets are only available on the Megatrain web site. You won’t find them anywhere else. They do not cover travel from Lewes to St Pancras so you will have to buy other tickets to get there.

Going to Doncaster, Leeds, York, Newcastle Edinburgh and Glasgow

You will travel by the east coast main line, which at the time of writing is operated by Virgin. This is one of the fasted and most comfortable routes, because the modernisation was the last done by British Rail.

You can get first capital connect trains direct from Haywards Heath to St Pancras, which is right next to Kings Cross,  although you cannot use Southern cheap tickets on these trains.

Alternatives over part of this route are Grand Central Trains to York or Sunderland and Hull Trains to Doncaster and Hull