How To Travel by Train In The UK

This article has links to products that we may make commission from.

When we moved to the UK, we had all these plans to drive around the countryside from one small town to the next, soaking up all the history. Afterall that’s what we would do in the U.S. We’d get in our car and take a super long road trip. Well, we weren’t there for long before we realized a road trip was not at all the preferred or ideal way to travel.

In fact, living there for 6 years, we never bought a car, never even had a driver’s license. We never rented a car and drove out into the countryside. Instead, we learned how to travel by train. And we never needed any other modes of transportation (except the occasional bus and taxi).

train in york england
Train station in York, England

Traveling by train in the UK is not only incredibly convenient, it’s the best way to get from city to city. The extensive rail network connects all major cities and many towns, making it a practical choice for both long-distance and regional travel. That’s a huge difference from what we’re used to in the U.S., but now that you know, you can start planning your trip the right way – by train.

Before embarking on your journey, you need to familiarize yourself with the types of trains and ticketing options. Intercity trains provide high-speed connections between major urban centers, but there are also regional services that stop in more places and help you explore the countryside.

Key Takeaways

  • You don’t always have to book that far in advance, but planning will help you avoid sold out trains.
  • Tickets can be bought online for mobile tickets, ticket machines at the station, and ticket offices if you can’t make one of those other more convenient methods work.
  • Look for the best deals by booking in advance or using railcards that offer discounts.
  • Pay attention to peak and off-peak timings as these can influence ticket prices.
Bristol Station
Bristol Station

Finding the Best Train Tickets

One thing I learned pretty quickly was to book in advance for the best prices. It’s not always necessary to book in advance, but some train lines have higher demand and their prices fluctuate. If you buy them weeks in advance, they can be up to half the price of a ticket bought on the day of travel.

Tickets typically go on sale 12 weeks before the travel date. Of course not many of us are quite that organized, but just know that you can go onto train booking sites that far in advance and get an idea of what tickets are going for and plan your journey.

I usually only buy tickets that far in advance when I am 100% sure I’m going to take that trip and the price already seems quite high. This is because advance tickets are also the least flexible and they require you to travel on a specific train with no ability to change it.

train ticket

Train Fares

I can’t say that UK train travel is particularly inexpensive, unfortunately. For some reason unknown to me, train fares in the UK can be very expensive and they vary widely. We could often fly to Europe for the weekend for less than a train journey from London to Manchester. This is a 2 hour 30 minute train ride and a return ticket costs ~ £109 off-peak or £369 anytime (see below for more info on the difference).

This is one reason to start looking at train fares in advance and book off-peak tickets or split tickets. If you find a good one, purchase it now rather than waiting, because it can go up in price drastically with no notice. For instance, a ticket for tomorrow from London to Liverpool costs £109 off-peak but if I look for a ticket in 3 months, there’s an option for £69.

Anytime vs Off-Peak

If you care about the cost and comfort of your trip, I suggest booking off-peak tickets. During peak times, trains are more crowded and expensive. I don’t buy “anytime” tickets (which don’t require you to travel at a specific time) unless I have to. They are expensive.

Off-peak times vary by route but they are generally not rush hours, like Monday to Friday from 9:00 or 09:30 to 16:00, and after 19:00, plus all day on weekends and bank holidays. You need to check the times to be sure. Ticket platforms where you can buy tickets show you when a ticket is off-peak, peak, or super off-peak.

Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak tickets don’t require you to travel on a specific train, just within the correct hours, but you do have to travel on the specific date on your ticket. If you need to travel on another date, you have to book another ticket. You can get a refund though with a fee.

example of split fare
Example from Split My Fare

Split Tickets

Split tickets are when you purchase tickets in two parts instead of buying one ticket for the whole journey. I do this on Split My Fare. It shows me exactly what trains to take and how much I’m saving. For example, if I’m travelling from Manchester Piccadilly to Edinburgh, I buy a ticket from Manchester to Oxenholme Lake and from there to Edinburgh.

When I checked this route it ranged from £41-£59 for the one ticket, or £29.80 for the split fares. That’s a worthwhile savings to me (and it’s no more difficult to book the tickets).

Railpasses

Consider buying a railcard if you’re eligible, which typically saves you up to 1/3 on rail fares. There are railcards available for age ranges like 16-17, 16-25, 26-30, Seniors, Disabled Persons, Two Together, Family & Friends, Network, and Veterans. It costs £30 a year.

Even if you’re just visiting the UK for a week, if you’re taking a lot of train journeys it will pay for itself and save you some money. Just keep in mind they can only be used on off-peak times, weekends and holidays.

BritRail Passes are specifically for tourists and offer unlimited rail travel within selected zones and periods. Prices vary according to the pass’s duration and covered zones, but can offer substantial savings. It’s worth checking out if you’re going to be doing a lot of train travel.

First Class

The other ticket fare you can buy is for first class. It’s often quite a bit more expensive. For instance, that £69 ticket from London to Liverpool is £269 in First Class.

First Class gives you a bigger more comfortable seat, tables, and sometimes complimentary food and drink, newspapers and other perks.

train platform
London train platform

Day of Travel

When traveling by train in the UK, understanding the process of navigating through stations and knowing what to expect during your journey is vital for a smooth experience.

First and most important, be sure you’re traveling at the right time, per the ticket you bought. If you booked off-peak, don’t get on the train until the designated time.

At the Station

Be sure to arrive at the station 30 minutes earlier, especially if you’re departing from major stations like London Paddington, Manchester Piccadilly, or Edinburgh Waverley. Trust me, these places can be madhouses and it can take a while to figure out where to go, how to get through the gates, and where your platform is. You don’t want to push it and risk not making it onto the train.

  • Ticket Collection: If you haven’t printed your tickets beforehand, or haven’t yet bought tickets, use the self-service machines at the station with the card you used to purchase the tickets or the collection reference number.
  • Check the Departure Boards: Look for the departure boards for live information about your platform number and any updates on the status of your train. This will show you the platform number.
  • Ticket Validation: Some stations require that you put your ticket into a turnstile type ticket gate to get into the platform. Others just require that you show your ticket to the person who’s checking on the train. Whatever you do, don’t lose that ticket.
  • Getting to the Platform: Once you know your platform, head there right away, as some larger stations like London’s King’s Cross are really big and it can take quite some time to get to the right platform.
  • Check the Direction: When you arrive on the platform, check the train display screen to make sure you’re heading the right direction. You laugh, but it happens.
train luggage rack
Train luggage rack

During the Journey

Usually you don’t book a specific seat on the train, so there’s no need to find your seat, but check your ticket to make sure that’s the case. Otherwise, find a free seat and make yourself comfortable.

  • Luggage: Store your luggage in the overhead racks or designated storage areas, ensuring they do not obstruct the aisles or exits.
  • Quiet Zones: Most trains have quiet zones where you can’t use your cell phone or be especially loud. I’ve found those to be the best areas to sit, to avoid large loud parties.
  • Showing Your Ticket: Be prepared to show your ticket to the agent when they ask. You’ll get a fine if you don’t have one.
  • Remain Alert for Announcements: Pay attention to onboard announcements, especially as you near your arrival station, to prepare for disembarking.

Remember, the arrival time on your ticket is the scheduled time your train is due to reach the platform, not necessarily when the doors will open, so be ready as the train pulls into the station.

Sleeper Trains

To traverse long distances or overnight travels, there are sleeper trains. These services, while not available every day, can be a pleasant alternative to daytime travel.

  • The Night Riviera connects London and Cornwall, offering a comfortable night’s sleep as you head to your next destination, arriving in the early morning hours.
  • The Caledonian Sleeper can take you between London and Scotland.

Stansted Express & Heathrow Express

stansted express

There are two trains that specifically serve the airports. They are express trains because they don’t stop at a lot of local stops along the way. For this reason, they are more expensive, but they are a great way to get from the airport to central London.

There’s the Stansted Express that serves Stansted airport to the north of London, and there’s Heathrow Express that serves the major International airport to the west. Look on their websites to buy tickets. These are often highly discounted the further in advance you buy them.

Be Prepared For Travel
Planning is the most important part of any successful trip. Do it the easy way:

🧳 Travel Packing List | ✔️ Why You Need Travel Insurance | ✈️ What to Do Before You Leave Home

How To Travel by Train In The UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *