Navigating Train Travel in the UK
Thanks to its small nature and close together cities, the UK is well-connected by train. Travelling by train in the UK is a must and probably the easiest way to travel for local and international travellers alike, ticking off those bucket list destinations one by one!
Choosing your train
This one seems easy enough right? You want to go from London to Cambridge by train for a day trip for example, but did you know there is more than one option to do so?
Different train companies run routes between the same cities which can get a little confusing, but it’s easy enough to figure out which is the best option if you use the right app which I will discuss below.
It’s important to note each line tends to operate a ‘fast’ service and a ‘slow’ one, known as a local service. For example, to get from London to Bedford, I can either take a train that takes 35 minutes, stopping only at Luton Airport, or I can take a train that stops at 8 different places before Bedford, taking you an hour to reach your destination. The fast vs slow lines are usually operated by different companies so make sure you book the right ticket, even if they depart from the same station.
Booking your train
There are two main apps/websites you can use when booking train travel in the UK, National Rail and the Trainline. National Rail will give you times and services but sends you directly to the train company website to book the tickets, where as Trainline is all booked within the app.
I tend to find Trainline to be the best app when booking British train travel, you can keep all your bookings in the one app rather than having them spread across different train websites. Many of the routes will allow you to have E-tickets which will be emailed to you and stored in the app, but it’s good to be aware some routes will make you pick up your booked tickets from the station.
Make sure you always have you ticket on you when travelling, whether it be an E-ticket or physical ticket. The UK train network doesn’t take kindly to those who travel without tickets so you are likely to be fined if you get caught.
If you don’t want to book via your mobile or online, you can buy tickets at the train station you are travelling from. Train stations in the UK will always have a ticket machine that accepts both card and cash, and many have manned ticket counters with train staff to help you buy the best ticket.
If you are looking to pre-plan your route, your best option is looking on National Rail or Trainline.
Saving money when travelling by train
Train travel in the UK can be complicated in terms of its pricing. Different train companies will charge different prices, even when connecting the same two cities, split tickets are a thing, and you need to be aware of peak and off-peak charges.
I will start with the most important, peak and off-peak. As you would imagine, peak travel times in the UK are during commuting hours and come with a hefty premium. Off-peak travel tends to be after 9:30am once rush hour is over, weekends are always off-peak.
Next up, split tickets. This is where the Trainline app comes in handy as it will do this automatically for you. Split tickets is a way of getting somewhere in the cheapest way possible, splitting up the journey without having to actually disembark the train. For example, say you are taking the train from London to Edinburgh, it may end up cheaper buy a ticket from London to Peterborough, then a ticket from Peterborough to York, and then from York to Edinburgh. Sounds like a faff but this can all be done within the Trainline app.
Last but not least, and most likely to save you the most money when travelling by train, pre-book! Pre-booking your ticket will offer you the cheapest train travel in the UK but it’s important to note this is because these tickets usually are not flexible and therefore you must make sure you are taking the correct service at the exact time on the ticket. Generally, tickets go on sale 12 weeks before your date of travel.
What could go wrong?
Whilst we have an excellent rail network, things can go wrong, this is especially apparent during adverse weather events. In fact, you might be a little taken aback by some of the reasons I have experienced train delays… it’s too cold, it’s too hot, there are leaves on the track, the wind has wrecked overhead power lines.
Remember, our train network was largely put in during the Victorian era, an engineering masterpiece but it’s not brand new! You will find this all over Europe but to be honest I have never known a country shut down by weather as much as the UK considering we don’t actually experience many major weather events at all.
What else? Train strikes. Particularly prevalent in 2022 and going into 2023 due to the cost of living crisis and inflation we are experiencing. The train strikes are pre-planned so it’s worth googling ahead if any are planned on your dates of travel, keep checking up to a few weeks beforehand too. Sometimes these are called off last minute but we haven’t had much luck with this recently. When there is a train strike, I would avoid train travel at all cost, it’s pointless when the services just aren’t running.
Last but not least, engineering works. Pre-planned engineering works happen often in the UK, so again it’s important to check these in advance, especially on weekends. It’s unlikely you will be effected by engineering works during the week, but they can be common on weekends.
When a line is closed for maintenance, the train company will usually provide rail replacement buses. Most of us Brits know these buses well, and we hate them. However, if you are in the country for a short amount of time, it’s not always avoidable, so just roll with it.
Please check the National Rail website, Twitter or app for travel issues or pre-planned works/strikes.
If you are looking to take multiple train journeys when visiting, it may be worth buying a railcard if you can get one. Unfortunately not everyone is eligible but if you fit into one of the categories below you can save 1/3 on every journey, most railcards cost £30 and expire after a year.
16-25 railcard – Eligible to anyone within this age category
26-30 railcard – Eligible to anyone within this age category
Senior railcard – Eligible to anyone aged 60+
Two together – Eligible to couples or friends who travel together and are over 16. The only requirement is that you must travel together with the other cardholder for the discount to apply (you cannot be travelling alone, even if the card is in your name).
Disabled persons railcard – For people with a disability that meets the eligibility criteria, it gives the cardholder and their carer 1/3 off train travel.
Family and friends railcard – For up to four adults aged 16+ and four children aged 5-15
At least 1 adult and 1 child must travel together. Children get a 60% discount
Network railcard – You can use a Network Railcard only to travel within the Network Railcard which covers London and the south east, a full map of where is covered can be found here. The Network Railcard is subject to time restrictions. It can be used to buy discounted tickets for rail travel at any time on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays and at Off-Peak times (from 10:00) Mondays to Fridays, it does not cover advanced tickets or first class travel.
16-17 saver railcard – Save 50% on train tickets rather than the 1/3 if you are between the ages of 16 and 17, it is no longer eligible when you turn 18.
Veterans railcard – Eligible to UK Veterans who have served at least one day or more in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces (Reserve or Regular). If you’re a Merchant Mariner who has seen duty on legally defined military operations, you also qualify for the Veterans Railcard. You’ll need to provide evidence of your eligibility when applying for a Veterans Railcard.
If buying a railcard please take note of the criteria on the times you can travel using the cards as these differ across UK railcards. If you buy a railcard on Trainline it will keep it within the app so you are always with your digital copy.
Don’t be late
Train doors shut 30 seconds before the train departs. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen my train pull in, I have ran for it and still missed it. Add extra time on your journey to the station incase of delays, I recommend arriving at the station 15 minutes before your train departs.
It’s important to note train times in the UK are based on a 24 hour clock.
Don’t get on the wrong train
Just because your train may depart from platform 4, it doesn’t mean all trains departing platform 4 will be going to your destination. Trains are very rarely early in the UK so if a train is showing up 10 mins before your time, it is likely a different service.
There will usually be staff members on the platforms if you need any help and there will always be electronic signs telling you what time your train is coming and on what platform. When your train arrives it will likely have the destination digitally on the front or the side.
Make sure you listen out for overhead announcements such as platform changes. If you are really stuck or confused, ask a fellow traveller, they may not look that friendly but everyone will be willing to help.
Trains don’t run overnight
Whilst the train services in the UK are regular, they don’t run over night, we believe in letting our train drivers sleep! That being said, in major cities the trains till run till around midnight or 1am, and services start again between 5am and 6am. Don’t miss the last train home or you could be sitting around for a while!
Bring snacks if it’s a long journey
The majority of long distance fast trains will offer a food service such as a snack and coffee trolley or a buffet carriage, but don’t always rely on this. When a service is extremely busy they sometimes cancel the food service, and some trains just don’t have it. The food on trains is often over priced and a bit rubbish so bring your own. Most large train stations will have decent food offerings.
Amenities on the train
Fast city services usually have plug sockets, tables and toilets. More local/regional services tend to have toilets, sometimes a table, but rarely a plug socket. I wouldn’t 100% rely on a train having a toilet if it is on a very slow service or a rarely used one, go beforehand just incase.
Lots of train stations will have toilets, the bigger ones such as Kings Cross may charge a fee so carry a small amount of change on you if you think you will need this.
Don’t be scared of the drunks
If you are travelling on a service on a Friday or Saturday night, you might come across a few merry people. They can be annoying but are mostly harmless. Drinking on trains is quite common during big events or on weekend evenings and the last train home can be an amusing experience on a Friday night.