Britain has some of the cheapest train fares in Europe; you just have to know how to find them
Britain may have some of the most expensive train fares in Europe – but it also has some of the cheapest.
Despite the prices hike, Mark Smith, who runs a popular blog called The Man in Seat 61 offering advice on train travel in the UK and the rest of the world, says there are still bargains to be had.
“The advance long-distance fares, which aren’t regulated, are cheaper than 20 years ago, in real terms,” says Smith, who used to work for the Department for Transport as an expert on fares and ticketing. “In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a cheaper time to travel to Scotland in the last 100 years.”
Booked in advance, London to Edinburgh can cost as little as £14.60; to Glasgow, £18.50.
Cheap fares can be booked a maximum of 12 weeks ahead, but are only valid on the specified train and there are no refunds.
But why do train companies offer such cheap deals? “Exactly the same reason as easyJet and Ryanair,” explains Smith. “They price up late fares for business people, but price down advance fares for leisure journeys and fill empty seats. They’ve actually been very successful. The cheap fares seem to have held off coach competition. Why spend eight or nine hours on a coach when you can spend three hours on a train for cheaper?”
Smith says that over the past few years the big price increases in fully-flexible business fares “have been more than offset by huge increases in travellers buying increasingly cheap advance fares”.
“Unfortunately,” Smith says, “there’s more availability for advance tickets in and out of London, probably because it’s a more competitive market. It’s all about quotas, and because the greatest demand is on London routes, there’s going to be a higher quota of cheap tickets and more availability.”
Low fares – as advertised
Can you really get one of those cheap advertised deals? Guardian Money compared the adverts with the best price we could find in the next three months on thetrainline.com. We found it was possible to get pretty close to the advertised deals – but inevitably, many were at awkward times and we had to book far in advance. For example, we could find a single to Liverpool for just £12 going out on Saturday afternoon, 10 March by booking on 20 December. But if we were booking on the same day for a single to Liverpool travelling on Monday 7 January (departing Euston at 8.07am) the fare would be a stonking £115.50 second class. One tip is to use thetrainline.com’s ticket alert service. You’ll receive an email when the cheap tickets become available, usually 12 weeks in advance.
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