Train Travel in the UK: How To Travel Around Britain by Train [2023]

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Train travel in the UK can be fabulous, with epic views and the convenience of train stations right in the middle of Britain’s major cities, giving you extra time for sightseeing, especially if you have a tight schedule. Britain by train can also be frustrating if you’re not familiar with British trains – especially if you’re a first-time visitor to Britain.

After years of daily train commuting, here are some tricks I learned about travelling by train in the UK. The tips in this guide to train travel in the UK helped me to save (lots of) money and made travelling around England by train much less stressful.

Train travel in the UK takes you over some fabulous bridges
The trainline over the King Edward VII railway bridge. Image copyright: Michael Walker

How to Navigate Train Travel in the UK

Working out how to use a train seems simple enough. Buy a ticket, then travel from A to B, but every country’s mass transport system has different features, and British trains are no exception. As Brit who lived outside the country for years before moving to London for work, I had to get to grips with the quirks of train travel in the UK, both for work and leisure.

I must tell you that travelling in Britain by train can be uber-frustrating, and I made plenty of mistakes. I also wasted time and spent far more than I needed to, all because I didn’t know a few basic facts about how train travel in the UK works.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and it’s not true that all British trains are terrible (despite what you may hear).

How Train Travel in the UK Works (Warts and All)

Until 1997, British Rail was a state-owned monopoly, but it was sold off piecemeal and entirely privatised by 1997. Today, Britain has multiple rail operators competing for customers, sometimes on the same routes. And that matters to you as you plan your train travel in the UK.

#1 Planning Your Trip

Buy the Right Ticket

Make sure you buy a ticket from the right train operator for your journey; otherwise, you risk getting stung for a penalty fare on board.

Travelling from London Gatwick airport to central London is the perfect example. Several train operators cover the route; however, only premium-priced Gatwick Express tickets are valid on Gatwick Express trains.

PreBook Your Gatwick Express Tickets Avoid the queue for Gatwick Express tickets (yep – it can be long and slow, especially at peak times during the day and in holiday periods). You can get your Gatwick Express tickets here and waltz straight onto the train – easy-peasy!

Check Your Train’s Departure and Arrival Points

Even in some of the UK’s smaller cities, there are several train stations, sometimes with trains to the same destinations. It’s not just ‘A London thing’, either.

image of train travel in the UK
Station architecture can be stunning making train travel in UK for Tourists interesting

For example, you can get trains to Reading in Berkshire from both London Paddington and London Waterloo stations, and they are miles apart; Manchester has four main railway stations in the city centre (Piccadilly, Victoria, Oxford Road and Deansgate), and you can get trains to Leeds from both Wakefield Westgate and Wakefield Kirkgate stations.

Confused? If in doubt, it’s best to check before you book your train travel in the UK!

If you’re heading to Leeds, you might also like: The Most Instagrammable Places in Leeds

Buy Train Tickets in Advance for the Best Price

When I moved to London, I learned quickly that buying advance tickets is the best way to save money on train travel in the UK. I didn’t have or need a season ticket, but I found out that train fares (like airline fares) tend to get more expensive the closer you get to the departure date (especially for longer intercity journeys).

The best discounts apply when you book months or weeks in advance, but even a few days can make a big difference. Only buy on the day you travel if you absolutely must; if you do, expect to pay a premium for your train tickets UK!

Get a Railcard

Before you buy any tickets, get yourself a railcard: they are a great way to save (a lot of) money on train travel in the UK. You’ll pay for the card, but in my experience, the card will pay for itself very quickly. Typical savings can be up to one-third off the price of your fare(s).

Find out about the different types of railcards here, including friends and family, senior travel, two-together and group travel.

Find the Deals

Deals and bargains are always available, but finding them can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. If you’re already in the UK, the staff at your local station or travel centre will be able to offer sound, impartial advice and find you the best fares.

Start by looking online with National Railways and do your research before you book to travel around Britain by train! Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do you want to pay a premium for a fast train, or would you be happy with a slower, cheaper “stopper” service?
  • Do you need to travel during the morning peak, when trains will be crowded and more expensive? Could you start your journey after 9.30 am?
  • Is it cheaper to buy two single tickets or a return one?
  • If you can save money by changing trains several times, would you be happy to do this? Or do you want a direct, point-to-point journey?

Changing trains often means changing platforms and climbing up and down flights of stairs, as not every station has a lift (elevator). Check that you have enough time (and energy) to do this but not so much time that you’re waiting for ages for your connection!

Book The Right Seat

So, you’re ready to buy your ticket and happy with the deal you’ve secured. Next, you can choose where you get to sit.

  • Are you looking to travel first or second class?
  • Do you want to be in a forward or backwards-facing seat?
  • Would you prefer to be in a group of four seats around a table or to have an airline-style seat with a small fold-down table?
  • Would you like a window seat or one in the aisle?
  • Do you need a power socket? (Choose a window seat to bag one of these!)
  • Would you prefer the peace of a quiet carriage, where passengers are asked not to use mobile phones?
  • Do you want a seat near the luggage racks, to keep an eye on your bags?

Check whether any significant events are happening on the day you want to travel. A big sports event or concert can make for a crowded and rowdy train (especially for big football fixtures). I avoid travelling on these services wherever possible.

Avoid the Last Train (Especially at the Weekend)  

Britain has a problem drinking culture. Sad but true. If you don’t mind sharing a train half-filled with sweaty party people and the aroma of late-night takeaways, you might enjoy travelling on the last train at night.

On the other hand, if sharing a train carriage with loud, drunken, belligerent people is not what your dreams are made of, aim for an earlier train – or spring for a first-class ticket! 

#2 Before You Travel

Don’t Assume You’ll Be Able to Park at The Station

If you’re driving to your departure station, don’t assume you’ll find a parking space, especially at busy commuter stations. Train station parking is often at a premium, and it might be all used up by 8 am. It could also be pretty pricey!

Allow Plenty of Time Time to Get to the Station

I can’t tell you how often I thought I had plenty of time to catch a train; then I sprinted for it at the last minute! Britain’s traffic can scupper the best-laid plans, and so can the frequently delayed public transport. No matter how you plan to get to the station, make sure you have plenty of time to arrive stress-free.

Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland with the Jacobite steam train passing over
Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland – one of the glories of train travel in the UK

Buy/Collect Your Tickets

Always opt for digital tickets, otherwise, you’ll need to go to a ticket machine, and they are often busy or out of order. It’s no fun being stuck in the queue at a single ticket machine as your train rumbles into the station!

Morning (7 am to 9 am) and evening (4 pm to 7 pm) “rush hours” are the busiest time, but lines can build up at ticket machines at any time.

Travel Light

One of the first things I learned about how to travel by train in the UK was that baggage trolleys are about as rare as hen’s teeth at UK train stations. There are rarely any porters, and many stations don’t have elevators. If you’re very lucky, some kind soul might help you heft your bag onto the train, but never expect it.

There is a step up from the platform to the train on most trains in the UK, which can be tricky with a large bag! Travelling with more than one large bag is a complete nightmare – my advice is not to do it!

Keighley and Worth Valley Railway
The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway to Haworth Village is a great way to enjoy train travel in the UK- home of the Bronte Sisters

Find the Right Platform and Get on the Right Train

It’s all too easy to get on the wrong train. I once boarded a train from Birmingham International station that I thought was going west to Shrewsbury. According to the departures board in the station, I was on the right platform, but I didn’t realise there had been a platform change announcement – I ended up travelling on a non-stopping service south instead to a tiny town in mid-Wales I can’t even pronounce! One little mistake added more than 4 hours to my journey.

Check and double-check the departure boards, and don’t be embarrassed to ask the staff for help. At busy stations, where some trains are running late, the train pulling into your platform at your train’s departure time might not be your train! It could be another train that’s also running late.

If in doubt – ask the staff – they are there to help you!

Take Your Own Food and Drinks

British Rail sandwiches used to be a standing joke in this country, but time has moved on, and the food served on trains has improved a little. The problem is that you can’t guarantee the food trolley service or the buffet car will operate when travelling around Britain by train. Sometimes the train is too busy, there’s a staff shortage, or another problem.

Stock up on the food and drinks you want before you board your train. Train stations in most towns and cities have food outlets, and some have supermarkets too, so it’s usually easy to grab something for your journey.

Rural stations, however, might have a drinks vending machine if you’re lucky, and the selection will be minimal late at night anywhere other than the biggest stations.

Delays and Cancellations Can Blight Your Plans

Unfortunately, train travel in the UK is often delayed or cancelled. It drives commuters and leisure travellers to distraction and can take the shine off a trip. Delays have a bigger impact if you’ve got a connection to make, a plane to catch or an event to attend, so check the news and plan well! I always book the train before the train I need to take!

Rail companies in the UK carry out most of their maintenance works overnight and at weekends to minimise passenger disruption. Or is it to maximise staff overtime pay?

If your line is closed due to maintenance works, you may be offloaded onto the pure hell of a ‘rail replacement bus’ instead – be aware that these connections are much slower than trains!

On a positive note, if your train journey is delayed for more than 30 minutes, you can apply for “delay repay” compensation. Hold onto your ticket if you’re delayed, and check with NationalRail to see if you’re entitled to make a claim and how much you can claim (up to 100% of your ticket price).

#3 On The Train

Beware of the Train Toilets

One thing you’ll learn fast about train travel in the UK is that train loos are grim. Use them if you’re desperate, but they are not great. Some trains (and some stations) don’t have a toilet at all! Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t pick a seat near the bathroom (often a bit whiffy).
  • Don’t expect any toilet paper or paper towels left, and soap is a luxury. Carry your own wipes!
  • Don’t expect the floor to be anything other than vastly unsanitary – it’s not the fault of the staff, but some passengers behave very badly.
  • Don’t expect a bag hook. As the floor will probably be grotty, you may end up holding your bag in your teeth (been there!) to avoid it getting dirty.

Don’t Expect Air Conditioning

In Britain, few people have aircon in their homes, and some trains don’t. You might have to open windows for ventilation.

Train travel in the UK can get uncomfortably hot in the summer, so be prepared by wearing layers and carrying plenty of water. (Don’t expect the train to stock enough water for everyone or even to be able to buy some).

Unreserved Seats

If you buy your tickets on the day of travel, you can’t reserve your seat(s). You also risk not getting a seat, especially during busy commuter travel. If you don’t have a reserved seat, try to be one of the first passengers to board the train and hunt for seats that show as ‘available’.

Pro Tip: If you’re one of the last people to board, and a reserved seat is vacant, it’s worth bagging it, as the passenger may be a ‘no show’. The worst that can happen is they also turn up late and then ask you to move.

Cycle Heaven at York Station
Cycle Heaven at York Station

Reasons to ditch the car and ‘let the train take the strain’

  • A trip up the Northumbrian East Coast mainline from York to Edinburgh is fabulously scenic (pick a forward-facing seat on the right-hand side of the carriage for the best views)
  • Routes through the Scottish highlands are out of this world. Crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct by Jacobite steam train is the ultimate Hogwart’s Express experience and probably the most famous of all of the steam train trips in the UK)
  • The rail network is peppered with magnificent bridges and viaducts, including the magnificent 17-span Victorian engineering marvel – the Ribblehead Viaduct
  • Travelling by train takes you into the heart of Britain’s cities with no worries about where to park
  • Whistle past famous landmarks, see ancient castles and breathtaking modern architecture from the comfort of your seat.
  • Taking the train is a great sustainable travel option!

Wrap Up – Train Travel in the UK

Despite the idiosyncrasies of British trains, I still get a real thrill from train travel in the UK – especially heritage railways! Britain’s diverse landscape makes it one of the best places in the world to enjoy journeys by rail.