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Train Travel in the UK 101 – Discover Exactly How to Book & Use British Trains

Train Travel in the UK 101 – Discover Exactly How to Book & Use British Trains

Train travel in the UK can be intensely frustrating, especially for visitors to the country. Here’s how to plan rail travel in Britain and save money too.

King Edward VII Bridge between newcastle and gateshead
The King Edward VII railway bridge crossing the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead. Image copyright: Michael Walker

Train Travel in the UK

It seems simple enough. Buy a ticket, then travel from A to B, but every country’s mass transport system has different features, and Britain’s is no exception. A Brit by birth, I lived outside the country for years before moving to London for work. Suddenly, I had to get to grips with the quirks of train travel in the UK, both for work and leisure.

It was very frustrating, and I made mistakes. I also wasted time and spent far more than I needed to at first, all because I didn’t know a few basic facts about how train travel in the UK works.

After many years of daily train commuting, I’ll share with you here some of the tricks I learned to save money and make travelling by train in the UK a little easier!

How Train Travel in the UK Really 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.

Planning Your Trip

1. 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. Find out more here.

2. 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.

Train Travel in the UK min

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 in the UK!

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3. Buy Tickets in Advance for the Best Price

When I moved to London, I learned pretty fast that the best way to save money on train travel in the UK is to buy tickets in advance. 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 just 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 trip!

4. Get a Railcard

Before you buy any tickets, get yourself a railcard, as 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 1/3 off your fare(s).

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

5. Find the Deals

Deals and bargains are always available, but finding them can feel a bit 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. If not, start online with National Railways and do your research before you book. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do you want to pay a premium for a fast train, or would you be as happy with a slower, cheaper “stopper” service?
  • Do you need to travel during the morning peak period, 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 can mean 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!

6. Book The Right Seat

So, you’re ready to buy your ticket, and you’re 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 backward 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 mobiles.

Check whether there are any significant events happening on the day you want to travel. A big sports event or concert can make for a crowded and potentially rowdy train (especially for big football fixtures).

The Last Train (Especially at the Weekend)  

Britain has a problem drinking culture. If you don’t mind sharing a train half-filled with folks who have been partying, 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! 

Before You Travel

1. 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 at a premium and it might be all used up by 8 am.

2. Allow Plenty of Time time to Get to the Station

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I had plenty of time to catch a train, then ended up sprinting 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 - the perfect way to experience train travel in the UK
Glenfinnan Railway Viaduct in Scotland with the Jacobite steam train passing over. Image source: Nick Fox

3. Buy/Collect Your Tickets

If you haven’t bought digital tickets, you’ll need to go to a ticket machine, and they are often busy. It’s no fun being stuck in the queue at a single ticket machine as your train rumbles into the station! Morning rush hour (7 am to 9 am) is the busiest time, but lines can build up at ticket machines at any time.

My local station in North Yorkshire bursts at the seams for three days in July each year as more than a hundred thousand visitors descend on the town to enjoy the Great Yorkshire Show. Passengers who haven’t bought or collected their ticket early face a very long wait!

4. Travel Light

Baggage trolleys are about as rare as hen’s teeth at UK train stations and there are no porters. If you’re very lucky, some kind soul might help you heft your bag onto the train, but don’t expect it.

On most trains in the UK, there is a step up from the platform to the train, 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 Worth Valley Railway Steamtrain

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5. 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 town in Wales I can’t even pronounce! One little mistake added 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!

6. 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. Sometimes the train is too busy, there’s a staff shortage, or there’s some other problem.

Stock up with 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 at the biggest stations.

7. Delays and Cancellations Can Blight Your Plans

Unfortunately, trains in the UK are 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, plane to catch or 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 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 here to see if you’re entitled to make a claim and how much you can claim (up to 100% of your ticket price).

On The Train

Train Toilets

Pretty universally, British train loos are grim. Use them if you’re a desperado, but otherwise, they are not great. Don’t pick a seat near the bathroom either (a bit whiffy) and remember – some trains (and some stations) don’t have a toilet at all! Finally – don’t expect there to be any toilet paper or paper towels left, and soap is a luxury.

Airconditioning (Or Lack Of It)

In Britain, few people have aircon in their homes, and some trains don’t have it either. 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

Typically, if you buy your tickets on the day of travel, you won’t be able to reserve your seat(s), and you run the risk of not getting a seat at all, especially during busy commuter travel times. 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 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 that they also turn up late and then ask you to move.

Cycle Heaven at York Station
Bicycle Hire at York Train Station

Despite all of the idiosyncrasies of train travel in the UK, I still love train journeys

Britain’s diverse landscape makes it one of the best places in the world to enjoy journeys by rail. Here are just a few of the reasons to leave the car behind 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)
  • 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 breath-taking modern architecture from the comfort of your seat
  • Taking the train is a great sustainable travel option!

I hope this post helps you make the most of train travel in the UK and inspires you to venture out by train to discover more of what Britain has to offer.

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Do you love train travel in the UK? What’s your favourite journey? Maybe you’ve had a less than stellar experience you want to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Sinjana Ghosh

Saturday 14th of September 2019

I haven't been to UK yet but I love the trains in Europe. These are some essential tips. Hopefullt next year we'll do this.


Saturday 14th of September 2019

Thanks, Sinjana. Sadly, British trains aren't as reliable as those in Europe (certainly not those in Germany or Switzerland). The huge compensation though is the spectacular scenery you get to see from the train.

Here's hoping you manage to get to the UK next year - you'll love it!

Best Coralie xx

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