Book today to get the best Christmas travel bargains

Fares can increase up to eight times if you leave it to the last minute, warns Emma Lunn
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It may only be mid-November, but time is running out if you want to save money on Christmas train travel. The leading long-distance train operators all began taking reservations for Christmas week at the end of October, and the cheap seats are selling out fast.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) is urging people to make reservations now for busy long-distance services over Christmas and New Year. As Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, the getaway is expected to begin on Wednesday 21 December.

"This year, passengers will have been able to book their Christmas travel two months ahead, and the message is book early to get the train you want," says ATOC director general George Muir. "The rail industry - the train operators and Network Rail - has worked hard this year to sort out booking arrangements while also allowing the extensive engineering work on the railway to go ahead."

Train companies came under attack last Christmas after delays in confirming Network Rail's engineering and maintenance schedule played havoc with timetables. The cheapest fares are only available to customers well in advance of travel, but operators cannot book tickets until they have confirmation of what trains will run and when. Last year, many travellers had to pay extortionate fares close to their day of travel - sometimes eight times the pre-booked rate - as the cheap fares were unavailable because of the timetable crisis.

The good news is that the outlook is better this year - at least for travellers who get organised. Network Rail delivered its maintenance schedule to train operators on 8 October. Passengers can now book seats for Christmas week on First Great Western, GNER, Midland Mainline, One, Virgin West Coast and Virgin Cross Country to take advantage of the cheapest fares.

"The industry ideal for knowing maintenance schedules and planning timetables is 12 weeks in advance," says a Virgin Trains spokesperson. "As we wouldn't offer trains until we had times confirmed by Network Rail, we've only had Christmas week tickets on sale for two weeks and we are taking advanced bookings up until 6 January."

Those who don't plan ahead will pay over the odds. A return trip from London to Manchester can cost £24 if booked in advance, and although Virgin says sometimes these cheap tickets can be bought up until 6pm on the day before travel, it is unlikely there will be any left if you are travelling over Christmas.

Booking nearer the time or on the day would cost you £55 for an off-peak saver but Virgin refuses to say how many of these tickets, or other cheap fares, it sells on each train. Be warned: if you travel during peak times and do not book in advance, a return would cost £187, nearly eight times the cost of the cheapest ticket.

Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) opened its reservations system on 20 October for advance bookings up to and including 6 January. It offers advance fares to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow for £20, £25 and £27 respectively, but prices rocket to more than £200 if you leave it to the last minute.

Midland Mainline has had Christmas week tickets on sale since the middle of last month. "You can get a London to Derby ticket from £6 single or £12 return," a spokesperson says.

"After that they go up in small jumps so if you couldn't get on for £6 you might get one for £7.50. Sometimes you can still get cheap tickets the day before you travel, but I wouldn't imagine there are any £6 tickets left for December 23, for example."

Like Virgin, Midland Mainline will not divulge how many cheap fares it has for any journey. If you get a "walk-up" fare on the day, a round trip to Derby could cost you £42 with an off-peak saver but £91 if you wanted to travel at peak times, seven times the cheapest fare. And a walk-up ticket does not even guarantee a seat.

Commons inquiry into pricing

Research by the RMT union suggests that standard train tickets in the UK cost three times as much as those on comparable routes in mainland Europe. It also says that fare types and names which differ between train operators can cause confusion, as can fares which differ depending on whether they are booked by phone or on the internet.

Earlier this year, members of the Commons Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry into the price and availability of train tickets in the UK.

The committee intends to look into the justification for the current fare structure, and the availability of cheaper, advance-purchase rail tickets, as well as how prices compare with mainland Europe.

In some cases it might work out quicker and cheaper to fly home for Christmas. You can get a flight one-way from Stansted to Newquay for under £10 (£24.67 including taxes) the weekend before Christmas with Ryanair, but a single train ticket costs between £34.50 and £100.

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