How to beat the train fare blues

Inflation-busting rail-fare rises can be derailed, reports Chiara Cavaglieri
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The Independent Online

Wading through myriad train fares can be a nightmare for passengers. And with companies keen to boost profits by charging customers as much as the traffic will bear, getting the cheapest fare is a complicated business.

MPs were heavily critical of the franchising system – which has presented passengers with price hikes of up to 11 per cent – in a report by the Commons Transport Select Committee last week. "The fare rises we saw this year were excessive," said committee chairman Louise Ellman. Information on, and access to, the complete range of fares must be improved for all passengers, concluded the report.

Passenger Focus, the national rail customer watchdog, said: "Passengers tell us in no uncertain terms that they find the fares and ticketing system confusing and unfair. We welcome the committee's findings which question exorbitant fare rises and service cuts in times of recession," says Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus.

Although the number of ticket categories was reduced last year to three – advance, off-peak and anytime – to minimise confusion, getting the best price can still be difficult. And passengers hoping for help from ticket staff will be disappointed. If more than one operator is running the same route, for example, many will tell customers only about the fastest or most frequent option rather than the least expensive.

"Research that we've done in the past has shown that ticket office staff are not particularly good at telling customers about cheaper options," says James Tallack, a senior researcher for consumer group Which?.

On or off peak

If you don't have to travel at rush hour, it's worth going for an off-peak ticket. Not only will you save money, but your journey will be a lot more comfortable if you don't have to jostle with hordes of commuters.

But even if you want an anytime ticket, there are ways to cut your costs. If you book through the internet you can take advantage of the online discounts offered by some companies. National Express East Coast, for example, has a 10 per cent discount for online booking and Megatrain (www.megatrain.com) offers fares for as little as £1.

Buy early

On or off peak, if you know beforehand where and when you want to travel, you can try to get an advance ticket, though only a limited number are available on each train. The cheapest tickets sell out fast, but advance fares can be purchased as late as the night before travelling, so it's always worth checking. If available, they will be considerably cheaper than the price you'll pay at the station or onboard.

Train companies typically issue their advance fares 10 to 12 weeks before the date of travel. Passengers can sign up to ticket alert services to be the first to know when these fares have been released. Ticket alerts are offered by National Express East Coast (www.nationalexpresseastcoast.com), Cross Country Trains (www.crosscountrytrains.co.uk) and the Trainline (www.thetrainline.com).

Holiday treats

Rover tickets are great for passengers holidaying in Britain, allowing them to make unlimited journeys within a particular area, usually over a number of days, such as any three days within 15 consecutive days.

And for family days out, GroupSave schemes allow three or four people to travel for the price of two adults on various off-peak tickets with up to four accompanying children for £1 each. Groups of 10 or more should practise their haggling skills with the telesales team of the appropriate train company.

Railcards

Anyone who travels regularly by train should consider buying a railcard. For just £26 a year, they give their holders one-third off ticket prices and an extra 10 per cent off a standard advance fare online at National Express East Coast. The Family & Friends Railcard offers an additional 60 per cent discount for up to four children. Railcards are also available for young adults aged between 16 and 25, seniors aged 60 and over and disabled people. For those who travel frequently on the same networks, local railcards, such as the Network Railcard, which covers the South-east, could be the best deal.

The grind

Commuters may be tempted by annual season ticket, which offer 52 weeks of travel for the price of 40. Other passengers can also save money with these, even if they're not taking the same journey every day. Season tickets can be purchased for a month at a time or even for just seven days. "If you take the same journey just twice a week it can often be cheaper to get a season ticket," says Mr Tallack at Which?.

The National Rail website has a season ticket calculator to help commuters work out whether it is the best option. One trick is to watch for expected price hikes and renew a season ticket before they come into play.

Two-for-one splits

The ability to compare prices on sites such as Nationalrail.co.uk has opened up a new low-cost technique – ticket splitting. Sometimes buying two single tickets is cheaper than a return ticket. Occasionally, with longer journeys, "split ticketing" can slash the cost without the passenger having to even leave the train.

"Bizarrely you can save money by buying two single tickets for a single journey," says Jasmine Birtles, the founder of financial website Moneymagpie.com. "It's bonkers but in some cases – particularly longer journeys – it's cheaper to do it this way. You don't have to get off halfway through the journey, just buy more than one ticket."

Splitfare.co.uk, a website designed to make split ticketing easier, says that this can save passengers up to 63 per cent on some routes. It compares the price of a standard journey with the cost of dividing the trip at destinations along the way. Split ticketing is completely legal, as long as the train calls at the stations the ticket is for, and although it can be complex to work out, it could be worth the effort.

A single, off-peak ticket from Derby to Leeds, for example, would normally cost £27.10, but splitting the trip at Chesterfield and buying a single ticket from Derby to Chesterfield, then another single from Chesterfield to Leeds (both £5.50) would cost a total of just £11 – saving £16.10.

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