How to make your money go further when you travel

Planning to take a train, bus, boat or plane? There are deals to be had

Passengers have long been confused and perplexed by the complexity of rail fares – little wonder when there are more than 70 types of fare on sale, governed by a huge 760 conditions of use – and now, new findings from consumer body, Which? show passengers are paying well over the odds for train travel too.

As part of an investigation, researchers asked station staff and the National Rail Enquiries (NRES) telephone help-line 25 questions, of which, only half were answered correctly.

Bad advice was given, for example, for the cheapest fare for a single journey between London and Grantham. For a ticket bought on the day of travel, both NRES and a Kings Cross station clerk quoted GNER's £44.50 fare – ignoring a Hull Trains service that leaves 10 minutes earlier and costs just £20.

Further findings show some of the most costly misinformation was given for journeys where season tickets should have been recommended.

Which? also checked out the "earlier you book, the cheaper the ticket" claim of five train companies, and found that it was not always the case; ticket prices, it says, went up and down – seemingly at random.

The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to keep down the cost of travel – whatever mode of transport you choose – and plenty of websites offering a wealth of information and advice, including moneysavingexpert.com, travelsupermarket.com and seat61.com.

Here we take a look at how you can cut your costs.

TRAIN FARES

When travelling by train, your first port of call should be either nationalrail.co.uk or thetrainline.com.

"National Rail's website has a special "promotion index" page listing all the special discounted offers," says Martin Lewis from consumer website, moneysavingexpert.com. "Also note that on certain train routes, it's possible to get 'Megatrain' fares for £1 if you book early enough."

If you're under 26, over 60, or travelling with children, you should purchase a railcard which, at a cost of £20 for a year, will entitle you to a third off most ticket prices. And if you're making the same journey on a regular basis, a season or "Rover" ticket may save you money.

The key to saving money on your rail fare is booking early. Advance tickets should be available at least nine weeks ahead of departure, although they can be bought up to 12 weeks in advance, according to Malcolm Coles from Which?, who also recommends avoiding travelling at peak times.

While you might think that buying a return would be cheaper than two singles, it's worth checking, as many of the top deals are available on one-way fares.

Also, note that if your train arrives at your destination more than an hour late because of delays, you're entitled to a minimum of 20 per cent of the cost of the ticket paid in travel vouchers. Make claims online at traindelays.co.uk.

When travelling by train in Europe, the best way to secure low-cost rail fares is simply to book early, according to Amanda Monroe from raileurope.co.uk. "Different train companies have different 'booking horizons' – which refers to the number of days in advance of travel that tickets for a particular train come on sale."

Eurostar trains, for example, have a booking horizon of 120 days and are available from £59 return in standard class if you book early.

SNCF services in France have a booking horizon of 90 days, as do German trains, while Italian trains have a horizon of 60 days.

If you are looking to make multiple journeys on the Continent, it is worth looking at purchasing an InterRail pass.

AIR FARES

If you want to cut the cost of flying, then once again, your starting point should be the internet. "There are different types of cheap flight-finding websites," says Lewis. "If you know when and where you want to go, use a screen scraper, and if you are looking for long-haul flights, or a flight and hotel break combined, use a flight broker."

Flight brokers – such as expedia.co.uk, opodo.co.uk and ebookers.co.uk – are effectively online travel agents, and have specially negotiated deals with airlines and hotel companies. Screen-scraping sites – such as kayak.co.uk, travelsupermarket.com and sidestep.co.uk – trawl through dozens of flight-broker sites in real time, saving you the job of visiting multiple websites to find the cheapest fare.

If you simply want to find an ultra-cheap £1 budget flight, use the "flight-checker" facility on moneysavingexpert.com.

"Simply enter a range of travel dates, a destination and the maximum price you're willing to pay and it'll find all the flights that fit your criteria," says Lewis. "Recent searches show flights under £30 are plentiful for Dublin, Milan and Rome – less than the cost of a train-ticket across the country. But there's also the environmental impact too – so if you save money, you may want to spend a little more on carbon-offsetting your flight."

A key money-saving tip is to look at travelling mid-week, and at off-peak times over the weekend. Avoid Christmas, Easter and school holidays, says Bob Atkins from travelsupermarket.com, and try using alternative UK airports, rather than the main hubs.

Brett Warbrick at flightcentre.co.uk recommends booking accommodation and flights together, as travel consultants may be able to negotiate better deals on both. "Ask for 'companion fares' if you are travelling with friends, and watch out for hidden extras when booking online," he says.

Nina Gibson from low-cost airline, flyglobespan.com, recommends being as flexible as possible with dates. "Use a low-fare finder and make sure you book early," she says. "Usually there are only a small number of seats at the lead-in price and these are the first to go."

By joining the database and subscribing to the e-newsletter of the relevant airlines, you can ensure you will be one of the first knowing about new routes going on sale, as well as the latest discounts and deals.

OTHER FARES

If you're travelling by road, the Megabus offers low-cost inter-city travel, with prices starting from £1; also check out the National Express " funfares" starting from £1.

For travel by ferry, note that many operators now use an internet booking system showing the options on times, dates and prices. Stena Line, for example, which operates routes to Ireland and Holland, has introduced a new ticketing and pricing structure which gives customers the option to buy different levels of tickets including "economy" tickets, which are no-frills; further ticket options include the "flexi" and " premium" ones.

Once again, you will save money by opting for a lower-cost sailing – by avoiding the school holidays and by travelling mid-week rather than at weekends, and opting for the less popular sailing times.

Cut the cost of owning a car

As any car owner will testify, owning a car does not come cheap. The latest findings from the RAC show the average family car now costs £5,627 a year to keep on the road, with the average cost of fuel, maintenance, insurance and tax alone costing motorists £1,977.

According to the RAC, the largest cost factor is depreciation, with the average car decreasing in value by £2,357 a year. While one of the cheapest ways of saving money on your motoring costs is to use public transport – or, better still, by taking to the streets on foot, or by bike – if you do want to keep the cost of motoring down, you could consider a "hybrid car" such as the Honda Civic Hybrid or the Toyota Prius (above).

These cars use considerably less fuel, and are exempt from the congestion charge; they also cost just £15 a year to tax.

One alternative for "green motorists" is car-sharing, where drivers find passengers who are making the same journey as themselves. This is designed to reduce CO2 emissions and the number of vehicles on the road, and also reduces costs for drivers as the fuel costs are shared with the passengers.

There are now many car-sharing organisations in operation. These include freewheelers.com, and liftshare.org.

Another option is to give up your car altogether, and join a car club instead. Cars are located at designated parking bays in your area and accessed using the member's smart card. Once inside, you simply enter a pin and drive away. Pay-as-you-go charges include fuel and maintenance costs and clubs usually require a monthly or annual subscription. Findings from CarPlus, a charity that supports car clubs, show that if you drive less than 6,000 miles per year, a car club could save you around £1,000-£1,500 a year.

Car clubs include Streetcar, CityCarClub and WhizzGo.

With Streetcar, for example, you can rent cars by the hour, day, week or month. Any 24-hour period for a VW Golf is £35 on weekdays and £49.50 in weekends.

Finally, make sure you buy your fuel from the cheapest places, by using websites such as petrolprices.com to check the prices wherever you're travelling.

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