Virgin Trains has scrapped a loophole which allowed those with a Railcard pay off-peak prices for travel at peak times, meaning students who were hoping to use their 16-25 Railcard when they head back to university this month have been affected.
The change kicked in on Sunday 6 September and impacts Virgin’s West Coast routes, which includes travel between Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, and London.
The company has said they’re making the change to align their pricing with other train companies as they’re the only one to offer this discount.
With prices on peak journeys increasing by more than double for some as a result, students relying on trains to travel back to university could now find their carefully planned budgets in tatters. To lend a helping hand, here are some students’ most pressing questions answered:
1) I just bought a 16-25 Railcard right before the announcement was made. Is it totally worthless now?
If you’ve just bought a Railcard, it’s far from worthless as you can still use it to get a third off tickets.
However, if you travel on Virgin Trains’ West Coast routes during peak times after Sunday 6 September, the discount will now be applied to the standard peak ticket price instead of the cheaper off-peak price. This could mean the cost of some journeys will treble.
2) Was there still time to use the loophole?
If you were quick, you could still have gotten the cheaper tickets until 6 September because you can book up to 12 weeks in advance, meaning you had the chance to ‘lock in’ cheaper prices for most of your first term.
3) As a new/returning student, I was relying on my 16-25 Railcard to get me home at weekends – what do I do?
If your travel budget depended on being able to use the discount, unfortunately you’ll need to find other ways to cut your costs.
Booking tickets in advance is the best way to save as you’ll generally pay less – even if you order them on the way to the station. The biggest discounts will be available if you book 12 weeks in advance, so getting organised early is worth it. Downloading a travel app or two to your smartphone will give you an easy way to book and save even on last-minute journeys.
If you can be flexible, travelling outside of peak hours will mean cheaper prices. Departing from a different station or travelling on an alternative route could make a big difference too. It’s also worth seeing if a different rail company services the line as their peak prices may be lower than those charged by Virgin, although the trade-off may be that the journey takes longer.
Splitting your tickets between different stations on your journey is more of a fiddle but can be really worthwhile – especially if you’ll only be travelling during peak hours for some of it. Do this by checking the stations your train will stop at, then comparing the all-in-one cost to that of buying two or three separate tickets between stops along your route.
Overall, the beauty of splitting tickets is that you don’t even need to get off the train. Use a website like splitticketing.com to find the cheapest way to split your journey.
4) What other discounts can I get?
You can’t get a Railcard discount on season tickets, but it’s still worth checking the price if you make the same journey several times a week in case it can help you save.
Don’t be put off getting a Railcard; they cost £30 for 16-25 year olds, or come free with the Santander 123 student current account if you pay in at least £500 a term.
If you are sensible with a credit card, have a Santander 123 current account, and will be earning at least £7,500 a year from work while you’re studying, then it may be worth looking at Santander’s 123 credit card.
It pays three per cent cash back on up to £300 of spending on National Rail and TfL travel a month so could be a way to offset the cost. You will need to pay it off in full and on time each month to avoid interest – and beware the £24 annual fee that kicks in after the first year.
5) I’m now worried about travel costs. How else can I travel to ensure my finances stay on track?
If taking the train will be too expensive and you don’t have the option to travel off-peak, then look at whether a car share, coach or Megabus could get you to or from university for less.
Don’t be tempted to dodge buying a ticket though; if you’re caught, you’ll have to pay a penalty fare that will cost far more than an advance ticket would have.
Finally, if your train is delayed by more than 30 minutes, you could get a partial refund to compensate so make sure you lodge a claim with the train company.
Hannah Maundrell is a leading personal finance expert and editor-in-chief of comparison site, money.co.uk
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