Trains cheaper than planes for short-notice trips from London to Edinburgh

Exclusive: Booking at noon the day before travel, the lowest air fare found was £49 and the cheapest rail deal £42 – but the latter required a trick


Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 17 September 2019 20:22
London to Edinburgh: Train vs plane

Trains beat planes for short-notice bookings between London and Edinburgh – but only if the passenger does a bit of work.

Over the past few years, individual travellers claimed that it was cheaper to fly via a third country than to buy a rail ticket for an inter-city journey in Britain.

But there have been problems with consistency, with some cases comparing advance booking on planes with expensive “walk-up” tickets on trains.

To try to settle the issue once and for all, The Independent has compared all the available options for a weekday morning peak-hour journey between the English and Scottish capitals.

The aim: to arrive in Edinburgh by lunchtime, starting the process of “looking and booking” the day before at noon.

One dozen options for domestic travel were considered.

The apparent cheapest offer was on British Airways, with a fare of £49 on a morning service from Gatwick to Edinburgh.

The advance fare on direct LNER trains from London King’s Cross to the Scottish capital was 50 per cent higher, at £73, on several early morning departures.

All other air journeys were at least £10 more expensive, with easyJet averaging £92 from Luton, Stansted or Gatwick.

Flybe started at £117 for a Heathrow-Edinburgh flight, with £7 more for its departures from London City.

Costs of reaching airports from central London, and travelling by tram from Edinburgh airport into the city, have not been factored in. Had they been, air prices would typically be £20 higher.

As well as the LNER route from London to Edinburgh, there is an alternative direct rail journey on Virgin Trains from London Euston at 6.43am. Advance tickets between the English and Scottish capitals are priced at £143.

Yet using a cheaper route from Euston to Crewe and combining it with that very same Virgin train to the Scottish capital reduces the cost to just £42 – undercutting the plane and all other train options.

It involves taking the train from the adjacent platform at London Euston: the 6.28am to Crewe.

This leg, on London Northwestern, costs just £9. The train reaches the Cheshire station in just over two hours, with eight intermediate stops. It still arrives in Crewe before the 6.43am from Euston, which travels a longer route via the West Midlands.

The second part of the journey requires an Advance ticket on Virgin Trains from Crewe to Edinburgh for £33.

The overall journey takes 5 hours 54 minutes, around 90 minutes longer than the East Coast main line served by LNER. But the saving represents around 34p per minute.

Anyone holding a railcard can reduce the cost of their train journey by around one-third – taking the fare for London-Edinburgh to below £28.

That undercuts the cheapest bus fares, with National Express at £29.70 and Megabus at £33.20. But these journeys take around 10 hours, roughly double the time of the rail journey.

The Independent also investigated the cheapest route via a third country: Norwegian from Gatwick via Copenhagen to Edinburgh, for a fare of £183 – more than four times the cheapest train option.

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Mark Smith, the international rail expert know as The Man in Seat 61, said: “Train and plane seem neck and neck on price. But there’s the significant extra cost of train or tram to and from the airport at each end, and there may be baggage fees as well.

“Over the last few years Anglo-Scottish trains have been taking market share back from planes as journey time has been cut and frequency improved. London-Edinburgh is almost half hourly now for much of the day.

“The desire to cut CO2 emissions is also driving people to switch. But it’s clearly always worth checking whether a ‘split ticket’ could save money.”

An LNER spokesperson said: “Our new Azuma trains are already helping bring thousands of extra seats between Edinburgh and London with train travel always kinder to the environment than flying.”

The government-run train operator has conducted research on fares for next-day travel from London to Edinburgh and claims the average saving travelling by rail rather than air is £46.47.

Fares were researched at 12 noon on Monday 16 September for travel from London to Edinburgh the following morning. These are the cheapest fares found:

  • London Northwestern/Virgin Trains combo £45
  • British Airways £49 7.05am from Gatwick
  • LNER £73 Advance on the 6.15am, 7am, 7.30am or 8am
  • easyJet £83 8.20am from Luton
  • easyJet £86 8.55am or 10.25am from Stansted
  • easyJet £107 8.05am from Gatwick
  • British Airways £111 11.40am from London City
  • Flybe £117 6.40am or 8.45am from Heathrow
  • Flybe £124 8.50am or 9.30am from London City
  • Virgin Trains £143 6.43am from Euston
  • British Airways £170 7am or 7.35am from Heathrow
  • Norwegian £183 from Gatwick via Copenhagen
  • British Airways £269 7am London City-Edinburgh 

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