In two months’ time, Britain’s annual Christmas migration will be underway, with stations across the country filling up with hopeful travellers. Among them will be some unwary passengers turning up without a ticket and forced to pay ‘on the day’ prices, which can be nothing short of hair-raising.
For example, arrive at peak time, from 3pm until around 7pm, hoping to travel from London to Manchester by Virgin Trains, and you will be offered an Anytime Return ticket for an astronomical £279. That’s enough to put a damper on any seasonal celebrations.
People forced to shell out these ridiculous prices are victims of a ticket system which has become so fiendishly complicated that hardly anyone understands it. A survey last month by Which! found that although 76 per cent of people thought they knew how to find the best fare, just one per cent actually understood all the ins and outs of the different types of tickets.
In fact, there are three basic kinds of ticket:
Anytime This is the most flexible, and therefore also the most expensive, allowing you to travel on any train. However, these do have some restrictions. Anytime single tickets must be used on the date shown on the ticket. With an Anytime return ticket, the outward journey must be within five days of the date on the ticket and the return journey must be within a month.
Off-peak These are cheaper tickets that can only be used on certain less busy trains. Single and outward journeys must be made on the date shown on the ticket and the return journey must be within a month. Restrictions on off-peak tickets vary from one train company to another so check exactly what you are buying. On some trains there are also cheaper tickets with more restrictions, called Super Off-Peak.
Advance These are the best value tickets, available only as singles, and only valid on the date and time shown on the ticket. You can mix and match them to create the lowest cost return journey. They are non-refundable. If necessary, you can change the time and date before travelling for the cost of an administration fee. Availability of these tickets is limited, so the earlier you book, the better the deal.
To get the cheapest fares, therefore, work out as soon as possible exactly when you plan to travel, and forget about buying a return ticket. The savings can be dramatic, especially if you are prepared to get up early or wait for the latest trains.
As an example, if you are planning to travel from London to Manchester on Virgin Trains on 21 December, you could pay just £11.50 if you take one of the last two evening trains at around 10pm, arriving around midnight.
For a theoretical return journey on 28 December 28, Advance Single tickets are available throughout the day for £11.50. So, using those tickets, the total cost of your journey would be just £23.
In the past, people would phone or ask at the station for advice about tickets. But according to Which!, many staff are just as confused as the rest of us. Its research found that 59 per cent of station clerks and 43 per cent of National Rail Enquiries operators failed to offer the cheapest options.
Which! chief executive Peter Vicary-Smith says: “Train companies seem blind to the fact that their ticketing systems are too complicated. If people who do this for a living can’t find the cheapest fare, what hope do passengers have?”
Life may become simpler in the future, however. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus is calling for more clarity about ticket types and a government review of fares is in the offing.
In the meantime, it is up to passengers to hunt down the best deals, either on the train companies’ websites or the National Rail Enquiries’ website, which allows you to search for the cheapest tickets from any company.
There are also a number of third party companies promising to provide cheap tickets, but as some of these charge booking fees, using their services can prove more expensive.
The National Rail Enquiries site also offers a useful guide to all the available special offers, from Railcards to group travel, which could give you further savings. For further tips and advice on cutting your costs, visit the cheap train tickets page at Which!
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