Rail fares are on the rise. The latest price hikes, which kicked in on 5 March, mean the average commuter faces paying a staggering £3,466 for an annual season ticket, said the Daily Mirror. That’s £1,272 more than in 2010.
Almost half of all rail fares in the UK, including season tickets and anytime day, off-peak, or super off-peak options, are regulated by the government, according to National Rail.
Price increases are usually linked to July’s retail prices index (RPI) measure of inflation. For July 2022, the RPI was at 12.3%, but the government isn’t raising rail fares by that much. Instead it capped the price increase at 5.9%, effective in March 2023, calling this its “biggest ever intervention” to keep travel costs down as inflation goes up, The Guardian explained.
The Rail Delivery Group, which sets unregulated fares such as first class and advance tickets, has also said it expects to increase prices by 5.9%, and London Underground and bus travel is also going up by the same amount.
If you’re a regular commuter, there are ways to reduce the financial strain.
Buy a railcard
Certain travellers such as families, students, over-60s, and disabled people can get a railcard from National Rail, which could cut a third off your ticket price, said The Money Edit. “For example, a £50 ticket with a railcard will cost you around £33,” explained the financial website.
The upfront cost of a railcard depends on which type you opt for, but ranges between £20 and £30 for one year, and £54 and £70 for three years. The savings made on a single journey can pay off the cost of a railcard in some instances, said the i newspaper, but “the use of a railcard can come with restrictions on the time of travel and type of ticket.”
The earlier you book your travel, the better “your chances of securing cheap train tickets”, said NerdWallet.
Most train operators release advance tickets 12 weeks before the journey, the financial website added, “so it’s worth planning ahead and booking as early as possible to get cheaper rail fares.”
You can even set up alerts for when advance tickets go on sale through websites such as the Trainline.
But, NerdWallet warned, these discounted tickets have to be used at a set time and aren’t sold as returns, “so you’ll have to book two single journeys if you need a return”.
Also check if two single advance tickets are better than a return, said The Money Edit, as sometimes the single tickets work out cheaper.
Commuters have plenty of ways to pay for train tickets, from daily, weekly, and monthly to annual.
You could save a “decent chunk of cash” by getting an annual season ticket rather than buying 12 monthly ones “or – even worse – weekly travelcards”, said MoneySavingExpert.
The upfront cost can be steep but, as the financial website explained, many employers offer interest-free, or low-interest, season-ticket loans that you repay each month through your salary.
National Rail’s Season Ticket calculator can help work out how much it will cost and if it’s worth the investment, depending on how many days you travel each week or month.
If you pay for tickets between stations on a longer route, “you could save hundreds,” said The Sun. This is known as split-ticketing, and you won’t need to change trains, the newspaper said, as National Rail lets you split your ticket as long as the train calls at the station for which you buy the tickets.
“The only downside,” said The Money Edit, “is it is a little time-consuming to book all tickets individually and figure out timings so you have enough time to make your next train.”
The Trainline app shows a “split save” option, or websites such as Split My Fare and TrainSplit can help plan a split-ticketing journey.
Watch out for fees
Some websites may appear to offer cheap train tickets, said The Times Money Mentor, it may work out to be “less of a good deal” once you factor in extra charges. Booking fees, collection fees, postage fees all add up.
Instead, you could “book direct with the train company” to cut the costs, the website said. For example, Avanti West Coast doesn’t charge booking fees and will refund the difference if you find a cheaper ticket elsewhere within 24 hours of booking.
Consider when you travel
Train journeys tend to be more expensive when you travel during peak times of 7am to 9am and 5pm to 7pm on weekdays, said NerdWallet, so travelling off-peak when possible can help you get a cheaper train ticket.
“Travelling on Fridays and weekends tends to be more expensive too,” the website said, so if you have flexibility, “aim for trips on Tuesday or Wednesday morning, when train tickets are usually the cheapest”.
Use cashback sites
You may not be able to do much about rail-fare hikes but you could at least earn some money back, said The Times Money Mentor, by purchasing the tickets through cashback websites such as TopCashback and Quidco.
“Paying for them on a cashback credit card could earn you rewards,” the website said, “but make sure you clear the balance each month as interest owed will outweigh the benefit of any cashback.”
If you commute a relatively short distance, it may be worth cycling instead.
Many firms offer a cycle-to-work scheme to help you buy a bike, said MoneyWeek. “The company pays for your bike upfront, taking the cost off your pre-tax salary over 12 months, lowering the amount you will have to pay tax on” and ultimately reducing what you spend on train tickets.
Marc Shoffman is an award-winning freelance journalist, specialising in business, property and personal finance. He has a master’s degree in financial journalism from City University and has previously written for FTAdviser, ThisIsMoney, The Mail on Sunday and MoneyWeek. This article is based on information first published on The Week’s sister site, The Money Edit.