Is it cheaper to buy train tickets online? Where to get the lowest rail fares this Easter

Simon Calder discusses Easter travel chaos

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Rail travel can be expensive, especially in England, Scotland and Wales, where passengers have faced the largest fare rise in almost a decade. The staggering rise of 3.8 percent comes alongside several tax rises and the energy price cap hike, leaving millions of households on the hunt for quick ways to cut costs. Getting the cheapest rail fares is crucial for many over the Easter weekend, but is it really better to buy them online? Where will you find the best deals?

Is it cheaper to buy train tickets online?

Most mainline stations in the UK have a staffed ticket office or ticket machines, though it is always best to check before you travel.

The ticket counter staff will be able to help you choose the best ticket for your journey and advise on any discounts you may be eligible for, but you’re likely to get the same rates online too.

Booking online is often easier and quicker to do in a hurry, and there’s rarely any difference in the price at all.

In fact, online rail fares can often work out cheaper if you’re purchasing an advance ticket.

Money Saving Expert said: “There are a few ways to search for cheap train tickets online, and bizarrely, different sites sometimes list different tickets, so for a belt ‘n’ braces check try a few.”

If you know the journey and dates of travel in advance, signing up to sale alerts – such as the Trainline ticket alert system – is one of the best ways to access the lowest fares.

This works by sending emails with the current price for your journey as well as the predicted rate on the day of travel.

Using these simple price comparison tools won’t always give you a significantly cheaper deal than what you can get at the station, but it does allow you to shop around for the best deals ahead of your journey.

Which websites offer the cheapest train tickets?

While Trainline is great for keeping track of the cost of your rail route, Money Saving Expert warned that it isn’t necessarily the cheapest place to purchase your tickets.

It is generally advised that advanced tickets are bought elsewhere to avoid the site’s sneaky booking fee, which can cost anywhere between 35p and £1.75.

Trainline is good for tickets purchased on the day of travel, which are fee free, though there are plenty of other more affordable options for advance bookings.

London North Eastern Railway is also a good place to start as it sells tickets for all routes and doesn’t charge booking fees, but it is also worth looking at your regional railway provider’s site too.

According to Money Saving Expert, the top UK train-booking sites are:

  • London North Eastern Railway (no booking fee)
  • Avanti West Coast (no booking fee)
  • RedSpottedHanky (£1.50 booking fee)
  • Trainline (35p- £1.75 booking fee on website, 80p- £1.75 on app, free on day of travel on app)
  • Raileasy (2.50 booking fee)

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How to get the cheapest online rail fare

The latest rise in travel costs can make it seem impossible to access “cheap” rail fares, and there is no guarantee that prices won’t rise again.

According to the Government, there is no telling whether train travel will be safe from the climbing rate of inflation, prompting the leading campaign group Railfuture to accuse the Government of “stoking the fires of the cost of living crisis”, calling the rises to fares “eye-watering”.

The bleak reality of commuting and rail travel is impossible to avoid, but there are a few clever ways to make sure you’re getting the best value for money while travelling by train.

Book in advance

Which? found advance tickets for a journey from London to Leeds for £30, which is 87 percent cheaper than the cost of an anytime single ticket.

Just bear in mind that advance tickets are usually non-refundable, and will be subject to a £10 admin fee if you do choose to change the date or time of your ticket beforehand.

Use split-ticket tools

Instead of buying one single ‘through’ ticket, travellers can buy multiple tickets to cover the component parts of a journey.

Which? found that it’s possible to save £22 on a ticket from Glasgow to Manchester by splitting the ticket at Preston.

Singles can beat returns

It’s very common that cheaper fares are available by getting two single tickets rather than a return ticket, so be sure to compare prices before purchasing your tickets.

Money Saving Expert found that a return between London and Manchester can cost as much as £350 for a standard anytime return ticket.

However, a quick check instantly found that an outbound advance single ticket was £41, while coming back it cost £26 – a total of just £67 for exactly the same round-trip journey.

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