Get the Best Value Train Fares in Britain
Should you buy a rail pass or individual
The beautiful Glenfinnan
Viaduct between Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland is very
picturesque, and was featured in the Harry Potter movies as
part of the Hogwarts Express journey.
When traveling by train in
Britain, the journey can be as pleasurable as reaching the
With a Britrail Pass you
can plan your journeys to include the 'best' scenery and
rail experiences without having to worry about ticket
one of a two part
series on Britrail Passes -
part two discusses the
actual passes available.
The good news is there are lots
of different types of Britrail pass available for you to choose
between, meaning that you're sure to find one closely matching
the travel plans you have, and which therefore gives you good
The slightly bad news is that
with so many choices, it can be confusing to find the best
possible pass for you.
This article helps you to
choose the most suitable pass for your upcoming travel to
Britain, and helps you use the pass to best advantage.
Things to Consider When
Choosing a Pass
The first thing to consider
is whether you need a pass or not. If you're only planning
on one or two train journeys, it is possible that it may end up
less expensive just to simply buy individual train tickets than
to buy a pass.
Train Pass or Individual Train
When you have a feeling for
the train journeys you might want to take, you should cost out
how much you'd spend to buy regular roundtrip or one way tickets
and compare it to the cost of the best priced pass.
Sometimes individual tickets will be less expensive.
If you're buying individual
train tickets, you should understand that train fares, these
days, are much the same as airline fares. Any train ticket
has multiple fares, some lower than others, for the same seats
on the same journeys. The cheapest fares require advance
purchase and are limited to only some trains at some times of
day, and on some days of the week. The cheapest tickets
often sell out well before travel. So it is always best to
book and buy your tickets as far in advance as possible, and
sometimes being flexible enough to take a train an hour or two
earlier or later can make a big difference in fare.
You can see train fares on
website here, or through the convenient
Rail Europe site as
Extra Flexibility of a Pass
A pass might save you money.
But even if it doesn't, it gives you flexibility - you can use
your pass to travel on any train, anywhere, any time, and any
day. Even if you already have your itinerary confirmed in
the form of having pre-booked your hotels every night, with a
rail pass, you can decide at what time you travel each day, and
you can decide to split your journey and stop along the way.
For example, if you are
traveling from Manchester to York, with a pass you might decide
to detour on the way and include a stop in Sheffield, or
Harrogate, or even first go in the opposite direction to
Chester, spend the day there, and then after a visit to Chester,
travel to York later in the afternoon.
So when you're deciding if a
pass is better than simple point to point tickets, keep in mind
the extra flexibility of a pass.
Using a Pass to add more to
If you've a pass with unused
travel days on it, perhaps it makes sense to travel to more
places to see and do more things. Don't go crazy on this
concept - you don't want to spend all your vacation traveling
between places, and you don't want to have to be checking in and
out of different hotels every day.
However, many places in
Britain are only an hour or two by train from other places, so
if you have some extra pass days, maybe you can use them for day
trips from where you're staying, avoiding the hassle of having
to change hotels each day.
Is Train the Best Way to Travel
Don't automatically assume
that traveling by train is the best way to travel around
Britain. The country is very small, and that makes it easy
to travel pretty much from anywhere to anywhere else within any
of the three countries in a single day of driving, especially if
you plan your itinerary carefully.
In general, most people will
travel around Britain either by train or car, or by a
combination of both.
Trains vs Cars
Train travel can be quicker
than car travel in Britain, because the trains will travel at
speeds of up to 145mph, and seldom need to slow down or stop,
whereas traffic in Britain is often very dense and can be slow
moving. The faster train journeys average over 100 mph.
But if you're only traveling
a short distance, and especially if you want to use a car to
explore around a region, maybe it is better to hire a car (even
in these days of $9/gallon gas in the UK - Apr08 price).
On the other hand, if you
are planning on visiting a series of ancient towns and cities
and will be exploring around them on foot, you can probably do
all of this without needing a car, and train travel can be much
more relaxing - no-one has to do the navigating or worry about
driving on the other side of the road! And because the
train stations tend to be reasonably centrally located in most
of the towns and cities, train travel is convenient and simple.
Trains and Cars combined
Here's a suggestion,
particularly if you're traveling on a Flexi-Pass (see below).
Maybe some of the time you travel by train and some of the time
by car, getting the best of both worlds.
For example, you might take
a train from London to Bath (try not to drive in and around
London, whatever you do!), then collect a rental car, tour
around the Cotswolds, then return the car in Oxford and take a
train on up north to the Lake District, then another car to tour
around the Lake District, return the car in Glasgow, then train
to Edinburgh, train to York, and train back to London, with
stops in each of these cities where you'd sightsee on foot and
by day touring.
Trains vs Buses
Britain does have an
extensive network of intercity bus services. These can be
inexpensive and reasonably fast.
But for most of us, bus
travel just isn't a fun way of traveling anywhere.
Trains vs Planes
The travel distances between
cities in Britain are usually so short, and the trains so fast,
that it is quicker (as well as much more comfortable!) to travel
The Difference between England,
Britain, and the UK
Some people use these terms
interchangeably, but they have different meanings, and these
differences can be important when choosing the best pass for
your traveling, and understanding where it will and won't work.
England is the smallest
region of the three. It covers that area of the British
Isles that is not Wales or Scotland. Historically, the
English, Welsh and Scottish people were three different nations
(well, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but is close
enough for this purpose) and it is only in comparatively
recently times that they have been united, and in even more
recent times, there has been some return of limited independence
to both Wales and Scotland.
So, if you're in London,
you're in England, but if you're in Cardiff (capital of Wales)
or Edinburgh (capital of Scotland), you're definitely not.
Britain and Great Britain
These two terms are more or
less interchangeable, and refer to the three regions of England,
Scotland, and Wales.
So if you're in London,
Cardiff or Edinburgh, you're in Britain. But if you're in
Dublin or Belfast, you're not.
More formally known as 'The
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' this
includes all of Britain plus Northern Ireland as well. But
it doesn't include the Republic of Ireland (Eire), which is
independent and definitely wants nothing politically to do with
the UK at all (except for, perhaps, being keen to annex Northern
So if you're in London,
Cardiff or Edinburgh, you're in the UK. You're also in the
UK if you're in Belfast (capital of Northern Ireland) but you're
not in the UK if you're in Dublin (capital of the Republic of Ireland).
The standard Britrail passes
work everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in
Ireland at all.
If you're only going to be
traveling in England, there are England only passes, and if
you're going to be based in London but want to do some day trips
out of London, there is a London Plus pass that takes you to
places not very far from London.
There is also a Scotland
only pass, and a Central Scotland pass that is very limited
to only the area close to Edinburgh and over to Glasgow.
Very few people will ever choose to buy this pass.
There is not a Wales only
There is also a Britain and
Ireland pass that includes travel in all of Ireland (both
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) as well as all of
First or Second Class Passes
Most trains in Britain have
both first and second class compartments. Some of the
shorter train services - trains that are more commuter trains
than long distance trains - do not have first class, but nearly
the longer distance trains do.
First class gives you, as
you'd expect, more leg room and wider more comfortable seats.
On some of the longer train journeys, you might also get
complimentary tea and coffee, possibly even a breakfast or snack
Seating in first class is
often two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the
other. In second class it might be two on either side, or
even three one side and two the other. Seats in carriages
tend to be an even split of forward and rearward facing seats,
some in table arrangements with a table between seats facing
each other, and other parts of the carriage with airline style
seating - rows of seats all facing the same way.
The seats with tables can be
nice if you're traveling with friends, but if you're surrounded
by strangers the 'no man's land' zone under the table can make
for interesting social interaction as you all variously work out
where to put your feet!
Because there are fewer seats in a first class carriage than
in a second class carriage, that means the carriage is less
crowded, the toilets are easier to get and less over-used, and
there is more space for your luggage.
A comment about luggage
Note that space for luggage
can sometimes be a problem on trains, and particularly in second
class. Unlike planes where you check your bags, with a
train you take all your bags with you into the carriage, and
either put them in special luggage spaces at the end of the
compartments, or between the rows of seats (in the /\ shape where two sets of seats back up against each other) or on
the overhead racks (don't put heavy big suitcases up there -
they might fall down!).
If you're traveling on a
budget, then second class seating is perfectly satisfactory and
nicer than coach class on a plane. But if you're wanting
to treat yourself a little bit, you might decide that the extra
cost for first class is money well spent.
Other Train Inclusions on
In addition to the 'normal'
trains, there are some other situations where you can use your
pass, and some situations where you (of course) can't.
Heathrow and Gatwick Expresses
You can use the passes on
the Heathrow and Gatwick expresses to/from those airports and
This will require the use of
a pass day, though, so it only makes good sense to do this if
you have spare pass days, or if you are doing additional train
travel on the same day.
London Underground and Buses
You can NOT use the passes
for travel on the London Underground.
If you travels include both
Britain and the Continent, chances are you might choose to
travel by the lovely Eurostar train between Britain and France
The bad news is that no pass
includes free travel on Eurostar.
The good news is that if you
have a valid Britrail pass, or one of the many Eurail passes
that includes either France (if going to France) or Belgium (if
going to Belgium) you can get a special discounted pass-holder
rate on Eurostar (as low as $85 second class and $150 first
class for one way travel). Depending on the actual fare
you pay and the fare you'd have paid without a pass, this can
save you $100 or more off the cost of the ticket and so is often
a good value use of a day of your pass.
Most of the time, you don't
need to reserve seats, because most trains always have some
seats empty and available.
There are some times however
when it might make sense to reserve seats. First of all,
if there are only a few trains each day, then the inconvenience
factor if you can't get on one train would be much greater than
if there are trains every half hour.
Secondly, if you're wanting
to travel on the last train of the day, the inconvenience of not
making that train is again greater than normal.
Thirdly, if you're traveling
early in the morning and likely to be on a train full of
Fourthly, if you're
traveling at a holiday time of year when the trains tend to be
Other than these situations,
you can simply turn up on the trains you wish, and when you
If you do make reservations,
Rail Europe, you'll pay a reservation fee (about $10) for
each reservation made.
Reservations can usually be
made for free at train stations in Britain.
Where to Buy
A number of different
companies sell Britrail Passes.
Rail Europe is probably the leading such company.
All seem to sell the passes
at the same price, and they must be purchased prior to your
travels - they are not available for sale in the UK.
Continued in Part 2
In the second part of this
article we provide specific
pricing and information on possible discounts available to you
on Britrail Passes.
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9 May 2008, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.