Buying a Train Ticket in Britain Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Buying a Train Ticket in Britain

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Some UK train tickets.

One would assume that the purchase of a train ticket is easy. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It can be one of the most stressful things that you can do.

Number-one Rule

Many of the train operating companies (TOC) operate a penalty fares scheme in some form or another. It is important that before you travel on any train service, you purchase a train ticket or travel permit for the whole of the journey that you are making.

If you travel without a ticket, you are leaving yourself open to a penalty fare. At the very least you will have to purchase a ticket at the full standard price. Either way, you will end up spending more money than you will need to, and could even find yourself on the wrong side of the law.


You might arrive at your station and be unable to purchase a ticket. This may be because there are no facilities or because the ticket machine has been vandalised. In this case, you are completely within your rights to travel without a ticket, but be prepared to be questioned by any revenue staff. In some cases the more rural stations have no facilities and you will need to purchase your ticket from the guard. However, if you need to change en route to your destination and there are ticket purchase facilities available, you will need to purchase your ticket at this point.

It is worth noting that in the more rural areas of Britain, the only place that you can purchase a ticket is on the train and invariably you'll find that these train companies/services do not operate a penalty fares scheme.

Check the National Rail Conditions of Carriage for full details of the rules and regulations of ticket purchases.

Where to Buy a Ticket

The obvious answer is from a train station, and this is probably the best place to purchase one. However, you can purchase a ticket on the Internet, via the train operating company or from the various online ticket-sellers. You can even buy your ticket from many travel agencies. The downfall to purchasing your ticket outside of the train operating companies, is that they hold no responsibility for the sale, which may lead to problems receiving compensation or a refund if necessary.

Try to buy your ticket from the train company that you are travelling with or from your nearest home station. The reason for doing this is that no one train company is responsible for the sale of another train company's ticket, even if you are travelling on their service. Therefore, if you require a refund, you can only get it from the company you bought the ticket from. For example, you buy a ticket from a First Great Western station to travel on a GNER train and GNER cancel the train you are travelling on, you cannot then ask GNER to refund your ticket, as you've purchased it from a First Great Western station.

On The Day

The most common sales are on-the-day ticket purchases. Many people arrive at a station in time for their train, but not in time to purchase their ticket. Depending on your station, it is always advisable to give yourself plenty of queuing time. In some cases you could be queuing for as long as 20 - 30 minutes.

Most people will check on train times before leaving, but rarely check on tickets. Check the train company you are travelling with, visit their website and call their customer services. In many cases the customer services will have better facilities to check on the best (cheapest) ticket available for the journey you are making.

Permit to Travel

In cases where the ticket office is closed or there are no ticket machines available, there will usually be a permit-to-travel machine, which is usually located just outside the entrance to the station. The idea is to put as much money - to the price of your ticket - in the machine to obtain a permit, you then take the permit to the nearest available ticket office and exchange it for a real ticket.

It is usually acceptable to put in just ten pence, but, if you are stopped by a revenue officer and attempt to pay for the rest of your ticket with the remaining change in your pocket, this can be seen as an attempt to avoid paying your full fare, and on rare occasions, may result in the issue of a penalty fare. It is recommended that you put about two to three pounds in the machine, as this will show an intent to buy a ticket.

Buying in Advance

Nearly all tickets available can be purchased in advance of your travel date. If you know a week before that you are going to travel, buy your ticket then. Go to your nearest ticket office when it's quiet. Buying your ticket in advance will not only save you queuing time, but you will more than likely find that there is a cheaper ticket available.

Most train operating companies have cheaper tickets available for advance purchase, available from three days to one month in advance. The downside to these tickets is that you are invariably restricted to a shorter time period. You may even be restricted to one train only. Again, check with the train operating company you are travelling with for advance ticket types, availability and prices. You may even find that certain train companies have special deals for online purchase only.

Buying Advance Tickets Online

Buying your ticket via an online company can prove to be very worthwhile. A number of these companies offer much cheaper ticket prices than buying direct from the train company.

However, as stated before, this can prove a disadvantage when it comes to refunds or issues with your ticket. Several of the advanced tickets available will restrict you to a certain train. If you do miss it, the train company will invariably assist in getting a replacement ticket. However, if you purchase online, there is no chance of getting a replacement and you will have to purchase another ticket.

Group or Family Travel

If you are travelling within a group (three or more people), it's worth checking if there is some kind of group travel ticket. Again, many of the train companies do have discounted tickets for group travel. This is also true for family groups; some companies may offer child tickets for as little as a pound, but only if they are travelling with an adult.

Just The Ticket

It may be worth noting that there are several occasions where purchasing more than one ticket for your journey, or even breaking your journey, may work out more cheaply. There are even particular trains where buying two singles is cheaper than buying the return.

For those people who may be making several cross-country journeys, one particular ticket that is available is called a rail rover. The tickets are quite expensive, but they have no restrictions to time of travel.

First Class

For longer journeys, many companies offer a weekend-only first class supplement for only a few pounds extra. It is only available for people with certain types of tickets and is well worth the extra expense. It may also be worth checking with the guard on very busy trains if they are allowing people to sit in first class. In certain cases, companies will declassify trains due to overcrowding.

The Oyster Card

For those who live within the London area or commute to London, there is the Oyster Card, introduced a few years ago by Transport for London. The card works in a couple of ways: you can either put your season ticket on the card, or you can get one as a prepay top-up.

Prepay basically means that you can put any amount of money on your card and when you make your journey, you swipe the card and an amount is taken from your credit. It does also mean that you will get cheaper fares (at time of writing a £1.50 bus fare only costs £1.00 with an Oyster).

The downside to using Oyster is that prepay cards are not (yet) valid on National Rail1. You will have to buy a separate ticket. Plans are currently in place to allow prepay once the London Overground comes into being.


The basic ticket restriction is those that can be used during the peak times and those that can be used during off-peak times. However, things are never that simple. Always check the restrictions on the ticket you are purchasing. In some cases, you can purchase a cheap train ticket and still travel during the peak periods.

Remember, the cheaper the ticket, the more restrictions you are likely to have. As mentioned previously, you may even be restricted to just one train.

Discount Cards

In most every area of the country, you will find some kind of discount card. If you are a regular traveller, it can be a wise investment. Many of the discount cards available will offer a 33% discount on certain types of ticket.

The four main types of discount card include:

  • Young Persons — Valid for people between the ages of 18 and 25 or in full-time education.
  • Senior Citizens — Valid for people over the age of 60.
  • Family Rail Card — Valid for at least one adult and one child. Maximum of two adults and four children.
  • Disabled Rail Card — Valid for any person who is registered disabled.

There are also cards like the Network Rail Card2, valid for people living within the Network Southeast area.

Seat Bookings

Not all of the train operating companies have a seat-booking service. Seat booking is generally only available on long-distance services. Booking a seat is not subject to the type of ticket that you purchase. It is always advisable that where there is a seat-booking service available you should reserve a seat.

1There are a few exceptions for point-to-point underground connections on NR services.2Differing varieties of this card are available in many county councils.

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