David Whitley untangles the Kafka-esque ticket prices and timetables of the humble British train network.
Buying a train ticket can elicit howls of anguish from visitors to Britain. The British Rail booking system seems calculated to wrench vast sums of money from unsuspecting foreigners. Pay at the station on the day, and train tickets can be eye-wateringly expensive. For example, arrive at London's Kings Cross station for the 7am train to Edinburgh and a standard return ticket will cost a princely £304 ($460).
Play it smart, however, and it's possible to save huge amounts; for instance, to get a London to Edinburgh return ticket for £34. The secret to getting such deals is tackling the booking system as you would with a budget airline - online, in advance, and outside of peak travel times.
Tickets are generally released 12 weeks in advance and the earlier you buy them, the cheaper they tend to be. However, it's often the case that a ticket bought online 90 minutes before departure can be half the price of the walk-up fare. Online bookings come with a code for receiving the actual ticket from machines at the station. It's also worth bearing in mind that two single tickets booked for specific times will almost always work out cheaper than an open-ended return. These tickets are not transferable to other services, however, so if you turn up late, you'll have to buy a new, expensive ticket on-board the train.
The first port of call should be the National Rail Enquiries website (www.nationalrail.co.uk). Type in the departure point and destination, with dates and rough times, and the site will list relevant services, including the cheapest prices for each.
The key detail to note is which of Britain's ridiculous collection of rail franchises is operating the service. For example, East Coast (www.eastcoast.co.uk) covers London to Edinburgh. Northern Rail (www.northernrail.org) covers much of Yorkshire and Lancashire. The National Rail Enquiries site will usually link to each firm's own site for booking, but it's worth going direct to that operator's site and typing in the trip details again - occasionally there will be a specific deal.
Whenever possible, early-morning departures should be avoided. Before 9.30am to 10am is prime commuter time, and tickets are priced accordingly (the exact boundary from peak to off-peak depends on the route).
There can be a huge difference in price if you set off an hour later. For a Virgin Trains (www.virgintrains.co.uk) London-to-Manchester service, an online search made five days before departure showed the 8am train cost £108.50 a ticket, the 9am £67, the 10am £37.
If you must travel by train before 10am, it may be worth buying two tickets for the same journey. The 9.55am Manchester to London service, as a case in point, calls at Crewe. A ticket for the Manchester to Crewe leg costs £9.40, and a ticket for the Crewe to London leg on the same train costs £51. That's £60.40 all up - a saving of £15.90 on the £76.30 Manchester-to-London ticket cost.
To find deals, use the National Rail Enquiries site to check the stations on the way. Stops close to the departure point but passed through after the peak to off-peak switch tend to be the best bets for splitting the ticket.
Prices for shorter rail journeys are more standard, as advance booking fares don't apply, so you might as well pay on the day. However, it can be worth taking advantage of the competition on some shorter routes.
Between London and Brighton, for example, the Southern (www.southernrailway.com) and First Capital Connect (www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk) services apply off-peak fares at different times. For example, the 9.51am Southern service from Brighton to London Victoria station will cost £25.10, but the 9.42am First Capital Connect service to London Bridge costs £15.90.
Another quirk of the system is that the price difference between first and standard class can be surprisingly small. On the London-to-Sheffield route, first-class fares are often just £5 more than standard fares. That extra fiver includes bigger seats, free tea, coffee, bottled water and snacks, plus wi-fi, which would usually cost £4 in standard class. Occasionally, first class can actually be considerably cheaper than standard class - usually when the advance allocation of the latter has sold out.
The Kafka-esque absurdity of ticket prices is most wonderfully illustrated in this way - the cheapest train deals can often be found through a bus company. Megabus (uk.megabus.com) is owned by Stagecoach, which also happens to own a number of the train franchises. So Stagecoach sells unfilled train seats on the cheap via the Megabus site. Thus, a £13 advance fare from London to Nottingham in August on the Stagecoach-owned East Midlands Trains (www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk) can cost just £5.50 if booked via the Megabus site.
Best value, however, can sometimes come from little-known rail passes. Tucked away deep inside the National Rail Enquiries site is a list of 87 Ranger and Rover tickets (bit.ly/rangerrover). These can be bought at the station on the day, although you may have to convince an ill-informed staff member at the ticket counter that the tickets do exist.
The Ranger and Rover tickets that cover a particular region tend to be the best bargains. Arguably, the biggest steal is the North Country 4-in-8-Day Rover. It costs £84 and allows travel for four days in eight across the north of England. That includes the Yorkshire coast and the Lake District, plus cities such as Leeds and Newcastle.
Another good bet is the Explore Wales Flexipass, which gives four days of rail travel and eight days of bus travel across Wales for £94. Highly appealing English towns and cities such as Shrewsbury, Gloucester, Chester and Hereford are included in the ticket's admirably broad definition of "Wales".
With such a bewildering array of variables, however, it may be tempting to buy a Britrail (britrail.com) pass and have done with it.
These have to be bought before arriving in Britain, but they have the bonus of flexibility once there. Britrail passes make it a lot easier to go somewhere on a whim without being stung an exorbitant amount for the cost of a walk-up ticket. Alas, however, they only represent good value for money in certain circumstances - largely if you're planning to do a number of long-distance journeys during peak periods. Various options are available, but a pass for three consecutive days costs £177), while it's £319 for eight days.
For most visitors, however, advance-purchased point-to-point tickets will work out much cheaper. Just plan ahead and be prepared to stumble through complex labyrinths of options.