Getting the cheapest price and maximum rewards for train travel (part 2, 2014 edition)

Yesterday I looked at the various ways of booking UK train tickets.  My conclusion was that there is no longer any obvious best choice, but you would not go far wrong by starting with the site of the train company you will use and then comparing with redspottedhanky.

My discussion yesterday ignored the value of the various train loyalty schemes, however.

Loyalty schemes for individual train companies have not, on the whole, been successful. Midland Mainline had ‘More’ (franchise was lost) and First Great Western had ‘Forward’ (closed). GNER, the predecessor to East Coast Trains, had ‘GNER Time’ which was generally well regarded.

Virgin Trains has its Traveller scheme for regular First Class travellers. This ha a very interesting feature – once you qualify, you receive FREE first class travel from Friday morning to midday Monday!

If you regularly travelled on the West Coast route at the weekend (say, you lived in Manchester but worked in London during the week) you could save a lot of money by working out the cheapest qualifying First Class tickets and then bulk-buying them. This would get you a year of free weekend First Class travel.

However … the future of Traveller is currently up in the air due to the indecision over awarding a new West Coast franchise.  It has now reopened to new members.  The criteria for being invited to join are here.

That leaves East Coast Rewards as the only mainstream loyalty programme available.

East Coast Rewards

Let’s quickly summarise the rules of the programme:

You earn points by booking tickets for ANY train company on the East Coast website – you are NOT restricted to just East Coast services

You earn 1 point per £1 spent on standard class tickets and 1.5 points per £1 for First Class.

You earn points for all tickets booked via your account, even if you are not the traveller

East Coast season tickets earn points based on a complex formula too difficult to copy here!

There is a minimum spend of £22 to earn points when buying non-East Coast tickets

Points are valid for 2 years from date of issue and cannot be extended

Redeeming East Coast Rewards points

You can redeem points for a variety of consumer goods like Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser vouchers. However, these all work out at 2p per point and so are not desperately exciting (although still worth 2% cashback on Standard Class spending and 3% on First Class spending).

The interesting redemptions are those involving free East Coast rail tickets. As these are only valid on the East Coast line (London – York – Edinburgh and onwards) it is obviously only worth bothering with if you would be interested in redeeming for this route.  Full details are here but the headline numbers are:

  • Return First Class ticket – 900 points
  • Return First Class ticket for 2 – 1,400 points
  • Return Standard Class ticket – 500 points
  • Return Standard Class ticket for 2 – 900 points

(One way rewards are also available at 50% of the above.)

Child tickets booked with reward tickets cost £20 each, return, which adds extra value if you travel as a family.  I got a great value redemption last year when I took my two kids on East Coast – it cost me 900 points for a First Class seat for myself plus £20 each return for the kids.  I actually bought 3 child tickets, paying an extra £20 to guarantee we got a block of four seats together.

Seats must be booked 7 days in advance, on off-peak trains only. Some black-out dates are imposed, eg over Christmas.

Now, whether this is a good deal clearly depends on where you would go and how you collect your points.

The best redemption would be from London to northern Scotland, for two people, in First Class, using points collected by buying First Class tickets (because of the 1.5 points per £1 earning rate).

The cheapest First Class return to Aberdeen from London is £69, so £138 for two. You would need to spend almost £900 on First Class tickets via the East Coast website to earn 1,400 points. That represents a return of almost 15%.  In reality, the tickets would be worth more because the £69 price is only available on a handful of trains and you redeem pretty freely.

On the other hand, let’s imagine one person getting a Standard Class ticket to York using points earned buying Standard Class tickets. The cheapest Standard return to York from London I can realistically find over a weekend is £42. You would need to spend £500 on Standard Class tickets to earn 500 points, a return of 8%.

“But I don’t spend much on rail travel ….”

If you are only a small spender, there are two East Coast Rewards rewards which offer excellent value for money.

For 50 points, you can redeem for a voucher giving you access to the eight First Class lounges that East Coast operates. Assuming that you consume £5 of free food and drink (not difficult) you are getting 10p per point of value!

Even better, you don’t even need to be travelling on East Coast Trains to use the vouchers. Theoretically, I assume you could even use the lounge at Kings Cross if you were travelling from St Pancras, given the 60 second walk between them. This is the new Kings Cross lounge:

East Coast First Class lounge

Secondly, 50 points also gets you a voucher for free wi-fi. Standard Class passengers usually pay £5 for this on East Coast services, so again you are getting 10p per point!

Conclusion

Assuming that you are happy to collect tickets from a machine at the station to avoid the postage charge, East Coast Rewards seems to offer a great package.

As long as you redeem for East Coast rail travel, you will receive a % rebate on your spending which is substantially better than any other train booking site.  The East Coast site also has no booking fee or credit card fees – the only fee is a £1 charge if you want your tickets posting.

The ‘free wi-fi’ and ‘free First Class lounge’ access vouchers also offer fantastic value and are worth considering.  Even travellers on Grand Central and Hull Trains would find the lounge access useful.

That said, only heavy rail spenders should bother about collecting for free train tickets. Unless you are spending £250+ on rail travel for your family per year, you will struggle to earn enough for a decent train ticket redemption because of the 2-year validity on East Coast points.

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Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Rob.

    I regularly do £400+ a month in train fares (on First Great Western) and had never considered that there might be a loyalty scheme available on one of the other train companies that would reward me for my spend (on top of credit card points, of course).

    The East Coast scheme seems to be just what I was missing!

    • Stuart – bear in mind that FGW give 10% off on certain tickets booked direct from their website. You pay more for such tickets on other sites, therefore, which may nullify any benefits offered by such sites, be it redspottedhanky or East Coast.

  2. James67 says:

    Thanks for these two posts Rob; very useful for me as I will soon be moving to Edinburgh. I seem to recall in a previous post you also mentioned getting east coast rewards by some other meabs; was it amex MR?

    • You can’t earn East Coast points via Amex but you can redeem MR points for East Coast evouchers. The voucher code is immediately emailed to you so you can book literally a minute after requesting your redemption which is handy.

  3. Chris C says:

    Couple of weeks ago I redeemed my points for 2 first class tickets and the process was very smooth. There is a handy tool that you can use to check if there are any rewards available on your proposed dates of travel. It even shows how many tickets are available on each train and in each class which reduces some of the frustration of looking for rewards you can find with e.g. airlines.

    Most of my points were actually earned from trips my parents made to come to London to see me so I got the benefit as I did the bookings for them using my account.

    Last month I even got an email to tell me that some of my points were due to expire which was a good reminder.

    The down side is that you need to agree to get their marketing emails but those are soon deleted and to be honest there are not that many of them.

  4. For those with look south to Hadrian’s Wall it’s also worth joining ScotRail’s loyalty scheme which is pretty generous: access to Scot Rail’s First class lounges regardless of ticket type; discounted leisure tickets including regular vouchers for discounted sleeper tickets and tourist/leisure events; and free “week-end first” upgrades.
    From the website: “Membership of Advance is open to the following ScotRail customers:
    All ScotRail Season Ticket holders. All ScotRail Flexipass holders. First Class Ticket holders. Caledonian Sleeper customers.”
    It’s the third which is the great opportunity – this can be a first class ticket between two consecutive stations (e.g. Cupar and Leuchars -an extra 70p more than the standard). And there doesn’t appear to be a requalification requirement: I am still getting the vouchers 8 years after joining using a similarly short journey. OK there’s no avios but there are really savings to be had.

    • Hehe beat me two it, Susan! My folks and a couple of friends all have Scotrail Advance thanks to some of my trips – it’s a great wee freebie to have and some of their Sleeper promos can be pretty good (as well as the ‘anywhere in Scotland’ ones).

  5. Frenske says:

    So to recap … buying any train tickets through East Coast will gain 1 point per pound. So we only need to spend £500 on train fares to get a ticket for example KGX-EDB-KGX which is usually worth more than £80. Is this right!?

    This is much better return than the 2.4% from SWT or 1.5% + RSH points. The only catch I see, it is the minimum spend of £22, but one can book multiple journeys on one booking.

    • Yes. The only ‘snag’, as such, is that you can only redeem for tickets on East Coast, which may not be of interest for a lot of people. Fine for me as my family is up that way.

  6. Stephen C. says:

    As a commuter, none of these come close to the discount from buying a season ticket (monthly and longer), nor can you earn any rewards from purchasing these other than credit card spend.

  7. I take it that if you booked the 4xFirst Class Singles (given their much cheaper redemption rate of 1400 vs 1800pts) you can then use them individually within their six month validity period??

    • Yes, they sit in your account.

      I experienced this last year because (idiotically) I didn’t know about the £20 kids redemption. I therefore redeemed for 3 people but then realised too late I only needed 1 ticket as I could pay £20 for the kids. The other tickets sat in my account until I needed them.

      • Great, thanks Raffles – may well consider that! Availability on Edinburgh-London looks pretty good.

  8. Virgin do state the Traveller joining criteria on the website. It’s in the Do I Qualify for Traveller link. The criteria has remained the same for years. Also the West Coast franchise has been extended for Virgin until 2017. I’ve been a member of Traveller for many years and it is a good scheme.

  9. Worth mentioning that the Delay/Repay and Seat Guarantee Schemes do not apply to tickets booked with points.

  10. It seems that tickets booked with East Coast cannot apply the groupsave discount. So if you travel in three or more it’s worth checking the ticket prices on East Coast and Nation Rail both as the groupsave option can reduce up to 50% of the original price.