Getting the cheapest price and maximum rewards for train tickets (2015 edition)

Head for Points is, of course, primarily about collecting airline and hotel points. However, most of us probably spend some time on trains as well so I thought it was worth a run through of the various options.

And, of course, traingenius.co.uk awards Avios when you book with themso you need to know if it is a good deal or not!  Virgin East Coast and Virgin West Coast both award Virgin Flying Club miles.  Various networks offer Nectar points.

I ran this article last year but there has been substantial change since then.  redspottedhanky has stopped doing its generous promotions whilst East Coast Rewards has been wound up as Virgin took over the franchise.  What deals are left?

Virgin East Coast

As I see it, there are 4 key points to remember when booking UK train tickets:

1. You have various options when booking

You could book:

  • directly with your train operator
  • via a general booking site (The Trainline, mytrainticket, redspottedhanky etc)
  • on the website of a different train operator altogether

You should also consider megatrain.com.  This is used by Stagecoach to offload excess capacity on its rail networks (SouthWest Trains, East Midlands Trains etc).  Confusingly, it is integrated into the megabus booking platform and you have to select bus or train as your travel option!

2. Watch out for hidden costs

Train tickets generally cost the same wherever you book them. However, most booking sites like to add a £1 postage charge and / or a credit card fee and / or a booking fee.  These sneaky fees have been increasing in size and scope year on year and are likely to outweigh any ‘rewards’ you earn.

3. Booking direct with your train operator may be cheaper

Some train companies offer an extra discount on their cheapest First Class and standard class tickets if you book via their websites.  Virgin East Coast offers a discount on most Advance tickets and many operators have exclusive special offers which are only available when booking direct.  You would NEVER earn enough rewards elsewhere to justify booking on another site.

4. TopCashback cashback is also an important factor

Cashback via topcashback.com is often available for rail tickets, and this can be large enough to influence your choice of booking site.

This is the decision tree I would follow when booking a ticket:

Question 1:  Does the train company I am using offer a discount or rewards for booking with them?

Some operators, including East Coast, offer a discount on their non-flexible fares for booking directly with them.

  • With Virgin East Coast, the discount seems to be lower than the 10% than East Coast Trains used to offer, but it still exists – and you get 2 Flying Club miles or 2 Nectar points per £1 spent
  • Virgin West Coast does not offer a discount but does offer 2 Flying Club miles per £1 spent on Virgin Trains tickets or 2 Nectar points.
  • First Great Western, First Hull Trains, Scot Rail and First TransPennine Express offer 2 Nectar points per £1 spent.

Cross Country appears to have dropped its discount for booking direct as far as I could tell.

The train operator sites generally carry modest, or no, credit card fees, booking fees or postage fees.  This means they are likely to offer the best overall deal.

Question 2: Should I use an independent train booking site?

If your train company does not offer any special discounts or loyalty points, you may want to consider the independent booking sites.  In general, though, they are a very poor deal unless you use the Raileasy ‘no fees’ ‘secret’ site. Let’s look quickly at the policies of the major booking sites:

thetrainline.com

2.5% TopCashback for new customers or 1% for existing customers, £1.50 booking fee, 2% credit card fee, £1 postage fee (this is new for 2015) or free for station collection.  Result = waste of space.

traingenius.co.uk

2% TopCashback or they award Avios via the estore. The Avios earnings rate is 2 per £1 spent, so you effectively get 1.5%-2% back that way. It is free to collect your ticket at the station but £1.70 to post them. 2% fee for credit card purchases.  There is a £1 booking fee.  Result = waste of space.  The cashback or Avios reward will be offset by the loss of credit card points, and it is especially poor if you need your tickets posting.

raileasy.com

2% TopCashback.  Postage is £1.50 (free for station collection) with a shocking £2.50 booking fee AND a shocking 4.7% credit card fee!  Result = speechless.  Anyone caught using this should be sent to their nearest medical professional.

raileasy.co.uk/raileasy-special-offer-no-fees

Here is an interesting one.  Raileasy has a semi-secret site, only promoted via moneysavingexpert.com, which charges NO booking fees and NO credit card fees.  There are postage fees if you are starting at a station which has a ticket collection machine.  Result = the best independent option. 

mytrainticket.co.uk

NO TopCashback, 2% credit card fee, £1.50 booking fee, £1 postage.  At least postage is free.  Result = waste of space.

redspottedhanky.com

redspottedhanky has substantially deteriorated in the last year.  It used to offer no postage charges and no credit card fees, as well as giving you 1% back in loyalty points and 1.5% TopCashback.  That has now changed.

It now offers NO TopCashback, has a £1 booking fee and a £1 postage fee (free for station collection).  There is NO credit card fee, however.

Result = better than most, but beaten by the raileasy ‘no fees’ site

The raileasy ‘no fees’ site is the best option of all of the independent ticketing websites.

Question 3: Should I book with another train company on their website?

Two years ago, I would definitely have said ‘Yes’.  Southern Railway was offering an amazing 6% cashback on any train ticket from any train company.  That deal was withdrawn in 2013, however, and the remaining deals are less generous. Let’s look at the TopCashback rates offered by the main train companies:

  • Gatwick Express 4% (Gatwick Express bookings only)
  • First Hull Trains 2% (via Quidco, this offer is available for ALL train operators and this is confirmed by customer reviews.  Via TopCashback, it claims to be restricted to FHT bookings only although I know that it also works on other First franchises.  Use Quidco to be sure.)
  • South West Trains 2.5% (SWT only)
  • First TransPennine Express 4.5% (1% for non FTP trains) plus 2 Nectar points per £1
  • East Midlands Trains 2.5% (1% for non EMT trains)

First Hull Trains via Quidco is your best bet, with 2% cashback, free postage and no credit card fee.

If you don’t have a Quidco account, use First TransPennine Express via TopCashback for 1% cashback PLUS 2 Nectar points per £1, worth another 1%.  Again, postage is free and there is no credit card fee.

Finally, don’t forget your Tesco vouchers!

redspottedhanky is a Tesco Clubcard partner.  See here for details.  You can redeem your Clubcard vouchers for double their face value in redspottedhanky vouchers.

This is not the best use of Clubcard vouchers, but if you have some spare and do not necessarily need extra Avios or Virgin miles, it is worth considering.

You can also redeem American Express Membership Rewards points for Virgin East Coast gift codes at 0.5p per point.  The gift codes are issued instantly so you can book immediately.  Virgin Flying Club miles can also be redeemed for Virgin East Coast vouchers.

All in all, the train booking scene has become substantially less generous over the last 12 months.  The end of East Coast Rewards – the only loyalty scheme worth focussing on – means that any return now is going to be fairly meagre.  

Booking online via First Hull Trains, for 2% Quidco cashback and no fees, seems like the best deal at the moment.  Redeeming Clubcard vouchers for redspottedhanky credit is also an option worth considering, as is Megatrain if your route is operated by Stagecoach.

PS.  You should also have a look at this article about split ticketing, which can help save you money on rail tickets

My review of the Embassy Suites, Niagara Falls, Canada hotel
Why Wyndham Rewards (Ramada and Days Inn) is now worth knowing about
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Comments

  1. ScotRail no longer offer Nectar IIRC. The franchise changed to Abellio and they scrapped it.

    I use Reward Gateway for booking tickets mostly through TPE and the time they take to pay out now has gone from days to months.

  2. Anybody got a link to the semi secret raileasy site ?

    • Nick Burch says:

      Raffles gives it in the article – it’s the title of that section! raileasy.co.uk/raileasy-special-offer-no-fees

  3. Nick Burch says:

    I’ve noticed that sometimes when booking on the First Great Western site, some off-peak train tickets show up with a little purple nectar bubble, and offer a few hundred extra nectar points. Bizarrely, this is more often shown on fully flexible tickets, so you can pick the train that gives the bonus nectar points when booking then catch the train you really wanted!

    I think that Virgin East Coast only give nectar / flying club points for tickets for their own trains, not other operators. However, if you buy a gift voucher for yourself on their site, then redeem that for non-VEC tickets, you do seem to get the points

  4. Jonathan says:

    It’s worth keeping an eye on Amex deals too. I recently used thetrainline despite their additional charges as Amex had a £10 or £20 (can’t quite remember) off £50 spend.

  5. Moenysavingexpert also has a tool where you can split train tickets to save money, worked out well for me last time we went from Manchester to Birmingham – it was cheaper to get a ticket to Stoke and then from Stoke to Birmingham (without changing trains!). The Stoke to Birmingham was also first class :)

  6. I only book via East Coast. Although Rewards is gone, this is the only site that sells eVouchers, which means you can buy all tickets with 3V top-up – at least 6% return thus.

  7. As stated, always check the train operator first. Last weekend I needed a single ticket from King’s Lynn to London, which costs about £23 walk up fare. However, on the Great Northern website a promotion of a day return from London to anywhere on the network was £15 if booked online, with the flexibility to take any train. I only needed the return portion, but unlike airlines there is nothing stopping you dropping the first sector!

    That particular promotion is valid until first week of September.

  8. sandgrounder says:

    Virgin sent me an offer yesterday, £10 off my next booking of £35 or more. Which is nice. Might be worth checking the old Spam folder.

    • Last time I got an offer from Virgin that looked like a good deal, it turned out I couldn’t use it on Advanced fares, only the expensive ones.

  9. Worth remembering that Group Save can be useful – I had to book tickets on FGW for 3 people with 2 days’ notice last week, and the open return price (London-Gloucester) came down to £33 return per person, as opposed to £50+. Most other operators seem to restrict Group Save to 4 people, so that was an unexpected saving.

    Also, Stansted Express (should anyone stray in the direction of that airport!) tickets are £8 each way if booked a month advance, which is a significant saving on the normal price.

    • Group Save worked well for me this weekend. It worked out slightly cheaper (due mainly to rounding) to buy 3 adult GSV tickets than 2 adult tickets for our family of 4 (both children young enough to not need tickets). Also ensured we had 3 ticketed seats so eldest child had an allocated seat and baby was on lap anyway.

  10. Anyone found a clever way to buy an annual season ticket? The only thing I do is pay on the Amex BAPP, which gets me Avios and halfway to the 2-4-1. Any better ideas?

    • Plug the intermediate stations (if any) into the National Rail Season Ticket Calculator. If it’s cheaper, when you go to renew, ask for two separate season tickets, so for journey A-B, with an intermediate station of C, you have a season ticket from A-C, and C-B. Wait till it’s quiet at the booking office, otherwise you may get a queue behind you and a slightly stressed person behind the counter.

      I managed to save £200 / yr on my SWT season ticket by doing this. Like split ticketing, the only rule is that the train must stop at the intermediate train station, so you needn’t change trains. Obviously this won’t work if your commute is on a fast train!

    • That is how I buy my season with the BAPP, 7500 avios and half way towards a 241. not sure there is a better way of doing it?

    • National Rail also state:

      “We will refund (with no administration charge) the cost of tickets you buy while you are waiting for the duplicate ticket to be issued, if you hand these tickets in.”

    • When I used to buy season tickets I found it best to buy for 5-6 weeks carefully chosen to avoid paying for some weekends, Easter, holidays etc.

    • My journey costs around £300 more if split! :(

      Alternatively, for some other small savings, what I have found living in Surrey, is that it can be cheaper to buy tickets from Zone X to station Y in Surrey (like Hinchley Wood), rather than buying a ticket from Zone X to Surbiton. Note that this also needs to be booked as a return from Surrey to Zone X rather than the other way round to ensure you get the Super Off-Peak fare which is valid for trains from Surrey, but not for trains to Surrey, or for trains within the Zones.

      For example, an afternoon return trip from Raynes Park to Surbiton is £6.10 (shocking)! Yet if you buy a return ticket from Hinchley Wood to Raynes Park (you’d need to change in Surbiton anyway), it’ll only cost £4.90! You’re just using your ticket “backwards”, ie the return before the outbound, yet you’re still covered – you’re just getting off early and on late :)

  11. James Alexander says:

    Thanks for info!
    1. The Amex/Apple offer can only be registered once per customer – so if you have multiple Amex cards you only get to register ONE. So be careful which one you register first!

    2. VIRGIN RED APP – advertising 20% discount via the App is disingenuous! ive been stung once – prices via App are inflated do you find up paying same priced as Virgib web! Or more as in my case. Virgin have waffled a reply and expected me to send screen shots of s ticket I’d already purchased!!! You have been warned!!!
    3. AVOID Trainline like the plague! They’ve previously sold me tickets in a “ghost” train and refused to reimburse. If there’s a problem with the journey they walk away from their responsibility saying they are 3rd party and aren’t responsible. AVOID!’

  12. Apart from shopperdiscountsandrewards takes money from people’s accounts (about £10 a month) by being really sly. Loads of complaints about that site. So unless you are booking loads of trains etc then I’d steer clear of that site!

    • you got 10% back on a season ticket? almost worth trying the 30 day free trial or even taking the hit of £10 fee if you got a considerable sum back. Of course I would be inclined to use a prepaid credit card to register with shopperdisc them given the horror stories…(but they are more linked to those who signed up unwittingly?)

  13. Outside of price and points considerations, which of these websites allow you to choose your seats? I recently booked tickets on a Virgin service via the Southern website. It only allowed me to give hints on my preferred seating (table, window, etc.), but it picked the seats for me based on my preferences. I’d be happy to pay a bit more if I was able to pick the seats myself. Maybe it only works if you book on the website of the train company running the service (here Virgin)?

  14. I use takethetrain.co.uk which has no fees and an extremely good price search engine.

  15. Tried out Traingenius a few days before this article. Beware that like rocketmiles, kaligo etc, the prices can be higher than elsewhere so you need to be happy that this is worth the extra price. In my case, it was quoting £43 London to Cambridge for two with a railcard rather than £33 elsewhere, so I went elsewhere.

  16. Unlike Virgin Trains, Virgin East Coast are not on the Shop Away portal.