Getting the cheapest price and maximum rewards for train travel (part 2, 2014 edition)
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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.
That leaves East Coast Rewards as the only mainstream loyalty programme available.
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. 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:
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!
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.