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Properly selected and used, a Britrail Pass can save you lots of money on your travel around Britain.

This information helps you to understand the different passes and tells you what to consider when choosing the best pass for you.

 
 
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How to Get the Best Value Train Fares in Britain

Should you buy a rail pass or individual train tickets?
 

The beautiful Glenfinnan Viaduct between Fort William and Mallaig in Scotland is very picturesque, and was featured in the Harry Potter movies as part of the Hogwarts Express journey.

When traveling by train in Britain, the journey can be as pleasurable as reaching the destination.

With a Britrail Pass you can plan your journeys to include the 'best' scenery and rail experiences without having to worry about ticket prices.

Part one of a two part series on Britrail Passes - part two discusses the actual passes available.

 

 

The good news is there are lots of different types of Britrail pass available for you to choose between, meaning that you're sure to find one closely matching the travel plans you have, and which therefore gives you good value.

The slightly bad news is that with so many choices, it can be confusing to find the best possible pass for you.

This article helps you to choose the most suitable pass for your upcoming travel to Britain, and helps you use the pass to best advantage.


Things to Consider When Choosing a Pass

The first thing to consider is whether you need a pass or not.  If you're only planning on one or two train journeys, it is possible that it may end up less expensive just to simply buy individual train tickets than to buy a pass.

Train Pass or Individual Train Tickets?

When you have a feeling for the train journeys you might want to take, you should cost out how much you'd spend to buy regular roundtrip or one way tickets and compare it to the cost of the best priced pass.  Sometimes individual tickets will be less expensive.

If you're buying individual train tickets, you should understand that train fares, these days, are much the same as airline fares.  Any train ticket has multiple fares, some lower than others, for the same seats on the same journeys.  The cheapest fares require advance purchase and are limited to only some trains at some times of day, and on some days of the week.  The cheapest tickets often sell out well before travel.  So it is always best to book and buy your tickets as far in advance as possible, and sometimes being flexible enough to take a train an hour or two earlier or later can make a big difference in fare.

You can see train fares on this official website here, or through the convenient Rail Europe site as well.

Extra Flexibility of a Pass

A pass might save you money.  But even if it doesn't, it gives you flexibility - you can use your pass to travel on any train, anywhere, any time, and any day.  Even if you already have your itinerary confirmed in the form of having pre-booked your hotels every night, with a rail pass, you can decide at what time you travel each day, and you can decide to split your journey and stop along the way.

For example, if you are traveling from Manchester to York, with a pass you might decide to detour on the way and include a stop in Sheffield, or Harrogate, or even first go in the opposite direction to Chester, spend the day there, and then after a visit to Chester, travel to York later in the afternoon.

So when you're deciding if a pass is better than simple point to point tickets, keep in mind the extra flexibility of a pass.

Using a Pass to add more to your travels

If you've a pass with unused travel days on it, perhaps it makes sense to travel to more places to see and do more things.  Don't go crazy on this concept - you don't want to spend all your vacation traveling between places, and you don't want to have to be checking in and out of different hotels every day.

However, many places in Britain are only an hour or two by train from other places, so if you have some extra pass days, maybe you can use them for day trips from where you're staying, avoiding the hassle of having to change hotels each day.

Is Train the Best Way to Travel in Britain?

Don't automatically assume that traveling by train is the best way to travel around Britain.  The country is very small, and that makes it easy to travel pretty much from anywhere to anywhere else within any of the three countries in a single day of driving, especially if you plan your itinerary carefully.

In general, most people will travel around Britain either by train or car, or by a combination of both.

Trains vs Cars

Train travel can be quicker than car travel in Britain, because the trains will travel at speeds of up to 145mph, and seldom need to slow down or stop, whereas traffic in Britain is often very dense and can be slow moving.  The faster train journeys average over 100 mph.

But if you're only traveling a short distance, and especially if you want to use a car to explore around a region, maybe it is better to hire a car (even in these days of $9/gallon gas in the UK - Apr08 price).

On the other hand, if you are planning on visiting a series of ancient towns and cities and will be exploring around them on foot, you can probably do all of this without needing a car, and train travel can be much more relaxing - no-one has to do the navigating or worry about driving on the other side of the road!  And because the train stations tend to be reasonably centrally located in most of the towns and cities, train travel is convenient and simple.

Trains and Cars combined

Here's a suggestion, particularly if you're traveling on a Flexi-Pass (see below).  Maybe some of the time you travel by train and some of the time by car, getting the best of both worlds.

For example, you might take a train from London to Bath (try not to drive in and around London, whatever you do!), then collect a rental car, tour around the Cotswolds, then return the car in Oxford and take a train on up north to the Lake District, then another car to tour around the Lake District, return the car in Glasgow, then train to Edinburgh, train to York, and train back to London, with stops in each of these cities where you'd sightsee on foot and by day touring.

Trains vs Buses

Britain does have an extensive network of intercity bus services.  These can be inexpensive and reasonably fast.

But for most of us, bus travel just isn't a fun way of traveling anywhere.

Trains vs Planes

The travel distances between cities in Britain are usually so short, and the trains so fast, that it is quicker (as well as much more comfortable!) to travel by train.

The Difference between England, Britain, and the UK

Some people use these terms interchangeably, but they have different meanings, and these differences can be important when choosing the best pass for your traveling, and understanding where it will and won't work.

England

England is the smallest region of the three.  It covers that area of the British Isles that is not Wales or Scotland.  Historically, the English, Welsh and Scottish people were three different nations (well, this is a bit of an oversimplification, but is close enough for this purpose) and it is only in comparatively recently times that they have been united, and in even more recent times, there has been some return of limited independence to both Wales and Scotland.

So, if you're in London, you're in England, but if you're in Cardiff (capital of Wales) or Edinburgh (capital of Scotland), you're definitely not.

Britain and Great Britain

These two terms are more or less interchangeable, and refer to the three regions of England, Scotland, and Wales.

So if you're in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, you're in Britain.  But if you're in Dublin or Belfast, you're not.

United Kingdom

More formally known as 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' this includes all of Britain plus Northern Ireland as well.  But it doesn't include the Republic of Ireland (Eire), which is independent and definitely wants nothing politically to do with the UK at all (except for, perhaps, being keen to annex Northern Ireland!).

So if you're in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh, you're in the UK.  You're also in the UK if you're in Belfast (capital of Northern Ireland) but you're not in the UK if you're in Dublin (capital of the Republic of Ireland).

Regional Passes

The standard Britrail passes work everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Ireland at all.

If you're only going to be traveling in England, there are England only passes, and if you're going to be based in London but want to do some day trips out of London, there is a London Plus pass that takes you to places not very far from London.

There is also a Scotland only pass, and a Central Scotland pass that is very limited to only the area close to Edinburgh and over to Glasgow.  Very few people will ever choose to buy this pass.

There is not a Wales only pass.

There is also a Britain and Ireland pass that includes travel in all of Ireland (both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) as well as all of Britain.

First or Second Class Passes

Most trains in Britain have both first and second class compartments.  Some of the shorter train services - trains that are more commuter trains than long distance trains - do not have first class, but nearly all the longer distance trains do.

First class gives you, as you'd expect, more leg room and wider more comfortable seats.  On some of the longer train journeys, you might also get complimentary tea and coffee, possibly even a breakfast or snack as well.

Seating in first class is often two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the other.  In second class it might be two on either side, or even three one side and two the other.  Seats in carriages tend to be an even split of forward and rearward facing seats, some in table arrangements with a table between seats facing each other, and other parts of the carriage with airline style seating - rows of seats all facing the same way.

The seats with tables can be nice if you're traveling with friends, but if you're surrounded by strangers the 'no man's land' zone under the table can make for interesting social interaction as you all variously work out where to put your feet!

Because there are fewer seats in a first class carriage than in a second class carriage, that means the carriage is less crowded, the toilets are easier to get and less over-used, and there is more space for your luggage.

A comment about luggage

Note that space for luggage can sometimes be a problem on trains, and particularly in second class.  Unlike planes where you check your bags, with a train you take all your bags with you into the carriage, and either put them in special luggage spaces at the end of the compartments, or between the rows of seats (in the /\ shape where two sets of seats back up against each other) or on the overhead racks (don't put heavy big suitcases up there - they might fall down!).

If you're traveling on a budget, then second class seating is perfectly satisfactory and nicer than coach class on a plane.  But if you're wanting to treat yourself a little bit, you might decide that the extra cost for first class is money well spent.

Other Train Inclusions on Passes

In addition to the 'normal' trains, there are some other situations where you can use your pass, and some situations where you (of course) can't.

Heathrow and Gatwick Expresses

You can use the passes on the Heathrow and Gatwick expresses to/from those airports and London.

This will require the use of a pass day, though, so it only makes good sense to do this if you have spare pass days, or if you are doing additional train travel on the same day.

London Underground and Buses

You can NOT use the passes for travel on the London Underground.

Eurostar

If you travels include both Britain and the Continent, chances are you might choose to travel by the lovely Eurostar train between Britain and France or Belgium.

The bad news is that no pass includes free travel on Eurostar.

The good news is that if you have a valid Britrail pass, or one of the many Eurail passes that includes either France (if going to France) or Belgium (if going to Belgium) you can get a special discounted pass-holder rate on Eurostar (as low as $85 second class and $150 first class for one way travel).  Depending on the actual fare you pay and the fare you'd have paid without a pass, this can save you $100 or more off the cost of the ticket and so is often a good value use of a day of your pass.

Reserving Seats

Most of the time, you don't need to reserve seats, because most trains always have some seats empty and available.

There are some times however when it might make sense to reserve seats.  First of all, if there are only a few trains each day, then the inconvenience factor if you can't get on one train would be much greater than if there are trains every half hour.

Secondly, if you're wanting to travel on the last train of the day, the inconvenience of not making that train is again greater than normal.

Thirdly, if you're traveling early in the morning and likely to be on a train full of business travelers.

Fourthly, if you're traveling at a holiday time of year when the trains tend to be full.

Other than these situations, you can simply turn up on the trains you wish, and when you wish.

If you do make reservations, eg through Rail Europe, you'll pay a reservation fee (about $10) for each reservation made.

Reservations can usually be made for free at train stations in Britain.

Where to Buy

A number of different companies sell Britrail Passes.  Rail Europe is probably the leading such company.

All seem to sell the passes at the same price, and they must be purchased prior to your travels - they are not available for sale in the UK.

Continued in Part 2

In the second part of this article we provide specific pricing and information on possible discounts available to you on Britrail Passes.

 

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Originally published 9 May 2008, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
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Other UK travel info
How to Find the Best London Underground Ticket Pricing
How to Best Travel on the London Underground
All about London's Five Airports
How to Travel around Britain by Train
Day Tours from London by Train
How to choose the best Britrail Pass
Britrail Pass options and issues
London Pass for discounted sightseeing in London
Great British Heritage Pass for discounted sightseeing in Britain
Traveling to Scotland's Islands
 

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