Top 12 train tips
A cheat-sheet of the most important things to know when riding the British rails
- Booking in advance can save you big money. "Advance" tickets cost remarkably less than "Off-Peak" (travel weekends or after 9:30am weekdays) or "Anytime" tickets. » more
- Most train stations in the U.K. now have automated ticketing machines. These use touch-screens, have an English-language option, are intuitive, make perusing all your options easy, and accept cash (pounds) and credit cards. Failing that, there's always the ticket window, though lines can be long.
- Always travel second class. The first class cars don't get there any faster; all they do is provide a teensy bit more seat padding—but at 20%–30% increase in price.
- Railpasses. If you plan to do a lot of train travel in the U.K., and want the ability to travel before 9:30am weekdays (Peak hours) and buy tickets at the last-minute, a Britrail pass can make a lot of sense. » more
- Train or car? This is the big question. When is a rental car better than a train? A rental car will always give you more leeway to explore—but comes with extra expense and the headaches of driving and navigating. A single person will almost always find it cheaper to ride the rails. Two to three people, it about breaks even, cost-wise. For four people traveling together, a rental car will usually be cheaper overall—though if you are only planning on visiting a few major centers well-connected by rail, it might still be simpler just to take trains.
- Keep your bags nearby. Never check luggage (bothersome and time-consuming), and avoid putting your bags in those luggage racks near the ends of the train cars. Stow them over your seat (or in your lap, if necessary), and take a second to snap one of the bag's straps around the storage area railing—to keep a potential thief from snatching your bag. If you pack light, your luggage will never be too big to stow at your seat.
- Overnight trains are a great way of saving both time and money: Covering vast distances without wasting precious daylight hours on sheer travel, and spending for your night's lodging only £35–£38 ($44–$48) per person for a bunk in a two-person shared sleeping berth, or £43–£60 ($54–$75) for a solo berth. This will not be the most comfortable night's sleep you'll ever have, but it's a great time– and money-saver. » more
- Pack a picnic. Food on board British trains is overpriced and underwhelming. Same goes fro the often uninspired grub available in the station—though a sandwich from a Prèt A Manger kiosk will still be better than what you can get on board, should you fail to arrive at the station with picnic pickings.
- Don't drink the water on trains, not even to rinse your mouth. It's greywater meant for hand washing only. This is a bit frustrating, since trains—especially overnight trains—dehydrate you quickly. So make sure you bring bottled water to sip throughout the ride and also to rinse out your mouth (and your toothbrush) after an overnight train ride.
- Discounts for youths, seniors, couples, families, and the handicapped. British train tickets are already discounted 50% to children aged 5 to 15 (kids under 5 are free). Anyone aged 16–25, over 60, couples, families, and the disabled can buy a £30 railcard (£20 for the handicapped) that will get you 33% off all train tickets for one year. » more
- Use train time to plan. I usually start any train journey by catching up on my journal, but then I turn to the next stage of my trip and prepare for the next destination. I flip through my guidebooks and start ranking likely places to stay, working out what I want to see and do, and roughing out an itinerary.
- (Don't) hop on the bus, Gus. Explanative disclaimer: Buses do, indeed, have to do with train travel in that the trains are better. OK, that's a bit of specious reasoning, but this bit didn't fit well anywhere else and it is germane to the discussion of connecting the dots on a British itinerary. With rare exceptions, an inter-city coach is not going to be any cheaper than the train or a no-frills airline. It will only (a) take longer, and (b) be less comfortable. (This particularly goes for the London-Edinburgh route; the Caledonian Sleeper train is lovely; the overnight coach is hell on wheels.) These are not bonus factors when considering your options. Coaches—in British English, a "bus" operates within a city, a "coach" between towns; use those terms to help avoid confusion in Europe as many Europeans learn a more British form of our lingo—are really only useful for getting to places where the trains don't go. Then again, these sorts of places—ones literally off the beaten (train) track—can make excellent destination. » more
- Nationalrail.co.uk - Covers all of the lines once operated by the (since-privitized) old British Rail, as well as info on all British rail stations, including maps and services. This includes most major British railways, but notably does not cover many urban area light rail systems (such as London, Glasgow, Manchester, Blackpool, Sheffield, and Midland Metro), nor does it cover the Eurostar, Heathrow Express, nor a handful of heritage or privately owned railways. Still, it's the closest thing to one-stop shopping for finding train connections across the mainland U.K. (though not Northern Ireland).
- BritRail passes - Book railpasses good for travel all over Great Britain—or just in parts of all of England or Scotland.Partner
- Eurostar.com - The super-fast train through the Channel Tunnel connecting London with Paris (2.5 hrs.), Brussels (2 hrs.) and—though those hubs—the rest of Europe. » more
- Europetrainsguide.com - General train info from a private site devoted to European rail travel.
- Seat61.com - General train info from a private site devoted to rail travel, including detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to get from London to just about any other country in Europe via rail.
- Traintaxi.co.uk - Search stations to find out whether they have taxi ranks/stands, and the phone numbers for pre-booking a cab. (Not being updated after April 2016, but still handy.)
- Sleeper.scot - overnight train
- Heritagerailways.com - An association of historic, heritage, and narrow guage railways—many operating steam trains on historic scenic routes. The site is pretty bare-bones, but if you click on a railway and then look for the link in the box below the map (not teh name on the map itself), you can get to the website for that heritage rail line, train museum, or tourist train
- Train map - A rail network map courtesy of Nationalrail.co.uk.
Travel comfort links
- Neck pillow - For the plane or long train rides. I prefer one that cinches at the front to provide all-around-the neck support (wear it backwards to keep your chin up); some rave about the the funky J-Pillow; other go for the Travel Halo with its built-in eye mask.
- Eye mask - Some love 'em; some don't. I find every bit of help sleeping helps.
- Tablet/E-reader - For long plane and train trips. If a tablet or e-Reader, load up on titles before you leave, or get one with WiFi (so you can download outside the U.S) or a Kindle with 3G (which connects for free in 100 countries).
- Noise-canceling headphones - The one silly travel gadget I actually use (it makes flying less stressful, even if you don't sleep; also: way easier to hear the movie). There are tons of models. I currently rock a JVC HANC250—les than half the price of Bose; nearly as good. Or go super low-tech with earplugs (sadly, I'm one of those people who cannot tolerate wearing them).
- Book - Just bring one or two. Some hotels have book trading shelves. Also, Britain has excellent book stores!