Book cheap train tickets: We review the best rail booking websites

Sink back into your seat, watch the beautiful British countryside flash past you, and let Crave take the strain out of booking a cheap train ticket as we compare the best and worst rail booking websites.

Sink back into your seat, watch the beautiful British countryside flash past you, and let the train take the strain. That's the ideal of rail travel, but it's rarely that simple. Fortunately, Crave is here to ease the hassle of booking a cheap advance train ticket as we compare the best and worst rail booking websites.

Sadly, there isn't one magical website that's guaranteed to bag you the cheapest ticket (except the £1 Megatrain, which we'll get to in a moment) but that doesn't mean buying rail tickets has to leave you wanting to lie down on a level crossing. Rising train fares mean it's always worth looking for a cheaper ticket in advance, and with a little effort on the right website there are bargains to be had.

We've compared several sites to see which is the easiest to let you check and book tickets, offer a selection of fares, allow you to book seats where you want and save your favourite journeys. We've also sprinkled a selection of top tips for cheaper rail travel, courtesy of our own experience ridin' the rails, and the clever folk at MoneySavingExpert.com. All aboard!

Virgin Trains

virgintrains.co.uk
Ignore the fiddly ticket finder on the home page, which for some reason doesn't always give you the cheapest tickets. Instead go straight to Virgin's simpler and usually cheaper fare finder. All Virgin trains offer Wi-Fi.

On track

  • Intuitive best fare finder.
  • Calendar to select your date of travel shows two months instead of one so it's easier for you to select your date.
  • Mobitix tickets are sent to your phone, if you're travelling between London Euston and Manchester. No booking fees.

Signal failures

  • Only extra booking options are a table and power socket.
  • Requires registration to buy tickets.

Top tip
Always book in advance, even if you're on the way to the station, because tickets bought in advance, or 'quota' tickets, are generally cheaper than walk-up tickets even if you buy on the day. Remember it can take an hour or so for tickets to work their way to the ticket machines for collection, so get e-tickets sent to your phone if they're available.

East Coast

eastcoast.co.uk
East Coast runs the East Coast line, but its website offers tickets on all routes across the country. All East Coast trains offer Wi-Fi.

On track

  • No booking fees.
  • Sells to all rail destinations, but exclusively offers discount tickets and online discount to East Coast destinations including London, Leeds, Newcastle and York.
  • Lowest Fares widget shows a nifty animated grid to help you choose the best combination of outward and return journey.
  • No registration required to buy tickets.

Signal failures

  • Site is cluttered and your fare results are small and cramped.
  • When you choose a journey you're misleadingly shown boxes that say the price range of each type of ticket across the entire network, regardless of whether any of those tickets are actually available or even apply to your journey. For example, single tickets across the entire network start at £8, so you click the box thinking you're about to be offered a ticket for £8, but instead you get a cramped list of tickets that cost significantly more.

Cross Country

crosscountrytrains.co.uk
Cross Country is another train operator, owned by transport megacorp Arriva, which sells tickets for any train in the country.

On track

  • No booking fees.
  • Sells to all rail destinations, but exclusively offers discount tickets to Arriva's Cross Country destinations including Cambridge, Plymouth, Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
  • NUS discount.
  • iPhone app and mobile site, including option to save timetables for offline access.
  • Site includes Google maps and loads of handy information about major stations.
  • Booking options include asking for a wheelchair and special attention.
  • No registration required to buy tickets.

Signal failures

  • Not much.

Top tip
If you have a local railcard, you can save money by booking your journey from the outermost point the railcard covers rather than the station you're actually leaving from.

Raileasy

raileasy.co.uk
Raileasy offers a selection of offers on discounts on stuff from electricity bills to Bee Gees albums. It's up to you whether you see that as a bonus or a distraction.

On track

  • Apps for iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and "ordinary phones", which apparently means Nokia.
  • Handy maps of the nation's network routes.
  • No registration required to buy tickets.
  • Animation that plays when fetching ticket prices looks like a little train travelling between your chosen stations.

Signal failures

  • Site looks amateurish.
  • Booking costs £2 for tickets that cost less than a tenner or £1 for tickets over £10, plus a 50p debit card fee or 2.5 per cent for credit cards.

TheTrainline

thetrainline.com
For a long time the undisputed yet frustrating king of the online booking space, TheTrainline has now got its act together.

On track

Signal failures

  • Booking fees are £1, plus a whopping £3.50 if you pay by credit card.
  • Requires registration to buy tickets.

Top tip
Check whether the cost of two singles will work out cheaper than a return ticket. Some sites allow you to switch between single and return options to make it easy for you.

National Rail

nationalrail.co.uk
The National Rail site only shows timetables, so you have to click through to the relevant train operator to buy tickets. As with Virgin, ignore the search options on the home page and go straight to the handy interactive cheapest fare finder.

On track

  • Information on all aspects of train travel, including station information, live departures and lists of third-party websites and apps.

Signal failures

  • Cheapest fare finder insists you choose a train company before showing you fares, instead of just showing you the cheapest.
  • Can't buy tickets directly.

Quno

quno.com
The newest site on the list, with swooshy dynamic features.

On track

  • Probably the prettiest site to look at, with lots of dynamic bits and pieces on the page.
  • Train times are shown on a clever timeline so you get a sense of how long the journey will be, and how long you have to wait should you have to change trains. Choose what times you want to see by simply moving a slider, and click on the journey you like for fares.
  • Extra booking options include table, power socket, luggage rack and toilet.
  • No registration is required to buy tickets.

Signal failures

  • Not much.

Megatrain

megatrain.com
Megatrain is a bargain bin of £1 fares to over 100 destinations, selling spare seats left over on trains usually travelling at unpopular times.

On track

  • Dead simple.
  • Add your NUS number for a further 10 per cent student discount.
  • Also shows £1 coach fares -- remember to select travelling by train if you don't want to see Megabus fares too.
  • If Megatrain doesn't go where you want to go, you can still split your ticket: get a £1 ticket part of the way, and buy a ticket from another website to complete your journey. Even if no £1 fares are available, fares are still often less than £10.

Signal failures

  • Limited number of destinations and fares.
  • Tickets available 45 days in advance, rather than 10-12 weeks for other sites.
  • 50p booking fee.

Top tip
If the price of your journey is steeper than you'd like, a good way to soften the blow is to split your tickets. Instead of buying one pricey ticket for the whole journey, buy a couple of cheaper tickets that cover the whole journey. It's perfectly above board -- all you need to do is make sure your tickets cover stations your train stops at, even if you're not actually changing at those stations.

For example, when travelling from London to Liverpool, the train stops at Crewe on the way. Buy a cheap ticket from London to Crewe and a cheap ticket from Crewe to Liverpool and your whole journey is covered. You don't even need to get off at Crewe -- just stay in your seat and bask in the warm glow of money saved. Make all the tickets returns for a round trip.

The same method also allows you to only pay peak prices for part of the journey that falls in peak times. For example, if your journey starts at 9am but takes a couple of hours, only buy a peak ticket for the first bit and buy a cheaper off-peak ticket for the later part of the journey that falls after 10am.

Qjump

qjump.co.uk
Qjump is partnered with TheTrainline.

On track

  • Extra options include table, power socket and the option to be near a luggage rack.
  • Online chat with staff between 8am and 10pm, 7 days a week.

Signal failures

  • Requires registration to buy tickets.

My Train Ticket

mytrainticket.co.uk
My Train Ticket has come up with the wizard wheeze of offering 1 Airmile for every £10 you spend on train tickets.

On track

  • Ticket options are shown in a clear and intuitive grid, with tabs for single and return options. The ticket grid is coloured orange to look like actual train tickets.
  • Extra booking options include power socket and Internet access.
  • Allows you to choose which rail company you want to travel with -- and which company you definitely don't want to use.

Signal failures

  • Requires registration to collect Airmiles.
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About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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