Booking UK rail tickets from the US?
October 15, 2010 4:50 PM   Subscribe

I will be arriving into London Heathrow on Sunday, Oct. 24 around noon. What are my best options for getting to Cardiff by train and how do I book tickets ahead from the US?

I will be arriving into London Heathrow on Sunday, Oct. 24 around noon. I want to get to Cardiff. Using the National Rail site, it gives me an itinerary from the Heathrow bus terminal to Reading (by bus), and then from Reading to Cardiff (by train). I was planning to buy an off-peak fare instead of an advanced fare in case the plane is delayed -- from my understanding I can use the off-peak fare for any departure on the reserved day. But! I went to purchase the tickets and it does not give Heathrow as a pick-up option and tickets can't be mailed to the US.

Will I be able to get the off-peak fare (£53) if I purchase from the station the day I arrive? The anytime fares are almost double.

Or should I instead take the Heathrow Express into London Paddington and then take the train from Paddington to Cardiff (looks like I can purchase the Heathrow Express tickets online and then pick up the Paddington-Cardiff tickets at Paddington)?

I know I could go by coach on National Express, but I kind of want the rail experience.

posted by wsquared to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can look at schedules and book tickets here:
posted by SueDenim at 5:30 PM on October 15, 2010

I did the reverse of this in July, Train from Newport to Reading then bus to Heathrow. It was painless. I used, but if I recall, it didn't work for me over my Blackberry browser and I ended up calling them and making the booking over the phone. It cost 56 UK Pounds, which I think is close to what it would cost you just to get to Paddington on the Heathrow Express.
posted by Long Way To Go at 5:34 PM on October 15, 2010

It costs £15.50 to get to Paddington on the Heathrow Express.

But, as you're west of London, the best option is to pick up the train in Reading.

There is a Railair bus service operating between Heathrow and Reading.

Train information and ticket desks are in the arrivals areas of all five terminals at Heathrow. Train times, cheapest fare finders and discounts can be found from You will probably pay more for a ticket if you buy it at the station, so if you can get it online, so much the better, although you might be tied to a particular train, which could be a problem if there are long queues in Immigration.
posted by essexjan at 6:04 PM on October 15, 2010

I did something similar this summer and ended up splitting the journey into two parts. National express for the first part (they do electronic tickets) then picking up the train tickets at the station where we started the rail part of the journey. If I were you I would book the Railair to Reading and then book the onward train journey form there, picking up the tickets at Reading Station as you can't pick up tickets at Heathrow.
posted by tallus at 11:17 PM on October 15, 2010

UK train tickets have been hugely simplified recently so yes, you can get off peak fares on the day. But you can probably get cheaper tickets by booking ahead. In fact, if you do it far enough ahead, you can often get first class tickets very, very cheaply esp on weekends. Station pickup is very easy - you take a number and the credit/ debit card you booked with and put them into the machines.

As for the pickup I'd either do what Tallus says. Or go Heathrow Paddington, Paddington Cardiff with a ticket collection at Paddington. This will be more expensive but it probably won't take that much more time and will avoid coach travel.

Another all train option is to get the tube in and go to Paddington. The tube is cheaper than the Heathrow Express, but it's pretty slow.
posted by rhymer at 12:04 AM on October 16, 2010

First Great Western operate the train service down to Cardiff, here's their page on travelling to and from Heathrow and here's the booking page.
In theory you should be able to book your ticket now and collect it from one of the ticket machines at the station. Just make sure your ticket will be valid, most of the advance tickets require you to be on a specific train.
As essexjan says, getting to Reading might be easier and picking up the train there. You can either get a direct service to Cardiff, or via Bristol Temple Meads.
Alternatively Britrail has a bunch of information for overseas visitors wanting to use our glorious train service.
posted by SyntacticSugar at 1:26 AM on October 16, 2010

I do this quite a lot, usually by taking the (rather expensive) Heathrow Express, and then getting a direct train at Paddington. Frankly, getting the train from Reading is looking like a better deal :)

Book through the First Great Western page, incidentally -- British Rail will force you through their US page and charge you an arm and a leg. If you don't have a chipped credit/debit card, you'll have to pick up your tickets from one of the windows, instead of the machine (I think). And yes, booking in advance really saves you quite a bit!
posted by kalimac at 1:36 AM on October 16, 2010

I can recommend or - both have quite substantial savings by booking in advance. As others have suggested, avoid going into London if you can, you'll only add another 30% onto your fare needlessly. Heathrow to Reading, then onwards from there is probably your best bet.
posted by Biru at 6:43 AM on October 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I solved the problem by buying the Heathrow-Reading bus ticket and the Reading-Cardiff train tickets separately. The RailAir bus ticket is a printable e-ticket and then I set my train tickets to be picked up at Reading. It also ended up being cheaper than the price quoted on the National Rail site for the combo bus/train ticket, since the Sunday afternoon and evening fares from Reading-Cardiff are Super Off-Peak, not just Off-Peak. I checked both and First Great Western and the prices were the same, but thetrainline wanted to charge me some booking and credit card fees. (Though I guess First Great Western may have as well, they just didn't say as much).
posted by wsquared at 9:57 AM on October 16, 2010

Be wary about Super Off Peak, some rail operators place restrictions on which trains you can use and when. If memory serves, you should be fine given that it's a Sunday, but yeah... do a little digging to confirm you will be able to use the tickets on all the rail operators you intend to use. However, if you're coming from overseas and have an accent that clearly isn't British, then you could probably get away with feigning ignorance in the event of any ticket inspector giving you grief. Tell them in all instances that you were unsure what ticket to buy so asked a member of staff which ticket you should buy and they told you to get the one you have.
posted by Biru at 6:00 AM on October 17, 2010

Wink wink, nudge nudge.
posted by Biru at 6:01 AM on October 17, 2010

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