How to buy train tickets in England?
February 2, 2007 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I need to make one trip by rail from London to York and back in early April. We'll be spending two nights in York. I've read and heard conflicting information about this. Anyone know the best way to buy a ticket?

Most of the info I could find here and online in general is about various rail passes and multiple trip tickets. I only need to buy one roundtrip ticket for my wife and one for myself.

I've traveled by rail in Italy and Spain, but have read that rail travel in England is more costly, and similar to the US airline industry, where fares vary, and are best purchased in advance. A frind of mine was in England a few years back, and tells me I should just show up to the station the mornig I need to and buy the tickets there. Online info I've read seems to contradict this, though again, we only need to make one round trip, and have no need for any kind of multiple day/week/month pass. We're both around 40, so I don't need student or seniors info, nor is penny pinching my ultimate goal. I just want us to have guaranteed seats on a train that will get us where we need to be at the correct time.

So, how should I do this? Buy at the train station the morning of my trip? Or should I purchase in advance online? If I should buy online, could you point me to the exact site where I can do so? Thank you.
posted by jeff-o-matic to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Since you've got specific plans, I'd buy in advance. Ticket prices fluctuate and, at least as of this summer, tended to spike in cost as you got close to the date of travel. I think there are some same-day discounts available, but I wouldn't think it would be worth the risk.
The website you want is
posted by katemonster at 9:29 AM on February 2, 2007

Purchase in advance online. The Trainline will show your your options, up to three months in advance. There are usually tiers of cheap single advance fares (including first class fares) with limited seat allocations each.
posted by sueinnyc at 9:30 AM on February 2, 2007

London to York is operated by GNER. They do deep discounts if you buy far enough in advance (a few weeks). Go to the GNER website and put in your details. On the results page it'll say something like "It could be cheaper to buy 2 singles. Click here". Do so and it'll give you the special offers.

Your friend is right that most train tickets cost the same if you buy them on the day, but certain companies (Virgin and GNER mainly) have started doing their own special offers.
posted by cillit bang at 9:31 AM on February 2, 2007

(the reason you've got three different answers is that ticketing is centralised, so you're accessing the same system whatever you do. But since you'll be travelling with GNER it's best to book via their site)
posted by cillit bang at 9:38 AM on February 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone.

cillit bang: You hit on another confusing aspect: I kept reading about different sites with completely different names selling (seemingly) the same tickets. Funny, with all the vast amount of info online these days, finding out the simplest thing can sometimes be the most difficult.

I'll be checking out the GNER site this weekend.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:54 AM on February 2, 2007

Advice from a cheapskate:

1. Always buy in advance
2. Always check if two singles are cheaper than a return
3. See how much it is for you 2 plus + 1 child with a family railcard. A family railcard cost £20 for the year, and you get 1/3rd off most adult fares as long as you buy a child ticket as well. UK trains are full of couples pretending to have a child with them. (
4. When in London go to the tube station and ask for a £10 Oyster card. It is a pre-paid card for travel on the tube and buses. With the prepaid card the tube cost £1.50. If you pay cash it is £4. The card cost £3 refundable when you hand it in, so the guy in the ticket office will charge you £13. Plus the Oyster Card gets you 2for1 at a lot of attractions. Only tourists are paying £4.
posted by priorpark17 at 10:28 AM on February 2, 2007

Response by poster: Are you saying it's four pounds to ride the tube one way as a base price?

Haven't heard of the Oyster card. I'll check that out as well, as we're going to be in London for seven days total and will be using the tube at least twice a day.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 10:47 AM on February 2, 2007

cillit bang is right... i always buy in advance to get cheap fares and surprisingly often two singles are the best way. you get a seat booked this way too, unlike buying on the day. i use but you can buy direct from GNER too.
posted by cardamine at 10:48 AM on February 2, 2007

Yeah man, don't pay cash on the tube, it's primo expensive. A day ticket in Zone 1 and 2 is £4.60, and a one way ticket in zone 1 is £4 - go figure.

The Trainline is a good and easy to use website - recommended.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:22 AM on February 2, 2007

Advance purchase. These are sold as singles, the number of seats at those rates is limited, you can only travel on a particular train (unless it's cancelled), and there's an advance-time cut-off for the cheapest fares. There might be special promotions between now and, say, early March, but certainly don't wait past then to book.

[Off the top of my head, a SuperSaver return (bought on the day for off-peak travel) is about £100 these days and a Saver £150. A couple of the cheapest advance singles right now comes to £38.]

The only problem might be lacking a UK billing address, though I think they've sorted that. Once you're booked, you can collect your tickets on the day from the machines at Kings Cross.
posted by holgate at 11:29 AM on February 2, 2007

Required reading for you: An insider's guide to cheap rail tickets.

Also, bear in mind you won't be able to get advanced tickets delivered outside of the UK. You will need to get a code to pick them up at a nominated station (Kings Cross in your case) with the card you booked them with. The code works 80% of the time. Good luck.
posted by randomination at 11:41 AM on February 2, 2007

Response by poster: holgate-

I live in Chicago, so no UK billing address for me. So I'd book online, presumably get some ID number, then have to enter it at a machine at King's Cross Station to get the actual tickets?

By the way, Is King's Cross the correct station to get the train to York?

Thanks again everyone. This is so helpful.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:44 AM on February 2, 2007

randomination beat me to it: you'll get a booking ID and use the card you booked with as confirmation. And yes, Kings Cross for York: two and a half hours or so with only a few stops, and the city centre is very walkable from the station.

A number of GNER trains have (pay-for) wireless internet. Also, there's wireless at the first class lounges, but you can generally access it outside if you're close enough.
posted by holgate at 12:36 PM on February 2, 2007

Another point - the advance tickets are usually only valid for the train that you have booked. You might know the day you want to travel but are you positive about the time. Walk up saver fares are usually valid for the return journey up to 1 month from purchase and on all journeys (except some at peak times)
posted by Cuppatea at 12:47 PM on February 2, 2007

Go to GNER's website to browse around to find your preferred advance-purchase ticket, but call them on the phone to make the booking: this is how American friends of mine have got around the billing address issue in the past. From the US, 011 44 8457 225 225 should work. Failing that, 011 44 1904 653022 might be able to help.

The £4 tube fares are not really bona fide fares at this point, in my view: they are penalty charges to force people to use Travelcards and Oystercards. So do so.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:09 PM on February 2, 2007

Response by poster: GNER won't allow me to buy tickets, as I don't have a UK address, and can't enter a valid post code. From the site:

Our Address Search database only recognises UK postcodes, so we are unable to accept registration from anywhere outside the UK. Our Development team are working on modifying the web site to accept these addresses in future.
For those customers who are already registered with us from abroad, please remember:

We do not deliver overseas. If you want the ticket posted it must be to a UK delivery address.
You may be able to pick up the ticket(s) direct from the station using one of the FastTicket machines. To view a list of stations with FastTicket collection please Click Here. Please note, when collecting from a FastTicket machine you must bring with you the credit card used to make the booking and the FastTicket reference provided once the booking is confirmed.

It won't let me go past to purchase. What other site might I be able to purchase from?
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:13 PM on February 2, 2007

Try the above-mentioned and
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:18 PM on February 2, 2007

Sorry, I meant
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:19 PM on February 2, 2007

nthing buying your tickets in advance. I used to do this journey regularly. The train gets VERY busy, especially before / after working hours and you will be very hard pushed to find a seat together if you haven't booked in advance.

Fares can vary by up to £70 each depending on when you buy the tickets. You just need to make sure that you can get the train at the time you book it for. The tickets are non-transferrable.

Another good site for ticket buying is
posted by lemonpillows at 8:06 AM on February 5, 2007

Response by poster: Following up a few weeks later:

Thanks so much for the info. I called GNER directly and purchased the tickets over the phone. The man I spoke to was very helpful, and even though I wrote down the exact times from the website, the times had changed slightly, and he was able to suggest an itinerary that was far cheaper, and sill fit within the timeframe I needed it to.

He also said that GNER is in fact reworking their website, and should allow those without UK postcodes to purchase tickets within a few months.

Overall, I recommend simply calling GNER directly, as I got a far cheaper fare than what I could find online, and the call was less than 10 minutes long.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:51 AM on February 28, 2007

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