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Rail travel myths: Debunked!

Let us debunk some of the most common myths about rail travel to help you travel smarter.
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Travelling by train in Great Britain doesn’t always feel simple. Plus, there are plenty of misconceptions about what’s true and what isn’t! We’ve put together some of the most common rail travel myths to make your journey as simple and worry-free as possible.

Advance train tickets are always the cheapest

It would make sense that this would be true. After all, they come with more restrictions and you need to book them in advance. But you need to be careful, as sometimes an Advance ticket isn’t much cheaper than the flexible option. Let’s also take a look at an example (24 hours in advance) where it’s cheaper to buy a flexible ticket:

As you can see, you can buy two Advance singles for this Newcastle to York (and return) trip on the same day. The total will come to £48.70.

But if you select ‘Return’, it’s £47.30. This ticket will also let you travel on trains other than the one you select. Whenever you book on Railsmartr, you’ll have the options of ‘Singles’ or ‘Returns’. Be sure to check out both. We’ll always offer you the cheapest return or combination of single tickets (depending on which you select) for your journey.

If a flexible ticket is only a little more expensive, it’s often worth picking it up. After all, that small difference gives you the freedom to travel on a different train. Plus, you can refund it if you’re not able to use it.

If my train is cancelled, I need to buy another ticket

While you can’t necessarily jump on whatever train you want straight away, this is one of the common rail travel myths. If you’re travelling on an Advance ticket, at minimum, you’ll be allowed to travel on the next train operated by the same company. This usually extends to the train before, as well.

On flexible tickets (such as Off-Peak or Anytime), there’s no need to get any permission to take another train unless it’s restricted to a certain route or company. In this case, you should take the next available train that your ticket would allow.

In widespread disruption, there’ll be ticket acceptance arranged on a different route or company. The National Rail website or railway staff will let you know if this is the case. In any circumstance, rail companies cannot leave you stranded or out-of-pocket during a disruption.

The National Rail Conditions of Travel state that:

Where disruption prevents you from completing the journey for which your Ticket is valid and is being used, any Train Company will, where it reasonably can, provide you with alternative means of travel to your destination, or if necessary, provide overnight accommodation for you. National Rail Conditions of Travel, Section 28.2

If you have a ‘split’ ticket (where you use a combination of tickets to make a journey), exactly the same advice applies. You’ll of course need to make sure you’ve left enough time for changing trains, though. We’ve produced a full guide to disruption (including what to do when it happens) here.

I need a seat reservation to travel

This is one of the rail travel myths that came about with COVID-19. Back when social distancing was a thing, rail operators would ‘enforce’ this by making sure that they didn’t sell more tickets than there were seats. How did they do it? They forced websites (including us!) to make a ticket come with a seat reservation.

Now that Covid restrictions have ended, you’d expect this to have stopped. The thing is – it hasn’t! The data that gets attached to trains when they appear on ticket-selling websites still says the same thing. So, when the reserved seats run out, it’s impossible to buy a ticket.

There are some ways around this. For example, you could buy the ticket but select a different train, so long as you know it’s valid on the train you also want. This can be tricky to know for some types, so you’re always welcome to contact us if you have a problem or you’re unsure.

Except for overnight ‘Sleeper’ trains, there are no trains in Great Britain that require a seat reservation in normal circumstances. In fact, there’s a handy little Railsmartr article on where to find an unreserved seat!

You always have to travel on the train specified on your ticket

Yes, on Advance tickets, you have to do this. As you’d expect, it’s valid only on your booked train. As we’ve mentioned above though, Anytime, Off-Peak and Super-Off-Peak tickets are valid on more than one train.

Even though you’ll often need to pick a service to book your time, it’s definitely one of the most frustrating rail myths that by picking a train, you’re stuck with it! Here’s what your ticket might look like:

As you can see, the journey details are listed as ‘Optional Reservations’. This means exactly what it sounds like – there’s no need to follow them to the letter! So long as your ticket is valid on the train you’re catching, you don’t need a reservation. Having a train specified on a flexible ticket doesn’t take away any of its validity.

‘Peak’ trains are the busiest or most expensive

This is one of the rail travel myths that in some ways, used to be true. Before COVID-19 struck, it was undeniable that peak trains were some of the busiest. They were undoubtedly the most expensive, too.

In some ways, long-distance rail operators don’t help with this. For example, by marking a train as ‘peak’ (and usually charging higher for Advance tickets, too), it’s going to discourage people from using it. By contrast, the first train where it’s no longer considered ‘peak’ will be a lot busier.

COVID-19 and the rise of flexible working have also changed what we consider to be ‘peak’. If you’re travelling to London, a Friday morning is often the quietest time to go. Wednesdays are usually the busiest weekday, by comparison.

Put simply, there’s no ‘clear-cut’ peak anymore. When it comes to Advance train tickets, some operators might have lower prices on what were traditionally ‘peak’ trains, to try and encourage people to travel in the empty seats once used by weekday commuters.

Are there any other rail travel myths I should know about?

The final one you might want to know about is that no ticket-selling website has access to ‘special’ discounted fares that nobody else does (in normal circumstances). They can however choose to only show you certain fares and make it harder to see the cheapest ones that might be on a slower route. We’ve written some quick tips to finding the best fare, too.

It’s up to them what fees they charge, too. Here at Railsmartr, we don’t charge any at all. You can refund a flexible ticket (or change an Advance ticket) and you’ll only pay the difference. Nothing more.

Author Richard

Hi, I'm Richard and I've been working for Railsmartr since 2022. I make sure that everything we communicate with customers is top-notch and write exciting and informative content for the website. When I'm not at work, you'll still find me on the rails - though often in the far corners of Europe!