What’s the best First Class train in the UK?
First Class. It conjures up images of luxury and enjoying an ‘exclusive’ experience. So what’s the best First Class train in the UK, which ones are just okay, and which ones should you avoid? Here’s our guide to travelling First Class like a boss.
If you wanted the simplest answer to which is the best First Class train in the UK, then we’d probably say LNER. You can travel at any time of day and get your share of 2+1 seating, complimentary food and drink and an altogether more relaxing experience. This is First Class exactly as you’d imagine it.
‘There’s two types of trains on LNER. You’re most likely to get an Azuma, which looks like this:
In terms of the seat, the Intercity 225 trains win every single time. They’re like big homely armchairs and provide a decent level of recline. There’s also a nice variety of seating types, with plenty of single seats and tables for two. The Azuma has lots of tables for four, but assumes that the rest of us prefer to travel as loners! Tables for two as are rare as hen’s teeth on these trains.
What can you expect on board to eat and drink? LNER operates with a ‘Deli, Dish & Dine‘ menu. ‘Deli’ is reserved for their quieter services, ‘Dish’ is served across most services during the day, and Dine is often reserved for the ‘peak’ services.
At minimum, you can expect hot breakfast sandwiches, cold sandwiches and salads and a variety of hot and cold drinks (including alcohol after 11:30am) every day. The ‘Dish’ menu adds some hot lunch/dinner dishes (such as Shepherdess Chicken or Asparagus Tortellini) while the ‘Dine’ menu gives a more ‘premium’ offering such as a ‘Full LNER’ breakfast in the morning, and a salmon dish later in the day.
Is it worth it? If your journey is over an hour, absolutely. On some quieter services, the difference in price often isn’t too high, making it ideal for some affordable luxury. Is it the best First Class train in the UK? Well, it certainly provides the best ‘all-round’ experience all week long.
2. Avanti West Coast
The ‘other’ route from north to south perhaps doesn’t have quite the same ‘flair’ or complimentary offering to make it worthy of the ‘best First Class train in the UK’ badge, but it’s worth mentioning the ‘Standard Premium‘ product here.
Avanti have split up their Pendolino trains (serving all routes except Shrewsbury and Chester/North Wales) into ‘First Class’ and ‘Standard Premium’, with the only difference being the complimentary food and drink. What’s more is that you can simply upgrade on board if you fancy it, though Standard Premium Advance tickets can be purchased, as well.
On weekdays, Coaches G and H will be designated ‘Standard Premium’ (though Coach G is soon to be converted to Standard on some trains), while J and K remain traditional First Class. On weekends, Coach J is also Standard Premium, leaving the tiny Coach K as First. Our advice is not to book First Class on weekends and instead opt for Standard Premium, as it can get rather cosy!
Seating is laid out in a mixture of 2+1 seating, and is rather comfortable indeed. It should be added that Avanti are in the process of refurbishing their trains, but for the moment (October 2022), most trains will look like this (Standard Premium pictured):
What do you get if you pay the extra for First Class? To be fair to Avanti, their menu is fairly decent and doesn’t change too much on weekends, either. In the mornings, you can expect hot breakfast sandwiches, a ‘Great British Breakfast’ and Breakfast Hash, among other dishes. Later on, there’s a Croque Monsieur, a charcuterie plate and a couple of salad options. Here’s the Great British Breakfast:
They don’t skimp on the drinks either, with a plethora of hot, cold and alcoholic drinks to choose from. Versus LNER, there’s a little less ‘pizazz’ with some of the food, but it has a nice variety and the portions are decent. .
For some, ‘Standard Premium’ might make this the best First Class train in the UK, as it allows you to enjoy some space on a long trip for a simple upgrade.
Is it worth it? On weekdays, First Class is more likely to be worth it. But, if you just want some space, opt for Standard Premium instead. It also gives you the option to jump on and upgrade on a whim! On weekends, Standard Premium is the way to go. We’ve even done the legwork and tried the difference out for ourselves. You can read more here. We’ve also done a direct comparison of Avanti West Coast vs LNER.
These are the trains where we’d say it’s worth it on an Advance ticket or upgrade if you can get it. They certainly won’t be winning the ‘best First Class train in the UK’ award, but they’ll give you some extra space and likely a bit of peace on your trip!
3. TransPennine Express, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains
We’ve put these three together as they offer broadly the same product. 2+1 seating, a selection of drinks, snacks (and maybe a sandwich!) and a more pleasant travelling environment. TransPennine Express operate a variety of different train types, but other than your seat looking and feeling a little different, the product is largely the same.
Great Western Railway run the same type of train on all of their long-distance routes out of London. It’s the same as LNER’s Azuma and also the TransPennine Express Nova 1, which runs between Newcastle and Liverpool. Hull Trains operate this type of train on all of their services, too. The only difference is the decor and the carriage sizes.
What’s the catering offer like? Well…
- Hull Trains offer a variety of fresh sandwiches and other light refreshments. In the mornings, this will mean a hot sausage or bacon panini.
- Great Western Railway offer drinks, cakes, crisps and other nibbles on weekdays between 06:00 and 19:30. Some services offer Pullman dining, too (see below).
- TransPennine Express offer hot and cold drinks and snacks for the majority of the day in First Class.
Is it worth it? Certainly all of these trains are modern, spacious and offer a ‘First Class’ feel. Don’t turn up expecting a feast (though Hull Trains certainly offer the best catering of the three) but on most trains, you’ll at least get something to drink and nibble. If you can get a good First Class Advance ticket or upgrade on the day, it’s definitely worth it.
4. East Midlands Railway
East Midlands Railway‘s First Class is certainly laid out as you would expect. It’s got 2+1 seating, seats with a reasonable recline and a more relaxed ambience. You’ll find First Class on services between Sheffield/Nottingham and London St Pancras. It’s no longer offered on trains to/from Corby, but for the moment, you’ll find ‘declassified’ sections with a little more room than the rest of the train. Sit in them at no extra cost!
Here’s what a typical First Class carriage looks like:
East Midlands Railway just slips over on the fact that these trains haven’t had a refurbishment for quite a while and some are starting to look a little tired. However, that rings true for the entire train (both Standard and First) and the seats themselves are still pretty comfortable. It’s definitely worth upgrading if you fancy some extra space and the price difference isn’t too high.
Despite the slightly tired interiors, the food offering is actually quite good. Here’s what East Midlands Railway had to say about it when they overhauled the offering in March 2022:
“Customers travelling First Class during the morning will now be able to choose a hot complimentary bacon or sausage ciabatta, porridge, or a vegan breakfast burrito. While in the afternoon, they will be offered a chilled sandwich, wrap or salad, or the choice of a gluten free meal or vegan option.”East Midlands Railway Press Release, 03 March 2022
This is available on Monday to Saturday at the moment (all day), with plans to extend it to Sundays.
In the coming years, East Midlands Railway will also be replacing their fleet on the London route with more modern trains, so it’s likely that they’ll become an even stronger contender in the battle for the best First Class train in the UK!
Is it worth it? If you’d like some more space and a more comfortable seat, it’s worth considering. Just be aware that on Sundays, the catering offer is fairly limited for the moment.
5. Grand Central
Grand Central offer a decent First Class product, with 2+1 seating and a reasonable travel environment. While their fleet of ‘Adelante’ trains don’t have the most reliable reputation, they’ve recently given them a good refurbishment and they’re fairly smart and modern.
In terms of the complimentary food and drink offer, you can choose for two items out of a list of snacks such as croissants, crisps and biscuits, as well as bean-to-cup coffee. Water, coffee and tea are available throughout the journey without limit.
Is it worth it? The catering certainly won’t be winning any awards, but Grand Central offer a smart First Class that’s certainly worth it on an Advance ticket or upgrade if you can get one.
CrossCountry offer First Class on all of their trains, though their main long-distance product is on their Voyager trains, which operate the ‘core’ routes from Scotland to the South West and Manchester to the South Coast. These trains certainly don’t have the best reputation, being rather cramped and often too short for the trips that they’re making.
That said, this makes a good First Class product all the more important, especially if you’d like some extra space on your journey. Here’s what First Class looks like on a ‘Voyager’ train:
While fairly reasonable, it’s still squeezing a fair number of seats into a small carriage. Those tables for four don’t match up with the windows, either! That said, when comparing it to the rather cramped Standard Class, it could well still be worth the upgrade. The addition of airline-style pairs of seats next to each other is also nice to have, with most trains opting for single seats in this sort of layout.
What’s on the menu? The complimentary menu is offered on most trains, though sometimes early in the morning and late at night, parts of some journeys won’t have any catering. Here’s what to expect:
- Breakfast: Pain au Chocolat, Croissant, Porridge, Hot Bacon Roll
- Snacks: Fruit Cake, Crisps, Biscuits
- Sandwiches: BLT, Tuna & Sweetcorn, Ploughman’s
Sandwiches are available for journeys over 50 minutes on weekdays and 90 minutes on weekends and Bank Holidays. There’s also a selection of hot and cold drinks available.
Is it worth it? If the price is right, it’s definitely worth it for the extra space. After all, CrossCountry services can be very busy indeed. If you have a flexible ticket, you can purchase Weekend First on board, which definitely makes this worth the upgrade.
ScotRail offer First Class on their long-distance and ‘eXpress’ services, the latter being the brand name for trains on the Edinburgh – Falkirk High – Glasgow Queen Street route. The on-board environment certainly varies between the different products, but ScotRail themselves do recognise that.
For example, an on-board upgrade on an ‘Intercity’ train costs £15, while a shorter hop on an ‘eXpress’ train is just £5. Here’s what an ‘eXpress’ train looks like in First Class:
While ‘eXpress’ trains are a little more basic (but still in a 2+1 layout), ‘Inter7City’ trains are far more luxurious, having kept their layout from a previous refurbishment that they had while operating for Great Western Railway. They’re classy, comfortable and certainly worth it for a £15 upgrade on a long journey.
What’s available to eat? You’ll just get a hot/soft drink and a sweet/savoury snack if there’s catering available. Click here for the full list of trains that offer it.
Is it worth it? For £5, we’d certainly recommend the eXpress upgrade if it’s a particularly busy train in Standard Class. The Inter7City upgrade for £15 is worth it on a long trip, too. Just take a picnic with you!
8. Greater Anglia
Greater Anglia have recently abolished First Class on all except their Norwich to London route, thanks to the introduction of a brand-new fleet of trains.
First Class on this route is in a 2+1 layout and is bright and modern as you’d expect from a new train. On Saturdays, Sundays, Bank Holidays and over Christmas, you can upgrade on board for £10.
On weekdays, you can claim complimentary hot and cold drinks and snacks from the buffet counter, too. It isn’t a spectacular offering, but with a maximum journey time of under two hours, we wouldn’t expect the height of opulence.
Is it worth it? If you can get a cheap Advance ticket or fancy a £10 upgrade. It’s no-frills and a brand new train.
9. South Western Railway
South Western Railway operate a variety of route types and so you’ll find a variety of types of First Class. If you’re travelling between London Waterloo and Salisbury/Exeter St Davids, seats are arranged in a 2+1 layout, and it’s genuinely rather roomy.
On trains to Weymouth and some trains to Portsmouth, they’ve recently refurbished their ‘444’ trains and with it, removed the 2+1 layout from First Class! As Standard is 2+2, this may remove some of the ‘pull’ for travellers. That said, it’s bright, modern and spacious enough. It just isn’t quite as ‘different’.
Trains to Alton, Basingstoke and some services to Portsmouth are operated by ‘450’ trains. These have recently been refurbished and have two small but smart compartments in a 2+2 layout, though Standard Class is 3+2. While not all that exciting, they’re again very smart and even provide wireless charging at the tables.
Will you be fed and watered? Sadly not. But First Class does come with larger tables, so you can enjoy a nice picnic spread.
Is it worth it? Certainly if you upgrade at the weekend and you’re travelling a reasonable distance. Click here to find out more about the costs of upgrading.
Here’s the First Class carriages to avoid – they certainly won’t be winning the ‘best First Class train in the UK’ award! Maybe it’s because they’re absolutely no different to Standard, or because you can usually travel in them without paying extra! In many cases, these First Class compartments used to act as a way of being guaranteed a seat on rush hour commuter trains, rather than being anything special in themselves.
10. London Northwestern Railway
We’d previously mentioned London Northwestern Railway on this list, but they no longer offer First Class.
The First Class sections are still there at the moment, so feel free to give them a try and work out whether you’d have paid the upgrade!
The majority of Southern services are operated by their ‘Electrostar’ trains. The only exception is services from Uckfield to London Bridge and Eastbourne to Ashford International. Indeed, these two routes offer trains with 2+1 seating, if you’d like a little more space. What’s more, Eastbourne to Ashford International is advertised as ‘Standard Class only’, so you can sit in this area with a First Class ticket.
So, the only route where you might find a benefit to buying a First Class ticket is on some busier trains between Uckfield and London Bridge. Before COVID-19, this was likely to be a very popular option in the peak commuting times.
However, the ‘Electrostar’ trains (below) are *almost* exactly the same in First Class as they are in Standard Class. You might get a partition door and a power socket, but the experience is almost identical. Southern are also currently in the process of refurbishing their trains and adding power sockets to Standard Class, too. Prior to COVID-19, these little First Class sections used to be an invaluable way of guaranteeing yourself a seat in the rush hour, but naturally that’s not so much the case anymore.
Is it worth it? Potentially on a busy train between Uckfield and London Bridge, but otherwise you’re probably best saving your pennies.
The Thameslink First Class experience certainly isn’t the worst one of this list. While the seats are still in a 2+2 layout, they’re wider, and you have access to power sockets. It’s also separated reasonably well from the rest of the train. Here’s what to expect:
What’s the issue here? Well, unless you really want to be away from other passengers, there’s no need to pay for it. In some ways, that might make it the best First Class train in the UK! It’s always ‘declassified’ at the rear of the train on the following trains:
- Bedford to Brighton;
- Cambridge to Brighton;
- Peterborough to Horsham;
- Peak-time ‘extras’ to/from Littlehampton and East Grinstead.
Plus, it’s declassified at both ends on these trains:
- Rainham (Kent) to Luton;
- Sevenoaks to London Blackfriars/Welwyn Garden City;
- Luton/St Albans to Sutton.
If in doubt, always sit at the back! Of course, other passenger have gradually cottoned onto this, so expect the ‘free’ First Class section to be a little busy. If you really want some solitude, then that’s the only reason to pay extra.
Is it worth it? Not in our opinion, seeing as there’s a ‘free’ option to try it out!
13. Gatwick Express
There’s little to say about Gatwick Express other than that the First Class compartment is exactly the same as Standard Class, save for a small piece of cloth on the seat. The Gatwick Express website says that:
“With your First Class rail ticket you can take advantage of power sockets throughout and complimentary Wi-Fi, meaning you can send those last minute emails before you hop on your flight.”Gatwick Express Website
This in itself is true, but you can take advantage of exactly the same facilities in Standard Class. Considering that Gatwick Express is the ‘premium’ operator on the route, this is perhaps a little disappointing! We wouldn’t recommend paying the extra. You can found out more in our guide to the best train to Gatwick Airport.
Is it worth it? Not in our opinion.
While we’ve covered the best First Class train in the UK (and the not so good), there are two other experiences that are worth mentioning…
Great Western Railway Pullman Dining
While Great Western Railway might not be winning the ‘best First Class train in the UK’ award, if you’re willing to pay a little extra, then they might win the award for some of the best dining.
With main courses such as Thai Green Curry and Herb-crusted Haddock, this is a ‘proper’ restaurant-style service!
On selected services between London Paddington and Plymouth/Swansea, you can pay £33.95 for two courses or £39.95 for three, and take a seat in a First Class carriage to enjoy your meal. First Class customers are able to reserve in advance, while those in Standard Class can walk-up on the day if there’s spare seats.
You can click here to find out more about the Pullman dining service.
Transport for Wales
Transport for Wales are currrently in the process of introducing First Class onto their long-distance services, having just had a single ‘Premier’ return journey between Holyhead and Cardiff Central for a number of years.
Once their new trains are introduced, you’ll also be able to travel in First Class between Manchester and South Wales. Complimentary drinks and snacks are available, and you can currently also order hot food on board.
It’s £10 for breakfast, £17 for a two-course lunch/dinner and £20 for three courses.
Is there anything else I should know about booking First Class trains?
Looking to know more about First Class? Take a look at our dedicated page for First Class train travel. We’re here to help with our Top 5 Tips for getting cheaper fares, upgrading on board and even how to use First Class for free.
Ready to book your First Class trip? Railsmartr is here to help. We don’t charge any booking fees, or any fees at all, for that matter!
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Disclaimer: All opinions expressed within this post are not to be taken as statements of fact. Your experiences may differ or vary from the ones that we’ve described. All First Class complimentary offers are subject to availability. All First Class complimentary offer information is correct at the time of writing (20/10/2022) and some information was last updated 23/06/2023.