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This past July, my hubby and I took our first trip to Great Britain. We spent 10 days running all over England and Scotland, and barely took a moment to catch our breath. Since coming back home to Cleveland, I’ve had some time to reflect on our time there. There are many things that were exactly how I expected them to be, and many that were not.
One such thing was train travel through Great Britain. Now, I don’t know about all of you, but when I think of crossing Great Britain via train, I picture the Hogwarts Express. A brightly colored locomotive waiting for me at the platform, majestically pumping steam into the air. Filled with like-minded adventure-seeking folks just excited to be there. Buying snacks off the trolley. Discussing the latest news in quidditch and watching the wizarding world roll by out the window…
Anyhow, it’s a little bit different here in muggle land. If I haven’t already lost you with my Harry Potter references (don’t worry, I’m done now…maybe), please keep reading for things I wish I would have known before taking the trains on our Great Britain trip.
Great Britain train travel is PRICEY
So Great Britain, as it turns out, has some of the most expensive prices in Europe for train tickets. Honestly, I was horrified when I saw how much is costs to go to London from Edinburgh.
If you do not book tickets far in advance, the prices can be as much as 200 GBP per ticket. Yikes! Two tickets at that price would’ve destroyed my naïve little transportation budget of $400 for the whole trip.
Flying may actually be the cheaper option for you. There are a few budget airlines that go between London and Scotland, if that is a trip you are looking to do. Just keep in mind that this may not also be a time-saving option.
First, you have to get to the airport, which may be a bit further of a trip than the train station. Then you have your typical airport waits through security or there could be delays, so it may not end up being any faster than train travel at all. However, I actually did consider this option for a bit before realizing…
Buying Train Tickets in Advance is WAYYY Cheaper
The train schedules only seem to get posted about 12 weeks in advance (at least for most trips). So you should be ready the first day they are posted to try and get the cheapest ticket you can. You would be amazed at how much money you save doing this! Just remember that what you save in money, you lose in flexibility. Tickets purchased in advance are often non-refundable and non-transferable. They can typically only be used for the exact day and time that they were originally booked for.
I would suggest being selective for the train trips you want to book in advance. For example, if you are flying into London and immediately are taking the train to Bath, I would just wait until the day of your trip despite it being a more expensive ticket. If you have a flight delay you risk missing your train. Then your ticket is worthless and you have to spend the money on a new ticket at regular prices anyhow. Anything could happen, so it’s just not worth the risk.
Do look into Great Britain’s rail pass options**
Great Britain rail passes are beneficial for folks planning on taking multiple train rides during lengthier stays in Great Britain. Check out the BritRail site for the various passes that are available. They are offered for use over either continuous days or to be used on a certain amount of days during your trip. The more train rides you are planning on doing, the more value this will be for you. It also offers up more flexibility, since you don’t need to book any train tickets in advance to use the pass.
Below is a little chart I made while planning our trip to determine our best ticket price option. It also compares against the total rail pass cost. As you can see, for a 10 day trip with 4 train rides, booking tickets in advance was definitely the cheapest way to go!
Look into railcard options as well
There is a difference between rail passes and railcards in Great Britain. Rail passes, as I mentioned above, are great for long-term travel or frequent train use. Railcards, on the other hand, will save you about 30% off the price on every ticket purchase. Check out this page on the National Rail site to determine if there is a railcard for you.
Since I travelled with my husband, we could use the Two Together railcard on all of our ticket purchases (except one trip, where I forgot to use it…sigh). For this pass to be valid, you must travel together at all times and carry your pass with you on each train trip. An employee will come around during your ride to check your tickets and rail passes.
Do not pick seats at a table on the train unless you are traveling as a group of 4
When you buy your tickets in advance, you get to look at a seating chart and pick out your seats. This is good for making sure you get a window seat and are sitting on the side of the train with the best view. However, you may notice that some trains have these cute looking little tables with 4 seats around them (2 on each side). The diagram makes these seats look much more spacious and comfortable than they actually are!
For some reason, I was picturing this lounge set-up where my husband and I could sprawl out a little and have the table to set things on for convenience. That image was wayyy wrong. It’s the same standard train seats as every other row, except the table makes things even tighter and you get to sit in this small space with two strangers. Hopefully you like them! Otherwise, it makes for a loooong train ride. You’ve been warned.
Try to pick a seat with a view
Excuse the dirty train window in the picture, but how’d you like to stare at this for a 4 hour trip? Not too shabby, huh? If you pick your seats in advance, make sure you pick the correct side of the train to be closest to the water depending on whether you are travelling north or south. If your heading from London to Edinburgh, pick the right side of the train. You’ll want the left side of the train if Edinburgh to London.
Do bring noise cancelling headphones if you have ’em
There is always that one chatty person that talks loud enough for the whole train to hear them. Travelling is exhausting, and if you are in an irritable mood that day, this may bother you and make you want to throw things. You don’t need to throw things. Just bring those noise cancelling headphones and pretend they aren’t there.
ALWAYS check for toilet paper before using a bathroom on the train
If you don’t you are taking a lot of risks. If you realize too late that it’s all out, there will not be extra in the bathroom, and there will be no one around to help you. Take heed of this advice from someone who learned this lesson the hard way. TMI, I know, but just trying to save a couple more people from experiencing this…
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Anyhow, I hope these suggestions help you in your travels! I definitely wish someone would have told me some of these things before my trip. Have you navigated the British rail system before? Have any weird situations pop up while doing so? Do tell below…
We had quite the experience on the British railway a year or two ago, traveling from Newcastle to London. Cows had ventured onto the track, the train had struck them, and — as one witness put it in the resulting news story — “there was blood and poo everywhere.” We were further up the line when it happened, so we didn’t have to see it, but they ended up closing the track and we had to catch a different train to Manchester. At Machester, we got on a train to London. Then in came to a standstill at Nuneaton when the driver suddenly fell ill. It was seriously starting to look like we might not make it to London at all. We did finally get there, though, and I learned a lot about the British rail system as a result. I wrote an article about it — including under what circumstances you may be entitled to full or partial refund — at my blog, travelasmuch.com.
Oh my goodness! Now that is quite a story haha. Glad it all ended up working out, but what a freak situation! I will certainly check out your post.
Thank you for this article! I’m planning a trip to Europe next summer with my family. London is in the plan. We hope to do three cities in 2 weeks. I am learning a lot with researching for this trip. I also read your article on not trying to plan too much with so little time. The breakdown of time is so very helpful!
Thank you so much and glad you found it helpful! 3 cities over 2 weeks will be the perfect pace to see a lot of sights without losing your mind. Happy planning!