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UK train tickets: the great rail sale is on – but is there a catch?

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One million half-price rail tickets are up for grabs in the first Great British Rail Sale, which was announced earlier this week. The offer is designed to tempt back travellers to using the train, after the coronavirus pandemic led to a big drop in passenger numbers.

What’s the deal?

A million off-peak, mostly advance, train tickets have gone on sale, discounted by up to 50%. To get the lower prices you have to book by 23.59 on 2 May, and travel between 25 April and 27 May.

Before you get excited, you need to be aware that not all routes and journeys are being discounted, and the period does not include half-term (schools break up on 27 May). It does include the early May bank holiday weekend.

Some rail companies are being more generous than others, while some are barely taking part.

The Department for Transport says: “Great British Rail Sale tickets are not available on all routes, are limited and subject to availability and exclusions.” It also warns that the discounted ticket “may not represent the lowest available fare” for a particular journey.

Advance tickets are single tickets, so you need to take that into account when looking at the headline offers.

Tempt me with some prices

On LNER, one-way Edinburgh-London tickets have been on sale on some trains at a price of £22.

The flat rail sale fare between London and Leeds is £15. GWR is selling Cardiff-London Paddington tickets for £25 one-way, and has tickets between Bristol and London at £18.

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View image in fullscreenAvanti West Coast is offering some one-way fares between London and Glasgow for £26 and London-Manchester for £23. Photograph: Luciana Guerra/PA

Avanti West Coast, which runs trains from London Euston all the way to Scotland on the west coast mainline, is offering some one-way fares between London and Glasgow for £26 and London-Manchester for £23. Trips between London and Liverpool are £17, and it costs £8 to get from London to Birmingham.

Between Southampton and London Victoria, Southern is selling seats for only £2.70. It’s a huge bargain – more than 50% off what is advertised after the promotion ends, in fact – but, as ever, there is a small catch. This journey takes twice as long as the South Western Railway trip to London Waterloo.

A single from York to Leeds is being reduced to £2.80 from £5.60, while Portsmouth Harbour to Penzance is £22, down from £45.70.

Is it possible to find these fares?

One million tickets might sound like a large number but you need to know that the usual number of rail journeys over the offer period is more than 160m, so it is a tiny proportion. More than 170,000 tickets were sold on the first day of the sale.

Tickets on popular routes are selling fast, so don’t hang about.

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Where do I book?

The tickets are only available online – you cannot get them in person, and must buy them at least a day before you plan to travel.

For bookings the DfT has set up a useful website, greatbritishrailsale.nationalrail.co.uk, which will tell you if the discounted fares are available on your chosen route.

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If they are, it links through to the train operator of that service, and your booking is made directly.

Trainline is also offering the discounted fares, although be aware it charges a booking fee.

Can I use this offer for going into the office?

View image in fullscreenCommuters arrive at London Waterloo station during a morning rush hour. Photograph: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

In most cases not. The offer is designed to get people out of their cars and on to trains at off-peak times, although there are a few exceptions.

Commuter services in and out of London and other big cities are generally not included in the offer – most offers are focused on off-peak travel rather than during rush hour.

However, those travelling for work on longer trips should be able to take advantage if they are travelling during the day and are prepared to be flexible on times.

What else do I need to consider?

When you buy an advance ticket you have to commit to getting on a specifically timed train, which means your ticket can’t be used on a later service if you oversleep, and you can’t leap on an earlier train if you arrive at the station ahead of schedule. If your train operator allows, you may be able to make changes for free until 6pm on the day before you are set to travel.

If you have a railcard you can still use that and you will receive the typical 33% discount on top of the other reductions. The discounts are also available for first-class tickets.

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Connecting journeys on different train operators do not qualify. There is nothing to stop you from split-ticketing if the offer is available on one leg of your chosen trip.

Some rail firms don’t appear to have bothered to cut prices at all on popular routes. For example, Great Northern fares to Brighton are the same price as normal. LNER is excluding trips on Fridays and weekends from its offer.

View image in fullscreenGreat Northern fares to Brighton are the same price as normal. Photograph: Dinendra Haria/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

If you fancy a trip into the unknown, the main rail sale website has an “inspire me” button offering information on fares from your chosen destination. This week, inspiration for someone looking to travel from London King’s Cross included tickets to Peterborough and Doncaster for about £8, while travellers from Gloucester were shown trips to Bristol stations for £4, and £5 fares to Evesham among others.

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