A Beginner’s Guide to UK Train Travel, Part II: Tickets and Services

Last week, we looked at the various train operators throughout the United Kingdom. This week, we’ll dive deeper into the train services, types of tickets offered, and tips for purchasing your tickets.

Train Services

Firstly, when booking a train journey in England, it is important to know the type of train which will get you to your desired destination in a quick and efficient manner. Trains in the UK are traditionally classified as “fast”, “semi-fast”, and “stopping” services.

Fast – The fast service are often the trains connecting the primary cities along a particular route in the timeliest manner. For example, if a passenger was traveling from London to Bristol to visit England’s West Country, they would travel via the Great Western Main Line. In the 118 miles between London and Bristol, there are 25 stations in total. Instead of stopping at every station, likely adding hours to the journey, the fast service between the cities makes only 5 intermediate stops in larger cities and towns on the line.

Semi-Fast – While not stopping at every station, semi-fast services do provide more station stops than the fast service. For example, many Great Western semi-fast services double the number of stations serviced from the fast service shown above.

Stopping – Stopping services, also called locals, are usually smaller, less luxurious trains that provide service to all the intermediate stations along the line. These trains often provide connections for passengers stopping on the fast or semi-fast services at larger stations.


After finding a train, passengers can either book a single ticket or a return ticket. A single ticket is just that, a ticket valid for one specified train at one specified time. A return ticket gives more freedom, particularly when finding a later returning train. A return ticket allows passengers not have to wait for a particular train to return to their point of departure.

Types of Tickets


Advance tickets are available on many routes and must be purchased before the day of travel. Advanced tickets are non-refundable, limited in availability, and cheaper the earlier they are booked. These tickets are booked for specific trains, but can be changed prior to the day of travel for a nominal fee. Advance tickets are sold as individual tickets and separate trips must be booked for each direction of travel. One of the key benefits of advance tickets is the ability to reserve a particular seat. Since trains in the UK can sell more tickets than seats, this can be beneficial, particularly for long-distance journeys.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bill Sparkmon

Off-Peak tickets are flexible tickets that are valid at ‘off-peak’ times of the day, which vary depending what journey you are making. Off-Peak tickets are often valid at any time of the day on Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays and after around 9:30 AM on Mondays to Fridays. Railways can often set peak times in the late afternoon and evening around quitting time. Off-peak tickets are refundable with a £10 administration fee. Certain operators also offer “Super Off-Peak” fares, so passengers can enjoy even cheaper fares.


Anytime tickets are the most flexible type of ticket. These are valid on all trains on every day of the week, with no time restrictions. There are certain restrictions in terms of operators with which the ticket is valid. Anytime Return tickets are valid for five days on trains and for one month from your initial leg of your journey. There are also Anytime Day Return tickets valid only for the same day. These are also refundable with a £10 administration fee.

Tips for Your Trip

If you know the particular operator you will be traveling on to your destination, you can visit their website directly. If you are unsure of what the best service for your travel might be, visit the National Rail website. With access to all stations and the ways to get from one place to another, National Rail is a great conglomeration of all information. This is also helpful since many larger stations are often served by more than one operator, which may provide a cheaper alternative. Here are some other tips to keep in mind.

Two Single Tickets vs. One Return Ticket – If you are booking a round-trip at the spur of the moment on your journey to the UK, a return ticket is the more cost-effective option. However, if planning in advance, it is often cheaper to book a single ticket in each direction as opposed to a return ticket. While this limits which train a passenger can take each direction, it does guarantee a seat for the length of the journey.

Book Ahead – The earlier you buy your ticket, the cheaper it will be. Train companies usually release their cheapest fixed-time Advance tickets, which are limited in number, around 12 weeks before departure.

Taking the Slower Train – This may result in big savings. For example, peak-time travel on the main route between London Paddington and the historic Roman spa city of Bath costs £190 for an Anytime Return. If you can afford the time, a passenger can depart London Waterloo to Bath, take an extra 75 minutes and change trains in Salisbury, and the price for the Anytime return ticket drops to £81.30.

After looking at all the operators in the United Kingdom, the types of trains they run, and what to look for when booking your tickets, next week, To The Trains will look at the capital city of London. With many of the cheapest flights to England flying into London, how do you know which station will take you where, how will you get around the city, and what special services can be found in London and in no other major city in the UK.