By Rick Steves
Are rail passes a good value for Great Britain?
Since Britain’s pay-as-you-go train tickets are some of the most expensive in Europe, BritRail passes can pay for themselves quickly, especially if you travel between London and Scotland. BritRail passes are particularly worthwhile if you’re able to take advantage of one its discount deals. But if you’re making just a couple of trips and can commit to dates and times in advance, look into Britain’s advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point train tickets, which can save you money over a pass.
How do I see whether a rail pass makes sense for my trip in particular?
Use this map to add up approximate pay-as-you-go fares for your itinerary, and compare that cost to the price of a rail pass for the number of days you expect to spend on the train. Dashed lines show bus connections and dotted lines show ferry services, neither of which are covered by rail passes. Also, follow the links below for:
- More tips for figuring out whether a pass makes sense for your trip
- The basics on choosing among rail passes
- More tips on how to save money by fine-tuning your rail pass
- Fare-estimate maps outside Britain
- Answers to frequently asked rail-pass questions
Each of the passes below covers a different geographical area. Choose the one that best fits your trip to check prices and to buy your pass (orders are fulfilled by Rail Europe).
What do rail passes cover in Britain?
Passes include travel on nearly all trains within the geographical areas that they cover including airport shuttle trains to/from London’s main airports (the Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted Express). Here’s what’s not covered:
- Narrow-gauge “heritage” railways (but BritRail passes do get you a 20 percent discount, which doesn’t use up a travel day)
- Eurostar train to/from Paris or Brussels (though a pass that covers England does allow you to buy a ticket at a passholder rate; seats at this rate are limited)
Some passes have a few additional restrictions (see the key details for each pass below).
Any advice for deciding between first and second class?
In Britain, “standard” class (a.k.a. second class) is fine, and budget travelers will find that first class is not worth the extra 50 percent. Indeed, many regional trains have only standard-class cars. On some long-distance trains, first class includes a meal served at your seat...but few will find these meals worth the extra expense. See our general advice for deciding between first and second class.
You may be able to take advantage of one of BritRail’s cost-saving deals:
- Kids: For each adult- or senior-rate BritRail pass you buy, one child (5–15) travels with you free (you’ll need to specify which child with which adult when you order). This “Family Pass” deal is available with full-fledged BritRail, BritRail England, and BritRail South West passes. Additional kids pay half the adult pass price, and kids under 5 ride free.
- Youths: Travelers under age 26 can get a discount on some first- and standard-class BritRail passes.
- Seniors: Seniors can get a discount on some first-class passes, but will save more by getting a standard-class pass.
- Groups: If you’re traveling with two or more other people, you can save quite a bit: A BritRail “Party Pass,” which can have any anywhere from three to nine adults (and youths) on the same pass, gives a 50 percent discount for every traveler added after the first two adult-rate travelers on a full-fledged BritRail or BritRail England pass (and can include up to two free kids as well).
- Winter Travel: Adult-rate BritRail and BritRail England passes are 20 percent cheaper if you’re traveling any time between November 1 and the end of February (and can be purchased through February 12). This discount isn’t automatic: Be sure to click on the “Low-Season” link to order.
Do I need to make seat reservations on British trains?
For the most part, you can hop on most British trains with just your rail pass in hand. It can be smart, however, to reserve a seat for weekend travel, when trains tend to fill up. Seat reservations can be made for free at any staffed station in Britain.
On overnight trains, a bunk in a twin sleeper costs about $75. Overnight journeys begun on your BritRail pass’s final night can be completed the day after the pass expires (only BritRail allows this trick). Overnight reservations can be made at any train station or before you leave home (US tel. 866-274-8724).
If a rail pass doesn’t pencil out for your trip, you may be able to shave off the cost of your train tickets with some of these tips:
- Advance-purchase discounts can be a huge savings. For example, a London–Edinburgh one-way trip at the full (“Anytime”) fare is about $235, but advance tickets are usually around $60–75, with the lowest rate selling out first. Generally, the earlier you book, the better deal you’ll get. Advance discount tickets get snapped up particularly fast in summer. They can be booked from one day to eight weeks ahead, have limited seat availability, are non-refundable, and have exchange restrictions.
- Off-peak discounts apply after 9:30 a.m., and round-trip off-peak tickets may cost the same as one-way tickets. For example, the off-peak fare for a one-way London–Edinburgh trip is $180, while the full (“Anytime”) fare is about $235.
- Check the National Rail site for all ticket prices, rules, and to buy online, or call 011-44-8457-484-950 for 24-hour information (they’ll give you another number to purchase tickets). For credit card approval online, it may help to enter a British hotel address or postal code (not for delivery). Pick up reserved tickets at any staffed train station.
- Youths (ages 16–25) and full-time students (with ISIC card) can get a third off most train tickets by buying a 16–25 Railcard (£30). Not valid on the Heathrow Express, Eurostar, or some weekday morning commuter trains.
- Seniors (60 and older) can get a third off most train tickets by buying a Senior Railcard (also £30). Not valid on the Heathrow Express, Eurostar, or some weekday morning commuter trains.
- Couples (or any two travel companions) can get a third off most train tickets with a Two Together Railcard, as long as they’re both present (£30; both travelers’ photos required). Not valid on the Heathrow Express, Eurostar, or some weekday morning commuter trains.
- Families can get a third off most train tickets with a Family & Friends Railcard (also £30), which allows adults to travel a third cheaper while their kids age 5–15 get 60 percent off most train trips. Not valid on the Heathrow Express, Eurostar, or some weekday morning commuter trains.
Also see our general tips for buying point-to-point tickets.
BritRail Passes: Key Details
Low-Season discounts: Available for adult-rate passes only, with no youth or senior discount (but up to two kids can be added for free under the “Family Pass” deal). Groups of four or more will save more by getting a “Party Pass” discount (which isn’t offered with the Low-Season passes). A Low-Season pass can’t be used for travel after the end of February, even if its validity period extends beyond that. Sale ends at 5pm Easatern Time on February 12, 2015.
BritRail London Plus Pass: Covers most trains in southeast England. This pass offers either 2 or 4 days of train travel within an 8-day window, or 7 days of train travel within a 15-day window. While this pass is available in both first and standard class, many trains in its coverage area have no first-class cars. Includes vouchers (separate from your counted travel days) to cover two trips to/from London on the Heathrow, Stansted, or Gatwick Express trains, which can be used up to six months from the date you validate the rail pass in Britain (but not before pass is validated for the 8- or 15-day travel window). You may not need these vouchers if you’re flying only one-way to/from London, using Luton Airport, traveling between the airport and a different city, or taking the Tube between London and Heathrow (not covered by rail passes).
BritRail South West Pass: Covers most trains in southwest England, but only those operated by First Great Western (though not east of Portsmouth), South West Trains, and Heathrow Express (but does include the Newport–Cardiff–Swansea mainline trains in Wales). While this pass is available in both first and standard class, many trains in its coverage area have no first-class cars.
BritRail Freedom of Scotland Pass: Covers most trains in Scotland. This pass offers either 4 days of train travel within an 8-day window, or 8 days of train travel within a 15-day window. Available in standard class only. Not valid on trains that depart before 9:15 a.m. Monday–Friday. Covers Caledonian MacBrayne and Strathclyde ferry service to popular islands; other bonuses include a discount on some P&O ferries and Citylink buses.
BritRail Central Scotland Pass: Covers frequent service between Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Queen Street Station (not Glasgow Central), some nearby side-trips (see coverage map), and the Glasgow Underground (on your three travel days). This pass is prevalidated at the time of purchase for 3 days of travel with a specific, 7-day travel window (and cannot be refunded after that planned travel date). Available in standard class only. Not valid on trains that depart before 9:15 a.m. Monday–Friday. Doesn’t include any travel to the highlands or islands.