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, rail passes can pay for themselves quickly, especially if you travel between London and Scotland. (If you're making only a few trips and can commit to dates and times in advance, look into Britain's advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point train tickets, which could conceivably save you money over a pass — just don't be too quick to dismiss the hop-on, hop-off convenience of 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
Extra tip: BritRail passes offer different deals for kids and youths than Eurail-brand passes, plus an option of group discounts (details below).
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). Exceptions:
- "Heritage" railways aren't covered by any passes (but BritRail passes do get you a 20 percent discount, which doesn't use a counted travel day on a flexipass)
- Eurostar trains to/from Paris, Lille, or Brussels aren't covered by BritRail passes (but are covered by the Eurail Global Pass, though required seat reservations still cost extra)
Some passes have a few additional restrictions (see the key details for each pass below).
For the most part, with any BritRail pass you can hop on most British trains with just your 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.
If you're traveling in Britain with a Eurail Global Pass, you do need to reserve ahead for certain trains. Reservations are almost always free, easy to make at the station, and usually don't need to be made all that far in advance — but the list of British trains requiring reservations is long: all trains operated by CrossCountry, Virgin, East Midlands, Grand Central, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, London North Eastern Railway, and the TransPennine Express. High-speed Southeastern trains running to/from London St. Pancras require a paid seat reservation.
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; this doesn't work if using a Global Pass). 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 £140, but advance tickets are usually around £25–40, 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 12 weeks ahead, have limited seat availability, are nonrefundable, 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. Off-peak fares can be purchased up until the departure of the train.
- 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 Eurostar, nor on 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 Eurostar, nor on 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 Eurostar, nor on 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 Eurostar, nor on some weekday morning commuter trains.
Also see our general tips for buying point-to-point tickets.