Great Britain Rail Passes and Train Tips

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. (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?

Train Fares: Great Britain

Map shows approximate costs, in $US, for one-way, second-class tickets. For first-class fares, add 50 percent.

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

What are my options for rail passes that cover Great Britain?

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).

Note that if you're opting for a straight-up BritRail Pass, a BritRail England Pass, or a BriRail South West Pass, you'll need to choose between a continuous pass or flexipass when ordering (see our advice for deciding between the two).

Low-Season Discounts: If you're training it around Britain this winter, you can save 20 percent on most BritRail passes (but not London Plus, Central Scotland, or Scottish Highlands passes). See below for details.

BritRail Passkey details

BritRail England Passkey details

BritRail London Plus Passkey details

BritRail South West Passkey details

BritRail Spirit of Scotland Passkey details

BritRail Central Scotland Passkey details

BritRail Scottish Highlands Passkey details

Rail shopping cart: Have an order underway? Review and complete it here.

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 (and BritRail passes no longer offer any discount on this train).

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.

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).

Any tips for buying point-to-point train tickets in Britain?

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.

BritRail Passes: Key Details

BritRail Pass: Covers England, Scotland, and Wales.

BritRail England: Covers all of England; doesn't cover Scotland or Wales.

Low-Season discounts: These discounted passes cannot be used for travel before November 1 or after midnight on February 28, 2019, even if their printed activation period extends beyond that. (If you're traveling outside those dates, be sure to select a non-sale pass — you'll need to uncheck the box with the text indicating a November–February travel window, just above the pass-selection dropdown menu.) Available for individual adult-rate passes only, with no youth, senior, or group discount (but up to two kids can be added for free under the "Family Pass" deal). Note that the 20 percent discount of this pass is the same as the group discount — but getting individual Low-Season passes rather than a non-Low-Season group pass gives groups the option to split up. Sale ends February 22, 2019.

BritRail London Plus Pass: Covers most trains in southeast England. While this pass is available in both first and standard class, many trains in its coverage area have no first-class cars.

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 Spirit 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. This pass is prevalidated at the time of purchase for 3 consecutive days of travel (and cannot be refunded after that planned travel date). Not valid on trains that depart before 9:15 a.m. Monday–Friday. Doesn't include any travel to the Highlands or islands.

BritRail Scottish Highlands Pass: Covers selected train, bus, and ferry routes — generally those connecting Glasgow and points north with each other, but not trains between Glasgow and Inverness, nor ferries to points beyond Mull or Skye, nor trains arriving into Aberdeen or Inverness before 9am on weekdays (see here for details). Valid for 4 days of travel within an 8-day window, and available only in standard class.