Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Travelling For Less: Finding Cheap Bus & Train Tickets in UK

Living in London for the almost 3 years, I have to admit one of my biggest regret is not to explore the UK; to explore the many hidden castles left behind by the royals; to stare in awe at it’s countryside and glorious rolling hills; to submerge in the tranquility of the lakeside cottages and to soak in the sun on the famous English and Welsh coastline. Well, the die is cast and there is no point sulking in regrets. Moving forward, I aimed to make my final weeks before returning to Malaysia to revolve around exploring London and the UK.

Without an international driving license, most of my travel is at the mercy of the rail and bus network. The prices of bus and train tickets is something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Last minute train prices had once left me in disbelief. A year ago, I missed a train from London to Leicester by a couple of minutes and had to buy another ticket. My original ticket bought only about 2 weeks ahead of travel cost me £9 but a ticket for the next available train cost a shocking £57 (a staggering 5 times).

The alternative? Hop on the extensive bus network! Travelling by bus (or coach as commonly known in the UK) is not the most comfortable way to travel but it is definitely the better choice for budget conscious travelers. With longer traveling time and occasional bad traffic, a bus journey could be less than comfortable. As opposed to the common 27-seater bus in Malaysia, almost all standard buses in the UK is the typical 50-seater bus.

Another major difference is the existence of toilets in the buses in the UK. Boost or bane, it's very much a personal opinion. I’d much rather get off the bus for a toilet break and a good stretch after 2-3 hours of bus journey. Plus, travelling with a loo in the back of the bus is quite torturous if everyone has been doing their business on the bus. Nevertheless, the stinky cubicle at the rear is a lifesaver for answering urgent nature calls.

Obtaining reasonably budget tickets is not mission impossible. It just takes a little more effort.

1. Megabus

Megabus is best known for their notoriously cheap fares. Impressively, Megabus has an extensive fleet to various locations in the UK and with tickets starting from only £1, sometimes it makes me wonder how Megabus survives. Aside from their own fleet of standard and luxury coach, Megabus also sells tickets for the Oxford Tube and train tickets through Megatrain to a limited number of destinations. Despite the cry for their poor customer service, Megabus is still one of the best site to head to for the cheapest fare.

(A) Trains

The train tickets on Megabus are available up to 45 days in advance. To secure the cheapest ticket, buy tickets once it becomes available. From my extensive search and monitoring to plan my trips, tickets from London to a number of locations like Bath Spa, Salisbury, Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Exeter and many other destination cost £1 when they first become available. However, there is a limited number of train tickets for £1 and the fare increases quickly. I believe the cheap train fares works on a quota system and once the limited ticket for £1 is sold, the price increases immediately. Hence, buying the train ticket once it becomes available at the midnight 45 days before the travelling date is the best option to secure the tickets.

Unfortunately, saving on fares means having to incur inconvenience in other ways. For instance, there are no Megatrain tickets on Sundays. Anyone looking for a day out on Sunday would just have to opt for the rest of the week to secure cheap fares. Some of the train tickets available via Megatrain is at extremely odd hours. It is down to weighing between cheap fares and journey times.

(B) Buses

The bus fleet of Megabus is extremely huge and there are buses to most popular destinations. The cheapest ticket can be purchased up to 124 days in advance (according to my observations). Besides their own fleet, Megabus also sells tickets for Oxford Tube which offers very frequent trips between London and Oxford.  From journey as low as £1, the ticket is a huge steal compared to the single ticket available on the Oxford Tube website. The only setback is that the journey is confined to a specific departure time. Miss it and you'll need a new ticket.

Their large network also includes buses to other European destination like Paris and Brussels which is much cheaper than the Eurostar.

2. National Express

With fares from £5, National Express has an even larger fleet compared to Megabus. With tickets to London Airports departing from Victoria throughout the day and night, National Express is also a cost-friendly way to travel to the airport.

Buying early is also one of the best way to secure a cheap ticket. For students, there is also a 25% discount with NUS Extra! Be reminded, booking has to be made through the link in NUS Extra website which redirects you to the discounted booking page. Even with the £1 booking fee, National Express is still one of the better budget travelling option.

3. Trains

My favourite mode of travel! The fast and clean train makes travelling much more enjoyable. However, train is possibly one of the most expensive way to travel around. The only way to secure cheap tickets is to buy advance tickets. Available 12 weeks in advance, the best comparison can be made using the cheap fare finder function on the National Rail website. Tickets for short journeys (up to 2 hours) usually cost around £5-£10 when purchased in advance.

Another way is to find if there is a cheaper train provider for the same route. For example, the journey from London to Birmingham is served by Virgin Trains and London Midland with London Midland always being cheaper (due to its longer journey times). So, if your journey from London requires a train switch in Birmingham, save by buying the cheaper train option separately if time permits.

Train journeys within the London area can be paid by using Oyster pay as you go and it will always work out the cheapest single fare to be charged. Every journey also contributes to the daily price cap! PLUS, if there is a combined 16-25 Railcard attached onto the Oyster card, there is an added 1/3 discount onto the fare during off-peak hours.

Happy Travelling! :D

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