On the right track

9th February 2007 at 00:00
When it comes to rail travel, fares should be fair. Enlist a cash-saving expert and get yourself a better deal, says Alison Brace

Do you remember when travelling by rail involved buying a first or second class ticket at a counter then getting on a train? It's all change, now: post-privatisation train fares are so complex that they could justify their own section of the national curriculum.

So, let's enjoy a masterclass with Martin Lewis from moneysavingexpert.com.

"The UK's rail fare system is notoriously confusing," says Martin, who has carried out extensive research into the anomalies of ticket pricing for his website. "But it is possible to work the whole mess to your advantage and flay chunks off ticket costs."

Start first by checking standard prices and promotions at www.nationalrail.co.uk. Then check if you are eligible for a railcard.

Some, such as the family railcard, can pay for themselves even on the first journey.

Booking ahead as far as possible is one way of getting the best deal.

Network Rail sets its timetable 12 weeks in advance, so this is when the cheapest tickets are released. Then get down to the nitty gritty: check APEX prices and www.thetrainline.com for even better deals.

Do not assume a return fare will be your cheapest option. "Many of the best fares are only available on single tickets," says Martin. For example, a five-minute trawl through thetrainline.com reveals that a standard open midweek return train journey to Leeds from London Kings Cross would cost pound;175, a saver return pound;74.70. Split the ticket into two singles and you find the same journey would cost you pound;17.50 each way. Book five weeks in advance and you can get that down to pound;10.65 each way.

And if you think this is barmy, then it's worth checking www.megatrain.com.

Booking a journey from Manchester to Edinburgh seven weeks ahead using this site will cost you pound;2 going and just pound;1 return, when a standard open return is pound;89. The only condition is that you do not board or alight the train at any other station on your route.

"For more hardcore money saving try splitting your journey into segments,"

says Martin. Special fares are often available for part of the route so if you buy several tickets to make up the whole route, you often slash the overall cost.

This works well, too, when part of your journey is at peak time. Splitting tickets brought a pound;234 standard open return ticket from London to Penzance down to just pound;36 for Martin. He bought four singles, splitting his journey in Bristol. And it's all legal - as long as you pass through each station on the route you have chosen.

So do your homework and let bargain trains take the strain. And as for your pupils, introduce them to the vagaries of the network with National Rail's dedicated teaching zone For the cheapest route: www.transportdirect.infoFor good prices and offers:call 08457 484950 or visit www.nationalrail.co.uk For the best deals: www.thetrainline.comFor split ticket routes:

www.moneysavingexpert.com For teaching materials:

www.teachingzone.orgnationalrail

RED HOT BARGAINS London to Leeds

Standard open midweek return: pound;175

Saver return: pound;74.70

Two singles: pound;17.50 each way

Booked five weeks in advance: pound;10.65 each way

Manchester to Edinburgh

Standard open return: pound;89

Booked seven weeks ahead: pound;2 outward, pound;1 return

London to Penzance

Standard open return: pound;234

Split into four singles: pound;36

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