Thursday, September 29th, 2016

How to Travel the UK on the Cheap

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The UK is one of the most expensive countries in Europe — and if you’re planning a trip, you might be daunted by the cost of transportation within the UK.

But it is very possible to travel the UK for cheap!

Since settling in Chester, I’ve found a host of ways to save money on transportation.  And all of them have one thing in common:

BOOK EARLY.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re traveling by train, bus, or air — booking early will nearly always save you money, and booking last minute will always be exponentially more expensive.

Now that that’s out of the way, here are some ways to save money on different kinds of UK transportation:

Cheap UK Train Travel

Train travel in the UK is incredibly romantic, and you can easily watch the scenery go by for hours — bright green hills, sheep, newly plowed fields, tiny villages…it’s my favorite way to travel the UK.

Most of the time, it’s also the easiest and fastest way to travel — though not the cheapest.  I even take trains to airports, where one line goes direct to Manchester Airport as well as the Manchester airport parking.

If you’re not a UK resident and planning on traveling lots of long distances in the UK by train, look into a Britrail Pass.  If you’re just booking occasional journeys, read on.

Check the Megatrain and Virgin Train sites first for absurdly cheap train routes.  These two sites tend to promote the same routes.

Next, no matter which destination you choose, check out The Trainline’s Fare Finder — it will show you the cheapest tickets for various dates and times.  Either way, booking on The Trainline is usually cheaper than other sites.

On all the aforementioned sites, you buy tickets online, then use the same credit card to retrieve your tickets at the station.

What to know: Be flexible on stations.  I was looking for Chester-Edinburgh round-trip fares and couldn’t find anything for less than an astounding £150.  Then I found out that there are cheap fares on Megatrain from Warrington Bank Quay to Glasgow, a short trip from Edinburgh.  I had never heard of Warrington Bank Quay, but it’s only a few stops away from Chester!

I paid normal fares from Chester to Warrington and from Glasgow to Edinburgh — but from Warrington to Glasgow, the longest part of the journey, I found a super-cheap £9 fare.

Cheap UK Bus Travel

The thing about bus (or coach) travel is that you need to evaluate the positives and negatives.  Yes, bus travel can be much cheaper than the train, but it can also take a lot longer, and most find it less pleasant (though all the coaches I’ve seen have been immaculate).

I usually book a coach when traveling from Chester to London.  The fastest trip is five hours (while the train takes 2.5 hours and costs at least three times as much).  To me, five hours on a bus is definitely doable, while 11 hours to Scotland is not worth it.  I may have managed a 32-hour bus journey in Southeast Asia, but I have no intentions of repeating that here!

First, check out Megabus for the cheapest fares of the bunch, then check out National Express for cheap fares but more convenient times.

What to know: Again, book as early as possible, especially on Megabus — they even have £1 fares!  Also, keep in mind that you must wear a seatbelt at all times — it’s UK law.

Cheap UK Air Travel

I wouldn’t recommend air travel in the UK most of the time — the sheer act of flying requires so much more time and effort, that it’s not worth it.  But it can be useful for exceptionally large distances, like London to Aberdeen or Inverness.

My go-to flight search engine is Kayak because it’s the best.  Be sure to check airline sites as well for unpublished fares.  Budget airline Easyjet has several domestic routes in the UK.

What to know: Budget airlines usually fly at inconvenient times from out-of-the-way airports.  Take this into account and make sure you have someone to drive you, or you’ll be paying through the nose for airport parking.  I’m lucky to have a friend who lives super-close to Heathrow so that Heathrow airport parking is never an issue for me.

Creative UK Travel Options

None of these float your fancy?  There are a few other options.  Rideshare sites are growing more popular in the UK.  My friend Dylan swears by hitchhiking.  And you could also do Britain’s most intimidating walk: Land’s End to John O’Groats (also known as walking from Great Britain’s lower left corner to its upper right corner.)

One thing that I’d love to do: rent a narrow boat in Chester and travel by the canals in the northwest, going through canal locks and everything!

Any more tips for cheap transportation in the UK?  Share in the comments!

Comments

37 Responses to “How to Travel the UK on the Cheap”
  1. Lucy says:

    Hi Kate, some really good tips there. There are couple of things I’d add (as a Brit who spends a lot of her time travelling by train!)

    If you’re going between London and Scotland then try the Caledonian Sleeper overnight train. It runs to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Fort William and you can get ‘Bargain Berth’ tickets for £19 each way, though as ever you need to book as far in advance as possible – you can get tickets on Scotrail’s website: http://www.scotrail.co.uk/content/caledonian-sleeper-bargain-berths

    Also if you are 16-25 or a full-time student over 25 and are going to be using the train a lot you can get a railcard – it costs £28 but saves you a third off every journey. Overseas visitors are eligible and you can use it to buy tickets online but you need to go to a station to get one: http://www.16-25railcard.co.uk

    Enjoy your travels in the UK!
    Lucy

    • Really great resources, Lucy! Did not know about those bargain berths. Thank you!

      • Swati says:

        Hi Kate and Lucy,

        Thanks so much for these tips. I will be visiting the UK this June for about two weeks, stationed in Durham. I am tagging along with someone who is there for work, so I am pretty much on my own. Planning two short visits – one to London and another to Scotland. I was looking at all the websites you suggested and I have a question – when they classify a train journey as off-peak, or super off-peak, what does it mean? Are there off-peak tickets available that I can simply buy and hop on to one of these trains? Or do I have to buy a specific ticket for that train.

        Thanks in advance!

  2. Amanda says:

    Thanks for this, Kate! I’m planning to spend at least 2 weeks in the UK next summer, and I will definitely take these tips into account! One question about booking early — how early is early??

    • Oh, it all depends. For flights and Megabus, aim for as early as possible. For coaches like National Express, try to book a week before. For trains, try to book 24-48 hours in advance, but earlier if you can. Above all, don’t wait until the day of!

  3. Thanks for the tips, Kate! I’m planning trip to Europe next summer, and I haven’t decided on location yet. I’ve been considering the UK, but was worried about the expense of traveling within the country.

  4. Mike C says:

    Good tips but beware when booking early you HAVE to catch that train unless you get a flexi-ticket – which you won’t cos they are freaking ridiculously expensive.

    Also Kate your romantic view of train travel is spot on for areas outside of the South-East and London – But travelling into London is nightmare at times – where the train journeys are so packed it can make India look empty.

  5. Great tips! I was planning on going to London last spring, and I waited too long thinking flights would get cheaper. I ended up having to cancel my trip, because of the huge expense.

  6. Mira says:

    skyscanner.net is a good website for cheap UK/Europe (annd Worldwide) flights… unlike other flight comparison sites they check Easyjet, Ryanair and other budget airlines which is great especially when you need to connect.

  7. Runaway Brit says:

    http://www.moneysavingexpert.com is a pretty good website to find links to cheap deals on UK travel. Also if you want to visit expensive UK attractions like Alton Towers you should always google for money-off vouchers, you will often find two-for-one offers that you can print off and take with you.

  8. Mia says:

    Definitely take the train to anywhere but London. To London is the most expensive, and it may take longer, but take the couch there. Otherwise, if you want perceptive, England is about the size of Minnesota! So it’s not that big at all.

  9. Fantastic! I’ll definitely be using these tips when I am in London and the UK in November! Can’t wait to see you again at WTM.

  10. Travel Tamed says:

    I’m planning trip to Europe next summer, and I haven’t decided on location yet. I’ve been considering the UK, but was worried about the expense of traveling within the country.

  11. Seems like I’m becoming the go-to guy for hitchhiking – thank you for the public endorsement McCulley 😉 Awesome money-saving round-up by the way

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  18. Sam says:

    Hi Kate,

    Ill be travelling to UK (uxbridge) in 10 days from now for a short term work assignment. Ill be there for an year…….Planning for 3 tours during the time with my family of three. First tour is parts of England…..second one is the scotland and northern ireland……….and third is the european tour such as france, germany etc………let me know if this plan will work and also need your guidance on the same.

    Regards,
    Sam

  19. Christy says:

    Kate:

    Female solo traveler also. I’m planning at trip to the UK this coming spring for 20-30 days. I have little interest in London, but I want to see England, travel north to Scotland, over to Ireland, back to Wales to Cornwall and back up to London area to catch a flight out. I need to travel cheap (backpack and train). What tips can you also give for lodging and a female traveling alone?

  20. Beth says:

    Hi Kate, I know this was published years ago but I was reading all through your blog today and came across this one! I am going to be in Scotland in 3 weeks and traveling to Glasgow from Edinburgh. I didn’t even know the Megabus existed in the UK yet but because you mentioned it, I got the trip for £1.50 which I am really excited about! Especially considering the prices of the trains through England that I will be taking…

  21. Joyce B says:

    Thanks for sharing the list of transport links. I am new to the UK and this will come in handy. Thanks, Kate.

  22. Odile says:

    Hi kAte
    Thanks much very helpful info. I’ve never driven in uk, drive in SG where speeds around 80-100km/hour and hardly expressways.
    I’m planning to spend 2 months in uk and will need to use public transport as well as can look to drive where I can
    I plan to route from London to Essex then to lake d then Yorkshire then Ireland , to guildford to Cotswolds , dr and bCk to Essex
    Any suggestions tips etc will be useful
    Was wondering if there’s any guides I can speak to to assist with transport commute plans either online or I can call on phone too
    Thanks much

  23. stef vanstiphout says:

    My two daughters live and work in London. I live in Belgium, but it’s expensive to take the Eurostar every time. I wish I could see them once every month, but my budget doesn’t allow it. Does anyone know a cheaper way? I was thinking reduction through embassies, anything.

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