12 Oct 2010

How can you travel affordably by train: and take your bike?

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The essence of a boot and bike holiday is to travel by foot or bicycle, leave the car behind and make getting to and returning from your destination a highlight of your trip.  So, unless that destination is within a fairly short distance of home, then the outward and return journeys will be made by public transport; usually train, if a bicycle is to be transported.

But Britain’s rail system is notorious for expensive fares and lack of connectivity between competing private companies, so just how can you secure affordable fares and joined-up journeys?

Get the negatives out of the way first.

  • You have to plan in advance, if you suddenly decide to go away the day after tomorrow you are very unlikely to find a reduced fare.
  • Most of the cheap fares become available around 90 days in advance; this particularly applies to the £19 sleeper fares on the Caledonian overnight service that is a great way to travel from London and the Midlands to the north of Scotland.
  • You usually need to book these fares online.
  • It can be very time consuming and you can easily end up having to accumulate a nerd-like knowledge of the railway system.

 

 

 

So, what else can you do?

To be fair, many of the train operators’ websites have now become more user-friendly, in terms of advertising the cheapest fares, so use them and follow these points to get the best possible deal:

  • sign up for The Trainline Cheap Fare Finder, although this is generally restricted to  fares between larger cities
  • take advantage of any applicable railcards and discounts; if you are above 26, below 60, able-bodied and not travelling as a family, the cupboard is virtually bare, but some companies do have exclusive offers, eg ScotRail Club 55 – anyone 55 and over can buy  return tickets to any destination in Scotland (including Carlisle and Berwick) for as little as £15 at various times of the year
  • look into day, runaround, rover etc tickets offered by different companies

Play the system at its own game:

The rail system is not holistic and conspires against joined-up journeys that involve using different companies, so one very effective and satisfactory response is to turn this on its head and book one long distance journey in separate stages: not only does this usually work out to be much cheaper, it is perfectly legal along as you don’t change trains.

It works like this:

  • you are travelling on the 7.19 from Birmingham, arriving Glasgow at 11.16, this costs £50
  • make a note of the start/arrival times
  • access the timetable for the service, work out the main stops en route and start with the one around the middle of the journey, in this case Preston
  • key in a new journey from Birmingham to Preston, using the same start time; this costs £16 and arrives Preston 8.15
  • now choose the next journey from Preston to Glasgow, selecting the same service that leaves Preston two minutes later and arrives Glasgow at 11.16, this costs £8.50, saving you £25.50
  • just make sure you note the departure/arrival times and, remember, different tickets will come with different seat reservations; the way to get round this is to book seats in the Quiet coach (unless  you like listening to everyone jabbering on their mobiles) and then, at least, any different seats will still be in the same compartment

Using train operators’ websites:

The search engines on all the websites are linked, so you should be able to plan and buy tickets for journeys anywhere in the UK from any of the train operators’ sites.

but, on occasions, I have found some journeys unavailable and at higher prices on one site, compared to another – if this is the case, go with the cheaper, quickly, as it will increase!

  • I usually start with The Trainline as, generally, I find it accurate and efficient.
  • However, I then use another site to book and pay for tickets because The Trainline charges for postage and, Ryanair-like, levies an extra payment for using credit, as opposed to debit cards, whereas some other companies do not.
  • Postage charges can be avoided by collecting tickets from machines at stations – remember to have your booking reference and payment card with you and leave plenty of time to collect tickets before departure –  some companies now operate e ticketing, again, remember to carry your payment card with you.
  • The sites are secure and, in the vast majority of cases, payments go through without a hitch, but if the site crashes, or you are timed-out when paying, then contact the helpline before making the payment again, as otherwise you may be charged twice.

Taking your bike on the train:

Although train operators advertise their commitment to greener travel and claim to be bike-friendly, this does not mean that they make it easy to transport bikes on their trains.  In most cases, it is not possible to book a bike when you book your ticket online, so you generally have to phone to book your bike, after you have bought your ticket.  Here, of course, you could get sucked into a Catch 22 scenario if there are no bike spaces available on the service you will be using and, although it is unlikely, this is a potential problem for anyone trying to take a bike on a train.

As with booking tickets, do your homework well in advance of your journey and, in addition:

  • check the website, or ring the company, to find out their policy on transporting bikes; some operators insist on pre-booking; some allow bikes on most services, but may refuse to carry them at peak hours
  • remember different trains have different provision for carrying cycles and this may differ within one company: eg, Virgin operates Pendolino and Voyager services on the West Coast Main Line and the types of racks used and their position on the train are different
  • always be at the station in plenty of time
  • ask station staff for advice on the location of the cycle-carriage
  • remember, on some smaller, commuter-style trains, bikes share the same space with wheelchairs and pushchairs; if the space becomes overcrowded, wheelchairs take priority even if you have booked your bike
  • keep on the right side of the train manager as, if and where a bike is carried is always at his/her discretion
  • be aware that on long-distance trains, bikes generally have to be hooked-up and it is here that easily detachable bags and panniers come into their own (see Kit Lists)

On the plus side, some companies have become more bike friendly and offer some useful services for bikers: ScotRail operates a Cycle Rescue Scheme that will transport cyclists who hold a valid rail ticket, to the nearest ongoing station, if their bike is vandalised, stolen or suffers irreparable  breakdown.

In general and unless I have to travel at short notice, or in an emergency, I rarely pay more than 60% of the “normal” fare: eg, £50 maximum for a return from the Midlands to Glasgow, compared to the standard return fare of £96-100.

I have also transported a bike extensively across the UK and, overall, have found the vast majority of rail staff helpful and informative.

 

Taking your bike on the train to Europe is relatively simple.

Eurostar  outlines in detail its three options:

1. Pre-booking your bike on one of the bike spaces on each Eurostar for £30

2.Semi-dismantling it and taking it with you in a bike bag as carry-on luggage, free of charge

3. Sending it as registered baggage for £30

For full details of bike transportation in different countries across Europe, refer to Seat 61

 

So, yes, it is possible to travel reasonably and take your bike, but you need to do your homework and plan carefully, well in advance.

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