Finding the Best Deal with BR Fares

A Virgin Trains Class 390 'Pendolino' sits in platform 3 at Stockport railway station on a rainy afternoon. Looking south, the train is to the left of the Stockport Number 1 signal box.

Welcome back to the BR Fares blog! As you probably know if you have ever tried to book a train ticket, some amount of prior knowledge can be required to choose the best value ticket for your journey. For some people, whichever ticket is the cheapest is the one they are looking for, but this will usually restrict travel plans to catching only one train. For others, being able to catch any train will bring peace of mind, but this may be unduly expensive. Today, I thought we could go through an example of how can help you be an informed traveller, and understand the whole range of fares on sale for any given journey before making a decision on which to buy.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of the ticket types available. Tickets differ chiefly on two factors: price and flexibility. Price is a fairly straightforward factor, but the different conditions attached to different tickets relating to flexibility can be bewildering. The tickets the train companies offer usually fall into two broad categories: Advance tickets which are quota-controlled, so their prices will change and they may sell out, and which are non-refundable and valid on the booked train only, and Walk-Up or Flexible tickets, which can be bought at the same price at any time and which cannot sell out. The latter may then be restricted further by time of day, day of the week, route or train company – or they may not. This is why it can seem like there are so many different prices to chose from. This article will show you how to get an expert view on the whole range of tickets available.

Stockport to Crewe

Let’s take a look at what ought to be a straightforward journey in Northern England, from Stockport in Greater Manchester to the railway town of Crewe in Cheshire. It’s about 25 miles by rail, with frequent trains. The complexity begins when we look to who provides the train services:

  • Virgin Trains run long-distance intercity trains on this route, where most trains continue to or originate from London Euston. They provide the fastest journeys in a little over 20 minutes, with First and Standard Class, reserved seating available, and an onboard catering service. One train runs hourly
  • Transport for Wales provide regional express trains. Their trains are shorter and although they do still offer reserved seating, they don’t offer First Class, catering is only provided from a trolley and the journey time is a couple of minutes longer at almost half an hour. One train runs hourly
  • Northern provide the stopping service on this route. Their trains are in a commuter layout, and mostly call at all of the intermediate stations, take much longer at 45 minutes or more and don’t offer First Class, any catering, or seat reservations. One direct train hourly, with a second hourly connection en route at Wilmslow

This information can all be found on our site – see Paul’s blog for more!

Ticket Types

Taking the first of these, we can head over to to search for a one way journey, and immediately we are offered relatively few options:

Virgin Trains’ journey planner results for Stockport to Crewe journey at 1000 on a Monday

I don’t want to get side-tracked by talking about the user interface or features of the journey planner here, as that’s for an other blog post, but what does this actually tell us about the fares? Not a great deal. The tickets aren’t given their full names, just ‘Off Peak’ and ‘Anytime’, no Advance tickets are shown whatsoever, so you might not know they even exist, and you could be forgiven for being confused about why an Off Peak ticket is said to be more expensive than an Anytime one for the Virgin Trains services (note how they’ve prioritised these at the top, separately from all of the other options). It is only revealed when you mouse over a price what the ticket you are actually being offered is, in this case, valid on Transport for Wales only:

After mousing over a price, additional restrictions are revealed; this ticket is only valid on Transport for Wales services and at ‘off peak’ times.

Even now, we do not know the name of the ticket as it will be printed on it if we buy this, and we have absolutely no information other than ‘any off peak train’ (a term which is a misnomer anyway, but that’s for another post!) about what times of day this ticket can be used at. If we moved the cursor over the £10.40 ‘Anytime’ fare, we would be told that this is Virgin Trains only, and for the ‘Off Peak’ fare, travel is ‘allowed by any permitted route’ (this means that the services of any of the train operators along a permitted route can be used – through trains are always permitted with ‘Any Permitted’ tickets).

For a better look at the prices and precise conditions attached to each ticket, we can search on the BR Fares website. This immediately brings up all of the ticket options available to us, without the need to specify any times or dates, using their proper names. The BR Fares website tells us that there is a range of ‘Walk-Up’ tickets which are available at the same price regardless of when they are bought, which the Virgin Trains website didn’t tell us. It is also much clearer that these tickets are flexible, because in the ‘validity’ column, we can actually see how long the ticket is valid for. An Anytime Day Single is valid for one day, so under validity there is ‘On Date Shown’, rather than simply showing the price against one train.

The range of Standard Class single fares from Stockport to Crewe as shown by BRFares


We can also see here what that elusive reference to ‘off peak trains’ with the Transport for Wales Only ticket meant when we were looking at the Virgin Trains website. We can see the same ticket for £8.50 here, and we are told that it is an Off Peak Day Single, which is valid at the times dictated by its restrictions (hence ‘See Restrictions’ in the validity column). A short summary is provided in a few words right underneath the ticket, in this case indicating that the ticket may be used from 0930 until 1559 and then again from 1830 on weekdays. The comprehensive detail of this is available by clicking referring to the restriction code – AW in this case. To see it, click the link in the name of the ticket type on the left. Here’s what it says:

Restricted Days: Mon-Fri excluding Bank Holidays 
Morning Travel: Not valid for journeys starting before 09.30
Evening Travel: Not valid for journeys starting between 16.00-18.29. Connections to journeys that started before 16.00 are unaffected by this restriction.

The more expensive £11.90 ‘Any Permitted’ ticket has a different, more generous restriction, B1, which just means it can’t be used before 0930. We have finally built up a complete picture of what we are actually buying for our £8.50. Choosing this ticket precludes the use of the fastest trains; it can only be used on the hourly trains run by Transport for Wales. Unlike the more expensive Off Peak Day Single, there are time restrictions in the afternoon too. Notably, there is no ‘Anytime’ single ticket offered for use on Transport for Wales only, and there is no ‘Off Peak’ single ticket offered for use on Virgin Trains only.

This searching process can be repeated, considering return tickets too which allows the customer to build up a picture of how flexible each ticket is, against the price that is being offered. Depending on their budget, what time of day it is, how long the customer wants to risk having to wait (single tickets have been used illustratively here; additional complexity arises for return journeys) and how likely their plans are to change, the customer can now make an informed choice. The most important thing to remember about the latter is this:

If there is a change of plans, a ticket with off peak time restrictions can be changed to a less restrictive ticket on payment of the difference in fares, but a ticket restricted to a particular train company cannot be amended for use on another train company. Walk-Up tickets can still be refunded for a £10 admin fee.

But what about the cheapest tickets?

These don’t seem to appear anywhere on the Virgin Trains results. Well, again BRFares can help. Scrolling to the bottom of the page we can see what Advance tickets are on sale:

Just ignore the ‘Traveller’ ticket type in First Class – this is a free ticket available only to members of Virgin Trains’ Traveller rewards club. As we can see therefore, nobody but Northern is offering Advance tickets for this journey. We can see that prices start at £3.20, far lower than any of the other tickets on sale, but that these tickets are subject to availability and only valid on the booked train – there is no flexibility at all. It also means that we know now that if we want to use one of the faster trains, a flexible ticket is the only choice; there is no point looking for any cheaper tickets to use on Virgin Trains than the £10.40 single we already found.

To book these tickets, we’d need to specify only Northern trains in our search. Sadly the Virgin Trains website won’t let us do so. Although at certain times of day it will show us an Advance ticket on a though Northern train, they are available all day by changing trains at Wilmslow. The journey planner and ticket booking service at Trains Can Be Cheaper can help – the cheapest tickets appear in ‘Value’ mode, and the user has the choice to specify Northern trains only in their search. A station ticket office should also be able to help with this.

The other type of ticket that doesn’t appear in the Virgin Trains results is a Duo ticket – a discounted ticket for two adults travelling together. This is a return ticket, so it won’t show up if a single is requested for two passengers, but at the adult rate it is cheaper to buy this return and not use the return portion!


Hopefully this has been a useful introduction as to how to use to find and compare train tickets like a pro. There is a lot more we could say on this, and we will be doing more blogs like this in the future, discussing fares and tickets, journey planning, user interfaces, and onboard services. I’ve used examples from the Virgin Trains website here, but could have used any of the three. We want consumers to have the best information ever and we think that empowering the advanced user with some knowledge and understanding of how the railway works is a great place to start. This method obviously isn’t for everyone, but on that, there will be much more to come…

2 thoughts on “Finding the Best Deal with BR Fares”

  1. Brilliant. Really! As Berlin-based followers of all European rail fares, we track tariff changes across the continent. This is a really good insight into the complexities of the GB fares system.

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