By Craig Neil
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It’s always nice to save money on your holiday in Scotland, especially when getting around the country is becoming evermore expensive.
On average it costs a whopping £90 for an individual return train ticket from Edinburgh to Inverness and £75 to travel from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, which can put a serious dent in the holiday budgets of travelling families.
It’s certainly true that train travel is one of the most expensive ways to travel in Scotland but the fact is it doesn’t have to be – as you’ll discover in this information-packed article.
How to save money on train tickets in Scotland
So is there anything you can do to save a few pounds on those pesky tickets?
The answer is, yes there is, thanks to the tips and tricks listed below along with a number of online resources that will help you find the best deals.
Not only will you save money on train tickets in Scotland but you’ll also help to reduce the environmental impact of travelling on the county’s already congested roads, and you’ll undoubtedly have a far more enjoyable time than sitting behind a lorry for hours on end on the A9 (shudder).
You’ll also be able to have a wee dram or three along the way and as most stations are close to the city centres you won’t even have to walk far when you disembark.
Let’s dive right in with the first tip…
Avoid peak times and expensive upgrades
Like the rest of the UK, there are three different types of train tickets you can purchase for your rail journey in Scotland. These are:
- Off-peak: These tickets are restricted for use between the morning and evening peak times. These times are dependent on the train operator so check with them before making a purchase. These are the tickets to buy if you want the cheapest option.
- Anytime: These tickets are valid for use at any time of the day and are usually more expensive than off-peak tickets.
- First-class: These tickets are more expensive than the other two types but offer a higher standard of service with free Wi-Fi, food and drink, and entry to station lounges.
It’s obviously entirely up to you with regards to your preferred ticket types but I have to say I almost never travel first-class because it’s so expensive (often up to twice the price of a standard ticket).
To give you an idea of rail prices in Scotland, for a single off-peak ticket from Edinburgh to Aberdeen it costs approximately £40, but that soars to nearer £90 if you upgrade to first class.
You get tea, coffee, and a snack, but at more than a 100% price increase it’s safe to say it isn’t very good value for money.
That being said, those prices only apply if you purchase tickets directly from the operator and it’s usually much cheaper to book via an auction site instead – which I’ll go into detail about further down this page.
Always book early
You can occasionally get cheap tickets by buying in advance, and once or twice I’ve found early-bird first-class tickets that were even cheaper than standard-class anytime tickets.
To be in with a chance of finding discounted tickets you’ll have to check The Trainline website at least a month before your travel date instead of wandering up to the ticket kiosk on the day.
Cheap tickets are usually released by the operators around 12 weeks before the date of travel but they tend to sell out quickly so try to book as early as you can. The longer you leave the booking date, the more expensive your ticket will be.
One handy tip for booking early is to go on the operator’s website 12 weeks or more in advance and search for your journey, then change the date to the furthest ahead that you can book.
Keep checking daily until the furthest date matches your date of travel to secure the cheapest possible tickets.
You can also sign up for email alerts from the train company so you get notified when tickets go on sale as well as be the first to hear about special offers.
Each operator has a different notification system but for Scotrail you can head to the News and Offers page and subscribe to their email which includes offers such as ScotRail 2 for 1 tickets and ScotRail £5 tickets.
Although I mentioned above that the cheapest tickets are the ones available months in advance, if you leave it till the absolute last minute you can also bag a bargain as operators look to offload empty seats.
This is a gamble as sometimes the train will be fully booked and sometimes the discounts aren’t that great, but if you’re lucky then 20% or more savings can be made.
The only caveat is that you have to travel on the train you’re booked on so there’s no flexibility to change times. A good resource for finding information about different rail operators and their advance ticket purchasing times is the National Rail Enquiries website.
Be flexible with your dates and routes
It’s going to be more expensive to travel on a train at rush hour on a Monday morning than the same journey on a Sunday afternoon, so if you’re ok with changing the dates you travel you’ll save a bundle by going for less-busy times.
Following on from this you’ll also often find competing operators running trains between the same destinations so it’s always a good idea to compare services.
A great resource for this is Red Spotted Hanky which does all the heavy lifting for you by comparing all times and routes when you enter your departure and destination points on their website.
Red Spotted Hankey charges no additional fees and they have a bonus points scheme for return users. In addition, they also have a very handy app that allows you to book online and view details about the journey including all stops, station changes, and times between the start and endpoints.
Alternatively, you can perform the same search on The Trainline website which displays all upcoming trains on any given date with the cheapest fares highlighted in yellow.
The only negative is that the latter website doesn’t give recommendations for split tickets (described further down the page), although their app does allow you to submit refund requests with a single tap and even submit expense receipts for business travellers.
Get a railcard
You can save a packet on Scotland’s rail fares with a railcard, though bear in mind if you’re a visiting tourist they’re not much use as you have to pay an annual fee upfront which makes them more suited to frequent UK travellers.
That being said, if you live in Britain and want a discount on your fare you should probably get one depending on your circumstances. I’ll list the most popular rail cards below:
Two Together Railcard. Gives you a third off all rail travel on off-peak journeys for any two people over the age of 16 – but only when they travel together.
It costs around £30 for a year which is easily recouped if you do just a few trips – but make sure you keep your card with you as you’ll need it as proof of purchase when you buy your discounted ticket.
As a top tip, when ordering your next rail card get a digital pass instead of a plastic card (you can’t have both). While you might forget your wallet, I bet most people will always have their phones with them.
26-30 Railcard. This card is designed for 26 to 30-year-olds (obviously) and can be ordered here. Like the Two Together card it costs around £30 per year and gives a third off rail travel.
Senior Railcard. Just because you’re a senior doesn’t mean you have to miss out on Scotland’s railways and with this card you’ll save 1/3 on fares as long as you’re age 60 or over.
Unlike the other cards I’ve listed you can purchase a Senior Railcard that lasts up to 3 years for a discounted price of around £70.
Highland Railcard. Those living in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands can often feel isolated from the rest of the country which is one of the reasons this money-saving card makes so much sense.
Only available to people living in selected postcodes, the Highland Railcard allows owners to travel for a flat rate as well as giving a generous 50% off travel on selected routes.
Buy ScotRail travel passes
For visiting tourists a travel pass is the best way to get your ticket as it offers an all-in-one solution across a specific rail network.
You can stick to one region of the country with a single pass or combine two to see even more sights, but my recommendation is to just get one travel pass and buy separate train tickets as and when required because most travel passes are rather expensive.
Spirit of Scotland Rover: Offers unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either four or eight days. Four days of unlimited travel over eight consecutive days costs around £149, while eight days of unlimited travel over fifteen consecutive days costs around £189.
Note that these prices change regularly so check the ScotRail website before you buy the pass.
Scottish Grand Tour: Touted as one of the great rail journeys of the world, the Scottish Grand Tour is a circular route that passes lochs, mountains, forests and countryside.
You’ll pass some truly dramatic scenery with the Scottish Grand Tour pass including the West Highland Line and the Highland Main Line, and you’ll also see the country’s top cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness.
As an all-in-one package to see the best of Scotland in one trip it really does take some beating.
Highland Rover: Gives you four days of unlimited travel over eight consecutive days across the Scottish Highlands for around £100. Although it’s only valid for standard class you can travel at any time of the day and you’ll also get 20% off Northlink ferry services to Orkney and Shetland.
Central Scotland Rover: Allows you to take unlimited journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area for around £60. The pass lasts for three days and is valid for standard class journeys on ScotRail trains, but unfortunately you can’t use it on the new Borders railway line.
Note that this is the pass to get if you just want to explore the main cities as it covers Edinburgh and Glasgow which are a mere 1 hour apart by train.
Rail and Sail: Getting to the north and west coast islands has never been easier thanks to ScotRail’s Rail and Sail which combines rail and ferry travel in one ticket.
These tickets really take the hassle out of exploring Scotland as you can break the journey up to go and see different regions as you see fit.
Currently, the pass opens up the Orkney and Shetland islands along with Mull and the Outer Hebrides, and with children aged 5-15 getting a 50% discount they offer a great way to have a cheap(ish) family holiday by train.
Split your tickets
This train travel tip has been doing the rounds for a few years now but it’s just as popular as it ever was, purely because it works and is almost always guaranteed to give you big savings on rail fares.
So what, exactly, is split ticketing?
Well, it basically means that instead of purchasing a single ticket from say London to Edinburgh (approx £80 in total), you purchase two or more separate tickets along the same line instead, so for example, London to Crewe and another ticket for Crewe to Edinburgh (approx £50 in total).
This might seem overly complicated at first glance but the fact is you can save up to 90% on a long-distance rail journey by splitting your tickets, with the biggest savings coming from splitting the journey multiple times.
Note that while sometimes you will have to change stations, for the majority of journeys you stay on the same train the entire time and it’s just the tickets that get split.
Although planning routes around split tickets used to be a hassle there are now several websites that are dedicated to offering a free service where you just enter the departure and destination stations, the date and time of travel, and leave the website to book the separate tickets for you.
The downside is that you could end up with ten different tickets, but as long as you keep track of them all for the conductor it shouldn’t have any impact on your journey.
Two of the best split ticketing websites in the UK are Train Split and Split My Fare, and having used both I can confirm they do exactly the same job and offer pretty much exactly the same level of service.
Purchase Groupsave tickets
If you haven’t heard of Groupsave before it’s basically a booking scheme which does what the name says – you save money when purchasing train tickets as a group.
You don’t need to do anything special to make a Groupsave booking as the offers are activated automatically as soon as more than 3 people are added at the checkout.
ScotRail has a three-tier system for group tickets starting with Friends Fare for 3 to 4 people, then Groupsave for 3 to 5 people, and finally Groupsave for more than 10 people.
When combined with booking your tickets as early as possible you can save a bundle on travel costs, but bear in mind that group tickets have limited availability and they sell out fast in the peak tourist season.
Most operators offer Groupsave tickets of some kind and they’re usually pretty flexible – except for ScotRail which in my opinion is a wee bit stingy with their conditions:
Friends Fare: Discounts vary. Only available on Aberdeen to Inverness, Aberdeen to Edinburgh or Glasgow, and Inverness to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Return tickets only. Non-refundable. No additional railcard discounts.
Groupsave 3-5 people: Up to 1/3 off travel. Only available on Glasgow to Edinburgh, Dunblane/Stirling to Glasgow or Edinburgh, Alloa to Glasgow or Edinburgh, and Motherwell to Edinburgh. Off-peak journeys only. Non-refundable. No additional railcard discounts.
Groupsave 10+ people: 10-30% discount. Off-peak journeys only. Must be booked at least 28 days in advance. Non-refundable.
Grab a bargain first-class upgrade
First-class tickets have traditionally been reserved for business people and luxury travellers due to the significant extra costs on top of standard class, but there are now services that aim to bring these upgraded tickets to the masses.
One of the best is Seatfrog which allows you to bid on first-class tickets on their own online auction which you access via their phone app. Think along the lines of eBay for first-class train tickets.
You enter your standard ticket booking reference, enter a bid price, and if you win you just pay the additional fee. Seatfrog will then send you a new upgraded seat number along with a QR code to prove your purchase.
The extra fee is often a fraction of what the upgrade would cost direct from the operator and you don’t have to pay a penny more if you don’t win the auction so there really is nothing to lose.
In fact, you could end up actually saving money on your journey when you consider that first-class tickets include free food and drinks and many also include entry to first-class lounges at the station.
Upgrade prices can be as low as £10 for a cross-country journey and as you already have a ticket you know you’ll still have a seat if your bid doesn’t win.
The big downside with Seatfrog is that they currently don’t offer upgrades on Scottish railways, but this will hopefully change in the near future. Still, if you’re intending to travel by train for a UK-wide tour it could be a nice way to upgrade part of your journey.
Find more ways to save money in: Travel in Scotland – 10 Money Saving Tips