28 Mar 2013 by Alex McWhirter

Alex McWhirter has his say on the issues facing rail passengers. This month: saving money with advance fares.

You can save handsomely with an Advance fare provided you book before 1800 the day before and select a specific train.

Unlike Off-Peak Saver returns, which I covered in this column in November, Advance fares are valid on all trains, even those running at the busiest times of the day. How much you save will depend on which TOC (train operating company) you are using, the times of your trains and how far ahead you book. Each TOC has its own pricing policy so fares will vary.

Let’s take the example of a trip between London and South Yorkshire. Sheffield and Doncaster are equidistant from London and yet East Midlands Trains (EMT) charges less than East Coast. Part of the reason is that East Coast’s trains are faster, but its higher Advance price reflects the fact that it serves free food and drinks on board in first class.

Booked three days ahead for a Friday morning trip in early March, EMT has one-way Advance rates of £50 standard and £60 first class when you take the 0755 train from St Pancras, arriving in Sheffield at 1000. By comparison, its normal one-way tariffs would be £104 and £150 respectively. For the same trip, East Coast charges £56.60 and £87.50 respectively for the 0803 out of King’s Cross, which reaches Doncaster at 0939. Its normal rates are £93.50 and £142.50.

Advance tickets sell well. The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) tells me its members sell more than one million a week, and they are not all for standard class travel.

East Coast reckons that Advance tickets have contributed towards a healthy rise in first class passengers. It says it carried 2.1 million first class travellers last year, compared with 1.4 million in 2003. It reported a 370 per cent rise in people using first class Advance tickets over the same period.

That’s all well and good, but what if your plans change? The problem with Advance fares is that they are not refundable, so you must be sure of your plans. On the other hand, they can be changed subject to a £10 fee, as well as the difference between the fare at the time you booked and the fare for the train you now wish to catch.

The change must be made before the train departs. But knowing that TOC booking systems are not as sophisticated as airline versions, allow some leeway. If you are unsure when you want to return (and intend to return off-peak) then it’s best to book a one-way Advance and then, for the return journey to London, (assuming you are travelling home outside the morning peak period) simply buy a “walk up” one-way Off-Peak Saver.

Taking the same travel details as before (for Sheffield/Doncaster), a passenger taking the 0735 from Euston to Manchester would pay £67 standard or £65 first and, for the return the same day, would simply purchase a £77.30 one-way Off Peak Saver. It might seem messy, but you would still save on the normal return fares of £308 standard and £441 first class.

The quirk above, where a first class Advance costs less than a standard Advance, is not a typo. When I researched this piece, I came across similar examples on this and other networks. According to an East Coast spokesperson, this is not unusual. “The quotas for each class fill out at different speeds. Standard class fills up first of all. Because there are varying levels of first class availability [depending on the route and the time of day] it means there will be cases where the booking system will display a lower first class fare.” At times of severe disruption the TOCs tend to waive ticket restrictions, but always check first.

So to sum up: Advance fares offer good savings provided you abide by their restrictions. While tickets cannot be refunded, they can be changed for a fee, but if you are travelling Off-Peak (and note that definition varies with each TOC) and need flexibility, then it’s best to buy a Saver, which will provide walk-up convenience.

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