Here are four ways to save on trains in Britain.
Forget Britrail.com. It's the main US travel agency website, and it charges a "one size fits all" fare for any given journey. Its rates rarely seem to bear any relation to real U.K. fares. For example, London-York is always $198 return at Britrail.com when the cheap Advance fares start at about $22 each way on U.K. websites, which you can use just like Britons do. For example, you can check train schedules and buy fares at www.nationalrail.co.uk.
[UPDATE 5/13] National Rail's site (note it has a .co.uk ending, not a .com ending) won't sell tickets. But once you've planned your trip, go to www.raileasy.co.uk, which charges a small booking fee (of about $2 to $6, varying by what you buy). I recommend the site because it will accept U.S. credit cards (unlike many other British booking sites). The site will also let American visitors collect tickets at stations, either from the ticket office or self-service machines. RailEasy is just fixing their site so that overseas visitors are specifically prompted to select the ‘collect at station’ option.
Rail passes aren't a good deal for the typical traveler's agenda. Consider buying point-to-point tickets instead. Here are examples of non-refundable Advance fares bought from www.raileasy.co.uk. London-York from about $22 each way. London-Bath starts at about $19. London-Edinburgh starts at about $28. Book ahead. As a rule, you can book up to three months in advance.
Overnight it. Yes, you can do London and the Highlands of Scotland in the same trip without stress or high cost. Take the traditional Caledonian Sleeper from central London to Edinburgh, Inverness, or Aberdeen. A bed in a two-berth compartment starts at about $156 one-way, including breakfast. It'll save a hotel bill. Learn more at seat61.com/CaledonianSleepers.htm.
Take the scenic route. You can travel direct from London to Edinburgh in four-and-a-half hours. But changing at Leeds and Glasgow takes you over the wild and remote Settle & Carlisle Line, one of Britain's most scenic. That route will take you 7-8 hours to Scotland, but costs no more than the direct route—if you buy an Open or Saver ticket (instead of a so-called Advance ticket). Get your bearings at the National Rail website
*(Rates quoted in this blog post may change at the time of your booking because of the shifting exchange rate.)
Mark Smith, blogging from the UK, for our Affordable Europe series.