Traveling to England and researching the best way to get around? Whether you’re planning a quick visit or a long stay, it’s good to know what your options are. I highly recommend trying the national network of trains or buses instead of renting a car.
English roads are notoriously tricky to navigate, signage can be non-existent and most of all, you’ll be driving on the left side of the road. If you’re from the US this alone may give you a weird out of body feeling! The steering wheel will be on the right instead of left and as most rental cars in Europe are manual transmission (automatics come at a premium) you’ll need to switch gears too.
Driving on the left side of the road while switching gears with your left hand and trying to read road signs can challenge even the most seasoned traveler. Although I used to rent a car when visiting, I quickly learned how stressful it could be. Gas is expensive plus you have to pay to park almost everywhere. Most residential streets will allow permit parking only.
If you’re primarily staying in London, don’t even think about renting a car. Not.Worth.It.
Since moving to England almost full time, I use public transportation to get where I need to go. I’ve learned to rely on the national network of trains, buses and the London tube. You can too. At first I found it very confusing but with practice I’ve learned the tricks to navigate it.
Unfortunately British Rail isn’t known for it’s reliability. Being prepared can mean the difference between catching the train you’d planned or getting stranded at a station.
Be ready to think on your feet and get ready to hoof it. Changing trains can mean switching platforms too, sometimes with minutes to spare. When you’re wheeling a suitcase you’ll need to lift it up and off trains quickly.
I recently returned from a trip to the US with a big heavy honking suitcase to carry the rug I wanted to bring over! Of course I ended up with bumps and bruises. A train guard or a generous passenger may offer to help you with your bags but don’t count on it. Think about what you can reasonably juggle when packing.
On with the tips!
25 Things You Need to Know About Train Travel in England
1. This national rail map will help you understand the routes you’ll be traveling. London is the hub. Most routes will originate and terminate in London. If you’re traveling from Penzance in Cornwall and then want to go on to Whitstable in Kent, you’ll need to change trains in London. To get from one London rail station to another requires transferring by underground or tube. Avoid peak rush hours if you have a lot of luggage. Use a taxi instead.
2. Use the Trainline app to search, book and pay for tickets ahead of time. You’ll pay a small booking fee but I find it’s worth having all my tickets on one app. Plus I can research a journey while en route and get updates on schedule disruptions and delays.
3. The cheapest fare will be a Super Off Peak and then fares get progressively more expensive.
If you miss a train or it’s cancelled you can travel on any other train showing the same type of fare.
Let’s say you’ve booked a 11:00 AM ticket from London Victoria station to Brighton with a day return (round trip) at 5:00 PM. Your ticket is an Off Peak fare. You can travel at any other Off Peak fare time such as 11:30 or 12:00. Same goes for your return journey.
4. Any Time Day Single fares are the most expensive. You can use them any time of day which makes them the most flexible if you’re unsure of your schedule. On popular commuter routes, expect these higher fares at morning and evening rush hour.
5. Mobile tickets are slowly coming to National Rail. Otherwise you’ll collect a paper ticket at the ticket machine with your credit card and ticket collection number.
6. Rail guards will come through the train and ask for tickets after each stop or right after you get on. You shouldn’t need to show it again until your journey comes to an end unless you have a change. If your destination station has a turnstile you’ll pop your ticket in, the gate will open and your ticket gets left behind. A lot of smaller stations don’t have turnstiles so you’ll just walk out. Yes it’s the honor system.
7. If you somehow get on a train without a ticket, you may have to pay a penalty plus the full ticket price.
8. Unless you leave the station you won’t need to present or use your ticket if you’re just changing to a different platform or train.
9. Train tickets should be released up to 12 weeks in advance, but don’t count on it. 6-12 weeks in advance is your best shot at a great fare deal.
What to Do If Your Train Gets Cancelled
10. Rail replacement buses – avoid at all costs. Engineering works, signal failures and jumpers can wreak havoc on train schedules especially those originating in London. If your train has been canceled they may substitute with rail replacement buses to get you to your destination. Look for the bus icon when booking your train and avoid these routes if possible.
11. Weekends and holidays are in my opinion the worst times to travel by train. Schedules get disrupted, trains get canceled. and maintenance is scheduled.
Avoid Sunday travel if possible.
12. If your train is cancelled, check the Trainline app for alternatives. For example my train from Gatwick to Reading on a Monday was canceled and I didn’t find out until I was on my way to Gatwick. I did a quick search to find another connection to my destination was Clapham Junction. Not my favorite choice but as the train I was on passed through Gatwick to Clapham Junction, I stayed on it, got off at Clapham Junction to make a new connection.
13. If your train’s cancelled or you have to take a different train to get to your destination, don’t stress. Without fail, every rail guard or crew has been very understanding. They’re not there to police you, they understand you’re just trying to get where you’re going. If your ticket isn’t the right fare type you may have to pay to upgrade it but I’ve never had to do this.
14. Get to a larger station if possible. Recently I got on a train I’d booked to Brighton on a Sunday. Instead I found the last stop was going to be Cobham- halfway there. The rail guard told everyone to get off at this stop (which was a small unmanned station) and either wait for a connecting bus or a train.
Um no thank you. After checking to make sure I could get a connecting train to Brighton, I got off in Southampton, three stations early. It’s a big station with lots of connecting trains. I was able to walk 20 steps to the next train to Brighton and wait in comfort instead of standing on a cold wet unmanned station with no facilities like the folks who had stayed on my original train.
Understanding Timetables & Destinations
15. Don’t rely on the train’s onboard screen for accurate location or destination information. Some train conductors are great about updating these, others don’t. So you may be wondering why it looks like you’re heading to a completely different location! Always ask.
16. I’ve gotten on the wrong train before. It came in to the platform at the right time but I didn’t pay attention to what regional service it was. It was a Southern train and I needed a GWR. Normally this isn’t something you have to worry about but it’s good to be aware. I got off at the next station and watched the train I should have caught whizz by without stopping. Fortunately I was able to make another connection to get home.
17. Remember there’s always another train or route. Ask a train employee (they’re usually in uniform or wearing a high vis vest) and consult your Trainline app. I’ve had train employees steer me wrong but others have been super helpful.
Check the front of the train for it’s destination before you get on if in any doubt.
18. Check the station timetable screens for train arrivals and departures. If you’re catching an 11:06 train, that arrival/departure will show up on the screen. Look for a train leaving at 11:06 and then see what platform it’s leaving from. The large stations like London’s Victoria or Clapham Junction will have 19 or 17 platforms. Most smaller stations will have less than 4, some have 1 for both directions!
19. Know the final destination of your train so you can ask for information or to check the arrivals board. For example, I may be going to Bath but the trains final destination is Cardiff Central. You’ll want to look for the Cardiff Central train, not a train to Bath.
What to Expect – Train Amenities
20. Some longer haul routes like London Paddington to Penzance have reserved seats and a bar or lunch car along with “trolley service” of drinks and snacks. You can also reserve a quiet car if you want to work or snooze. Pick seats and car when you book your ticket. Shorter commuter routes have no seat reservations or snack service.
21. Don’t expect charging plugs or points on all trains. Southern rail doesn’t have any. GWR (Great Western Rail) has plug outlets and USB charging ports at most seats.
22. Most larger train stations will have food services. Shops like Marks & Spencers (M&S) Simply Food have delicious snacks and drinks including beer, wine and juices. Pret a Manger is another favorite of mine for good quality fresh food to go. Eating on trains or in public isn’t the norm, but grabbing a bite between train connections could be your only chance to get something to eat.
23. Use Google Maps to research what each train station has to offer, from food to toilets to newsstands. Some stations charge for access to toilets but the trend is changing. Victoria Station doesn’t charge and neither does Brighton. It helps to have some coins on you just in case. There’s usually toilet facilities on most trains.
24. Most stations will have lifts or elevators to use as an alternative to hiking up stairs. These are a godsend if you have large bags and need to traverse from one platform to another on the other side of the train tracks.
25. Eurostar is an independent train service and not affiliated with National Rail. The Eurostar terminal is located in London’s glorious St. Pancras station. Tickets for Eurostar can also be purchased on the Trainline app.
English trains are the personification of the country’s quirky, sometimes maddeningly inefficient personality.
When they work, it’s sheer heaven to sit back and watch the glorious countryside roll by. There’s also no better way to immerse yourself in British culture and local flavor. The people watching is fascinating. Everyone takes a train at some stage!
If like me, you’ve driven a car all your life, it can feel frustrating to have so little control over getting where you want to go. But perhaps it’s a good lesson to let go, let someone else drive for a change and embrace the unexpected!
You’re probably thinking this is a LOT to remember, but if you just get a few tips to take away I hope it eases your traveling.
For in depth details on how to get into and around central London from Heathrow and Gatwick airport. Happy travels!