This is mostly for my own future reference, but I reckoned that it might be useful to other people in Cambridge. How much does it cost to go to London by train? Well, that depends – I was quite taken aback with the sheer Byzantine complexity of all the different prices and rules! Anyway, here are the ones I use most commonly:
Weekday flexible off-peak day returns:
- To Kings Cross (50 minute journey time), £23.70 return. With Network Railcard discount: £15.65
- To Liverpool Street (1hr 20 journey time), £16 return. With Network Railcard discount: £13.00 (minimum fare applies)
- To Kings Cross with an all-zones travelcard, £30.90 return. With Network Railcard discount: £20.40
- To Liverpool St with an all-zones travelcard, £23.50 return. With Network Railcard discount £15.50
Weekend flexible super-off-peak day returns:
- Either route, £16 return. With railcard discount: £10.55
- Either route with travelcard, £22 return. With railcard discount: £14.50
Advance Fares (cheapest single journey to London)
You must book online via Greater Anglia for these. They cost £6 or £8 (depending on availability) each way, to Liverpool St only and are restricted to specific trains.
Anytime (Peak) fares:
- Kings Cross return, £38.60
- Liverpool Street return, £35.20
- Either route with all-zones Travelcard, £48.60
A more detailed explanation follows…
Single, day return or period return?
Day return means coming back within the same operating day (i.e. before the last train, even if that’s after midnight). Period returns are valid for one month from date of issue, so it can sometimes be worth buying a period ticket instead of a single if you expect to use the return portion at a later date.
Cambridge has two routes to London. The quickest journey (50 mins) is with First Capital Connect, non stop to Kings Cross every half hour. The alternative route, with Greater Anglia takes 1hr 25 and goes to Liverpool St. Tickets for the Kings Cross train are valid on the Liverpool St train (should you need to go out one way and back the other for some reason), but you can buy “Greater Anglia Only” tickets that are only valid on the Liverpool St trains and which are considerably cheaper.
Are you travelling peak or off-peak?
Peak fares are charged during the popular commuting times when the trains are always full. Weekends are considered off-peak, regardless of the time of day. On a weekday, the restrictions are quite complicated:
- 0915 from Cambridge to Kings Cross (arr 1013) and all subsequent trains are off-peak
- 0848 from Cambridge to Liverpool St (arr 1015) and all subsequent trains are off-peak
Northbound – daytime:
- Trains leaving London after 0930 are off-peak.
- Greater Anglia’s Super Off Peak fares are only valid after 1200.
Northbound – evening peak restrictions:
Greater Anglia trains from Liverpool St:
- Off-peak Day Return and Day Travelcard tickets are unrestricted
- Off-peak period return tickets are not valid from 1629 – 1834 departures from Liverpool St
- Super Off Peak tickets are not valid from 1559 – 1901
First Capital Connect trains from Kings Cross:
- Off-peak Day Return and Day Travelcard tickets are not valid from 1630-1900 departures from Kings Cross
- Off-peak period return tickets are not valid on trains departing between 1730 and 1830 from Kings Cross
Do you need to use other public transport in Greater London (i.e. Tube, bus, other trains?)
If you are making an off-peak journey, you can buy a Day Travelcard instead of a Day Return and this gets you unlimited travel within Zones 1 to 6 of London on pretty much all forms of public transport. If you travel into London in peak hours, you can buy a ticket which includes a single or return journey on the Underground, or you can buy a travelcard which covers some or all of the TfL zones. You can only buy Travelcard fares online, if you want peak Underground single or return tickets you have to go to the station and buy them. Travelcard adds between £3 and £8 to your fare, so if you’re travelling off-peak and only making one or two journeys in London it may be cheaper to use an Oyster card if you have one. Tube, DLR and Overground fares on Oyster are £2.20 within Zones 1 and 2, and bus fares are £1.45 flat rate. TfL are about to launch contactless payment on the Tube in London (it’s already working on buses) so you won’t need to have an Oyster card, just a contactless credit or debit card.
If you are travelling to London at the weekend, you need to make £6-worth of travel in London to make a Travelcard worthwhile: so it is cheaper to use Oyster if you are making fewer than three tube journeys in central London, or four bus journeys. If you’ve used a railcard, you only have to make £4-worth of travel to make it worth using Travelcard – so it’s nearly always worth having, as you’ll save even if you only make two tube journeys.
On a weekday off-peak, the difference in fare is between £7 and £8 without a railcard. This means you must make four tube journeys to justify the travelcard. However, if you have a railcard and travelled via King’s Cross, you need only make three journeys. If you have travelled via Liverpool St with a railcard, the minimum fare rule means that you can get a Travelcard for only £2.50 more, so it’s almost certainly worth doing if you intend to use the tube.
Do you have a railcard? Is it worth getting one?
There are a whole range of railcards, but they all work more or less the same way. They cost £30 (except Disabled Persons’ Railcard, which is £20) and give you a third off your off-peak fare. The most useful for most people is Network Railcard, which anyone can buy and which is valid all over “South East England”, including King’s Lynn-Cambridge-London. Network Railcard is not valid at all before 10am, and has a minimum fare of £13 on weekdays. The railcard discount applies to Day Travelcards as well as to ordinary rail tickets. If you travel with other people regularly, you only need one Network Railcard as it’s valid for up to 3 adults travelling together, though the railcard holder is named on the railcard, so they’re not transferable.
For weekend trips to London, a railcard saves you £5.45 per trip, or £7.50 if you buy a travelcard. It pays for itself if you buy more than 6 return rail trips to London per year (though these could be 3 return trips for a couple travelling together on a single Network Railcard), or if you buy more than 4 Day Travelcards. If you make weekday offpeak journeys, it pays for itself even more quickly.
What about Carnets? What about Duo?
FCC sell books of “Carnet” tickets for frequent-but-irregular travellers between Cambridge and Kings Cross. A book of five off-peak Carnet Singles costs £55, and the peak ones cost £86.50. If you want to make return journeys, you need to buy two sets (Cambridge – London and London – Cambridge). Carnet Singles are equivalent to £11 each offpeak and £17.30 peak, so the equivalent return fares would be £22 offpeak and £34.60 peak. Since they are single tickets, you could mix them – travelling out in the peak and returning offpeak for £28.30. Carnets are only valid for three months (hardly generous) so you’ve got to make five return journeys in three months to make it worthwhile buying them (i.e. go to London more than once a fortnight). You also can’t get a Travelcard with Carnet, which potentially sets you back £7 (or £8.40 at peak times) if you use Oyster or £8.90/£9.00 (peak) if you buy a paper one. On that basis, the off-peak Carnets are a rip-off – if you need to make five offpeak return journeys into London within three months you’ll be ten quid better off by buying a Network Card (as well as enjoying the card’s other benefits). However, Carnet tickets are transferable, which may make sense if other members of your household need to travel to London independently – but the deal’s still not that great.
However, the Peak carnet tickets represent the only way to get a discount on occasional peak rate travel to London – the full fare is £38.60, so the Carnet saves you £4 per trip, or £20 over the five trips.
Greater Anglia don’t offer Carnet, but they do offer a Duo ticket for two adults travelling together. The price is 1.5x the Super Off Peak fare (£16 x 1.5 = £24, or £12 each), so the second adult travels half price or you each get 25% off. It’s not as good a deal as Network Railcard if you travel frequently, and it’s only valid on trains to Liverpool Street.
Goodness me, that’s a complicated set of fares – I’ve written nearly 1500 words and I haven’t even priced period returns or talked about first class…