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Travel between London and Manchester

Hey Rickniks,

I'm in my 30s and have been travelling solo for a few years now, but my parents have never been overseas so I thought 2019 would be a good time for us to plan a family trip. The current plan is to spend most of our time sightseeing in London, but it turns out there's a concert I want to see in Manchester while we're there. So, my brother and I are going to head up to Manchester for a day or two while my parents stay back in London.

I figure my best option is with Virgin Trains, I see they have frequent service between London Euston and Manchester Picadilly. I have some questions about this process:
1) The concert is on a Friday evening and I was thinking of buying an off-peak return ticket so I could leave for Manchester on Friday morning, then return to London anytime on Saturday. Are Virgin Trains reliable enough that this would be acceptable? My other option would be to take the train in the night before the concert, but that may be overkill.
2) I understand that anytime after 9:26am on Friday and anytime on weekends is off-peak but I was confused as to whether or not there were any off-peak times from Monday-Thursday?
3) When I actually arrive at Euston, do I need to exchange my off-peak ticket for a specific train or do I simply get on the next train that shows up?
4) The Virgin Trains website says off-peak tickets do not guarantee a seat. Does that simply mean I will have to stand or does that mean I would have to wait until the next train?

I have travelled by train in mainland Europe before, but never in the UK. Thanks in advance.

Posted by
33319 posts

question 1
It is a short journey and they are generally very punctual.

However, for a variety of reasons, trains can be delayed, diverted or cancelled. If i were in your shoes I'd do it.

According to their own statistics:

87% of our trains roll in within 10 minutes of planned arrival time, so you can arrive ready to go. (Data as of August 2016).

Posted by
33319 posts

more on question 1

If you buy an off-peak return you will likely be sold an off-peak day return. If you get one of those you need to complete your travel by 0300 the following morning which is not what you are trying to do.

You want an off-peak period return, the return of which needs to be completed within 30 days. Off-peak period return used to be called a Saver. There are a few Super Off Peaks which are period returns.

If you were able to commit to times (like you would if you were flying) you could save a bundle by buying Advance tickets (with a capital A) which are non-refundable singles (one-way) and tie you to a specific train at a specific time. They can be as low as less than £10 each way.

Posted by
33319 posts

question 3

Will you have an actual ticket beforehand or simply a ticket collection number? Where will you be buying your ticket from?

If the former, no, just get on a train on which your ticket is valid. First Class near the ticket barrier, Standard along the platform (with 11 coaches, sometimes a fair way along the platform).

If the latter, you exchange the ticket collection number you have at a Fast Ticket machine or a window for the actual ticket, then as above. You will need to present the actual credit card which you used to make the booking, even if it has expired.

Posted by
33319 posts

question 4

There are lots of seats and it is a very long train, up to 11 coaches long, each one capable of holding around 100 people sitting and standing. If all the seats are full, yes you stand. The first stop will be Milton Keynes Central and some people will get off.

Only Peak trains tend to standing room, and the first train after the peak and the last one before - when people who don't want to pay for peak travel tend to travel as close as possible to the peak, and only in the direction of the peak flow (Towards London in the morning and away from London in the afternoon).

If you travel mid-morning you should have shed loads of room and plenty of seats from which to choose.

On the other hand you could obtain a reservation. Go up to the window and it can be arranged. It will tell you which coach and which seat has your name on it.

Posted by
33319 posts

more on question 4

It is extremely unusual for a train to be so packed that people wait on the platform for a following train, especially off-peak.

If that ever did happen, there's another in 60 minutes.

3) When I actually arrive at Euston, do I need to exchange my off-peak
ticket for a specific train or do I simply get on the next train that
shows up? 4) The Virgin Trains website says off-peak tickets do not
guarantee a seat. Does that simply mean I will have to stand or does
that mean I would have to wait until the next train?

3) No need to exchange your ticket - just get on the next off-peak train.

4) Not everyone books seats, and not every seat is booked. There will generally be one carriage that is all unreserved seats, plus a number of other seats in the other carriages with some available seats. There’s electronic signs above the seats telling you if it’s reserved or available. If you have a valid ticket for the train, get on and try to find an available seat (the train guard on the platform will know the best carriage to try). If there are no empty seats you will not be turfed off the train - if it’s really busy you may have to stand but you won’t have to wait for the next train.

Also some people may have reservations but not turn up. So once the train is underway and you spot an empty reserved seat, it’s fine to sit there as long as you vacate it if the seat “owner” turns up.

Try reading the website of The Man in Seat 61 for more.

Posted by
35 posts

Thanks for the replies!

I will be purchasing my ticket online (presumably at virgintrains.co.uk) before I leave so I'm not sure if that translates to an actual ticket or a collection number.

I may end up buying an Advance ticket, as you mention, but I didn't see any as low as £10. The cheapest I've seen so far is £24 per direction. How far in advance should I be looking? My travel dates are in June.

Also, I didn't see any distinction on virgintrains.co.uk about off-peak day return vs off-peak period. I played around on the website with some dates a month or two in the future just to get a feel for the prices.

Posted by
4066 posts

Go a day early; there's lots to see and do in Manchester, lots of industrial history, lots of pubs. Virgin does not have the best record in the UK, but I really don't know which company can be trusted more. Your alternative, other than flying, would be highway coach; see National Express for what is available. www.nationalexpress.com

Posted by
33319 posts

How far in advance should I be looking

11 weeks