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Cheapo tips for first-class upgrades on British Rail

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First Class Southwest Train
Upgrade to first class for just five pounds for weekend travel with South West Trains. Photo: © hidden europe.

Finding your way around Britain’s famously complicated maze of rail tariffs isn’t easy—and the challenge is all the greater for visitors with only a hazy knowledge of the various rail operators and the multiplicity of permitted routes between any two cities.

But for those in the know, there are some superb deals to be found. Book well in advance and there are great offers for many long-distance routes. And if you’re traveling over the weekend, know that you can upgrade on a whim for as little as £5.

First-class bargains for early bookers

Britain offers some particularly good deals on first-class rail travel. Those prepared to book a couple of months in advance and commit to traveling on a specific train may find, especially if traveling outside the main business periods, that a first-class advance ticket costs only a fraction more than regular standard-class travel on exactly the same train.

Upgrade on a whim over the weekend

During the weekends on many routes, travelers can upgrade to first-class on a whim. This tempting treat is available on many mainline rail services across Britain. Holders of many categories of standard-class ticket are permitted to move through the train and occupy seats in first-class cars for just a modest premium (which can usually be paid on the train).

The weekend upgrade deal, called “Weekend First”, is valid on Saturdays, Sundays and on most public holidays on several train lines.

The following 10 rail operators all regularly offer Weekend First deals:

East Midlands Trains
East Coast
First Great Western
Greater Anglia
London Midland
ScotRail
South West Trains
First TransPennine Express
Virgin Trains
CrossCountry

How much is that upgrade?

The exact amount you’ll pay for trading up to first-class comfort varies according to rail operator, and in many cases may depend on the length of the journey you are making. £5 or £10 is typical. On Sunday, we paid a tenner for a Weekend First upgrade on a Nottingham to London service with East Midlands Trains.

Other Weekend First deals we have used include an offer from South West Trains where £5 will buy an upgrade for any length of journey—not bad for a three and a half hour ride from London to Devon.

The most expensive Weekend First deals in Britain are on East Coast where it can cost as much as £25. But if you’re riding East Coast’s premium daytime train from London to Inverness, then it is still a pretty good deal. It’s an eight-hour ride, and on such long journeys the extra comfort of first-class service really comes in handy.

Complimentary extras

Many rail companies in Britain offer complimentary drinks and snacks, sometimes even full meals, to their first-class passengers—but that is generally limited to mainline services from Mondays to Fridays, so the first-class product over the weekend might not include the same range of freebies. That said, East Coast does offer complimentary drinks and sandwiches, even for weekends, so it’s no surprise that East Coast’s Weekend First upgrades may be a little pricier than those of other companies. On our recent ride aboard East Midlands Trains, we enjoyed free tea, coffee and cookies as part of the Weekend First offer.

On many routes, a Weekend First upgrade can also be reserved in advance. On most rail companies’ trains, holders of standard (or second) class BritRail and InterRail passes can also upgrade to Weekend First. Just check with the staff on board your train.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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