WoSland is planning a two-person weekday trip to London soon. A simple enough undertaking, right?
But of course it isn't. Ever since the UK's railways were privatised by lovable Mrs Thatcher, it's a well-documented fact that (a) we have the most expensive rail network on Earth, and (b) trying to find out the best and cheapest way to travel between any two points is an insane labyrinthine nightmare of routes, operators, countless different ticket types and "magic stations" – places in the middle of your journey where for no obvious reason you can mysteriously slash the price of your ticket by pretending to make your journey in multiple stages, even though you never actually get off the train or even change seats.
The most magical station on the Bath-London route is Didcot Parkway. If you buy a return from Bath to Didcot, and a return from Didcot to London, rather than buying a direct return ticket from Bath to London, you can save over 40%. (The direct return fare for WoSland's trip is £118 for two people, the "split" return is £70.60 for two, even though you're staying on the exact same train all the way from Bath to London, and all the way back.) But it's not even as simple as that.
Let's look at some of the excitingly different fares we can pay to make the exact same journey on the exact same day. (We'll pick a date a couple of weeks into the future, since obviously WoSland isn't going to tell you the REAL day it's going to London, in case you come round and burgle its house.) So let's say you fancy going from Bath to London on Wednesday 28 January, leaving reasonably early in the morning and returning mid-evening.
Cheapest off-peak return, leaving at 10.13am and returning around 8pm: £97.60 (all quoted prices are for two people, remember. It took the best part of three hours to work out all this stuff for WoSland's own trip, and I'm buggered if I'm going back through it all now dividing everything by two for single travellers).
Off-peak return leaving slightly earlier, at 9.43am or 9.13am: £118
Or if you don't want half the day to be gone by the time you arrive there's an Anytime return, for anything leaving at "peak" hours, eg the 8.13am departure: £308
But let's try splitting our journey up.
LATER DEPARTURE – Off-peak return Bath-Didcot leaving at 9.43am, then Didcot-London: £30.60 + £40 = £70.60 (40.2% less than the direct price of £118)
EARLIER DEPARTURE – Anytime return Bath-Didcot (leaving 8.13am), then Didcot-London: £84 + £93.40 = £177.40 (42% less than the direct price of £308. Be careful not to split your ticket at Reading instead, though – then it's £234. And if you're the sort of crazy maniac who'd try a damn-fool tactic like splitting at Swindon, you'll be paying £245.)
That's still a bit strong for the early journey, though. Can we split that one up some more? What if we buy individual returns to every stop on the journey?
Anytime return Bath-Swindon 8.13am (£27), then Swindon-Didcot (£70), then Didcot-Reading (£15.60), then Reading-London (£36) = £148.60, saving a further £30 compared to the one-split-at-Didcot journey – and a total of £160 on the direct journey – despite the fact that in all cases you're staying on the exact same train the whole way from Bath to London.
(Do make sure you arrive at the station in plenty of time to collect your tickets from the machine, though – for that journey you're going to have to wait for it to print out a total of 26 tickets including the card receipts.)
All of the above applies differently depending on your time of travel, though. For example, don't bother splitting at every station if you're on that later 9.43am train – after all the effort you'll still pay £69, saving just £1.60 on the one-split fare of £70.60. BUT if you're getting the 9.13am, then the three-split price is £79.40, a worthwhile saving compared to £90 for a one-split at Didcot. And so on. Good luck!