You cannot always get them free, like my tickets in the photograph on the right, but you can often get them cheap and if you really want to enjoy the ride, this is the way to do it!
|Southern First Class: only the white cloths|
distinguish from Standard Class! Seats, space,
lighting and tables are just the same.
On others, however, especially long-distance services, bigger, reclining seats, more legroom, free wireless internet and device-charging sockets and free refreshments are provided (Virgin Trains East Coast supplies substantial meals including wine or beer within the ticket price). So what you get for your money will depend on where you're going and with which company, but generally speaking it is worth travelling First Class if you can afford it, which is where this article is trying to help ...
Affordable First Class Travel
For most journeys of any length, Advance tickets are sold for both Standard and First Class, usually from 12 weeks before the date of travel, and these typically provide huge savings for the first few people to book. Fixed numbers of tickets are available at each price on each train depending upon the expected demand and when the cheapest have gone the price rises in stages until all the Advance tickets have sold. Occasionally, if you are not too fussy when you travel (and sometimes by sheer luck it can happen to be the very train you were planning to catch), very cheap tickets can still be available a day or two before you travel. That was how I once bought a First Class ticket to York cheaper than the cheapest Standard Class ticket!
So, the first tip for buying affordable First Class travel is to plan the journey as far in advance as you can and try to fit your plans around the cheapest prices. Advance tickets can only be used on the chosen train, so you must be sure that you can travel on that train. I have done this countless times now and have never had a problem, but if you are the scatty, chaotic type, then it may not work for you! As I have mentioned, you can be lucky booking even the day before travel, so it is always worth looking. These tickets have to be bought online, and can be collected from a machine at the station any time before you leave: I never wait until the last moment and always get them when I am next near the station. Sometimes I have a drawer full of Advance tickets for several trips!
A second tip is to look at splitting the journey. For example, I almost always have to change trains at either Peterborough or Birmingham New Street and I usually buy Standard Class tickets to those places (Peterborough is only 13 minutes and First Class more than doubles the cost!), and then pay for First Class (Advance, of course!) only for the "trunk" section of the route from there to my destination, whether the quick 50-minute hop to London or the long trip down to Cornwall from Birmingham. Sometimes splitting a journey is worth doing even if all your trip is in one class of travel and even if you are not changing trains: it is often possible to more than halve the ticket cost just by buying the journey in two sections, just one of those bizarre things that the "privatisation" of the railways has introduced. (It may be that the cheapest Advance tickets have been sold out on part of the route but not all of it, for example, but even with ordinary day return or open return fares, ticket splitting is worth looking at, see my recent local outing to Spalding, for example.)
Third, if you travel at weekends, First Class upgrades are often on offer, either purchasable in advance with your ticket or even simply by boarding a first class coach and paying the ticket inspector when he or she comes round - but do make sure it is on offer before trying this one or you may be in trouble for travelling First on a Standard ticket! Announcements are made on board when Weekend First upgrades are available. On many routes the amount you have to pay will depend on the distance you are travelling, usually in just two fare stages, so how much of a bargain it would be will vary somewhat. At weekends the included food and drink offer is not as good as during the week (notably no chef on board so no cooked food, and no alcoholic drinks - although these can be bought from the buffet bar if you wish).
Fourth, as with Standard Class travel, many (but not all) Railcards give a one-third discount on First Class fares. We have used both Senior Railcards (over 60 - you do not have to be retired!) and Two Together Railcards (when we were younger) to get these discounts. The discount on one decent holiday trip pays for the Railcard easily.
Then when considering whether First Class is worth paying for, think about what is included and whether you would have to pay for it if it were not! If you would buy a coffee and croissant and then a light lunch with wine, then tea and cake, then somewhere around £25 has to be subtracted from the extra you would pay for First Class travel - and that's before considering the extra space and comfort. If your journey takes place over a meal time you may even be able to save money by travelling First Class on a route where a meal is included.
Catering in First Class
|Breakfast, at no extra cost, in First Class on the East Coast|
main line: freshly cooked and excellent. Other options are
available, and on short journeys the full English shown here
is not available.
Virgin Trains East Coast's current breakfast menu is all you could wish, really, on a train. Continental breakfast is served to those on short trips, with fruit juice, yogurt, croissant and tea or coffee, and on longer journeys cooked options including porridge and the full English shown in the photograph above.
|Cross Country Train vegan lunch wrap|
There are paid-for items on the First Class menu but I have never tried ordering these and am not sure how this is arranged: I think there is a microwave cooking facility available to the First Class Host. The snack lunch we tried on our trip to Cornwall was a vegan wrap, and very nice it was, too. I am not even a vegetarian, but this suited me completely. The bottle of Doom Bar I bought to go with it was just right on a trip to Cornwall, but I expect it would have been the same beer if I'd been on a Cross Country train to Liverpool or Edinburgh.
GWR includes light snacks (crisps, biscuits, tea, coffee, soft drinks) which are served at-seat on weekdays but have to be collected from the buffet counter at weekends. Cooked meals are available to purchase in the Pullman Restaurant Car on selected trains: these are expensive but well worth the price if you can afford it. First Class ticket-holders get first chance to have a table in the restaurant car, but Standard Class ticket-holders can also use it if there is space available, and there often is - and the seating is first class, so you get to travel First Class on a Standard Class ticket, but you do have to buy an expensive meal!
Eurostar's services to France and Belgium include a "light breakfast" or "light meal" in Standard Premier Class, their first class option for leisure travellers. Business First includes a more substantial meal but I cannot see me ever trying that out! The through service to the Mediterranean includes breakfast and a hot lunch southbound and afternoon tea and hot dinner northbound because of the length of the journey. Wine is included, and top-ups are available but not always advertised (they invite you to have more tea or coffee but if you say, "May I have wine?" they always provide it).
|I love the 70s retro feel of TransPennine's purple decor|
The same applies to East Midlands Trains: on the local services I have used in Lincolnshire and East Anglia there is not even any first class seating; they only seem to offer it on their London main line trains and they advertise included drinks and snacks in that, with complimentary breakfast (sometimes "full", sometimes "lighter") on weekdays; other meals it seems you have to buy.
We have enjoyed complimentary coffee and biscuits in First Class on the more local Cross Country trains and on ScotRail, and hope to be trying out SouthWest Trains' offering in a couple of months' time: I'll append something to the end of this article then.
First Class Lounges or Waiting Rooms
|First Class Lounge at Doncaster|
(At Peterborough when travelling to London we wait in the southern waiting room on platforms 2 & 3, which is not restricted to First Class ticket-holders and has no extra facilities but is so much nearer the First Class coaches than the Standard Class ones and tends to have far fewer people waiting in it. There is no equivalent waiting room on platform 4 for those heading north, unfortunately).
Travelling by First Class rail is a very relaxing way of travelling. Not only do you (normally!) get a bigger, reclining, seat with more personal space, a guaranteed table, better lighting and often food and drink, but there are other advantages: with fewer passengers sharing the carriage there is less "traffic" up and down the aisle (especially as refreshments are brought to the table), less demand on the toilets, more space per person on the luggage racks, less crush to get off the train at stations and less general noise and fuss at busy times. While it is seldom worth paying walk-up fares for First Class unless you are very rich, it is certainly well worth shopping around for a good deal and travelling First as often as you can afford, which in our case is on almost every journey.