England Dopers: Necessary to make Nat'l Rail reservation?

I will be travelling soon from London to Southampton via train. I haven’t travelled extensively by train in Europe since my college days; back then, I never made a reservation, but instead just showed up before the train I wanted was scheduled to leave and bought a ticket. Would it be prudent for me to go ahead and buy a ticket on-line, or is there no real chance of the train being full? My wife thinks I shouldn’t make a reservation, since it is difficult to estimate how much time it will take me to get from my plane at Heathrow to Waterloo station (and no guarantee that my plane will be on time, since I am flying Middle East Airlines, which (in my experience) has a rather mixed record when it comes to punctuality). I, on the other hand, fear that if I don’t make a reservation I will find myself sleeping on a park bench in London. So tell me, am I just being a ninny? Do I need a reservation?

Unless you’re travelling during peak hours (7-10am, 5-7pm weekdays) national rail services are generally not busy and you won’t have any problem getting a seat. Even at peak times you will likely get standing room.

However, buying your tickets in advance is still a good idea, although whether you can make a seat reservation or not depends on the train service being used. Assuming you can make a seat reservation, it’s worth bearing in mind that this is distinct from the validity of your ticket - basically you can use your tickets on any train on which they are valid, not just the train on which you had reserved seats, so it doesn’t matter if you miss the train you had reserved seats on (and what’s more, reservations are generally free).

The main reason for buying tickets in advance however is cost. You’ll get fleeced on most Intercity services if you turn up on the day of travel, but all national rail services generally offer heavily reduced ticket prices for customers able to book further in advance (generally, the earlier you book the cheaper it is), and even sometimes offer two single tickets cheaper than a return for those customers who are flexible enough to travel at odd hours.

Check out National Rail Enquiries for timetable and booking information.

Oh, and you won’t have to queue.


The above is often but not universally true: often the cheapest fares available are restricted to a single train. For example, value advance singles - often as little as £10 each way - are only valid on one departure on one day. If you’re not on the 1134 from Euston, you need a new ticket. Study the restrictions listed for tickets before purchasing to avoid a nasty surprise.

Firstly, what has been said above.

Secondly, don’t go to Waterloo - use the National Rail journey planner, and you’ll find there’s bus connections to Reading and Woking where you can join the Southampton services.

Thirdly, go by coach instead. There’s a direct hourly service from Heathrow to Southampton - www.nationalexpress.com

This looks like the best option–there is a non-stop from Heathrow to Southampton which claims to take only 1 hour 45 minutes. The same question applies as above–should I book in advance, or buy once I get to the airport?

There shouldn’t be any need to book the coach ticket - I can’t imagine that service being sold out even at peak times. And it doesn’t look like there’s any cost saving in pre-booking it. On the other hand, if you don’t want to be dealing with working out where to buy it, having cash handy, etc., then go ahead and book.

Thanks a million!

Thanks, everyone, for the helpful replies. Just another reason to love the Dope!

I’ve found (the hard way) that there can be savings in booking coach services in advance. One magic moment seems to be one week before the trip: if you can book more than one week in advance, you can often save money. But the National Express also seems to offer discounts on some trips closer to the time of departure, possibly as a result of competition from Megabus. I’d be trying to book online as soon as I knew what my plans were.

Well, the incompetent people in my employer’s travel office didn’t get me a plane ticket to London until 5 days before my departure, so no real chance of getting that discount. But since my employer is paying, I guess I don’t have to worry too much about spending a few extra pounds. :wink: