Is Domestic Air Travel Cheaper than Train Travel?

Is domestic air travel cheaper than train travel? MyVoucherCodes have conducted a study to determine which mode of transport is cheapest in the UK.

Cartoon illustration of a train
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Train prices in the UK are high, we all know that. Passengers can end up spending thousands of pounds every year for services that occasionally turn up late, are sometimes understaffed and are commonly overcrowded.

The general public’s consensus is that they’re getting an unfair deal. According to a Statista survey released at the end of 2021, a whopping 68% of people believe train fares in the UK to be either “fairly bad” or “very bad” value for money. In stark contrast, only 1% deem the prices to be “very good” value for money.

There is another high-speed option that passengers don’t always consider for domestic journeys, however, and that is to fly.

Is Flying Really Cheaper?

On average, yes - air travel is cheaper than train travel. A study conducted here at MyVoucherCodes selected 10 train routes within the UK and compared the cheapest possible return ticket prices to the air travel equivalent. Perhaps surprisingly, out of the routes selected six were cheaper by air (as the table below shows).

A graph showing the price of train routes vs the price of plane routes

London includes all stations and airports within the Greater London area. We have selected the cheapest ticket.

(Image credit: Future)

Five out of these six plane journeys were not only cheaper but much faster, too. Bristol to Edinburgh, for example, was £146.00 less expensive than the train and was over four and a half hours faster. London to Glasgow saved £38.30 and was faster. While Bristol to Newcastle saved £110.30 while being a quicker journey too. However, an anomaly to this trend was the Bristol to Birmingham route; which although cheaper, took two hours longer due to a changeover. 

In contrast, only four out of the ten routes were cheaper by train.

A graph of plane and train prices compared

Data for this study was obtained using Skyscanner and TrainlineReturn journeys were based on the cheapest ticket option possible for dates travelling between 09/01/2023 – 16/01/2023. To find the most affordable prices, some journeys involved stops and changes.

(Image credit: Future)

Interestingly, longer journeys from Exeter to Edinburgh and Southampton to Newcastle worked out to be less expensive on the train, and return tickets were £17.50 and £53.70 cheaper respectively. The air equivalent journey was direct for both routes. That makes this data somewhat surprising when compared to the overall findings. Shorter trips from London to Bristol, and Manchester to Birmingham were more affordable by train too.

It’s worth mentioning that direct air travel isn’t always possible between certain routes (chiefly for shorter journeys, such as London to Bristol or Bristol to Birmingham). This results in changeovers, making the process not only much longer but also more inconvenient.

Image of a train moving at speed through a station

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Domestic Plane Travel Appears to Be Cheaper

On average, it appears domestic journeys work out cheaper by air than by train. It’s also fair to suggest that long-distance trips are where you’ll find the real savings. In fact, the data gathered shows only three of the ten routes were more time efficient when travelling by rail.

The charts below highlight the cheapest ways to travel versus the fastest ways to travel.

fastest way to travel and the cheapest way to travel graphs

(Image credit: Future)

Is Domestic Air Travel The Answer?

On average, domestic air journeys may be cheaper and often the fastest way to travel. However, there are many factors to consider.

Air Travel is Worse for the Environment

Climate change is a particularly pertinent issue when it comes to the travel industry as a whole. Although travelling by air may be cost-effective, it’s certainly not as environmentally friendly. 
A study carried out by the independent think tank The Intergenerational Foundation highlights that “the average flight within the UK emits 128kg of CO2e. This is equivalent to driving 710km in a petrol car or washing a load of laundry at 40 degrees every two days for an entire year.” They also mention that “aviation is among the most environmentally harmful modes of transportation”, and that ”travel by train is seven times more environmentally friendly than flying within Great Britain”.

Image of a passenger jet in the air

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Additional Costs Make a Difference

Another factor to consider is the cancellation cost, and what you can get back should you be unable to travel. Train tickets are only entirely or partly refundable if you have bought an eligible ticket (Advance tickets are non-refundable), whilst a variety of refundable and non-refundable airline tickets are available too. A perk of flying, however, is that non-refundable ticket holders are able to get money back on anything they have paid to cover Air Passenger Duty fees. 

In contrast, travelling by plane can come with additional costs, such as luggage allowance add-ons and seat reservation selection. These are sometimes free with your booking. However, short-haul flights often require payment for any larger bags to be placed in the hold or for a traveller to choose the seat they wish to sit in. The prices for these selections vary, but it’s always worth double-checking the terms of your booking before committing to payment. In comparison, luggage is free to take aboard a train, whilst seat reservations don’t tend to cost any extra either.

Why Not Just Drive?

Driving or using public transport are both alternatives, although these options are better suited to shorter journeys. Excessive car use harms the environment and, according to a Statista study released in 2022, cars “are the biggest source of transportation emissions in the UK, and account for 52.42 per cent of the total emissions from this sector”. Fuel costs and the possibility of expensive breakdowns are also factors. On the other hand, the use of local public transport can become limited if you’re travelling beyond county lines.

Cars moving in both directions on a motorway at sunset

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Planes, Trains or Automobiles?

Passengers have both financial and moral decisions to make when it comes to deciding on which mode of transport to use. To fly may be cheaper, but there’s an added cost to our planet and direct routes aren’t always available. The train may take longer and be more expensive, but it is a greener and often a more convenient option.

Based on affordability alone, domestic plane travel tends to be better suited to longer, less frequent journeys, while train and car journeys are better for shorter trips and general commuting.

If you are looking to secure the cheapest possible tickets, however, it’s always worth booking them in advance. Check for out-of-season prices too, as they will often be much less during these periods. It’s also important to be mindful of any restrictive ticketing types and other add-ons before committing to payment.

woman wheeling a suitcase through a passenger terminal

(Image credit: Getty Images)
Jack Cunningham
Travel Editor

As a former sports journalist and content creator, I swapped the press box for a permanent desk several years ago. Since giving match reports the red card, I have enjoyed developing my writing and research skills in a few other areas, and now I spend my time doing something I really enjoy - sharing the best ways to save on travel with our wonderful readers.

I love nothing more than exploring different parts of the world and learning about new cultures (and taking in the occasional sporting fixture, if at all possible). I’m just as happy on a quick city break in Lisbon as I am navigating my way across the width of America, and firmly believe everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy travelling regardless of their budget.