What’s the best way to travel in the UK?

With rising fuel prices and rail fare hikes inbound, it feels like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to travel in the UK.

Virgin is adding new Manchester to London flights next year after losing its rail franchise, which begs the question: what’s the best way to travel in the UK?

Looking at cost, comfort and convenience on journeys between Manchester and London as an example of city-to-city travel, here we attempt to answer that question.

Cost

By car

It seems that fuel prices crept up while we were all looking the other way at the Olympics. At the time of writing, the average price of unleaded petrol stands at 135.52 pence per litre, according to the AA.

If we take the most popular car of 2011 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Ford Fiesta, we can work out roughly how much the average round trip from Manchester to London would cost.

Ford says the average miles per gallon of the 1.4 model is 48.7. The distance from Manchester is roughly 200 miles, which means around eight gallons (or 36 litres) for a round trip.

This works out to at least £48 worth of petrol, and probably more given that the journey will involve a degree of stopping and starting because of traffic, signals and junctions. And if you’re filling up at a motorway service station, you could well find you’re paying above the average price for your fuel – they know you haven’t got much choice!

If you’re braving Central London during the working week you may also have to pay the congestion charge of £10 per day. If you park on a meter in the West End you can pay up to 40 pence for five minutes – £4.80 for an hour.

Given that you can fit five people in most family-sized cars, this mode of travel works out as fairly cost effective, especially if your passengers are chipping in for fuel and parking.

This calculation of course neglects the associated costs of driving such as insurance, tax and maintenance, which bump up the real cost of the journey.

The price of fuel could be about to rise even higher. The RMI Petrol Retailers' Association predicts the 10% increase in Brent Crude oil prices over the past fortnight, to £74 a barrel, will soon push up prices at the pump.

By rail

The cost of travel by rail is often as mysterious as the dark side of the moon, given that prices vary depending on when you book, how many changes you’re willing to make and what time you travel.

For the sake of parity we’ll look at a direct train from all Manchester stations to all London stations “tomorrow” – as you would be able to travel by car at equally short notice, with two adult passengers and three children.

The two-hour journey weighs in at £259.70 for a family of two adults and three children according to a search on nationalrail.co.uk.

Of course if you book further in advance and play with the fare options you can travel for less. The same journey this time next month would cost as little as £113.75 if you booked two singles rather than a return ticket for each passenger.

As and when you travel by train, always try to book in advance rather than at the ticket desk, even if it’s just a couple of hours before you travel – you’re highly likely to get a better price. Tickets are released three months in advance, so this is when you stand the best cance of finding a discount.

You collect your tickets from a dispenser at the station using a code provided and the card you use to pay for your tickets, so give yourself five minutes extra to complete the task.

An increase in inflation in July means that, as of January 2013, fares will be increasing by an average of 6.2%, a rise which nearly a third of people said would mean they wouldn’t be able to afford rail travel, according to our poll.

By air

Using the same parameters (a family of five travelling “tomorrow”) you’d pay somewhere in the region of £158 per person for a flight from Manchester Airport to Heathrow Airport in London, totalling a whopping £790 for five passengers.

This comparison is a little unfair given the short notice. Book for this time next month and you can get tickets for £90 per person, totalling £450.

Virgin isn’t starting its domestic flights from Manchester to London until March 2013, but has started booking flights. Tickets can be booked by calling 0844 209 7777. A return ticket is said to cost somewhere in the region of £95.

A cursory web search shows you can get a flight from Bristol to Newcastle for £55 per person, from Leeds to Glasgow for around £130 per person and from Cardiff to Edinburgh for around £56 per person.

Other factors to consider are the cost of getting from the airport to your final destination. The train from Heathrow to Paddington in London takes just 15 minutes and costs £19 single, £34 return (£28 and £52 first class), though you can save £1 by booking online.

The underground takes longer – up to an hour – but will only cost around £5. If you take a taxi, you’ll be looking at the thick end of £50/£60.

You’ll also probably have to shell out a few more pounds on something to drink on the plane as you’ll have surrendered any liquids of your own at the security gate.

Comfort

The relative discomfort of flying is offset by the short journey time, but I’d still say rail and road are comfier, and as rail takes half the time and you can get up to stretch your legs without pulling into a service station, it wins hands down in terms of comfort.

Convenience

Sometimes it’s worth paying extra for convenience, but which of three options here are most convenient – and does it justify the cost?

By car, the drive from Manchester to London should take a maximum of four hours, allowing for a comfort break and barring any major complications. Once there you’ll have to persevere with traffic and find somewhere to park.

By train the journey takes as little as two hours directly into central London, at which point you can hop on the underground to get where you need to be. The absence of traffic and parking is a plus, but remember you’re at the mercy of signal problems and other delay-causing issues.

The flight time from Manchester to London is less than an hour, but remember you’ll have to spend a certain amount of time at the airport checking-in, dealing with luggage and so forth. Once you land at Heathrow you’re then going to have to get into the city.

Verdict

The simple and evasive answer as to what is best is that it largely depends on your preferences and where you’re going.

Travel by car might appear to be the cheapest, but usually takes the longest. Travel by rail can be the most direct when travelling from city to city, but stray off the major routes and you’ll be subject to train changes, delays and higher costs.

Air travel still seems fairly expensive and for me, uncomfortable, but it is often the fastest way to get from one city to another – provided that city has an airport, of course, and that it isn’t miles from the city centre.

Remember: if you’re travelling by rail or air, the important thing is to book as far in advance as possible to get the best prices.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.

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