Rail fares are set to rise by an average 3.4% in January 2018, the biggest rise in five years.

There are a bewildering array of ticket options on Britain’s railways, with multiple types of the same ticket (super off peak, off peak, anytime) often being offered by self-service ticket machines. And in some cases it can actually be cheaper to travel first class than buy a standard class ticket.

But there are several tips and tricks you can use to make sure you never pay more than you need to.

Book in advance

Train fares generally go on sale 12 weeks in advance, so that’s the time to bag the cheapest tickets. Tickets almost always get more expensive the closer it gets to your day of travel.

However, if you have left it to the last minute it can be worthwhile to buy before 6pm the day before you want to travel, as cheaper Advance tickets are often on sale. And even if you’ve decided to take a train the same day it might be worth a quick look online at the train operating company’s website as they sometimes offer online-only deals.

If you’re travelling on East Midland Trains it’s also worth a look at the Megatrain website, which offers fares from £1 on its network.

Check if two singles is cheaper

Increasingly, two single tickets can be cheaper than buying a return, particularly if you’re travelling off peak. So make sure you look at all the different permutations before you book.

It might even be worth checking how much first class tickets cost.

Look for split ticket options

This is a trick well worth knowing, although the train operators apparently don’t like it. The key is to split your journey into two or more legs and buy tickets for those journeys separately, but you MUST ensure your train stops at the places where you split your journey.

So, for example, on a journey from Manchester to Carlisle, you could buy a single from Manchester to Preston and one from Preston to Carlisle, so long as it’s cheaper of course. However, the train must stop in Preston for your journey to be valid, although you don’t have to get off the train.

Split tickets can, in some instances, work for season tickets too.

Look for anomalies

In some cases it can be cheaper to buy a ticket to a destination further on than you want to travel. This generally only applies where there is more than one train operating company running on the same line.

Play around with your options and you could make a saving.

[Read more: The UK's greatest railway journeys]

Invest in a railcard

If you travel off peak a lot then buying a railcard can pay for itself very quickly.

There are several available, and they generally offer up to a third off the standard fare.

  • Family and Friends Railcard: allows up to four adults and four children to travel together at discounted fares (at least one child must travel).
  • Two Together Railcard: adults travelling as a pair can get a third off their tickets, but they must travel together.
  • Senior Railcard: offers people aged 60 or over a third off fares.
  • 16-25 Railcard: gives people aged 16-25 or those in full-time education a third off.
  • Disabled Railcard: a third off for a disabled person and any companion travelling with them.
  • Network Railcard: offers a third off travel in London and the south east of England.

Travelling in a group?

If you are a group of between three and nine adults travelling together it might be cheaper to buy a discounted GroupSave ticket at the station.

Avoid fee-charging websites

The likes of TheTrainline.com, Raileasy and RedSpottedHanky charge fees for booking and/or paying by card. You can book any national rail journey from any train operating company’s website free of charge.

Use Clubcard vouchers

You can pay for train travel via Clubcard vouchers on RedSpottedHanky.com. A £10 voucher is worth a £20 discount.

Just make sure your journey is the same price as it is on the train company’s website. As mentioned above, you will have to pay a booking fee (£1) and also a fee if you want your tickets posted.

Earn cashback

You can potentially earn cashback on your tickets by buying via cashback websites Quidco and Top Cashback, which have deals with some of the train operating companies.

You can also use a cashback credit card to earn some money back on your travels. This could be particularly lucrative if you're paying for a season ticket.

Make sure you pay your balance off in full each month otherwise you’ll be charged.

Compare cashback credit cards