The cheapest way to travel round the UK: private car, or public transport with a hire car?

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New research commissioned by reveals that hiring a car, or taking the train then hiring a car, are frequently the cheapest ways to travel round Britain.

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Whether looking at petrol costs or train prices, the numbers always seem to be going up.

The British public is generally trying to spend less, but what's really the cheapest way to travel around the UK? Whether looking at petrol costs or train prices, the numbers always seem to be going up.'s latest personal transport investigation compared the costs of popular transport methods within the UK to see which one is really most affordable.

The real cost of car travel
The cost of owning and running a new car rose by 14% between 2010 and 2011, with the average new car owner paying 55.74p a mile (1), which accounts for all the costs of running a car except buying one in the first place. With the average annual car mileage standing at 8,430 miles, that's £4,699 a year, just to run one private car.

Getting a grip on UK train prices
A more realistic option might be to get public transport (or walk and cycle) where possible, then hire a car when a car is really needed - at either end of a long train journey, for example, or when going on a family holiday. The cost of an average London annual travelcard costs 35% of the annual average car ownership cost, and train travel in Britain is more popular now than it has been since 1928, according to the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), who attributed the rise to "attractive pricing and the rising cost of motoring".

But that pricing can vary in attractiveness depending on when train tickets are booked. Super-organised travellers can get a return ticket from London to Manchester for £20ish if they book several weeks in advance, but travel last minute and they can be looking at nearly £300.

On average, however, although the actual cost per mile of train travel varies depending on when tickets are bought (and also on ticket type), the cost of UK train travel, across all ticket prices, is 20p per mile - considerably cheaper than taking a private car.

A real life comparison
The cost of travelling from London Euston to Oxenholme, in the Lake District, by train is currently £87. This journey by private car - 260 miles - is £144, based on that nationwide average. The petrol cost alone is £41 for a 40 mpg vehicle at 140p per litre of unleaded petrol; if the traveller hired a car and drove up there, this would cost from £60, including refilling the tank before returning the vehicle.

Saving money journey by journey
Of course, it's always worth assessing options on a case-by-case basis, rather than assuming that one transport method is better than the other for all travellers on all journeys. As well as comparing the annual cost of running a car, how much is the car owner paying for buying it in the first place? Many drivers will be paying regular loan and credit repayments, which should be added to the annual car ownership cost in order to make an accurate comparison.

If a car owner doesn't drive very often, the cost of car ownership per journey will be much more - the owner will be paying the same as a frequent driver, but getting less use out of the vehicle. And, as mentioned, some train journeys are much more expensive than others. But unless a private car is driven every day of the year, it's quite possible that not owning one at all could save the traveller a fair bit of money.

1. Full report with references and sources on

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Andrew Shorrock
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