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Sunday, January 15, 2017

How to save money on train fares

Five top tips for saving money on ever-expensive train fares

Save money on train and travel fares
Southern, Thameslink, South-Western and, in fact, most train operators on commuter trains in and out of London have achieved something pretty special the past couple of years.

They have been able to run an ever-depleted service, with more lateness and cancellations than before, and still put the price of tickets up for the hapless commuters relying on them.

Today, for example, we have heard Thameslink excuses of: "signalling problems" and the driver has also blamed the underground strike. Which is a new one one me.

The other day, it was simply Southern's industrial action; a few days ago it was lack of stock... The list of daily excuses must be running short. I wonder if management at Govia, which owns Thameslink and Southern, just use an eight-ball every day to conjure up an excuse for their shoddy service.

"Can you afford to keep giving £342.80 away to TFL - especially considering the service you are getting from your train provider?"

The icing - a bitter, sugarless, hard-as-nails sulphuric icing - on this cake for commuters was the fare hike this January.

A monthly travel card from Zone 5 (where houses once used to be affordable) into Zone 1 (Central London) now costs £215.90. It was approximately £212.00 last year; that's a £46.80 annual price hike for those buying each month. This might not seem much, but when the service has been little short of Dante's fourth circle of Hell, even a £3.90 per month price hike is akin to a kick in the infernal regions.

So here are some tips to help minimise the pain and maximise your gain.

1) Time it right
Essentially, before the start of the new year 2018, find out on what day the train fares will rise. Start saving up now to enable you to buy your annual season ticket before the fares rise.

For example, in 2017 the fares went up on 2nd January; I bought on 1 January on the old prices and paid £2208.00 for my 2017 season ticket on the old prices. Had I waited until 2nd January when the travel fares rose, I would have had to pay £2248 - a saving of £46.

2) Buy annually not monthly
It always makes sense to buy annually - you essentially pay 10 months' worth of travel instead of 12 so it makes absolute financial sense to buy annually instead of buying monthly.

It might seem like a lot more money upfront but the savings are phenomenal. Let's break this down. An annual Zone 1 to Zone 5 travelcard in 2017 costs £2248 a year, which divided by 12 (the number of months) equates to a cost of £187.33 a month.

However, if you buy monthly, you will have to pay the 2017 monthly cost of £215.90. By paying monthly you end up giving Transport For London £2590.80. That's an extra £342.80 that you could use. That's a long weekend away in Paris.

Can you afford to keep giving £342.80 away to TFL - especially considering the service you are getting from your train provider?

3) Workplace travel loans
If you cannot save up c.£200 a month for a year to put aside towards your annual season ticket, and do not have the readies, ask your workplace for a year's travel loan. You basically make the savings outlined above on your train/tube fares, and the money comes out of your pay packet each month automatically. It's worth it for the savings.

I used our household account - transferred the money into my own account, then set up a Standing Order to repay it over the course of 18 months.

Overcrowded, underground, Wombling free?
4) Work out and walk out
One of the best forms of exercise is to walk - and in London, stations are so close to each other it might make sense for people living on the edges of certain zone boundaries to consider walking to or taking the bus to the next zone.

For example, I could walk to a Zone 4 station (or take the bus, as there are no zones for London buses) each morning, and walk home from it each night. It would take me 20 minutes to walk. However I am a mixture of lazy and romantic - lazy because I will make excuses for not getting up 20 minutes earlier, and romantic because I get to travel into and home from work with Mr Mermaid.

However, if I were not lazy or romantic, I would be saving myself a whopping £356 a year on my annual ticket. I might actually do that next year (and will encourage Herr Mermaid to consider this with me as a means of getting fit and having £360 or so more in our pockets each year).

Incidentally, one year (2010), I was not only made redundant but I did not claim any benefits while searching for work - so when I found a new job (basically my old one from 2006 back again at £8,000 less than I had been earning in 2010), I was flat broke. I ended up walking to London Bridge and back again for two weeks in a row until I got my first pay cheque. That was seven miles there and back from London Bridge to Streatham. Approximately two hours each way. I was fit as anything but unless it's summertime and you don't have any other responsibilities, as I now have, I would advocate not doing this!

5) Name it and claim it!
I feel hypocritical saying this because I only claimed once and never used the ticket, but I have started to do so this year each time the train is delayed more than 15 minutes. Which as we are using both Thameslink and Southern Rail (owned by Govia - pronounced 'Go-F-ya' in less polite circles), is quite often.

Mr Mermaid has been brilliant at this and has managed to claim back about £220 (approximately 10 per cent the cost of his annual travelcard price) for the past couple of years.

Heck, we let Govia get away with it day in, day out, by merely moaning on Twitter and never making them pay out. Hit them where it hurts - their pay cheques. Claim it back.

How much can I claim?

This depends. According to National Rail Enquiries, you can claim back 100% for the cost of a cancelled train if you end up not travelling as a result.

Each train company sets its own level of compensation, as set down by the company's Passenger's Charter. But usually the compensation level can be guesstimated by the following:
  • Single ticket, or return ticket if both legs are delayed – 50% of the price paid
  • Return ticket with delay on outward or return journey – 50% of the price paid for the relevant part of the journey
  • Season Ticket – details of arrangements for Season Ticket holders are set out in each Train Company’s Passenger’s Charter.
It's so much easier now to claim back than even two years ago, when many rail operators only accepted forms by post (which were laborious). Now you can do it online simply by scanning in your Ticket, your Receipt, and by taking careful note of how late the train has come in.

Southern and Thameslink now refund for a delay of 15 minutes - which on our average daily commuter trains so far means that they owe us for 6 delayed trains out of a total of 18 so far - 1/3 of all the trains in and out so far this year have been delayed over 15 minutes. Three of these were delayed over 40 minutes. Only four were actually on time. The rest were a few minutes out. 

If you consider how many times a week you take trains - 10 times a week in my case, there and back again - and extrapolate this into, say 11 months of commuting into work (assuming a month's holiday), then that's approximately 440 trains a year (assuming just four weeks each month for 11 months). 

Given current conditions, I can expect one-third of these 440 trains to be delayed more than 15 minutes. So I can claim back on 146 trains. Thameslink's passenger charter says I can claim back on an annual season ticket 1/464 x total ticket price. (This charter is subject to change). So approximately £4.75 for a 100% delayed journey or c. £2.40 for a 50% delayed journey.

Say all my refunds are about £2.40 on 146 trains - I could expect approximately £347.00 in refunds over the course of 2017, unless Govia suddenly improves its service standards, which we all very much doubt.

If everyone who was delayed made claims - to which everyone is entitled - Govia would have to start improving its service. I am ashamed it has taken me so long to get this sorted - and I have only committed to doing this because Mr Mermaid has helped me, and I have seen the financial benefits of him having been conscientious enough to do this over the years. 

Have you got any more tips? Please share them in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Southern Rail causes house price drop

Southern Rail's complete and utter inability to put its house in order has caused house prices to slow down across the network, research by online estate agent, has proved.

The research has found that house price growth across the Southern Rail network has increased at a slower rate than England as a whole; all the while this network covers some of the most popular areas to live for commuters into London.

This means we Greater Londoners and Home Counties commuters are essentially paying over-the-odds for property near a train line that isn't going to help us get to work on time.
Commuters looking for missing Southern Rail trains

A year ago this month Southern Rail was voted in the top three worst rail providers by commuters. It's hardly a surprise.

Even two years ago when London Bridge was undergoing repairs, Southern trains were delayed getting into the station. Sometimes they didn't leave the station.

On more than one occasion, I remained sitting on a train to go home, waiting for 10, 15 minutes before we were told there was no available driver and therefore the train was cancelled. (Next one in an hour's time). Sometimes they had locked the doors with us on a train that was going nowhere. Such fun!

Since then Southern Rail and its fatcat owner Govia has undoubtedly become Britain’s most hated, with commuters unlucky enough to have to rely on their service becoming subject to more than nine months of commuting chaos since the strike action really kicked in.

Why are they striking?
I can't blame the Southern drivers for striking. There are meant to be three drivers available to cover each shift. One to drive, one to be on call and one to be on a day off/holiday. This means if driver A is sick, driver B can take over. 

However Southern Rail's nasty, greedy little bosses decided to run this on a shoestring and reduce available driver cover. I've got several driver friends who have been on annual leave and called up and asked if they can cover for someone. One of my friends was in SPAIN and received a phone call asking them to cut their holiday short and come to work.

Meanwhile, overtime pay has been cut. So drivers have had to be working extra shifts with no money. Add to this Southern Rail now wants to make drivers responsible for doing the job of a train/platform guard and watch the doors.

Instead of putting extra carriages and hiring more staff (they've pledged just 100 staff for more than 2,400 trains a day on the network), they want drivers on 40% (900) of their trains to do a double job.

Essentially, instead of the driver concentrating on the signals ahead and getting the train ready to leave the station, he or she also now has to make sure doors and yellow lines are clear. 

How can a driver look at the signal ahead AND look at the monitors to check people are not standing in front of a yellow line? This is a HUGE health and safety issue

They are right to strike. It's really annoying and making it a misery for all of us, but when you consider the seriousness of this, it's understandable.

And no, you don't get paid for strike days. You get that money deducted from your payslip. So they're not getting paid for striking.

Anyway, enough of the boldification of phrases. Apologies for getting all Moran-ish. No need for such sulky English prose.

House prices

But back to house prices. Some employers have already refused applicants using a Southern Rail service as the reality is that they will often arrive to work late. Thank goodness I have an understanding boss (who uses Southern herself).

But not only are commuters’ professional lives being impacted, it would seem property prices along Southern Rail commuter lines are also suffering.

It might look idyllic but there's little joy for people living near a Southern Rail train line
Using data from Zoopla, eMoov collected the average price paid and value change surrounding each station across all nine of the Southern Rail network lines. 

The research looked at the price growth over the last 12 months, as well as the last six, comparing each line on Southern Rail and the network as a whole, to price growth across England during the same time periods.

The research by eMoov shows that house prices across England have increased by 7.6 per cent  in the last year. But for those living across the Southern Rail network, property price growth reached just 6.5 per cent in the same period.

More notable is the difference in growth in the last six months alone. Across England, homeowners enjoyed an average increase of 3 per cent in property values. But those unfortunate enough to live on the Southern Rail network saw the average property price growth fall by more than half, increasing by just 1.4 per cent overall.

But the salt in the wound is the cost of the property itself. With an average price of £447,539 across the Southern Rail network, homeowners are paying far above the national average of £222,300 (according to data from the Halifax), only for its potential to be blighted by an external factor such as an inadequate train operator.

I've seen this affect two properties on the Southern Rail route already. Here's a salutary tale. Last year, my friend in Sutton put her house on the market at £420,000. 

Despite Sutton being one of the most popular places over the past year or so, the house has dropped in price twice - and is now at £380,000. That's a £40,000 drop in the past few weeks as people put commuting time and ease higher and higher up their list of priorities.

Russell Quirk, the founder and chief executive of eMoov, said: "This research really highlights the impact external factors can have on a property’s value in the market. Often, the close proximity of good commuter links into London, in particular, can help increase the asking price of a property.

"In this instance, strike action, poor service, cancelled trains and long delays have had the reverse effect to property prices on the Southern Rail network. It is worrying to think that something outside of your control can not only be detrimental to your work life but can also spill over into your personal life as well.

"Southern Rail staff must forgive UK homeowners for remaining unsympathetic to their cause when their selfish actions are inadvertently depreciating the most expensive asset they are ever likely to own."

When I wrote a news story about this earlier today, it got a lot of traction on Twitter. As one person commented: 'How about Southern Rail compensate people for the loss of house price growth?'


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Tag time!

Christmas has come and gone, and for the past two days I have been studiously taking down lights, decorations, ivy and trees, putting them away for the next 11 months.

But inevitably, the Christmas clean-up reveals the papery and glittery detritus of the season, with wrapping paper, shreds of Christmas crackers and a hoard of Christmas cards left over.

I say left over, because in our house, we keep everything we can in order to reuse and repurpose. One of the things I like to do is to salvage decent leftover papers and ribbons to save money on gift tags.

Christmas cards can be cut up into several decent tags for gifts; I don't mean simply snipping and sticking with a piece of sellotape; oh no, in our house, the Mermaid makes the most of everything to make the tags as pretty as possible.

Using a hole punch, ribbons from used Christmas crackers and a corner trimming punch, you can create some rather pretty recycled tags.

Here's a sample of my card haul! 

Ribbons from Christmas crackers

A cracking lot of ribbons!
I simply punch one hole in the top of the tag when I've cut it into shape, feed through one of these ribbons (which are too bent and twisted from being on a cracker for so long to be useful for anything else), tie it up and trim the corners with a corner rounder punch.

The corner punch I have is very similar to this one (but very old now!) and it is great for rounding up the corners and hiding any uneven edges:
Corner rounder for paper crafting

Et Voila! Some very easy but highly cost- and environmentally efficient tags, ready for next year!
Hand-made gift tags

If that really does seem like too much hassle, and you do not particularly enjoy card craft or paper crafting, or even if you do not tend to send or receive Christmas cards, then I would urge you to get down to your local supermarket as soon as possible to get a bargain before the sales end and all the shelves are replete with Valentines' Day and Easter fare! 

For example, from Sainsburys I picked up a 4m roll of Christmas wrapping paper for 50p, and packs of gift tags for just 10p each. The original price of the wrapping paper had been £2.00 and the tags had been 50p per pack. Happy days! 

Bargains from Sainsburys
Of course, you may like to hoard all your cards - but eventually space will be needed and it is so much better to reuse in a systematic and fun crafting way, rather than having to throw cards en masse into the recycling when you just haven't got any more room to store them.

And then there are some cards, like this one from my crafting queen friend Jan, are just far too excellent to carve up!

Nodding Kitty:
Card craft extraordinaire!  A Nodding Cat Christmas Card!
In the desire to save money and the environment, I would advocate refraining from blithely cutting up all of your most recent Christmas cards from December 2016 ready for December 2017. 

Many years ago when I started to repurpose old cards, I discovered that I'd cut up the last ever card someone I cared about gave me, for they died that year.

Therefore, I save my cards so that I will be using December 2015 and corporate cards delivered to the office for December 2017's gift tags, just in case I have to say farewell to any dear family and friends this year and regret not having a card from them as a memento.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Blogger news

Gone but not forgotten. Rest in Peace, Nick
While going through my comments-awaiting-moderation (which I thought I had turned off), I saw a very sad notification from October. 

This was to inform me that one of my first ever followers on Blogger, Nick Kennerley, has died (far too young), and had a service on 13 October last year.

Another 2016 death, and a sad one for me personally at that. We had prior to this been emailing about a possible meet-up with Electro-Kevin and another Blogger chum. 

It is so sad to hear about this - and sad too that I missed the notification. I don't know why this was held up in my comment filters on Blogger, because it was sent to me by a trusted follower (Electro-Kevin).

Nick was such an entertaining, larger-than-life fellow, whose blog posts pretending to be that ranter-in-chief Hitchens (aka "The Hitch") provided much hilarity.

In recent years, this blogging dwindled into bonkers, tongue-in-cheek and cheeky comments on our Blogger sites, along with some random, stream-of-consciousness emails that would have made Virginia Woolf nod in appreciation at the structure before frothing at the mouth at the content.

Perhaps strangely enough, his later life conversion seemed to tie into his lack of virulent blogging, and he became quite caught up in church life, which he said had given him much peace and a sense of belonging that he'd not had before in his personal life.

Nick, we never got around to having our end-of-year catch up and now I know why. So sorry to hear of your passing, but I hope to meet up with you one day, being bonkers and winding up St Peter with your awful puns.

Rest in peace, Hitch. 

Monday, January 02, 2017

Boots points: top tips for Christmas spending

Christmas comes but once a year, but for many families, the associated expenses that come with Christmas can sometimes be overwhelming.

Christmas dinner, presents, travel, drinks, decorations and all the traditional trimmings - not to mention Christmas jumpers - can put a huge dent into people's budgets - a dent that sometimes cannot be filled out for several months to come in the new year.

According to The Guardian, the average UK household is expected to have spent £800 in 2016 on Christmas alone.

This is much money for things that may not last, or even be remembered come Christmas 2017. It's also so much stress for a season that is meant to be about joy, peace and happiness, a time to be with our loved ones, not shoulder-barging thousands of other shoppers in a mad panic, buying Christmas presents at sky-high prices.

Several years ago, I vowed to make Christmas more about the real season and less about the rush and stress that comes in the few weeks' build-up. This came after I collapsed during a Christmas dinner I was hosting; I had lost nearly a stone in the few weeks ahead of Christmas Day with all the shopping, cleaning, clearing, decorating, partying, preparing and baking.

As a result, I vowed to enjoy Christmas more and worry less.

Around this time I was also made redundant during the financial crisis. I had been relying on my Nectar or Boots points cards to help me through each month. But I decided to stop spending my Boots points on smaller things throughout the year; instead I would save them all up and buy Christmas gift sets in Boots' half-price sale come January. I realised this would save me money and stress.

Since then, this has proved to be a wonderful money-saving idea as well as a great time-saver at Christmastime.

During the year, I have made the most of Boots' generous bonus points scheme. I ensure I wait for the things I need to buy from Boots so that I can maximise all the points-generative specials and weekends the company holds in order to get even more to use towards the January post-Christmas spendathon.

This year I had £83.71 on my Boots Points card. I visited the Sutton Boots, which is not only a large enough store to have plenty of choice available, but also boasts a genius store manager. Each January, the store packs out a whole 'room' with Christmas and other half-price gift sets. It's a store card shopper's wet dream.

Surprisingly, I did not spend the entirety of my points; in our seemingly everlasting quest for a child (IVF has failed twice now), I have been concerned to make sure I set aside £30 or so on my Boots and Nectar cards to help cover the cost of the newborn we hope will be with us this coming Christmas.

I did spend £49.00 worth of points however, and received the following gifts. Some of these will be Christmas presents for next year; some will be Mothers' Day presents, birthday presents and gifts for the Greek family when we go to visit at some point this year.

Boots Haul 2017
Twenty-four glittery Christmas cards for £1; measuring cup spoons for Mothers' Day gifts; cute candles for half-price and the photo frame for even less than half-price. I have already earmarked all these gifts for various people and I hope they love them!

It's not just about a bargain, despite the fact I got all these things from Boots for free with my points card:

It's also about thinking strategically and lovingly about how to find the perfect gift for the perfect person. I know who will love those Soap and Glory crackers. I can't wait to see her face when I give those to her. I enjoy giving to other people and getting nice things for them.

Personally, I am not against re-gifting per se. I know this can be a good way of recycling unwanted gifts, but I prefer to keep what people have given me as it reminds me of them. It also reduces the likelihood of re-gifting to someone what they gave you the year before. Where we have re-gifted is when duplication has happened; for example, two people one year both gave the same Lynx set to my husband for Christmas.

Yes, re-gifting can help save the pennies at Christmastime; but I prefer using points schemes. I hope it works for you as well! To recap, here are Seven Top Tips:

1) Make sure you register your card. If you lose it and your card is replete with points, you could lose everything.
2) Try to only use your Boots card when there's a 4x points or 3x points or bonus points day or weekend on. For example, if you know you need to get shampoo or vitamins, etc, keep an eye out for stores that are doing points specials, and do one big shop at that time.
3) Make the most of any vouchers that come with a purchase. Sometimes these have a two to three-week shelf life and these can be exceptionally points generative.
4) Keep an eye out before Christmas for particular gift sets that you might like to get for friends and family and make a note of these ready for the January sales.
5) Avoid the temptation to use your card during the year. It's a savings plan, if you like, not easy-spend cash.
6) Don't forget some prescriptions such as contact lenses. These also count for Boots points so make the most of these, as they can be high-ticket items.
7) Lastly, smile at people. Okay, this is a bit of a cheeky tip but it might just pay out for you. Let me explain: I once smiled at some guy with his friend who was trying to buy make-up for his wife at a counter in Boots. The two men were making jokes and glancing at me for approval. As he was paying, the assistant asked him if he had a points card. "No", he said, and turned to me. "Young lady" (now there's a compliment I don't get much these days). "Can I borrow your Boots card?" He then proceeded to give me his 500 points (which were doubled to 1000). All because I smiled at his jokes.

Good luck and happy hunting!