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I will be in Glasgow, UK in a few weeks, and I am planning a distance running excursion in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Since I won't have a car, I am considering options for taking the train.

My current plan is to

  • Take the West Highland line from Glasgow to Ardlui
  • Run from Ardlui to Crainlarich (or Tyndrum) on the West Highland Way
  • Catch another West Highland line train from Crainlarich (or Tyndrum) to Oban, where I will stay overnight
  • Repeat the next day back from Oban to Glasgow, stopping somewhere else for a run

My question is, how far in advance do I need to book those tickets? In a perfect world, I would love to be able to buy them at the station so that I do not have to be on a precise schedule. Do those trains fill up, so I need to book in advance? Is it possible to buy such tickets at stations (I am from the US, if that matters with regard to paying for things). Otherwise, should I buy tickets on the Scotrail website?

Thank you!

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    To avoid any potential confusion, let me point out that this is not the Highland Line, which is the railway from Perth to Inverness. The line from Glasgow to Oban, Fort William and Mallaig is called the West Highland Line, and is a quite different line. You don't want to end up on the wrong one by mistake! – Richard Smith Sep 23 '19 at 16:53
  • Thank you! -- I fixed that above – Bunji Sep 23 '19 at 16:58
  • Not an answer but another potential option. There are many minibus services who run specifically for people travelling on the west highland way. They will also drop your luggage off at the end point of your day's journey. – scotty3785 Sep 24 '19 at 12:54
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The only train tickets in the UK that must be booked advance are for overnight sleeper trains, and Eurostar. All other trains do not have mandatory reservations. You can buy your tickets at a station, and take a seat if one is available, or even stand if it's particularly busy (though I wouldn't have thought these trains would normally be THAT busy).

Sometimes buying in advance can be cheaper, there's no doubt about that. But that generally only applies to longer journeys — for the two trips you mentioned advance tickets are not available, so anything bought in advance would be exactly the same ticket and price that you could get at the station on the day.

In addition, tickets bought from the station are usually quite relaxed in terms of restrictions. For instance, in this case you would only need to buy a return (what Americans would call "round trip") ticket from Glasgow to Oban; you could then break your journey at Ardlui and resume it at Crianlarich. You would not need to buy separate tickets for each leg of your journey. Such a return ticket would cost £40; the outward portion (Glasgow to Oban) would be valid for one day (with a few special cases; I'm simplifying here) and the return portion would be valid for coming back over the next month (including breaking your journey over multiple days if you so wish). The only main restriction worth mentioning is that you can't do any part of your journey twice — that is, you can't walk back along the route you've already taken by rail and then repeat it. It also can't be used before 09:16 on weekdays (but there's a slightly more expensive ticket which can and is also valid for five days on the outward portion).

The other thing to mention is that day return tickets are also available — as the name implies these are only really suitable for day trips, so avoid these; you want the plain old return tickets (Off-peak Return and Anytime Return).

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    It's also worth mentioning that you do not need to board an Oban train in the morning. If a Fort William train is leaving at a more convenient time, you can catch that as far as Ardlui. Though in practice in the current timetable, most trains serve both destinations and split in Crianlarich. It's also worth noting that you want a really early start, the 0548 departure from Glasgow Queen Street is the Caledonian Sleeper. You are allowed to use that from between Glasgow and Ardlui but are required to get a seat reservation in advance. – Richard Smith Sep 23 '19 at 16:50
  • @RichardSmith do you mean if you want a really early start? – Bunji Sep 23 '19 at 16:58
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    Sorry – yes, I did, but I can't now edit my comment because you've replied to it. – Richard Smith Sep 23 '19 at 16:59
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    @Bunji – they're small orange cardboard tickets that can be bought from the ticket machine in the station or from a person at the counter. Note that there are two main stations in the centre of Glasgow. You want Queen Street, not Central. – Richard Smith Sep 23 '19 at 17:07
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    @Bunji yeah, exactly right! They're paper (well, card) tickets the size of a credit card, and can be bought right before travel from ticket vending machines as well as from humans at a ticket office. For a return ticket you will be issued with two physical pieces of card; one to use on your outward journey and the other when you're coming back. – Muzer Sep 23 '19 at 18:16
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Depending on how much rail travel you plan, you may find it convenient to get one of the Britrail passes for Scotland. The pass has to be bought from outside the UK, and is only valid for people who are not UK residents. However, if the trip you describe is your only rail travel, it would be much, much cheaper to buy a return ticket.

Once you pick a travel day, the pass turns into a go-anywhere ticket for the area in which it is valid. That allows a lot of flexibility. For example, if the weather is so bad that running is not practical on the first day, you can go back to Glasgow, do some more rail touring and indoor activities, and then take a train to Oban later in the day.

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