It is always worth investigating the various ways to pay when you travel around London on public transport, even if you are only visit London for a few days. Paying the full fare each time you travel, or getting the wrong kind of travel card will be more costly and much less convenient. The ease of using a one day/weekly travel pass or an Oyster card makes everything run smoothly.
The Oyster Card
This card is not a ticket that you buy and hand in, it is a re-usable electronic or “smart” card which is used to pay for your journey on all the types of public transport in London. For example the tube, the buses, DLR (Docklands Light Railway), trams, overground trains and river buses.
The two main methods here are the pay-as-you-go or by storing season-tickets on it. Unlike the travel-card, you do not need a passport sized photograph to get an Oyster card. The pay-as-you-go method is by far the most convenient and cheapest way of travelling, especially for visitors and tourists who travel around London for between 1 – 5 days. Even if you only take fairly few journeys, it will be cheaper than paying the full fare, and so much more convenient. It is worth noting that if you visit London for between 5 – 7 days, and plan to use public transport every day, you may save money by using the weekly travel-card instead of the Oyster.
If you plan to travel on the underground at least 3 times in a day, you will benefit from the Oyster “daily cap”. This means that there is a maximum amount that is deducted from your card for that day. The more you use it on the day, the cheaper each fare will be. There is an even cheaper daily cap if you travel only by bus for the day. It is important to use the system properly and touch in and out with your card for each journey, otherwise you will be charged a full fare and will not benefit from capping. Even if there is no physical barrier to get through, or if you are let out at the wider barriers with luggage, etc, you MUST ALWAYS touch your card flat on the yellow card reader in the tube stations or on the bus. You will have to do this anyway to get through the barriers on the tube, but if you fail to do so for some reason, your journey will be more expensive, or you could be fined.
It is worth keeping your Oyster card after you visit London, as you can simply top it up again the next time you visit. Otherwise, you have the option to get any money back that is still sitting in the card when you leave, along with the £5 deposit it costs to get the card initially.
You can buy your Oyster card, top it up, or check your balance at underground ticket machines, at many local newsagents (they usually have a sign in the window), at train station machines and offices, and London Underground Visitor Centres.
There is such a thing as a Visitor Oyster Card, which is slightly different to the normal version and is aimed at being beneficial for tourists who visit London. They are available online and can be booked ahead of your journey, which is handy if you are arriving very early or very late. It is also handy if you want to use it to travel from Heathrow or from London City Airport into the centre, as it is valid on both of these trips via train. You will have to pay for postage to have the card sent to you and it will come pre-loaded, with a £3, non-refundable activation cost. This card is only pay-as-you-go, you will not be able to load any travel cards onto it, but the cap function still works.
There are several discounts available in certain restaurants, sights and tourist attractions in central London if you show them your Oyster card.
The Travel card is a transport pass that gives you unlimited travel around London within certain travel zones. The price will vary depending on which zones you want to travel in. The centre of London is zone 1, and each zone moves outwards all the way into zone 9. You can check which zone you are in or need to get to online, or on a London Underground map. Travel cards are valid for 1 day, 7 days or 1 month. Use your travel card on the underground, Overground trains, suburban trains, DLR, buses, trams and river buses. Any travel card will allow you to use the buses in all of the zones in London.
If for some reason you don’t have an oyster card, the one-day travel card will the cheapest option to use. This ticket is cheaper than paying the full fare for three underground trips, for example, especially if you travel off peak times.
If you are in London for 6 or 7 days, the weekly travel card may be the cheapest option for you. It can begin on any day of the week, and is valid for travel any time of the day. If you do not load this option into an Oyster card, you will need a pass-port size photo to obtain the travel card.
Another interesting fact about weekly or monthly travel cards is that if you buy one from a train station, you will be given 2 for the price of 1 discounts at some of the major tourist attractions in London. This does not apply if you have it loaded into your Oyster card.
When you visit London on an extended stay, the monthly travel card is an option. This card will not save you large amounts of money compared to buying four weekly cards, but it saves you renewing them each week.
Travel cards can be bought at underground station machines and offices, train stations, some newsagents and London Underground Visitor Centres.
Travel cards are inserted into the slot on the front of the ticket barrier. When you take the ticket out again from behind the yellow reader on the top, the barrier will open. On the bus, simply show the travel card to the driver when you get on. Travel card website.
Bus tickets, cards and passes
You cannot use cash to pay for your fare on the bus. You can use any of the following: an Oyster card, a contactless debit or credit card, one day, weekly or monthly Travelcards, or a one day bus pass. Weekly and monthly bus passes are also available – these are loaded onto your Oyster card.
If you plan to only travel around London on buses, it will be cheaper to use the pay as you go Oyster, or debit/credit contactless cards, than a Travelcard. You will be charged £1.50 for a single bus fare on your Oyster card. One last ride: If you don’t have £1.50 worth of credit left on your card, you can still use it. When you then top up your card after that, the negative balance will be cleared. This is a very convenient feature, as it means you can still take that last ride to get you home, despite not having the right amount of credit, and you will then be aware that you need to top up your card. Remember also that there is the bus cap, which means if you take 3 or more journeys that day, £4.50 is the maximum amount that will be deducted.
All children of age 11 and under travel for free on the buses. If you don’t have an Oyster card or a contactless card, you can buy a one-day bus pass which allows unlimited travel on the buses that day until 4.30 the following day. If you are in London for 5, 6 or 7 days, and only plan to use the bus, a weekly bus pass may be your best option. This is good value and is cheaper than a Travelcard. The pass can start on any day of the week and you will pay a deposit of £5.00 if you do not load it onto an Oyster card. The same applies to a monthly bus pass.
The contactless card
This may not be the most convenient option for tourists or visitors, but if you would like to make use of this option, you will need to check if your credit card can be used in this way in London. Using a debit or credit card.
If you are travelling out of London, it may be more economical to buy two tickets for your journey as opposed to one. We know that this sounds daft but it is a quirk of travel in the UK and worth mastering as you can save significant sums of money.
“Train fares and logic go together like marshmallows and tomato soup. Yet there’s a way to work the system and it’s totally legal.” Martin Lewis, founder and editor of MoneySavingExpert.com, MailOnline.
The MailOnline and MoneySavingExpert both offer useful articles explaining this phenomenon. Plus, there is no need to waste time trying to puzzle the cheapest journey – there are tools to do it for you! Search online at MoneySavingExpert / Tickety Split or download the app from iTunes.