If you have spent any amount of time planning a trip to London and looking up the best way to travel around the city then you will likely have come across the term ‘Oyster card’. Oyster cards were created by Transport for London in order to make travel across London easier and more cost-effective and they are certainly worth getting your head around if you want to ensure simple travel when staying in the city.
What is an Oyster card?
Firstly, you need to understand the basics of what an Oyster card actually is. An Oyster card is a plastic smartcard which you can preload with credit and use to travel around London. It can be used on buses, the tube, trams, the DLR, the London Overground, TfL rail services, the Emirates Air Line, the River Bus services and most National Rail services in London too so it is a pretty handy card to have around. Think of it as a ‘pay as you go’ type service; you swipe the card as you enter a tube station or board a bus, for example, and the fare is automatically deducted from the available credit on your card.
Is an Oyster card better than a travel card?
This isn’t as straightforward an answer as you might expect as it depends entirely on how much travelling you will be doing in London, which zones you will be heading to and how long you are staying in the city for. In general, for most tourists, an Oyster card is the cheapest method of getting around. Travel cards have a flat rate and offer you unlimited rides for the period your card is valid so you pay the same amount regardless of whether you only want to take one journey from The Shaftesbury Premier London Paddington Hotel to an attraction, for example, or whether you want to take ten. For an Oyster card you are only charged for the journeys you make and there is a daily ‘cap’ or a maximum fee you can be charged per day. Once you have reached this cap you won’t be charged for any further journeys you make that day.
For a one day journey, the cap on an Oyster card is less than the cost of a one day Travel card so in this instance, the Oyster card is better. However, for longer stays you might find that a Travel card will work out cheaper, such as if you are staying in the city on business, perhaps at one of the Shaftesbury Hotels for a period of 7 days or more in which case a 7 day Travel card would probably cost less than the Oyster card.
How much is an Oyster card?
There are two types of Oyster card; a standard card and a Visitor card. Visitor Oyster cards can be ordered in advance and delivered to your home prior to your trip but they come with a £3 activation fee which is non-refundable. If you pick up a standard Oyster card once you are in London then you will be required to pay a £5 deposit which will be refunded to you when you return the card. Any remaining credit will also be refunded to you once the card has been returned as well. Which card you get is entirely up to you; and there is no requirement to return the card after your trip, especially if you are planning on making frequent visits to London and know you will make use of the card again. However, they are so easy to pick up that it might be more convenient to return the card and receive the return of your credit and deposit regardless.
Where can I buy one?
The most convenient place to buy an Oyster card (if you have opted for a standard card) is at one of the many underground tube stations in the city. You can pay using either cash or card although it is worth noting that there are no longer manned ticket offices at underground and DLR stations so you will have to purchase from a ticket machine. If you don’t feel confident about buying from a ticket machine then there are also a number of shops and newsagents who sell them. These are known as ‘Oyster Ticket Stops’ and they will have a sign clearly displayed in their store window.
If you have decided to opt for a Visitor Oyster card then you can order these online from Transport for London and have it delivered direct to your home address, ready for use right away when you arrive in the city.
How do I check my balance and top up?
Creating an Oyster account with Transport for London is the easiest way to keep track of how much is left on your card and top up when you need to. You can top up in underground stations and at Oyster Ticket Stops too but this could be a pain if you don’t realise that you haven’t got enough credit until you try to board a bus or pass through a ticket barrier. If you don’t have enough credit you can’t travel, so you would need to find a relevant top up point, buy some credit, and then resume your journey.
Why not just contactless?
With the introduction of contactless cards, it seems odd to purchase a separate card to travel. If your card was issued in the UK then you might find it easier to use your contactless card and there are caps in place, but the requirements for these vary so you might want to check whether you qualify before making your decision. International visitors may be charged by their provider for using contactless cards so it may be easier to just pick up an Oyster instead.