This post compares the different Oyster Cards, as well as the Travelcard.
You'll also find information on using your contactless debit/credit cards or Apple or Google Pay while you use the London Transport Network.
- What is an Oystercard?
- Using Contactless Debit or Credit Cards
- Using Apple Pay or Google Pay
- Benefits of an Oyster Card
- Visitor vs. Regular Oyster Card
- Group Travelcard
- Which One, If Any, Should You Buy?
- Tips On Using the Underground
- Things to Do in London
An Oyster Card is a plastic smart card, which you can use to store money for rides on the London Underground and throughout the London public transport system.
This also includes buses, trams, DLR, London Overground, Elizabeth Line, TFL Rail, most National Rail services in London, Emirates Air Line cable car, and the Uber Boat River Bus Services.
Essentially, they replace paper tickets and allow you to avoid buying a ticket each time you ride.
Rather than inserting a paper ticket, you tap your Oyster Card on a yellow reader on top of the ticket barrier at the start of your journey and then again at the end of your journey.
For example, both cards operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, but only the Regular Oyster Card can also load travelcards, which are 1 day, 7 day or 1 month passes.
We explain more of these differences in the following sections.
Children under the age of 5 can travel on all London transport networks for free (including the Underground, TfL Rail, and buses), provided they are with an adult who has a valid Oyster Card, Travelcard, or single-ride ticket.
Children from 11 - 15 qualify for the Young Visitor Oyster Discount which is great for those traveling with kids. This is a discount added to a regular Oyster card and is valid for 14 days.
Single fares and daily cap for the underground and buses are 50% cheaper than adults with this discount.
To get it, you must pay a non-refundable £7.00 fee. Or, if you are only in town for one day, you can pay for a 1-Day children's Travelcard.
Only one person can use one card. If you have 2 or more travelers, you will need 2 or more Oyster Cards.
Using Contactless Debit and Credit Cards
Contactless payment cards are now accepted across all London transport networks and ask in the same manner as an Oyster Card. See if yours is valid here.
The majority of Londoners now simply use their contactless debit/credit cards rather than an Oyster card - and you can, too!
(Please make yourself aware of your bank's policies and card issuer policies before you travel. Most contactless cards will work including visa, Mastercard and American Express, but you may be subject to foreign transaction fees.)
This means there is no preparation needed when planning to take the Underground, you simply tap in and out with your payment card.
You also don't need to worry about 'topping up' before you make any journeys.
Contactless cards are also subject to the same price capping as an Oyster Card, so you never pay more than you would have spent had you purchased a daily travel card.
You are also able to take advantage of the 'bus hopper' fare. However, you won't get the same discounts available with the Visitor Oyster Card.
To learn how to use the cards and other tips on using the underground, read our post on navigating the London Underground.
Using Google Pay or Apple Pay
If you have Google Pay or Apple Pay on your smartphone or smartwatch, then you don't need to buy an Oyster card, or a travel card, at all!
These two payment methods will get you the exact same rates, and price capping (listed below) that you would be subject to when using an Oyster Card.
This means there is no need to go through the extra steps of buying one and topping up.
As with contactless credit and debit cards, you are also able to take advantage of the 'bus hopper' fare.
However, you won't get the same discounts available with the Visitor Oyster Card.
Benefits of Using an Oyster Card
Below we list the general benefits of an Oyster Card, whether it's a Visitor or Regular Oyster Card.
But remember, as of 2023, all of these benefits and rates apply to visitors using their contactless cards, Google Pay, and Apple Pay!
Cheaper Than Single Paper Tickets
Actually, they are much cheaper. As you can see below, most visitors traveling in Zones 1 and 2 can save between £2.50 and £3.50 per ride.
|Zones Traveled||Single Ticket Adult||Young Visitor Discount (11-15)||Oyster and Contactless Cards (Peak)||Oyster and Contactless Cards (Off-Peak)||7-Day Travelcards|
Most visitors to London stay within Zones 1-2, central London, though some have hotels or guesthouses outside of the city centre.
If you are flying in and/or out of Heathrow Airport, then your fare would be from Zone 1-6 to wherever your final destination is.
The Elizabeth Line to Heathrow Airport is priced differently - any journey to Heathrow that begins, or passes through Zone 1, is priced at £12.20 - £13:30, depending how Far East you travel.
Children under 11 travel for free and there is a 50% discount on Oyster Card fares for children 11-15 years of age with the Young Visitor Oyster Discount.
To receive this discount, you need to speak to a Tube staff member at any Underground station, including Heathrow, or you can purchase it on the automatic machines in any station.
In addition to cheaper individual rides, when traveling with an Oyster Card, a 'cap' is automatically applied once you reach a certain amount each day.
For example, the most you will ever spend in one day when traveling within zones 1 & 2 with an Oyster Card is £8.10. For the Young Visitor Discount (ages 11 - 15), the cap is £4.05.
There are different caps for each zone as the cost of travel depends on the distance you go and the time of day.
Buses also cap out at £5.25 per day (with each ride costing £1.75).
Contactless debit and credit cards are also subject to price capping!
Hopper Fare on Buses
The London mayor recently introduced the 'hopper' fare.
This means that you will be able to switch between as many buses as you like within 1 hour without being charged more than the initial £1.75 fare.
London is huge and many journeys require that you take 2 or more buses to get there.
With the hopper fare, you will only need to pay £1.75 total for all of those rides as long as the total time does not exceed 1 hour. Note that the hopper fare is applicable for all journeys made by bus & tram!
Valid to get to and from Central London Heathrow and Gatwick Airports
Heathrow Airport is at the very end of the Piccadilly Line, and on the new Elizabeth Line, and therefore can be reached via the Underground with an Oyster Card or Travel Card.
Unfortunately, Oyster Cards do not work on the Heathrow Express - yet!
Gatwick Airport, which is not on an Underground Line, can only be reached by bus or train.
Oyster Cards can be used on the Gatwick Express, which is the fastest train from Central London to that airport.
Oyster Cards Never Expire
If you plan to visit London again in the future, then you can simply hold onto the card and it, as well as the money on it, will never expire.
Your £5 purchase will be refunded automatically as pay-as-you-go credit after one year when you make a journey with your card.
You must collect your refund within six months or you won't be eligible to receive it.
NOTE: There is a limit of £10 on refunds.
The Visitor Oyster Card can be purchased in advance and mailed to you anywhere in the world.
This is great for those of you who feel stressed out about the idea of buying an Oyster Card while in London, and therefore would prefer to just have it sorted prior to arrival.
Adding money to your card is easy and we explain this process in the next section.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the Visitor Oyster Card. Firstly, it costs £5 plus postage for the card to be sent, and unlike the Regular Oystercard, you won't get the £5 back.
Secondly, you can't register a Visitor Oyster Card, something you can do with a Regular Oyster Card.
So, if you have a tendency to lose things, then this might be a consideration for you.
The larger drawback is that you can't apply any of the Travelcards (these are explained later) to the Visitor Oyster Card.
So, if you were planning on using those, or put it another way, you plan to be in London for 6 or more days, then maybe don't buy a Visitor Oyster Card.
There are also some discounts that can be applied to certain restaurants and tourist attractions with the Visitor Oyster Card.
Ultimately, if you want to have your card before arriving in the UK, or are not likely to benefit from a travelcard, then buy a Visitor Oyster Card.
Regular Oyster Cards can only be purchased in the UK.
They are very simple to buy and can be purchased all over the city, including the airports, but if you don't want to bother with that, then opt for a Visitor Oyster Card.
REGULAR OYSTER CARD
Just about everybody who lives in London used to have an Oyster Card! These days, however, most of us use our contactless cards instead. You'll also see many a Londoner scanning their phone or watches when going in and out of the tube barriers.
However, if you'd still like to use an Oyster card, keep reading to find out more. Note that Oyster fares are the same fares you will pay using your contactless cards, phones, or watches.
You simply add money onto your card at either a Tube station (all stations have kiosks where you can add money via cash or card), or online.
Or, you could top up at any of the roughly 4000 shops in London where you see an Oyster Card sign. These are called Oyster Ticket Stops.
You can also top up your Oystercard at a Transport for London visitor centre, including Heathrow Airport, Kings Cross St. Pancras International Station, Victoria Station, Piccadilly Circus Station, and Liverpool Street Station.
It is very simple to do and we walk you through this process in the next section.
The other options are to load your Oyster Card with a 1-Day-Travel Card, Monthly Travelcard, or even a Yearly Travelcard.
We explain more about Travelcards and when you should choose them later in this post.
Oyster Cards are reusable so you can load and reload your card as many times as you need to while you’re here.
Visitors can even take their Oyster Cards back home with them and either keep them as souvenirs or hold onto them until their next trip to London!
How to Buy a Regular Oyster Card
To get yourself an Oyster Card you can simply go to the window at any London Underground Station, including Heathrow Airport, and request one, or use some of the many self-service ticket machines at busier Underground Stations.
You will need to pay a £7.00 deposit, which will be refunded automatically as pay-as-you-go credit after one year when you make a journey with your card.
You must collect your refund within six months or you won't be eligible to receive it.
In addition to collecting your deposit at, you can also retrieve any extra money you put onto the card that you have not yet spent, up to a £10 limit.
However, the money you have loaded onto your Oyster Card does not expire, which means if you don’t spend it all before you leave, it will remain on your card until your next visit.
So if you plan to come back, simply hold onto your card.
For those who like to plan in advance, and don’t mind a non-refundable deposit of £5.00, it is possible to order a pre-loaded Visitor Oyster Card to be sent to you before you even leave the house!
How to 'Top Up' an Oyster Card
When using your contactless cards, or Google or Apple Pay, topping up is a step you get to skip.
However, for those of you still wishing to use an Oystercard, topping up is simple!
You simply go to a kiosk inside any Underground station and tap your Oyster Card on the ta card reader.
Select how much money you want to add to the card. Pay that amount either by credit/debit card or cash.
Then tap the yellow card reader again to close the deal. Watch the video below for a visual guide.
Alternatively, as mentioned above, you can also add money to your Oyster Card at any of over 4000 shops that have the blue "Oyster Card" sign in their window.
These are called Oyster Ticket Stops. These are literally EVERYWHERE, so don't worry about not being able to find a place to top up.
The one thing you should be mindful of is that you cannot top up your Oyster Card on a bus or at a bus stop.
If you board the bus and it flashes red for insufficient funds, the driver will tell you to leave.
Luckily, there is usually a business-savvy shop nearby that offers top-ups, but this is something to watch out for if you are planning to travel by bus.
How Much Money Should You Add?
Because of the daily caps, you can have some certainty as to how much you need to add to your card.
Below is an example that assumes that you will be flying into and out of Heathrow Airport (during peak hours), will otherwise travel exclusively in Zones 1-2, and also assumes that you will reach the cap each day.
These prices could be slightly higher or lower, so do check out the fare table to make your calculations.
- 1-Day - £21.50 (see note below)
- 2 Days -£30.40
- 3 Days - £45.60
- 4 Days - £60.80
- 5 Days - £76.00
- 6 Days - £91.20
- 7 Days - £106.40
A 1-Day Travelcard is cheaper than a Visitor Oyster Card if you are only in town for the day as you won't get the £5 fee back.
Though, this does not take into account any discounts that you might use with the Visitor Oyster Card.
You can also use the single fare finder on the Transport for London website to help you budget: www.tfl.gov.uk
Travelcards are prepaid cards that give you unlimited access to specific zones within London.
You can choose to either order these in advance (in which case you will be given a paper Travelcard) or you can buy them upon arrival (in which case you will be using a plastic Oyster Card with the Travel Card loaded onto it).
They work in the same way and can both be used on the Underground and buses and also give you a 3rd-off discount on Uber Boat Thames Clipper rides.
The only difference is that you must pay shipping and handling fees to receive the paper card, and in our opinion, these are much easier to lose!
As mentioned above, there are 4 different durations of Travelcards, but the most pertinent to visitors are the 1-Day Travelcard or the 7-Day Travelcard. (There's also a 1 Month and 1-year travelcard)
However, there's little reason you would ever need the 1-Day Travelcard as there is already a cap on Oyster Cards that limits the amount you can be charged per day (£8.10).
In fact, you will likely lose money if you choose the 1-Day Travelcard over a standard Oyster Card.
However, the 1-Day Travelcard makes you eligible for the 2-1 ticket program when travelcards are purchased from National Rail stations.
Many of London's top attractions allow you to get 2 tickets for the price of one when you show a valid travelcard.
A 7-Day Travelcard can be worth your while, as a 7-Day Travelcard for Zones 1-2 is £40.70 which works out less per day than the £8.10 daily cap.
It might also be worth considering if you purchase it through the London Public Transport Card, which includes a free private airport transfer.
For children over the age of 5, a one 1-Day Travelcard is £7.60 off-peak or £10.75 any time.
Don't forget that a contactless debit or credit card will 'cap out' at the price of a daily travel card meaning you never have to decide whether or not it's worth the money for your daily journeys.
GROUP DAY TRAVELCARDS
If you are visiting with 10 or more people, then a Group DayTravelcard may be the way to go.
All ticket holders must travel at the same time for the tickets to be valid, so keep that in mind!
Group travel cards are valid Off-Peak only so they are usable from 9:30 on Mondays to Fridays but any time on weekends and holidays.
Group travel cards cover Zones 1 - 6 and cost £10.00 for adults and £5.00 for children aged 5 - 16.
These can be purchased in advance or from ticket machines at Underground stations.
As we said above, if you have Google Pay or Apple Pay on your smartphone or watch, just use that! If you don't, read below to find out the best option for your travel needs.
This depends on what it is you want to do and where you want to go! Note that the London Underground Map is divided into 9 different zones.
Zones 1 and 2 are in the centre, where most of the popular visitor attractions are.
When traveling across London, it’s worth remembering that the further outside of Zones 1 and 2 you need to go, the more expensive your journey can become.
As a general rule of thumb, you can determine which ticket will be best for you depending on the length of time you are in town.
In London for 4 Days or Fewer
Pay-As-You-Go: The best part of Oyster Card (or contactless debit/credit card) Pay-As-You-Go is that you will never be charged more than it would cost to purchase a 1-Day-Travelcard.
Once you have spent the equivalent amount on your Oyster Card, that you would have spent for a 1-Day-Travelcard, your Oyster Card will stop deducting money from your Pay-As-You-Go balance.
Note: Oyster Card Pay-As-You-Go can also be used on KPMG Thames Clipper River services!
In London for 5 Days or Fewer:
If you are not going to be in London for a month, which you can purchase a travel card for, then just using pay-as-you-go is your best option by far.
What are the Ticket Rates for 1-Day-Travelcards?
Rates vary depending on the time you wish to travel and how many zones you want to cover.
Zones: Most London attractions are within Zones 1 – 2 but a Zone 1 – 6 covers absolutely all of them, as well as Heathrow airport!
Time: 1-Day Travelcards and single-fare paper tickets come in two different formats: Peak and Off-Peak.
Peak means that you can use your ticket or 1-Day-Travelcard any time to travel on the Underground.
Off-Peak means your ticket is not valid on weekdays between 6:30 - 9:30 am or from 16:00 - 19:00 (4 pm till 7 pm) Mondays through Fridays.
Peak and Off-Peak do not apply on Single Cash fares or bus journeys.
NOTE: Don’t forget that you can get the 1-Day Travelcard with a London Public Transport Pass, which also provides a private transfer from the airport to the city center.
If you need both services, this could be a good way to lower the overall price you’ll pay for a 1-Day Travelcard.
|Ticket Type||Peak Fares||Off-Peak Fares|
|1-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 - 6||£20.30||£14.40|
|1-Day-Travelcard for Children, Zones 1- 6||£10.75||£7.60|
|Single Fare in Zones 1 - 2(Cash)||£6.70||N/A|
|Single Fare in Zones 1 - 2 (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go)||£2.80||£2.70|
|Bus Journey (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go)||£1.75|
We have some more interesting facts on our blog. This guide is only an overview of the most popular, cheapest, and easiest tickets you may need while you are in London.
However, for more information, including tickets for children, travel beyond Zone 6, or bus and tube maps please see the Transport for London Website: www.tfl.gov.uk.
If you found this post helpful, please share this with friends and family. Also, be sure to check out our pay-what-you-like London walking tours.