Oyster Card vs Visitor Oyster Card vs Travelcard

This post compares the different Oyster Cards, as well as the Travelcard, to help you decide which one is best for you, including a breakdown based on the number of days you will be in London.

 

 


WHAT IS AN OYSTER CARD

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, tram, DLR, London Overground, TFL Rail, most National Rail services in London, Emirates Air Line cable car and River Bus services (MBNA Thames Clippers).

Essentially, they replace paper tickets and allow you to avoid buying a ticket each time you ride.

There are 2 different types of Oyster Cards: a Visitor Oyster Card and a Regular Oyster Card. They function in essentially the same way, but with a few key differences.

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 or 7 day passes. We explain more of these differences in the following sections.

Children under the age of 11 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.

Only one person can use one card. If you have 2 or more travelers, you will need 2 or more Oyster Cards.

Contactless 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.

Learn how to use the cards and other tips on using the underground, read our post on navigating the London Underground.


Benefits of Using an Oyster Cards

Below we list the general benefits of an Oyster Card, whether it’s a Visitor or Regular Oyster Card.

Cheaper Thank 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 and £2.50 per ride. 

 

Zones Traveled Single Ticket Adult Single Ticket Child (11-15) Oyster and Contactless Cards (Peak) Oyster and Contactless Cards (Off-Peak)
1 £4.90 £2.40 £2.40 £2.40
1-2 £4.90 £2.40 £2.90 £2.40
1-3 £4.90 £2.40 £3.30 £2.80
1-4 £5.90 £2.90 £3.90 £2.80
1-5 £5.90 £2.90 £4.70 £2.80
1-6 £6.00 £3.00 £5.10 £3.10

 

Most visitors to London stay within the Zones 1-2, 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. 

Children under 11 travel for free and there is a 50% discount on Oyster Card fares for children 11-15 years of age. To receive this discount, you need to grab a Tube staff member at any Underground station, including Heathrow.


Daily Limit

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 £6.80. There are different caps for each zone as the cost of travel depends on the distance you go and the time of day.

We recommend how much to put on your card per day, but you can see the price and cap table here.

Buses also cap out at £4.50 per day (with each ride costing £1.50). 


Hopper Fare on Buses

The London mayor recently introduced the ‘hopper’ fare, which 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 £1.50 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 £1.50 total for all of those rides as long as the total time does not exceed 1 hour. 


Valid to get to and from Heathrow and Gatwick Airports

Heathrow Airport is at the very end of the Piccadilly 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 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.

Otherwise, you could get back any unused money that you added to it. Holders of the Regular Oyster Card can also get their £5 deposit back when they leave.

NOTE: There is a limit of £10 on refunds.

 


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VISITOR OYSTER CARD

The Visitor Oyster Card can be purchased in advance and mailed to you anywhere in the world.

This is great for those of you 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. 

 

Visitor Oyster Card

 

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 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.

None of the deals are that spectacular and you generally get much better discounts with a tourist attraction discount pass but check out their list in case any appeal to you.

NOTE: The TurboPass, one of the tourist passes, includes a 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. 

 


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REGULAR OYSTER CARD

This is the choice for Londoners themselves – just about everybody who lives in London has an Oyster Card! The most common way to use Oyster Cards is to ‘pay as you go.’

 

Regular Oyster Card

 

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), online or at a random shop where you see an Oyster Card sign.

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, 7-Day-Travel Card, Monthly Travelcard, or even a Yearly Travelcard.

If you are planning on travel around the city a lot over a certain period, then likely the 7-Day Travel Card might be your preferred option over ‘pay as you go’.

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 £5.00 deposit, which is held by Transport for London – but can be reimbursed to you whenever you return your Oyster Card back to any London Underground Station at the end of your visit or return it on your journey home at Heathrow Airport.

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. NOTE: Those leaving from Gatwick Airport can only get their deposit. No extra money can be refunded.

oysterHowever! 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

Topping up an Oyster Card is simple. You simply go to a kiosk inside any Underground station and tap your Oyster Card to the yellow button. 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 button 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 shop that has the blue “Oyster Card” sign in its window. 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 – £11.90 (see note below)
  • 2 Days -£23.80
  • 3 Days – £30.60
  • 4 Days – £37.40
  • 5 Days – £44.20
  • 6 Days – Get the 7-Day Travelcard
  • 7 Days – Get the 7-Day Travelcard

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.

 


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TRAVELCARDS

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 KPMG 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 many different lengths of Travelcards, but the 2 most pertinent to visitors are the 1-Day Travelcard and the 7-Day Travelcard. (There’s also a 1 Month and 1-year travelcard)

There’s little reason you would ever need the 1-Day Travelcard as there is already a cap on Oyster Cards which limits the amount you can be charged per day. In fact, you will likely lose money if you choose the 1-Day Travelcard over a regular Oyster.

However, the 7-Day Travelcard can save you quite a bit if you’re traveling around the city often, as we demonstrated in the previous section. 


Cost of a 7 Day Travel Card 

The cost of a 7-Day Travelcard varies quite a bit depending on which zones you want to be able to access on it. Generally speaking, unless your accommodation is out in Zone 3 or higher, the Zones 1-2 are probably all you will visit as a tourist.

Plus, buses don’t operate in “zones” and therefore any type of Travelcard will work on them, despite your zone limitations. 

But what happens if you need to travel somewhere like Heathrow Airport, which is in zone 6? No problem! You just have to pay the difference for that particular journey. You can do this by topping up an Oyster Card or buying a single fare ticket.

If this sounds confusing, just ask an attendant at any station and they can show you how it’s done! 

 


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WHICH ONE SHOULD I BUY?

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 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 More:

If you are in London for more than 5 days and you know you will be traveling extensively throughout the capital then a 7-Day-Travelcard is the most sensible choice by far. This Travelcard is good on both London Underground as well as London buses and can also net you a discount on some boat journeys.

You may choose to put your 7-Day-Travelcard onto an Oyster Card, or you may wish to use a 7-Day-Travelcard paper ticket – the choice is yours. 


What are the Ticket Rates for 1-Day-Travelcards and 7-Day-Travelcards?

Rates vary depending on the time you wish to travel and how many zones you want to cover. 4

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 7-Day-Travelcards, Single Cash fares, or bus journeys.

 

Ticket Type Peak Off-Peak
     
1-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 6 £18.10 £12.70
7-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 2 £34.10 N/A
7-Day-Travelcard, Zones 1 – 6 £62.30 N/A
Single Fare in Zones 1 – 2(Cash) £4.90  £4.70
Single Fare in Zones 1 – 2 (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go) £2.40 £2.40
     
Bus Journey (Oyster Pay-As-You-Go) £1.50  
       

 


Anything Else?

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.

 


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