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Oyster Card or Travelcard – The Best London Pass in 2016 ?

Author: Bob Handford

A Decision Tree Selecting The Right Transport Pass For You

There is no simple answer to the Oyster v contactless payment card v Travelcard question – any could be the right product for your individual needs.
This blog post is aimed at the visitor to London, visiting for two weeks maximum. If you are a resident, the answer to this question will inevitably be Oyster Card perhaps with a Travelcard season ticket loaded if you commute or a contactless payment card.

Just follow this page through and you should be able to make an informed judgements on the best solution for you.

Contactless Payment Cards - Best On Paper For Most Visitors But ...

Contactless payment cards have become mainstream for payment of public transport in London. In the long term this type of technology may well become dominant, replacing Oyster as the most popular payment method.
The killer aspect of contactless payment cards is that you just use your own personal debit or credit card as your ticket on all transport. Fares are put then put on your card account at the end of the day like any other purchase.

In 2016, for adult short term visitors to London who have a valid contactless payment card this is almost certainly going to be your best option. But there are lots of caveats, especially if you are from overseas …
– every person traveling needs their own individual credit/debit card that supports contactless payments
– you cannot use contactless payment cards for concessions i.e. child fares
– if you are from North America the chances are that unless you have an American Express Card your credit/debit cards will not support contactless payment. So do use the link below to the contactless payment cards detail page which goes into compatability issues in more detail
– if your credit/debit card is issued outside the UK, you’ll be hit for foreign exchange fees like all other purchases. Many issuers have punitive fees for foreign exchange which may make that card unattractive for use purchasing transport in London.

Visitor Oyster Cards

A lot of visitors are under the impression that a Visitors Oyster Card is in some way a better deal than a standard Oyster Card purchased in London.
The reality is the opposite is true, the only reason to purchase a Visitors Oyster Card is if you are happy to pay a price premium for a less flexible product just for the convenience of having the Oyster Cards in your hands before departure to London.

Oyster Cards bought in London have a refundable deposit of £5, Visitor Oyster Cards have a non refundable deposit of £3.
Oyster Cards bought in London allow you to load Travelcards (but not 1 day Travelcards) onto your Oyster. If you are staying 6 or more days a 7 day Travelcard will probably be cheaper than Oyster alone. Visitor Oyster Cards do not have this capability.

Do you have any children, under 18 years

If yes, read the article linked below about obtaining half price or free child fares before you go any further and factor this into your Oyster v Travelcard decision. (Contactless payment cards are not an option for concessionary fares like children)
I\’m afraid child fares are needlessly complex.

Child Fares On London\’s Public Transport

Are You Travelling In a Group Of 10 Or More

If you are travelling in a group of 10 or more a 1 Group Travelcard may be cheaper than either Travelcard or Oyster Card. Especially if you have kids in the group between 11 and 15 and/or you need to travel through zones 4 to 9.

1 Day Group Travelcard – Full Details

Is Sightseeing A Major Part Of Your Visit To London

If you are visiting places like the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds etc there is a railways promotion that is available to people with Travelcards purchased from the railways that is not available to Oyster Card holders.
Under the promotion one person pays the full adult admission, the other goes in free. For places like the Tower of London that\’s a saving of over £20 – more than the cost of your Travelcard that day. The savings are substantial, but there are some tedious aspects too. You may well buy Travelcard purely on the basis of obtaining these savings on your sightseeing.

2 for 1 Admission Sightseeing Promotion – More Details

In London 6 or More Days Or Occassional Travelling In Zones 3 to 6 (Combining Travelcards and Oyster)

If you are traveling 3 or more times a day for 6 or more days in any 7 day period then a 7 day Travelcard becomes cheaper than an Oyster Card.

If you are staying in London for say 10 days or are staying in the outer zones where your travel patterns may well be more irregular in terms of which travel zones you travel through it may well suit you to combine Oyster and Travelcard, Sometimes using both for the same journey.
For Oyster Cards bought in London, (not Visitors Oyster Cards) you can load 7 day, monthly or annual Travelcards onto the Oyster Card. You cannot load Travelcards onto contactless payment cards either.

So if you have an Oyster Card with money loaded onto it under Pay As You Go and also a 7 day Travelcard zone 1/2 a classic example of where it becomes beneficial to the visitor is now outlined:
You are flying into Heathrow (zone 6) and staying in a hotel in Central London (zones 1 and 2) and sightseeing for 9 days before flying out of Heathrow. One day you are visiting Hampton Court in zone 5.
What you can do is buy an Oyster Card at Heathrow Airport Underground Station and load some money onto it immediately and use it as an Oyster card. On the 3rd day you buy a 7 day Travelcard zone 1 and 2 and load that onto the Oyster Card.
For the next 7 days all your traveling is in the central zones except the airport trip on the last day and your trip to Hampton Court.
On 5 of the days where you are exclusively traveling in zones 1 and 2 the Travelcard covers your travel needs. On the journeys to and from Hampton Court and to Heathrow the system will take from your Oyster an extension fee to cover the part of the journey outside zones 1 and 2 covered by your Travelcard.

If you buy your Travelcard from a railways ticket office they only sell card 7 day Travelcards, they do not load Travelcards onto Oysters. If you have such a card Travelcard covering zones 1 and 2 you can go up to a ticket office and ask for an extension fare if you are travelling say to Heathrow in zone 6.

Travelling To and From London's Airports

Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Airport is in zone 6 of London\’s transport system.
You cannot use Oyster or Travelcards on the Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect airport trains to Heathrow, you can use them on the Underground and London buses at Heathrow

Do not get a 7 Day Travelcard for zones 1 to 6 just to cover the Underground transfers from Heathrow. Get a zone 1 to 2 7 Day Travelcard and pay for an extension fare for zones 3 to 6 to cover for the airport trips, you will save a lot of money this way. (See example in above section)

City Airport
City Airport is in zone 3 of London\’s transport system and is served by the DLR system that connects with the London Underground.

Gatwick Airport
From  January 2016, you will be able to use Oyster pay as you go and contactless cards on train services between London and Gatwick Airport.
Whether its a good idea to use Oyster rather than buy tickets from the railways is another question and a very complex one to answer. You will need to carefully read our dedicated pages on the Gatwick trains and also understand how Oyster work to make an informed comparison.

Luton, Southend & Stansted Airports
Neither Oyster or Travelcard go out to any of these airports.

Making 1 or 2 Journeys in a day, no more

You cannot pay cash and buy a single ticket on the buses.
On the trains and underground you can buy a single ticket but it comes at a punitive price.
Travelcards are not appropiate for one or two journeys in a day.
If you have a credit/debit card that supports contactless payment then use it, this will be your cheapest fare.
Oyster Cards have the same fare structure as contactless payment cards.

If you have neither Oyster or contactless payment card then you have an awkward decision.
You can either pay single cash fares on the underground and trains, but not buses. If you are making 2 journeys not one it will almost certainly be cheaper to buy a 1 day Travelcard instead of 2 cash one-way fares (there are no return tickets)
You can get an Oyster Card. This ensures you have the cheapest fares but you have the hassle of the Oyster deposit on purchase then canceling your Oyster at the end of your trip to reclaim your deposit and any balance left on the card.

Oyster Card – In depth including fare stricture


London Travelcard – In depth including fare stricture


Contactless Payment Cards – In depth including fare stricture


Oyster or Travelcard? – More in depth information


Still Confused, Got Something You Want To Add?

Well just post it below. I\’ll mormally answer within 24 hours.

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  • Theresa

    Sorry, a visitor sim card that I can use in my IPhone 6 is what i’m looking for….left that part out.

    • Bob

      Sorry, not my area

  • Theresa

    I have an IPhone 6 and want to use my phone for texting and data only (no phonecalls)-which one do you recommend, I’ll only be there for 2 weeks.

  • veronica

    HiM Thank you for your post, I am beggining to understand the system! I will be travelling to London for 12 days, and will be doing quite a lot of sightseeing, most of it in zones1-2. My understanding is my best option is to get two 7-days paper travelcards, so I take advantage of the 2×1 offers. Where can I buy the travelcards near Kensington, where I am staying? Are there any train stations within walkable distance? Thank you very very much!!

    • Bob

      Can you clarify where in Kensington you are staying and where/how you will be arriving/departing London

      • veronica

        I´ll be staying near the Natural History Museum, closest subway station Gloucester Road. I´ll be arriving via Heathrow, leaving from St Pancrass (Eurostar). Thank you for your time!

        • Bob

          I’d suggest you get an Oyster Card at Heathrow Underground Station on arrival and use that straight away on the tube to Gloucester Road

          I would suggest you have a strategy of doing all the 2 for 1 in Central London within 7 of the 12 days and any London travel outside zones 1-2 in the other 5 days.

          You can then buy a 7 day Travelcard zone 1-2 from a railway station the day before at any railway station ticket office, (Victoria, Charing Cross or Waterloo are probably the most convenient for tourists)

          You can buy the after midday the day before and you will need a passport size photo each

          Cancel the Oysters at St Pancras at the ticket machine to get your £5 deposits back plus any cash left on them

          • veronica

            Thank you for your suggestions, they sound very reasonable! I was thinking about buying a 1 way ticket from Heathrow, the next day take a bus to a railway station and buy the paper travel card, and buy another one once the week was over. But your idea sounds much better, Thank you!

  • Aaron R


    I’m trying to understand the best card and payment option for me and I could use some help, please.

    I arrive in London via Heathrow on a Thursday morning and will be staying at a hotel in Zone 1 Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. I plan to use the system (likely just Zones 1-2) all of Thr-Fri-Sat and I then have to catch a bus (due to train schedules) very early on Sun morning back to Heathrow to catch a flight.

    I’m confused as to which card and payment option I should be using. I am from the States so contactless payment is likely out. I don’t know what is best choice between Oyster and TravelCard and how I should pay (one time payment for entire trip versus daily renewals).

    Thank you in advance.

    • Bob

      For 3/4 days an oyster is you best choice

      • Aaron R

        So let’s say I buy the Oyster at Heathrow upon my arrival or I buy it in advance and have it shipped to the States, how much money do I put on it so that I’m not left with a large sum I’m trying to get back? I need a one-way on train from Heathrow, 3 days of Zones 1-2 and a one-way back to Heathrow via bus.

        Am I able to calculate in advance what that would be and just add that amount?

        • Bob

          You are better off getting the standard Oyster at Heathrow rather than a Visitors Oyster bought in advance.

          Just get one each from a ticket machine at Heathrow Underground and I’d suggest put £28 cash on the Oyster
          At the end cancel your Oyster at the ticket machine, get your £5 deposit back plus any cash left on the Oyster

          If you want to judge cash left on more finely then put £20 on the Oyster and top it up as needed at any ticket machine

          • Aaron R

            Exactly the information I was after. Thank you!!

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