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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

    Travelling with husband and 15yr old son in April. Flying into Heathrow then tube to Grosvenor Hotel for 3 days. Whats the best/quickest/on time way to get from The Grosvenor to Wolverhampton? Also, returning we are travelling from Wolverhampton to Heathrow T2 on a Sunday (Apr 16) and need to be at Heathrow by 10:30am. Suggestions?

    • Bob

      There are crudely hourly trains between London’s Euston Station and Wolverhampton that take a couple of hours
      You are strongly advised to book tickets ASAP as prices on the day can be eye watering and thiis is easter.

      Best price tickets start appearing 3 months before travel.

      Virgin Trains operate the trains and their web site is linked below

      You have a problem to get to Heathrow by 10:30 as the first train on a Sunday doesn’t arrive until Sunday

      National Express Coaches run direct services between Wolverhampton and Heathrow taking 4 hours.
      There is a schedule that leaves 3 a.m. in the morning that gets to Heathrow around 7 a.m. so you might prefer to get a coach the evening before and stay at an airport hotel
      National Express web site is linked below and like the railways they too have dynamic pricing


      • Theresa

        Thanks Bob. Would you suggest getting a private car to drive us from Wolverhampton to Heathrow instead of bus? I just wasn’t sure how traffic was and how safe it was to hire a driver to get us to the airport on time.

        • Bob

          A private car is an option and on a Sunday there won’t be a traffic issue, should take around 2 hours

          • Theresa

            Perfect-is there any car services you’d recommend or that I should stay away from? I checked out the Virgin Trains site-there regular fairs are $142 GBP for one way or I can get a best fare for $24 GBP. The train is at the same time so why the difference in price?

          • Bob

            UK rail ticketing fares I don’t think anyone really understands, its all driven by the wacky world of marketing and yield control.
            its a bit like take taking a flight where everyone will have paid widely different fares.

            The £142 fare is probably the walk-up fare on the day there to catch the businessman going to a last minute meeting, the cheap fare is probably to compete for the leisure cistomer with a few months ahead and knows where to go for alternative competitive providers.

            For a chance of getting one of the better fares, the page linked below gives you a good grounding:


            There are literally hundreds of private car operators with a fair share of rogue operators among them no doubt.

            For someone who wants a quality, dependable service we would probably point you in the direction of Eddie’s Limos (link below)
            They’re not the cheapest and as they’re based at Heathrow so they are going to be more expensive than their peer in Wolverhampton. Presumably for you to want to visit Wolverhampton you have someone you know there who has insight into the operators up there.

  • Alina X

    Hi Bob
    I’m confused and I really need your help.
    We are group of 3 adults. We are arriving to London for 5 nights (stay at 2 zone,nearest station is Peckham Rye) on jan 21 from Luton Airport and go back the same way at jan 26 night (our departure is at 6:40 jan 26).
    We want to see major London attractions (St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and so on). We will to use Underground and bus networks to go around in London (only for 1-2 zones). Our trips will star before 9:30 and will end off- peak time.
    In London I want buy 1 – one Oyster Card with around 30£ and 2-two 7 day Travelcards (issued on London Victoria railway ticket offices).
    Am I understand correctly that 7 day Travelcard regardless of the place of purchase (on railway ticket offices or Underground Stations) lets use public transport (Underground/bus) but if it is purchase on railway ticket offices additionally allows to use 2for1 offers?
    Is it the best solution for using public transport and for using 2for1 offers for 3 Adults?

    For Luton Airport – London-Luton airport I want combine train and bus services. Use train service to London for faster trip, and bus service to Luton airport because of it 24×7 service and cheapest price. Is is the best solution?Maybe I should use only bus services, because it will be off-peak time?Should I buy tickets in advance?


    • Bob

      Luton Airport is outside the London area covered by Oysters and Travelcards so the airport transfer is going to be a separate purchase to the London travel pass

      Peckham Rye is zone 2 of public transport system and is the other side of London to Luton so the transfer is going to be a pain whatever route you take

      By far the best route would be Luton Airport to Pekham Rye by train with 2 changes of train along the way taking about 90 mins.
      The airport bus to Victoria then train/underground/bus may take nearly double the time

      If your flight is at 6 a.m. then no trains run from Pecham Rye at the time you need, neareset station would be London Bridge
      To get from Pecham Rye to Victoria or London Bridge at 1-2 a.m. will require at least 2 night buses

      So you have two options:

      Buy aiirport bus tickets to Victoria, then buy 7 day Travelcards zone 1-2 at Victoria Railway Station ticket office (with passsport photos)

      Buy train tickets to/from Peckam Rye and London Bridge and buy your 7 day Travelcards zone 1-2 from the rail station there
      If you got return rail tickets to London bridge then these tickets alone qualify you for 2 for 1 and you could just buy the 7 day Travelcard from a ticket machine in the Underground Station at London Bridge.

      Note 7 Day Travelcards cover journeys at all times there is off-peak/peak periods

      I would also keep an eye on the Southern railways industrial action that is escalating and they run a lot of train services in the Peckham area,
      There are strikes planned on 24/25th January
      See: http://www.southernrailway.com/your-journey/strike/

      • Alina X

        Dear, Bod,
        Thank you very much for you comments.
        I have checked southern/thameslink/eastmidlans trains – it seems to be very complicated and expensive trip to/from London.
        I’ve just found a hotel near the Victoria station so we’ll travel by bus 🙂 Last question: passport photos should be black-white or colored for 7 day Travelcard ?

        • Bob

          Modern passport photos have to be coloured for the biometric testing they do nowadays

          • Alina X

            Thank you!!!

  • Dahlen

    Hello! We are traveling to London in April (from Friday 14th to Friday 21st, 7 days total). We will be staying in Mayfair near Green Park. We plan to use a 6 day London Pass for included attractions & exhibits. We plan to pay separately for the Gatwick Express into town from the airport and the Heathrow Express out of town to the airport. We also plan to go to the WB Harry Potter tour and to visit either Windsor Castle or Hampton Court Palace. We are a family of 5, incl. 2 adults, 2 fifteen year olds & a 9 year old. We plan to use public transport for getting around.

    Do you recommend we purchase passes along with the London Pass? With the “London Pass + Travel”, we two adults will receive Oyster Cards (40GBP credit each @ a cost of +43GBP each), our teenagers will receive a “paper off-peak Travel Card” (for +20GBP each), and we would then need to pick up some other type of free paper card for our 9 year old (no charge). I am trying to determine the best card and if it would be better for us to purchase the oyster/travel cards once we arrive vs. with the London Pass. Any advice is appreciated! Thank you.

    • Bob

      The Transport option on the London Pass would not be a good deal for you as this is based on Visitors Oyster Cards

      For you the best deal would be

      On arriving off the Gatwick Express at Victoria go down to the Underground Station at Victoria and buyt 4 Oyster Cards from a ticket machine.
      For the 2 adults at the ticket machine select a 7 day Travelcard zone 1-2 (£33) plus I would suggest £15 Oyster cash for your purchase to be loaded onto the Oyster
      For the 15 year olds juist put I would £25 of Oyster cash on their Oysters and ask a member of staff hanging around the ticket hall to load Young Persons Discounts on their Oysters for half price adult fares and caps
      The 9 year old travels free on the buses, underground, DLR and some trains including the train out to Watford Junctionfor HP without a ticket. As they don’t have a ticket they won’t be able to use the automatic ticket barriers to enter/exit stations so you’ll need to go through the manned gates

      The train out to Hampton Court is in zone 6 and covered by Oysters, but on this train the 9 year old will need a railway ticket

      The train out to Windsor is not covered by Oyster so you will have have to buy a return train ticket for all. – an off-peak day return is normally the best priced ticket option on either the Paddington or Waterloo line

      At Paddington Underground before you board the Heathrow Express cancel the Oysters on a ticket machine and get your £5 deposits back on each card plus any cash left on the cards (up to £10) refunded

      • Dahlen

        Thank you so much for your help & recommendations, Bob!

      • Dahlen

        Thank you, Bob. I have another question for you:

        We will be traveling to the Harry Potter studio tour on Wed 19 April. Our tour is at 10:30. We plan to use our Oyster cards and take transport from Green Park Station to Watford Junction to the shuttle. I am thinking we would need to depart from Green Park Station no later than 8:45 (8:30?). I also understand that we would go from Green Park Station to Euston Railway Station to Watford Junction. Is this correct? And, I am assuming we will do the same in reverse after the tour. Thank you in advance for your advice!

        • Bob

          The official journey planner suggests a travel time of around 35 minutes with a fast Midland train interchange from Euston

          First time doing it I’d allow an hour from entering the Underground Station to waiting at the bus stop for the Harry Potter shuttle at Watford

          Use the TFL journey planner at the url below


  • Dahlen

    Hello! We are traveling to London in April (from Friday 14th to Friday 21st, 7 days total). We will be staying in Mayfair near Green Park. We plan to use a 6 day London Pass for included attractions & exhibits. We plan to pay separately for the Gatwick Express into town from the airport and the Heathrow Express out of town to the airport. We also plan to go to the WB Harry Potter tour and to visit either Windsor Castle or Hampton Court Palace. We are a family of 5, incl. 2 adults, 2 fifteen year olds & a 9 year old. We plan to use public transport for getting around.

    Do you recommend we purchase passes along with the London Pass? With the “London Pass + Travel”, we two adults will receive Oyster Cards (40GBP credit each @ a cost of +43GBP each), our teenagers will receive a “paper off-peak Travel Card” (for +20GBP each), and we would then need to pick up some other type of free paper card for our 9 year old (no charge). I am trying to determine the best card and if it would be better for us to purchase the oyster/travel cards once we arrive vs. with the London Pass. Any advice is appreciated! Thank you.

  • sgbelverta

    Hi. Visiting London for 14 days. Will be traveling in zones 1-9. Will fly into Heathrow. Hotel still unknown due to needing one with a washing machine on site. Plan to hit all the tourist sites. I want bus and tube access. Very confused as to what card to buy. I want to visit Brighton, so I might need a rail pass too. Can you add money to a card on-line? Want to pre-pay as much as possible as my Dollar looks really good against your Pound right now 🙂 Your help appreciated.

    • Bob

      Heathrow is in zone 6
      I cannot really advise you until you have your hotel sorted out at Heathrow as the precise location will have a big impact

      If you are looking at using Heathroiw as a base to sightsee in London for 2 weeks I would think again, find somewhere more central

  • l dykes

    Hi , coming to London arriving kings cross and need to travel to surrey quays railway, just here for the day? best ticket option please? Many thanks

  • BQuinn

    Hi Bob
    I was in London for a weekend break from Friday to Sunday and purchased an oyster card. I paid a £5 deposit and topped it up with £20 pay as you go. However when I went to Liverpool Street Station on Sunday (yesterday), to catch the Stansted Express for my flight home, the Visitor Centre was closed and the machine was unable to give me a refund as my amount was more than £10 (£12.50 + £5 deposit). I had to go ahead and take the oyster card back home with me as no one was able to help me obtain the refund. I am at home now in Northern Ireland and would like to know if and how I can claim back this amount owing?

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