- WHERE TO STAY
- PUBLIC TRANSPORT
- CRUISE PORTS
For the visitor to London, the question of which travel pass to purchase can be confusing. Those living and working in London will almost always have an Oyster Card in their wallet and, as a general rule of thumb, the Oyster Card is the benchmark to be beaten, although people are fast migrating to contactless payment cards.
Many will have a long-term travel pass attached to the Oyster, and these can be valid for as short as a week or as long as a year.
Buying a single ticket for one journey is rare, you are penalised very heavily financially. A one-way single ticket on the Underground in Central London is double that of an Oyster fare and not far off the maximum you can pay in a day of unlimited rides using Oyster.
On the buses buying a one-way ticket is just not an option offered.
The Contactless payment card is the newest option available along with mobile payments and the authorities hope this will become the dominant channel in the longer term. However for short-term visitors the adoption rate is far less and for good reason, especially if you are from overseas and do not have a British sterling or pound currency credit/debit card.
For the tourist or those making short visits to London there are aspects of the Travelcard that make them appealing and if understood can make Travelcards cheaper than Oyster cards or Contactless payment cards, especially if you are visiting the major sights on a first time visit.
So all in all it can be quite confusing for the visitor planning their visit to London to make an informed choice.
This page discusses the differences between Oyster, Contactless Payment Cards and Travelcards so you can identify the right product for you. Our detailed Travelcard, Contactless payment cards and Oyster card pages give a full explanation of each.
All three options, Oyster card, Contactless payment card and Travelcards cover the same London public transport, with the exception of Gatwick Airport (see below):
- The London Underground network.
- The London red local bus network.
- The railway network in Greater London.
- Docklands Light Railway, TfL Rail and Overground Railway.
- Discount on many scheduled river services (though not Contactless payment card and fragmented implementation on Oyster/Travelcard).
From 19 February 2019, Oyster cards, contactless bank cards and mobile devices are accepted on the Heathrow Express. This will speed up the process of ticketing for this train for customers who can now enter with just a tap of your card on the ticket barrier. Prices are the same as buying your ticket at the station, with a single peak charged at £25 and off peak £22. You can save money by booking your tickets online in advance or in advance using the Heathrow Express app. Children aged 15 and under can use a Zip Oyster card to travel free on the service.
You can also use Travelcards on the London Underground and TFL Rail train services to Heathrow.
You can use Oyster or Contactless payment cards on the trains to/from Gatwick Airport but it may well be cheaper to buy tickets from the railways instead. You cannot use Travelcards to/from Gatwick Airport and it may be cheaper to travel using rail tickets between Gatwick and London than using Oyster.
City Airport is serviced by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and is covered.
Both Oyster and Travelcard can be purchased on demand from Underground stations, Visitor Centres and literally hundreds of retail outlets, such as newsagents and convenience stores inside London.
There are few places outside London you can purchase them. Note at Underground and DLR stations there are no manned ticket desks, just ticket machines.
You can purchase Oyster cards and Travelcards online from the TfL online shop (banner link below) and have them delivered to your home address wherever in the world.
Oyster cards you purchase in this way are Visitor Oyster cards, the differences are explained further down the page.
Please note: Contactless payment cards are your normal personal credit/debit cards, so as long as your cards support the Contactless payment technology then you don't have to do anything. You just use your credit/debit card as an Oyster card.
When you buy a Visitor Oyster card you pay an activation fee (currently £5) which is not refundable. For standard Oyster cards purchased in London you pay a £7 deposit which is refundable (see Oyster v Visitor Oyster section below).
For short-term visitors, contactless payment cards and Travelcards are the only travel passes where you do not incur the deposit/admin charges of Oyster purchase.
There are two types of Oyster card. If you buy in London you get the standard Oyster card. If you buy outside London, including airport trains and National Express coaches, overseas agents and online you will get a Visitor Oyster card.
Oyster fares and caps are the same whether you use a standard Oyster or a Visitor Oyster, a common misconception.
For Visitor Oyster cards you pay an activation fee (£5 in 2024) which is non refundable. If you buy an Oyster card in London you pay £7 in 2024.
You cannot load 7 day Travelcards on Visitor Oyster cards only standard Oyster cards. If you are in London for 5 plus days having a 7 day Travelcard loaded on your Oyster can save you significant cash. For 5 days daily travel in London, Oysters and 7 day Travelcards for most visitors will be almost identical in price. For 6 or 7 days the sixth and seventh days are effectively free for a 7 day Travelcard compared to the Oyster total price.
At the end of your trip both Visitor Oyster cards and standard Oyster cards you can cancel at ticket machines and get any cash left on the Oyster refunded (in cash/coins).
For a standard Oyster card you can, if you wish, register online. With Visitor Oyster cards you cannot. The main advantages of being registered online is that if you lose your Oyster you can stop its use, you can get a good audit trail of your journeys and you can request a refund of cash left on your Oyster online direct into your bank account.
Visitor Oyster cards have “special offers” made available to purchasers, normally discounts on anything from food to theatre tickets relevant to visitors. Whether you would make use of any of these offers is another thing and the specifics of offers are often not clear.
If you plan on returning to London at some time then you can retain your Oyster and use it again on your return however far in the future.
Otherwise you will want to reclaim your Oyster deposit and any cash balance left on your Oyster or Visitor Oyster. You can do this using any ticket machine (though notably not at Gatwick Airport). The machine will cancel the Oyster card and refund your deposit plus any cash left on your Oyster up to £10.
If you forget to get the refund whilst in London you can post the Oyster card back to TfL customer services requesting the refund. For overseas visitors the big disadvantage is that the refund will be in the form of a cheque in British pounds.
This procedure is the same for both Oyster cards and Visitor Oyster cards.
Only one person can travel with an Oyster card at any time. If 2 people are travelling together they need 2 Oyster cards. However, if you only have pay as you go credit on your card, another person can use your Oyster card when you are not travelling. If you have a Travelcard, Bus & Tram Pass or discount added to your Oyster card, you can't lend it to someone else.
No photo is required for an Oyster and your name is not stamped on the card.
You can register the Oyster card if you want but that is entirely voluntary. For concessions, principally child fares, a separate Oyster Photo ID card is often required if your child is 11 years or older and wants child fares (see bottom of the page).
No photo ID is required when you buy an Oyster card, except where children are concerned. You may well need an Oyster Photo ID card of one kind or another to access child rates. See the child concession table at the foot of this page for which one (if any) and fees.
No photo ID is required when you buy adult Travelcards from anywhere but railway stations.
For a 7 Day Travelcard or longer (adult or child) bought from a railway station ticket office (not Underground) you need to bring along a passport size photo for a rail photocard to be made up on the spot and free of charge.
7 Day Child Travelcard or longer bought from anywhere but a railway station or with TfL online shop requires an Oyster ID Card. Adults do not. See the child concession table at the foot of this page for which Oyster ID Card (if any) and fees.
Like all new technologies, compatibility and speed of introduction varies across the world. To make sure Contactless payment cards are even going to be an option for your credit/debit cards take a look at our Contactless payment card dedicated page linked below.
Also do remember if you are a visitor with a non-UK issued credit/debit card you'll probably be hit for foreign exchange charges by your card issuer like all other foreign purchases.
As a general rule a Travelcard is more expensive than an Oyster card or Contactless payment card. The exception is if you make 3 or more journeys for 6 days or more within a 7 day period. In this case a 7 day Travelcard works out cheaper than an Oyster or Contactless payment card. Otherwise an Oyster on a Pay As You Go basis or a Contactless payment card is cheaper. If you are a resident or long-term visitor there are monthly and annual Travelcards.
You can load 7 day Travelcards onto an Oyster card and switch between Oyster Pay As You Go and Travelcard as your travel patterns change. You cannot do this on a Contactless payment card.
If you use a credit/debit card using Contactless payments whose home currency is not British pounds your card will be charged like any other overseas purchase so you should check whether you will be hit for punitive foreign exchange charges by your card issuer - there is a wide variance between different cards. The best cards have no fees.
If you have children under 16 year of age then your decision will probably be driven by access to child fares. Travelcards often give you access to child rates much easier than Oyster for short duration visits - see the getting child rates section further down this page.
Discount entitlements can't be added to a Contactless payment card. So if you are eligible for free or discounted travel, you should continue using your existing Oyster card. This in effect rules out children using Contactless payment methods.
If you are doing the sights in London like the Tower of London. London Eye, Madame Tussauds etc. then you really should read about the 2 for 1 admission promotion which Travelcards can qualify you for, but Oyster cards do not.
Price caps apply to Oyster cards and Contactless payment cards. A price cap is the maximum you can pay in any one calendar day (see next section down).
The 1 day Travelcard peak travel period is Monday to Friday before 9.30am, there is no afternoon peak period. If you travel in the peak period you need a peak 1 day Travelcard. The substantial variance in fares is detailed on the price table below. All Travelcards with a duration 7 days or longer cover both peak and off-peak times.
Travelcards are a flat rate pass where you have unlimited rides for the time period purchased.
Oyster / Contactless payment cards are charged on a per journey basis but has a daily maximum you can be charged. Once you hit this 'price cap' through individual fares aggregating, you are charged no more for subsequent journeys made that day.
The daily Oyster/Contactless payment cards price cap is less than the cost of a 1 day Travelcard so over one day is cheaper. Over longer periods Travelcards can work out cheaper depending on your travel. For instance a 7 Day Travelcard is less expensive than an Oyster or Contactless payment cards if you travel 3 or more times each day for 6 days or more in a 7 day calendar period.
All travel (except the buses) is charged by the number of zones you travel through. Most tourists never get out of zones 1 and 2 where all the main sights and hotels are, but there are exceptions like Heathrow Airport in Zone 6. Look at the London Underground page for a full explanation and zone maps.
Most visitors will just travel in the central zones, 1 and 2. If you are staying more than 5 days in Central London then a 7 day Travelcard zone 1-2 is probably going to be cheaper than just an Oyster card.
7 day Travelcards can be loaded onto your Oyster card and be used in combination with Oyster on a Pay As You Go basis for a single journey.
Note this flexibility is not available on Visitor Oyster cards or Contactless payment cards.
This is useful if you want to take the occasional trips outside the central area (zones 1 & 2), perhaps to Heathrow Airport in zone 6 from Central London in Zone 1. By loading some PAYG money onto your Oyster as well as the Travelcard zone 1-2 the ticketing system will recognise the zone 1 and 2 Travelcard for the zone 1 and 2 segment of the journey and take the fare for zones 3 to 6 from the Oyster PAYG amount on your card.
Similarly if you are staying in London for 9 days you might buy an Oyster Card and use it on a PAYG basis for 2 days and have a 7 day Travelcard loaded and use that for the remaining 7 days.
|Oyster daily cap
* Travelcard peak fares apply for any travel made Monday to Friday before 9.30am. All other travel is off-peak.
** Prices for a 7 day Travelcard. Also the 7 day cap for contactless payment cards between Monday to Sunday - not available on Oyster.
SPECIAL CAP FOR BUS TRAVEL ONLY: £5.70 (When you only travel on London's buses on 1 day).
CHILDREN'S OYSTER CAPS: Off-peak: £1.70 (zones 1-9). Peak: approx half of adult cap.
Fare 1 Journey Oyster/Contactless
Cash Fare at any time
Within One Zone
Zone 1 to 2
Zone 1 to 3
Zone 1 to 4
Zone 1 to 5
Zone 1 to 6
Zone 2 to 6
Gatwick Express Train - Anytime Single from £18.50
Heathrow Express Train £25.00
Southern/Thameslink trains zone 1 stations from £18.30
No return fares.
ANY BUS JOURNEY: £1.75 (no fare zones)
* Peak fares apply Monday to Friday between 6.30am and 9.30am and 4pm to 7pm except public holidays
Should your journey not use TFL services (London buses/trams, Underground, Overground, DLR and TFL Rail), completely, for example part of your journey is via a different operator, most likely a railway company, then the standard Oyster/Contactless single fare based on zones may not be followed.
Children travel free if under 11 year old or are between 11 and 15 years with an Oyster 11-15 Photocard. On services operated by the railways such as Gatwick trains for example, only children under 5 travel free, child rate fares are available with the appropriate age Oyster Zip card.
Children's fares (11-15 yrs old) with an Oyster 11-15 Photocard on Oyster for any trip within zones 1 to 6 is £0.85 off peak, £0.90 peak
There are no seniors fares for visitors. If you reside in London and are of pensionable age you can get a Freedom pass giving free travel. If you are 60+ and live in London the Seniors Oyster ID Card that makes free bus travel available. You can apply online or get a form from your local Post Office.
Anybody with an English National Concessionary bus pass can use that on London's red buses too and travel free of charge.
If you have a railways Seniors Railcard you can get your 1/3 discount on off-peak Oyster fares. You have to ask a member of staff to load the concession onto a standard Oyster card (note, not a Visitors Oysters card) at an Underground station after showing your Seniors Card.
If you have a railways Seniors Railcard you can also buy 1 day off-peak zone 1-6 Travelcards at with the discount applied.
This is a complex subject and is covered in detail at the foot of the page. A child is defined as under 16 years old, but in the last couple of years it has been possible to get child fares after jumping through a few hoops up to the age of 17.
Children under 11 can travel free on the London Underground, DLR and buses without a ticket. If a child is between 11 and 15 years old you require an Oyster 11-15 Photocard (which has a fee see below). This allows 11 to 15 year olds to travel at child fares on the Underground, DLR, Overground and some trains, free on the buses.
If you are a short-term visitor (in London for up to 14 days) with kids between 11-15 you can take advantage of the Young Visitor Discount. This means you can get half price fares on an Oyster Card on a temporary basis for your child without going through the hoops and expense of getting an Oyster ID card. You do need to read carefully the rules of this scheme though.
This in scope is the same as a 1 day off-peak Travelcard for zones 1-6 and 1-9 providing unlimited travel on all services after 9.30am Monday to Friday and all day Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays.
The pricing is particularly attractive if you have kids in the group and those staying in one of the outer zones, however if you are staying in the centre of London zones 1 to 3 it will be cheaper to purchase individual Oyster cards.
If you are a group of 10 or more then do check out this product and read more on our page below.
One of the biggest nightmares for those on short visits to London with children is accessing child rate fares if they do not qualify for free travel.
Note child fares are not supported by Contactless payment cards.
If after reading the table below you find that you require an Oyster ID Card, then are taken aback by the cost and time required to obtain one for your child read on. These are your options for travelling without the Child Oyster ID Card (if your child is under 16) at child rate:
Pay for individual journeys at child rate
Buy an adult Oyster Card and load a Young Persons Discount onto it. For short-term visitors staying less than 14 days this is probably the best choice.
Purchase a 1 day Child Travelcard each day
Purchase your Travelcards or Oyster Cards online from the TfL online shop (banner below)
Purchase 7 Day Travelcards or longer from railway stations (you will need to bring a passport size photo with you for a railways photo card which is made up on the spot free of charge).
Children Under 5
Children under five can travel free at any time on the Tube, DLR, buses and trams as long as they are accompanied by an adult with a valid ticket. You do not need a ticket for free travel. Children in this category do not need Oyster ID Cards*.
Under-11s can travel free at any time on buses and trams without the need for a Oyster ID Card*. You do not need a ticket for free travel.
They can also travel free at any time on the Tube, DLR , Overground and any TfL train service when they are travelling with an adult who has a valid ticket. Up to 4 children under 11 years old accompanied by a paying adult travel free.
Travel on the national railways which operate suburban commuter trains in London only have free travel for those under 5. In the last year or so many train routes in London have switched from the railways to TfL Rail. Confusingly a few national railways routes where both rail and TfL rail operate on the same tracks children under 11 can travel free on the railways trains - this includes the popular route for visitors between Euston and Watford Junction (for Harry Potter Studio Tour).
Unaccompanied children between 5 and 10 must have a valid Oyster ID Card*.
Children aged 11 to 15 years must get an 11-15 Oyster ID Card* to travel free on buses and trams and at child-rate on Tube, DLR and London Overground services. You do not need a ticket for free travel, just the ID Card.
You cannot get a standard child rate Oyster card without an Oyster ID Card.
Young Visitor Discount (for visitors to London staying up to 2 weeks)
If you are a short-term visitor to London you can get child fares on a special child Oyster card that expires after 14 days. There are restrictions. You can only get these Oyster cards credited with a Young Persons Discount at Underground stations, TfL Rail stations, Visitor or Travel Information Centres and Victoria National Rail station ticket office. For full details of this scheme click through on the Child Fares banner, below.
Alternatives to Oyster cards for children
You can get around the Oyster ID card requirement by purchasing a 1 day Travelcard for the child (longer length Travelcards do require an Oyster ID Card), paying the cash fare or purchasing your Child Travelcard online in advance from the TfL Visitor Shop.
You can buy 7 day child Travelcards at railway stations (not Underground or Overground) with a railway ticket office. The railways will issue a railways photocard free of charge if you bring along a passport size photo of your child. You can only use this for buying tickets from the railways which in practise for visitors means Travelcards.
All 16 to 17-year-olds can travel at child-rate on bus, Tube, tram, DLR and London Overground services with a 16+ Oyster ID Card*.
However, you can only use this concession on Oyster cards and 7 Day Travelcards or longer, not 1 day Travelcards.
If you are 18 or over and enrolled with a participating education establishment registered on the TfL scheme and are resident in London while studying there is an Oyster ID card that gives a 30% discount on adult-rate Travelcards and Bus & Tram Pass season tickets.
Apply for a child's Oyster ID card
*Oyster ID Cards
Visitors to London from overseas can order an Oyster Photocard in advance for their children and collect on arrival at a travel centre. There is a Travel Centre at Heathrow Airport as well as in Central London. If you are resident in the UK but live outside London you can again order online but the Oyster ID Card is sent to your home address.
Note you need to apply (online) at least 4 weeks prior to arrival.
Note: There is a non-refundable £10-£20 administration fee for each Oyster ID Card