Best London transport pass - Oyster, Travelcard or Contactless
Make an informed choice on the right London travel pass for you with question and answer blog if needed
If you want the best public transport deal for your visit to London there is no doubt that at first sight the various ticketing options are bewildering. There is no universal best option, each option has its own market.
Invest just a little time into understanding the options and by picking the right solution for you. As well as saving significant money you will also save time and have a stress-free experience.
We have a dedicated detailed analysis page explaining in detail the differences between the various ticketing options (see link below). This page is a more simplified step by step approach to identifying the best public transport pass for you in London.
After reading both pages if you are still confused then we have a blog at the foot of this page where you can discuss your particular situation.
A decision tree selecting the right transport pass for you
For the tourist or those making short visits to London there are aspects of the Travelcard that make them very 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.
Public transport in London
London fares & payments
Deals aimed at visitors
Public transport to/from London
London airport transfers
Cruise port transfers
Guided tours out of London
Independent touring trom London
Fares & payment
Cruise port transfer
Tours in London
Touring from London
Contactless Payment Cards - on paper best for many but with major drawbacks ...
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 big attraction of contactless payment is you can use your own credit/debit card or even your mobile phone linked to an Apple Pay account with no need to purchase any dedicated transport ticket.
Contactless payment uses Oyster fares, the lowest fares unless you are staying more than five days.
The main reasons why visitors do not use contactless payment are:
- If you are from overseas your fares will converted from pounds sterling to your local currency daily by your provider, often with significant foreign exchange charges.
- Each person needs their own contactless supported credit/debit card or mobile phone account, you cannot share.
- If you are staying and travelling in London for more than 5 days in any 7, a 7 day Travelcard is cheaper than Oyster fares.
- Concessionary fares (including children) are not supported by contactless payment
Visitor Oyster cards & Oyster cards
Oyster fares are the lowest fares and if you are not using contactless payment then you need to buy an Oyster card to gain access to the Oyster fares.
For most overseas visitors an Oyster card or a Visitors Oyster card is the most popular ticketing solution.
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, but on balance the reverse 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 £5.
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 really complex.
In London 5 or more days? (Combining Travelcards and Oyster)
If you are travelling 3 or more times a day for 5 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 (but 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.
So if you have an Oyster Card with money loaded onto it under Pay As You Go and a 7 day Travelcard zone 1/2 loaded onto the same Oyster Card 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 (Zone 1) 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 third 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 travelling 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 travelling in zones 1 and 2 the Travelcard covers all of 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. This is performed automatically with no input on your part.
1 Day Travelcard cannot be loaded onto Oyster Cards
If you buy Travelcards only and for a duration of 7 days upwards, unless you buy from a national railways ticket office in London or online from an overseas agent, your Travelcard will come loaded on an Oyster Card. If your Travelcard is purchased from a railways ticket office or online in advance it comes in the format of a card ticket with a magnetic strip, not on an Oyster.
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 – savings can easily be more than the cost of the fares that day!
The savings are substantial, and you have to jump through a few hoops, but many end up buying Travelcards purely on the basis of obtaining these savings on your sightseeing, even though an Oyster card would be cheaper for the transport alone.
Are you travelling in a group of 10 or more?
If you are travelling in a group of 10 or more a 1 Day Group Travelcard may be cheaper than either Travelcard or Oyster card, but only if you travel outside zones 1 to 3.
This is the only group fare available. There are no family fares or passes either for smaller groups.
Travelling to and from London's airports
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 7 Day Travelcard zone 1 to 2 loaded onto an Oyster to cover the airport trips, you will save a lot of money this way. (See example in the “In London 5 or More Days” section above)
City Airport is in Zone 3 of London’s transport system and is served by the DLR system that connects with the London Underground.
You can use Oyster pay as you go and contactless cards on train services between London and Gatwick Airport, but you cannot use Travelcards.
Whether it's a good idea to use Oyster rather than buy tickets from the railways is another question and a complex one to answer. You will need to carefully read our dedicated pages on the Gatwick trains and understand how Oyster works to make an informed comparison.
Luton, Southend & Stansted Airports
Neither Oyster or Travelcard go out to any of these airports, so your airport transfers are a separate purchase to your London transport.
Just making 1 or 2 journeys?
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 for most journeys compared to Oyster.
If you have a credit/debit card that supports contactless payment then use it, this will be your cheapest fare, though if you are from overseas your provider may have foreign exchange charges. 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 pay single cash fares on the underground and trains, but not buses. For most journeys you will pay a significant price premium over Oyster fares.
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 cancelling your Oyster at the end of your trip to reclaim your deposit and any balance left on the card.
Still confused, got something you want to add? Ask Bob!
If your requirement is complex or not neatly addressed by the above just make a comment or question below.
Normally, Bob, our resident expert and author of this page will reply within 24 hours.