I recently wrote a post about the best ways to get around London. That’s all well and good, but it’s missing a key component – the most cost effective way to actually pay for transport in London.
You’d think this would be a fairly obvious answer, but unfortunately it’s a little bit more complicated than you might imagine. Fear not though, this post will guide you through the options and help you decide which payment option is best for using London’s public transport system!
First, there are three ways that you can pay for the majority of public transport in London. These are cash, the London Oyster Card, and a contactless enabled credit / debit card. Let’s look quickly at these three options, and then figure out which is right for you.
Payment Options for Travel in London: Cash, Contactless and Oyster
Cash – Cash is by far the worst way to pay for transport in London, and should be avoided in pretty much all cases, with the exception of taxis (although these accept contactless and credit cards too). Usually, cash fares are much higher than the other payment options, plus some services, like the bus, don’t even accept cash any more. Basically, don’t use cash to pay directly for your ticket in London if you avoid it!
Oyster Card – The Oyster card is a London-wide rechargeable card, designed to be re-used, and accepted on pretty much every form of London transport. There are a number of versions of this card, however for the purposes of this post we’re going to focus on the standard blue Oyster card that you can purchase in London from most train and tube stations.
For more on the different kinds of Oyster card, including the benefits of buying a visitor Oyster card in advance, and detailed information on how to actually use an Oyster card for travel in London, read this detailed post on using the London Oyster card.
Contactless – The most recent payment option for travel in London is a bank issued credit or debit card which has been enabled for contactless transactions. This means that the card has a chip in it which can be read wirelessly when held near a contactless enabled reader. As well as being able to use these cards for normal transactions, you can also use contactless cards to pay for travel in London. These can be used instead of buying tickets with cash or using an Oyster card.
So those are the three options. In this post we’re going to focus on the Oyster Card and Contactless Cards, to see which one is best for you when paying for travel in London. Given the high cost of buying tickets with cash, and the fact that cash isn’t even accepted on a few transport options, means that we’re going to ignore cash as a payment option in this post, and advise you to do so also.
Contactless vs Oyster Cards for London Travel
Contactless – Which public transport supports it in London?
Currently contactless can be used to pay for travel on the following public transport options in London: bus, tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus, and the majority of National Rail services inside London.
You can also use contactless for some airport services, including Gatwick Express and Heathrow Express. See our guide to getting to London from the airport for more information.
You can also pay for all black taxis using contactless, assuming the fare is less than the contactless threshold of £30. Note that black taxis are separate to other forms of public transport in London and are billed separately – they don’t fall inside travel cards, caps, or other payment schemes.
Basically, anywhere you can already use an Oyster card, you can use a contactless card – just look for the yellow Oyster card reader and don’t forget to touch in (and out, if necessary) to pay for your journey – see more here for details of how to use the different public transport options in London.
Advantages of Contactless
It’s already on a card you own: if you already have a supported contactless credit card, using this for your travel is more convenient than getting a separate Oyster card, which you have to pay a deposit on and keep topped up.
Weekly capping on fares: Unlike Oyster, Contactless supports weekly capping. Whilst both Oyster and Contactless support daily capping (meaning you won’t ever pay more for your travel than if you had purchased a one day travel card), only contactless supports the Monday – Sunday weekly cap.
For an example, if all your travel is within zones 1 and 2, the current weekly cap is £36.10. This weekly cap is calculated for travel from Monday through to Sunday, meaning it works best if your travel starts on a Monday. For comparison, the daily cap in zones 1 and 2 is £7.20. Over seven days, that works out to £50.40 – meaning contactless could save you as much as £14.30 just in zones one and two.
In addition, sometimes Contactless can be slightly cheaper for daily fares, especially if you are travelling from further out in London, due to a difference in the way daily capping across zones. This isn’t usually a big difference, but can make contactless a little bit cheaper in some situations for daily journeys too.
Doesn’t need to be charged up: One of the main problems with Oyster is that it’s a preload system, so you need to have credit on the card in order to use it. You can set it up to automatically reload itself, but if you’re a visitor to London this extra hassle might not be worth it. Instead, you’ll find yourself queuing at reload stations at tube stops, and if you’re at a bus stop with no credit you’re going to be out of luck as most of them don’t have reload points. Contactless cards are linked to your bank account, so as long as you have credit, you’ll always be good to go.
You can use a mobile payment system such as Google Pay or Apple Pay: If your smartphone supports a contactless payment system, then you don’t even need to carry a contactless card – you can just link your contactless card to your smartphone payment system, and pay with that. One less thing to carry!
Disadvantages of Contactless
Doesn’t support all foreign issued cards: You shouldn’t have a problem using UK issued contactless enabled cards on Visa, Mastercard, Maestro and American Express to pay for your travel on London transport. Unfortunately, this isn’t true for foreign issued contactless cards, as standards appear to differ. Currently, all American Express contactless cards should work fine. Then, some foreign issued Mastercard, Maestro and Visa cards will work, and some won’t. There’s no definitive list – it’s a case of try it and see!
Foreign transaction fees: If you are using a foreign issued card, even if it is supported by the Oyster contactless system, you need to check to see if it incurs foreign transaction fees. Contactless payments are in GBP, so if your card issuer charges you transaction fees for foreign currency transactions, then these costs could outweigh the savings of contactless. Check with your card provider before you travel to see if this is the case.
Concessions can’t be added: A big disadvantage of contactless is that the system currently doesn’t support concessions, such as those for seniors, students, and children. If, for example, you’re a visitor to London travelling with children under the age of 16, you will want to use Oyster cards or travelcards in order to get free travel for children under 11, and discounted travel for children ages 11-15. This is not possible on contactless. See more about how this works when travelling with children here, and more on available concessions here.
Oyster – Which public transport supports it in London?
Oyster works on all the same public transport options in London as contactless, namely, bus, tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus, and the majority of National Rail services inside London. Note that you cannot use your Oyster card to pay for a black taxi in London.
Advantages of Oyster
It works and support is available. As noted not all contactless cards work with the system but the Oyster card should always work. If there are problems, you can get support or get your credit refunded if your card is registered on the TfL website.
Easier to keep track of spending: Because you have to load your Oyster card, it’s easier to keep an eye on how much you are spending on London transport and you can set a limit much easier.That said, I don’t think this makes a great difference to your average person as you will likely have to travel anyway, but it’s something to keep in mind if you like to restrict your spend on public transport.
Supports travelcards: One of the main advantages of the Oyster card is that it supports travelcards. These are fixed payment pre-paid options, where you pay a certain amount for unlimited travel inside specific London zones for a weekly, monthly or annual price.
With weekly fare capping on contactless, this has become less of an advantage, because the price of a seven day travelcard on Oyster is the same as the weekly cap on contactless. However, a seven day Oyster travel card is valid for seven days from when you activate it, regardless of which day of the week it is, whereas contactless capping is fixed for Monday – Sunday.
If you are in London for seven days starting anytime outside of that Monday – Sunday period, and will be travelling enough to make the travel card worth it, then it will be better value than a contactless card.
Supports concessions: As discussed above, if you are travelling with children, or are a London resident who qualifies for one of the discounts and concessions available to adults (see here for full list), you will want to use the Oyster card that matches your concession in order to get the best deal on transport in London.
Disadvantages of Oyster
You have to pay a deposit: When you first get an Oyster card, you have to pay a £5 deposit. This is refundable if you don’t need the card anymore, although we suspect many people forget about this, or just hang onto the card forever, meaning there’s a tangible £5 cost associated with using it.
It has to be recharged: One of the main downsides of Oyster is that it’s a pay as you go card that needs to have credit on it use it. This is fine if much of your travel is by tube as the majority of tube stations have machines that you can top-up on, but if you travel by bus a lot (often the most cost effective way to get around London), you’ll have to go out of your way to find a charge point, as most bus stops don’t have them.
No support for weekly capping: Oyster cards support daily caps on travel, but they don’t support weekly caps, which contactless cards do.
Can’t be used on taxis: This isn’t really a big deal, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you can’t use your Oyster card on taxis. To be honest, the higher fares associated with taxi rides mean we’d suggest avoiding using a taxi unless you really want a direct trip from point A to point B, however, we’ve added it for completion!
There will always be leftover funds: Because Oyster is a pay as you go system, you have to have funds on the card to use it. Because trips vary in fee, it’s almost impossible to get the card to zero. So if you stop using the card, there will be leftover money on it. You can get this money back by returning the card, but we suspect most people don’t do this. TfL have shared that as of 2019 there’s over £400 million in unused balances and deposits!
Should You Use Oyster or Contactless to Pay for Public Transport in London?
First, if you are visiting London and don’t have a contactless payment card, I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to get one just for the trip to London – the Oyster system will suit you just fine. If you would like to pick up an Oyster card in advance, you can do so from this link.
The situation changes if you already have a contactless card which is compatible with the public transport system in London. In the majority of cases, if you have a contactless enabled credit or debit card supported by the London transport network, then you should use it to pay for travel in London. It’s the easiest and most convenient way to pay, is supported on every form of transport, and in most cases is either cheaper or the same price as using an Oyster card.
The main times you should NOT use your contactless card are:
- If your card is not UK issued and your card issuer charges you fees for overseas transactions that make it more costly than Oyster
- If you are eligible for a concession, such as when you are travelling with children under 16, or if you are a senior citizen resident in London
- If you are buying a weekly 7 day travelcard for travel exclusively outside Zone 1 (unlikely as a visitor to London)
- If you are buying a weekly 7 day travelcard, and you will travel enough to hit the daily cap on at least five out of those seven days and your trip is for a week long period that isn’t from a Monday – Sunday.
- If you are buying a monthly travelcard for travel in London – this is not possible on contactless and there is no monthly capping
There are no doubt some more situations where an Oyster card or travelcard might be cheaper than contactless. Usually, figuring this out will require you to do a bit of math and have a detailed understanding of your exact travel plans, which might take more time than is worth the small saving!
As a visitor, we believe that in the majority of cases if you already have a contactless card you are going to find that it is both cheaper and easier to use contactless for your London travel, outside of the five points listed above. If one of those does apply, you can get an Oyster card here before you visit.
Our advice therefore, is to use your contactless card for London travel if the five points above don’t apply to you. It’s easy and convenient, you don’t need to worry about recharging it, and you benefit from daily and weekly caps for travel, meaning it will likely be cheaper than the other options in nearly every case faced by most visitors to London.
Two tips for using your card
First, once you have picked your payment method, be that contactless, Oyster or a smartphone payment system – make sure you stick to it, and only swipe that payment method on the reader! If you hold two payment methods near the terminal, it will randomly pick one of them, meaning you could be double charged if you don’t touch out with the same card.
Second, we highly recommend you register your payment method online with TfL. This has multiple benefits, including being able to keep track of your spending, and in the case of an Oyster card, you can reclaim and funds on it if you lose it!
We have plenty of further reading to help you plan your trip to London, both content we’ve created based on our experiences, and third party content we think you’ll find useful.
- Our detailed guide to public transport in London
- The official TfL website, which will give you information on tickets, routes and any updates to services in the forms of delays or cancellations
- Jess’s detailed guide to the London pass, which will help you decide if this is a good way for you to save money on your London sight-seeing. The London Pass has a package option to include a Oyster Card and currently also includes Hop-on, Hop-off bus passes, which can be a great transport option.
- My guides for London must do’s in one day, as well as a detailed two day London itinerary. If you have longer in London, we also have a detailed six day London itinerary
- Harry Potter fans will want to check out our guide to the key Harry Potter filming locations in London
- Jess’s guide to a 1-day walking tour of the highlights of London.
- The Eyewitness Travel Guide to London, which has all sorts of information within, including more itineraries and ideas for your trip
- Rick Steve’s London 2016 guide, the #1 bestseller on Amazon for UK travel guides, and always an excellent source of relevant information
And that sums up our post on the best way to pay for public transport in London! As always, if you’ve got any comments or thoughts, let us know in the comments below!