Oyster Card or Travelcard: Which to Choose

London is a big city, larger than Houston by only seven square miles (607 to Houston’s 600), but London has 8.2 million people packed within its confines (to Houston’s 2.1 million). For an East Coast comparison, think of a less crowded New York City. New York’s 8.3 million people are packed into only 303 square miles of land space. London is busy and crowded, and wonderful, but it’s spread out, roughly forty miles across, just like Houston is. Unlike Houston, it has a wonderful transportation system, with eleven Tube lines and three light rail lines (subways are impossible in Houston because of the water table — which is also why no one in Houston has basements, impractical). London also has a very good bus system, and taxis of course. We primarily used a combination of buses and the Tube (and walked a lot, of course).

Most Tube service in London and surrounding area begins a little after 5:00 AM Mondays through Saturdays, and stops shortly after midnight. On Sundays, they start up again about 7:00 AM, and again stop just after midnight. The exact time depends on which line you’re on, and where you are on the line. The trick (when it’s time to get back to your hotel) is to know which line you’re connecting to, at what station, and make sure you board an early enough train to get you there before your connecting train leaves. From the First and Last Tube Services page, you can view pdf files for every Tube line to tell you when the last train is scheduled to leave any of the stations. We’ll also cover some of our Tube experiences in the Trip Diary section.

Both Travelcards and Oyster Cards will give you travel on the National Rail services (within London), on the Tube, on buses, on the London Overground, on the DLR, or on trams (BrE – streetcars or trolley cars), plus they also provide discounts on some of the Riverboat services. You purchase the cards based on the zones you intend to travel in (more about that further down the page). You can get just about anywhere in the city using either of the cards, but there are differences between them.

Note: The London Overground is an aboveground railway which covers some of the western half of the city, and north to around Watford, a suburb. The DLR is the Docklands Light Railway, which runs along the Thames from near Tower Bridge and covers parts of the Eastern half of the city and some south of the river.

Differences in the cards:

You buy Travelcards for a specific period of time (one day at a time, or for seven days). The Oyster Card is a plastic card that you can use any time the transportation services run. You have two options for the one-day Travelcards, peak or off-peak (off-peak travel begins after 9:30 am). If you don’t plan to use transportation before 9:30 am on Mondays through Fridays (or during afternoon rush hour), the off-peak cards cost less. The Oyster Card will charge you the rate for the time you are traveling automatically.

There are two different Travelcards (one is for Zones 1-2, the other is for Zones 1-6). They each have different subsets that affect the cost and extent of travel. There are off-peak cards and peak cards, child cards and adult cards (with the child’s card generally costing half of the adult price), and one-day cards and seven-day cards, each of them purchased as a Zone 1 to 2 card, or as a Zone 1 to 6 card. The cards that Minay and I purchased were seven-day adult Travelcards (seven-day cards are automatically for Zones 1-6).

Confused yet? Here’s a PDF diagram of the Rail and Tube Services overlayed on the London Zones.

Still confused? You’re not alone, but it gets easier.

You will pay a flat rate to buy a Travelcard, depending on whether you buy an off-peak card or a seven-day card. It ranges from $13 (off-peak) to $15 (peak + all day) for a one-day card for Zones 1 and 2, to $96.50 for a seven-day card (peak + all day) for Zones 1-6. Seven one-day cards, purchased individually, would cost $105, so you would be getting close to one travel day free by buying the seven-day card if you’re going to be in London for a week. If you’re going to be there less, daily Travelcards or an Oyster Card might be a better choice.

Is it any clearer? I didn’t think so.

As with the Travelcards, there are two types of Oyster Cards (one for Zones 1-2, and another for Zones 1-6). With either Oyster Card, you buy the card already topped off (BrE – topped up) with a certain amount of money, and the card is charged when you swipe it at the station. Here’s where the comparison to the Travelcard gets tricky, but pay close attention. You can buy Oyster Cards online before you leave for London, or buy them at rail and bus stations in London. The price you pay for the card is only determined by the amount you want on the card, plus an activation fee of £3 ($4.56), plus shipping if you order it online. The shipping is £10 in the UK, but more to the US and elsewhere. If you choose the Oyster Card over the Travelcard, I would recommend you buy it at one of the three Tube Stations in Heathrow (there are ticket machines or a window for Oyster Cards there). You will be charged £5 deposit, plus however much cash you want to put on the card (decide how much before you get there). The £5 deposit, and any unused portion of your money will be refunded when you return the Oyster Card at the Tube Station when you return to Heathrow, and you won’t be paying shipping or insurance charges to send the card to the US.

Peak rates apply between 6:30 am and 9:30 am and between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm on Monday through Friday (which you’ll see listed in the train schedules as 06:30, 09:30, 16:00 and 19:00). You’ll be charged a higher rate on the Oyster Card during peak hours. To pay cash for a single journey on the Tube within Zones 1 and 2 (primarily Central London and some of the surrounding area) is £4.50, or £5.50 between Zones 1-6. The Oyster Card will be charged £2.80 during peak hours for a single trip in Zones 1 and 2, or £2.10 during off-peak hours, so it’s obviously cheaper than paying for cash tickets, but is it better than the Travelcard? Here’s a page with a chart comparison.

Child visitors under eleven years old can travel free without a ticket if they are accompanied by a full-paying adult. Ask a member of the staff to let them through the barrier. Simple, yes? Not necessarily. See this explanation by Bob Handford.

A final difference. The Travelcard is a paper ticket. At the gate for your train, you will feed the ticket into a slot and it will pop it up through another slot in the top. TAKE THE TICKET. You will need it to leave the system at your stop, and for every other train, bus, etc., you take.

2010 Travelcard

2010 Travel card, some data intentionally blurred. Insert with the magnetic strip down. Take the ticket as you pass through the gate.

With Oyster Card, you just tap the card on a big yellow reader to get through the gate, and on another reader to get out at your stop.

Here’s the final, most important, bit of data. The Oyster Card maxes out at £8.80 per day, the same as the daily cost for a Travelcard, so it will never cost you more than a Travelcard, but if you use less, you’ll get charged less. So, my assessment is that the Oyster Card, purchased at Heathrow, is better (and less expensive) than the Travelcard under most circumstances.

Here are a couple of other links you might find handy. These are from the Transport for London website:

Where you can buy tickets (online and once you’re there).

How to get around London.

In the next post we’ll cover the Zones in London, and some other transportation ideas for getting from airports to London, and back to airports again.

If you have any thoughts about getting around inside London, or a correction to make, please add them to the comments below.


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