My summer vacation: London public transportation

Raymond Chen

Raymond

What ticket to get?

The two main forms of mass transit are the tube and buses. Passes are good for both systems, except where noted.

There aren’t many options, which is good, because it makes decision-making easier. I’ll start by focusing on tickets for zones 1 and 2, which is where the major tourist attractions are. Prices are as of summer 2019.

TicketValidityPriceNotes
Travelcard7 days£35.10 
Oyster / contactless7 days£35.10Must begin on Monday. Oyster is bus-only.
Oyster / contactless1 day£7.00 
Oyster / contactless1 ride£2.40£1.50 for bus ride
Paper ticket1 ride£4.90Tube-only

Children under age 11 travel free with a paying adult. You’ll probably find the accessible fare gate most convenient for entering and exiting with a child.

Travelers from ages 11 to 15 can obtain a temporary half-price concession (discount) on their Oyster card.¹ Adult fares start at age 16.

Paper tickets are inferior to Oyster and contactless along every monetary axis, so let’s ignore them.

If you pay by Oyster or contactless, then the system caps your daily fare to £7.00 and your weekly fare to £35.10. Just travel like normal, and the system will automatically convert you to the equivalent of a daily or weekly pass. Weekly caps are calculated based on a Monday, and if you pay by Oyster, only bus fares count toward the weekly cap.

Therefore, if you aren’t angling for the weekly cap, then Oyster and contactless are equivalent.

The only real decision scenario occurs when you are staying for a week and don’t arrive on a Monday. In that case, your choice is between contactless or a 7-day Travelcard, and the decision depends on whether you think you’ll travel enough that the £35.10 Travelcard will be cheaper than a bunch of £7.00 daily caps. (Or less, if you make fewer than three tube trips a day.)

Do note that tube stations are rather close together in the central part of London. If your destination is only one or two stations away, consider just walking there instead of taking transit. And of course if you walk around, you get to see more of London!

How to pay

You can buy an Oyster card for £5 at the machines at the station. The machines are also where you top up your card. There are lots of machines, so the wait in line is not usually that long.

If you have a supported contactless credit card or mobile device, you can scan your card or device directly on the fare gate, just like it was an Oyster card.

Oyster and contactless payment follow the same fare structure (except for the lack of a weekly tube cap on Oyster), so the issue is one of convenience.

OysterContactless
Scan quickly on the fare gate.Can take a few seconds to scan.
Buy at the machine for £5.You already have it.
Use machine to add funds.Funds come from your account.
No surcharge.May incur foreign transaction fee.
Must register to access online features.Auto-registered by credit card number.
Can add concessions.Always charges adult fare.
Can add Travelcard.Cannot add anything.
Can end vacation with unused funds.²Withdraws exact amount needed.
Can reuse on next vacation.

Whichever you choose, be consistent, so that the system can apply the daily and weekly caps. Contactless payments are tracked by credit card number, so if you have multiple cards with the same number, only one person in your group can use it for contactless payment. Conversely, if you have multiple cards with different numbers, pick one of them for all of your travels so they become eligible for the cap.

When you beep through the fare gate, make sure you have only one payment method near the sensor. Otherwise, the payment method you use to beep into the system may not match the one you beep out on,³ and you will end up being charged for two maximum fares.

Buses do not charge based on distance traveled, so you beep only when boarding.

Unregistered Oyster cards are transferable, provided they do not have a Travelcard or concession loaded onto them.

Registering your Oyster card gives you the ability to perform account activities online, such as viewing the card balance, adding funds, or reporting a lost card (and recovering the unused balance). However, a registered Oyster card is non-transferable.

We brought our Oyster cards back home with us, and put them in the drawer with all of our other foreign travel stuff, like our Paris Navigo cards. If you’re traveling to London, and you decide to go for the Oyster rather than contactless, you could ask your friends if anybody has an unregistered Oyster card sitting in a drawer that you could borrow.

Traveling outside central London

If you want to explore outside central London, things get more complicated, because you now have to deal with regional trains.

I never did figure out how to take the regional trains. Even the fares are confusing.

For example, if you go to the TfL single fare finder and ask to go from Earl’s Court Underground Station to Hampton Court Rail Station, it says that an off-peak trip is £3.00, but doesn’t say how you should get there.

If you go to TfL’s Plan a journey page, it tells you that you should take the tube to Wimbledon, then change to a South Western Railway train, but doesn’t tell you how much it will cost.

If you go to the South Western Railway web site and ask for trains from Wimbledon to Hampton Court, the one-way fare is £4.50.

The math doesn’t add up.

For this trip to London, we also considered a day trip to Oxford, but the travel options were confusing. For example, one option was given as “Inter-city rail GWR”. Is that the same as “BritRail Inter-City train”? They both have the National Rail logo. Do I have to buy tickets in advance for a specific seat, or can I buy tickets just-in-time? (Maybe reserve seats are required only for peak travel times?) Are there concessions for children?

My conclusion was to skip the train entirely and take the Oxford Tube, which is really a bus service between London and Oxford. Tickets on the Oxford Tube do not need to be purchased in advance, and unless there’s some special event going on in London or Oxford, the buses are rarely full.

But it turns out we didn’t go to Oxford at all. Tickets to visit Christ Church college need to be obtained in advance (and I forgot to get them), and guided tours are not offered during the summer. The Harry-Potter-famous Bodleian Library does not permit visitors under age 12, which is understandable since it is a research library, not a tourist attraction.

¹ You could obtain an 11-15 Zip Oyster card, which permits free travel on buses. You have to order it in advance, you still have to pay half price on the tube, and it costs £15, so it’s almost certainly not worth it for a tourist.

² If you have less than £10 on your card, you can get a refund at a machine. It’s not entirely clear to me from reading the site whether this includes the £5 for the card itself. As I noted in the article, we kept our cards, so we never found out what happens.

³ There is also the obscure mid-trip beep, which you as a tourist will never need. This is for people who travel across London but not through Zone 1, to prove that they did not travel through the city center.

 

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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15 comments

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  • Avatar
    Kyle Brown

    The last time I was in London I recall there being possible issues with foreign contactless payment cards, this was last summer so it may have changed, I ended up getting a visitor oyster card instead which lacks the online features but may give you discounts at various places.

    As for regional trains within the London zone system you can use them just like the underground. Scan to get in, scan to get out. If you are going outside of London you generally have to buy specific station to station tickets. National rail oversees rail services in the UK but the trains themselves are ran by individual companies that maintain specific routes (Great Western Railway, South Western Railway, East Midlands Railway etc.). When you go to buy a ticket from National rail it’ll tell you what trains are available. You can buy train tickets from the station but it’s cheaper to buy them in advance and opt to pick them up at the station. Some trains have you select specific seats and others let you sit anywhere.

    I found the advanced fare system to be very interesting. There are multiple tiers of advance fares and it seems like each has a set number. As advanced fares are purchased and that number is reached that specific advance fare becomes unavailable and you are offered the next more-expensive tier. The interesting thing is that the website allows you to select from all the advance fare options just in case you want to pay more.

  • Avatar
    Andy Cadley

    Regional trains are a lot easier when you realise you are simply buying a permit to travel between the two locations. Buying ahead of time or on a specific train may save money, but it tends to vary quite highly. It’s not necessary to book a specific seat and if you do you may not get it anyway because occasionally they just don’t bother reserving specific seating (phase of the moon stuff) – seasoned Brit train users rarely bother looking for any seat they may have got reserved so even when traveling you can often get away with sitting in a seat that has a reservation ticket on it (unless the train is packed and then people will fight for their right to sit down!)

    Working out the cheapest price in advance is literally a whole cottage industry. If you’re buying on the day a ticket machine will mostly do it for you (but you need to understand when “peak times” are) but for a traveler I’d suggest buying a ticket in person as.the staff will usually be helpful in sorting out the quirks that can save you money.

  • Avatar
    Nick Allmaker

    Last time I visited London (2012), I got an Oyster card.. When I returned to Heathrow to fly out, there was a staffed ticket kiosk that I was able to turn in my card to for a refund. I believe the refund included the original £5 deposit (the total refund was around £7). I spent the cash on food in the airport, leaving the couple pounds I had left as a tip, returning to the US with only dollars.

  • Avatar
    smf

    Trains in the UK work similar to most other industries here, which is very similar to the coupon culture of the US.

    If you’re prepared to trawl through all the many different options to find a deal, then you’ll usually get one. If you’re not, then you subsidize those who are.

    If you are only here on a short holiday and haven’t done your research before you arrive, then you should just enjoy your trip. You may get ripped off, but hopefully you won’t find out.

    • Raymond Chen
      Raymond Chen

      It’s fine to show the regular non-discounted price. Just show the same regular non-discounted price. Showing different prices at different sites is downright confusing.

      • Avatar
        smf

        There may be contractual terms and consumer protection laws that prevent them doing so.

        Whenever visiting the UK, it’s worth checking moneysavingexpert.com. They have a lot of articles and a forum you can ask questions, although you should keep it UK centric. Their choice of a .com address means that people ask questions about the US and nobody has a clue about that.

        https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-train-tickets/
        https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-days-out/
        https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-theme-parks/

      • Avatar
        Muzer

        TfL price would have been for Oyster – https://www.ltfares.com/!fares?orig=LUECT&dest=NRHMC , South Western Railway price would have been for a paper ticket (Wimbledon to Hampton Court) – http://www.brfares.com/#faredetail?orig=WIM&dest=HMC&rte=1000&tkt=SDS . As you discovered with the tube, Oyster and Contactless are cheaper than paper tickets to encourage people to use them. You’re really overcomplicating things here! But then, overcomplicated is how I’d generally describe our country’s rail fares, so it’s understandable 😀

        As for trains in general, only overnight sleeper trains and Eurostar require reserved seats – all other trains you can just turn up and buy a ticket there and then. Though as others have mentioned, it’s often cheaper to buy in advance, if you want the flexibility of choosing your train at the last minute you don’t have to book. I’m putting this for the benefit of others who might be interested in visiting the UK, or for you for future visits! When buying flexible tickets, return (what you would call “round trip”) tickets are usually much better value than singles; a single often being nearly the same price as a return.

  • Avatar
    Edward Lambert (SI)

    Use http://www.nationalrail.co.uk for train times and prices, you buy paper tickets from machines at the station. (you can reserve online and maybe get advanced fares that are cheaper, but requires a fair bit of preplanning). Generally you are just dealing with peak (commuter times) or off peak fares – day returns are usually only marginally more expensive than a single fare.

  • Avatar
    Chris Crowther

    Hampton Court and Earl’s Court are both within the TfL travel area, Zone 6 and Zone 1 respectively. The TfL site is telling you how much a single off peak ticket from Zone 1 to Zone 6 costs, using Oyster or other TfL ticket (£3.10)

    If you ask the South Western or National Rail sites for the cost of a ticket from Wimbledon to Hampton Court they will tell you the cost of a mainline National Rail ticket between the two stations (£4.50), not the cost of travelling between Wimbledon and Hampton Court using Oyster (£1.50).

    • Raymond Chen
      Raymond Chen

      Thanks, Chris. So I’m guessing that I don’t need to buy tickets or touch in/out at Wimbledon station, just change trains and touch out when I get to Hampton Court. Let the system figure out what happened.

  • Avatar
    kagememib@imailpro.net

    Note that national UK trains are truly insane when it comes to pricing. People frequently resort to “split ticketing” whereby they buy multiple tickets (e.g. A->B and B->C) as it’s a lot cheaper than one (i.e. A->C) even when the alternatives involve sitting in the same seat on the same trains.

    For a good laugh, look up the price for London (King’s Cross) [KGX] to Holyhead [HHD], and then King’s Cross to Dublin [DPS] which is the same train with added ferry across the Irish Sea. Adding a ferry crossing halves the price! So you’re being paid to take the ferry.