London’s Oyster Card

What is it?

The Oyster Card is the travel card you will need if you are planning a trip to London. It is a smart card that allows for travel on most of London’s transit systems including the London Underground, London Overground, Bus systems and more. The Oyster Card can hold any amount of money and is used in place of your ticket and is reloaded with funds from your credit card, debit card or cash. You can still purchase day passes or single journey tickets, but the Oyster Card offers you discounted travel.

Card Types

There are two main types of cards: the Visitor Oyster Card and the regular Oyster Card. How do you know which one is right for you? Let’s start with the regular card. The regular card can be used by anyone and purchased virtually anywhere in London. It does require a small deposit of 5 pounds to obtain one, but you’ll get your money back when you’re done with it. There are no restrictions on the card unless you decide to register it and/or receive a discounted transit pass. You can read more about it here.

The Visitor Oyster card is a card you will need to order before you head over to the UK. it can not be purchased once you arrive in London. One advantage of the Visitor Oyster Card is that it will arrive to your home pre-loaded and is immediately ready for use. The Visitor Oyster card costs an initial 5 pounds, like the regular card, but will require you to pay for postage. The Visitor Oyster Card will offer you discounts the traditional Oyster Card will not.

Which Card Should You Pick?

Honestly, from first glance, the cards sound identical. Everything comes down to two deciding factors: will you be adding a travelcard to your card, and do you card about discounts on the Visitor Card. 

A travelcard makes sense if you will be staying in London for more than a wee; it can only be added to the regular Oyster Card. Both the traditional and Visitor Oyster cards have a fare cap on the maximum amount that your card will be charged in a day. If you are planning to heavily use public transit over the course of a week, a travelcard will save you money. It asks as a pass you can buy for a specific travel zone within London or time of day. You can read more about it here

If you are interested in receiving discounts with the Visitor Oyster Card, ensure that you will actually be going to these places and be using them. They may not be as hefty as you think. You can find the latest version of the list of discounts here

Traveling With a Family?

If you are traveling with kids, you should know that you will receive a special discount! Kids under the age of 2 are free. Kids aged 3-11 can travel for free with an adult holding an Oyster Card. You will need to let the agent at the booth at each station know you want to take advantage of this. If you have kids aged 11-17, you can have them apply for a discounted Zip Oyster Card (note that it must be done at least one month prior to your trip). 

Adding Money to the Card

I found it was easiest to add money to my Oyster Card at the end of my day at the Underground Station’s machine before I finished my trip for the day. I wanted to check the amount on my card each day to make sure I had enough for the next day. I found that the pay as you go option was the easiest. Just tap your card to the reader on the machine and follow the prompts. 

If you don’t feel like using a machine, just see a station agent in order to add funds to it. Be advised that the machines do not like to accept cash.If you prefer to use cash to pay to add money to your card, see the agent. Cultural Note: You may hear the term “topping up.” Topping up just refers to refilling your card. 

When Your Done

What do you do when you’re done with the card? If you have the traditional Oyster Card, you can return it to any Underground or ticking machine to receive your 5 pound deposit back. If you have less than 10 pounds in credit on the card, you can also get that money back through the machine. If you have the Visitor Oyster Card, you will not get your 5 pounds back, but any unused money can be obtained by visiting a TFL Visitor Center. My advice would be to keep your card as a souvenir or if you plan to return to London. The credit on there never expires!

Other Information

Always check with the official TFL (Transit for London) website’s route planner to see if your Oyster Card will be accepted before you use it.For example, the Heathrow Express train from London’s Heathrow Airport does not accept any Oyster Card. 

If you have  London Pass or other special type of discount card for London, check if the Oyster Card or travel credit is included with the purchase of the card. You don’t want to spend extra money you could save or use towards other experiences. 

The Oyster Card is easy to use and will make your life a lot easier in London. I would stick with the traditional Oyster Card and just buy it when you get to London. It’s one less thing to worry about and I don’t feel like I’m a person who would use the discounts and the special perks as a solo traveler. Hope this helps get your trip planning started. Until next time, happy travels!