My #1 London Travel Tip

When I’m stuck at home or in a dead-end job saving money up to travel, I tend to spend a lot of time daydreaming about where I might go next.  If you’ve ever spent your days behind a till or waiting tables daydreaming about visiting London, you’re not alone.

Telephone Box

But what if you’re really going? What then? London is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, certainly the most expensive in the UK, and the attractions are spread out across miles and miles and miles of land. How are you ever going to be able to afford to see everything you want to see and actually eat and sleep all during the same trip?

One of the best and easiest ways to save money in London is to invest in an Oyster card.

Oyster Card

What exactly is an Oyster card?

The Oyster card is basically a travel card – a little piece of plastic that essentially stores and replaces all the paper tickets you would otherwise have had to queue to buy. You simply load it up with money (anything from £5 to £90) and get on your way, using it wherever you would use a ticket. The card figures out the fare and deducts it from your balance – much like a pay as you go phone figuring out the cost of a call and deducting it once you’ve hung up.

How much does it cost?

You pay a £5 deposit and then any money you subsequently load onto it goes straight onto your ticket fares. There are no extra or hidden costs.

Why should I get one?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I was skeptical at first. Until last year, I didn’t see the point in getting a travel card I would probably only use once or twice a year – and that’s with me living only a few hours away! Why, then, should you – in Paris or America or Brazil, making a once in a lifetime trip to this incredible city – get one?

I got myself an Oyster card a few months ago and now I couldn’t do without out it.

Firstly, the ticketing system on London public transport is horrifically confusing (probably even for Londoners themselves, although they’d never admit it). The beauty of the Oyster card is that you no longer have to try and navigate through this quagmire of a system. It brings spontaneity back to London travel – you can just hop on a train and you’re on your way. You don’t have to worry about which zone you’re in, if you want a single ticket or a return, a day ticket, if you’ve got the right change in your pocket. You don’t have to figure out how many journeys you’re going to make before you pay for your ticket – you simply touch your card to the bright yellow readers on the ticket barriers (if ever in doubt, just watch what the locals do – that’s got me through a lot of uncertain moments on London transport!) when you enter the station to start your journey and when you leave your final station to end it.

Secondly, it’s incredibly cheap. Transport for London have deliberately made it cheaper than travelling on paper tickets in an attempt to get everyone, even tourists, to use these things. Not only is the fare for individual tickets lower with a card than it is when you buy a ticket from the machines, but the card actually works out the cheapest possible fare for your entire journey – a completely invaluable feature if you’re new to London and the transport system is a still a little overwhelming, meaning you could easily buy a more expensive (or incorrect) ticket by mistake. It’s a bit like carrying a Londoner with extensive tube knowledge around in your pocket.

Thirdly, this is not a disposable card. You don’t have to throw it away like you would a ticket; it pretty much lasts forever. You don’t even have to worry about leaving money on the card at the end of your trip: quite apart from being able to top up from as little as £5 a time, you can use it again and again without the money or card expiring – and even keep it for the next five years in the back of a dusty drawer until London starts calling you again…

Not enough? Here’s a few more benefits:

  • It’s ridiculously quick – no more queuing to buy tickets, no more fiddling with change and rearranging all your bags just to pay, no more waiting for your ticket to pop out of the other side of the barrier – simply swipe and go.
  • All the locals have them – you’ll look like a proper Londoner in no time.
  • It’s environmentally friendly – just think how many paper tickets were being thrown away before the card was introduced.
  • It works on pretty much every method of transport available in London – underground, overground trains, the DLR, buses, trams, even some boats.
  • Sure you’ll never use it again? You can get your deposit and any unused credit back.
A quick note
This isn’t a completely foolproof system. There are apparently a couple of situations in which the card won’t work, such as on certain river transport (and of course it doesn’t work outside of London at all), but in all my trips to London with my card I have never, ever had a problem or turned up anywhere where the card isn’t accepted. If you’re doing the normal tourist stuff and staying within zones 1-9 (i.e. everything you can see on the tube map), then you won’t have a problem. The only notable exception is that it doesn’t work on the Heathrow Express.
You can either buy an Oyster card in London from card vending machines, travel information centres, ticket windows at stations or newsagents, or you can get one before you go from TfL’s website:
Oh, and the chip is underneath the surface, so you can use either side of the card to touch in at stations – that one confused me too at first. Happy travelling!

2 thoughts on “My #1 London Travel Tip

  1. Remember you can buy travelcards for oysters too – 1 day, 3 day and 7 day travelcards for multiple zones. That makes it cheaper than paying single and return journeys for everywhere you go. A travelcard is basically an option, not an actual card if you have an oyster, the teller at the station window or newspaper shop will load your card, but there’s a few details that you need to know before you pick one. All the details are on the link you gave.

    Can’t believe they cost £5 each now, they were free to start with, then £2, then £3 and now £5. Did you have to pay for the wallet to put it in as well? They usually give those free at train/tube stations.

    1. Thanks, I honestly had no idea about being able to buy travelcards for it! I’ve only ever used mine on a PAYG basis, but that’s a really great idea.

      Yeah, when I bought mine they said it was due to the cost of ‘picking up after’ everyone who thought they were disposable and were simply chucking them away (odd excuse as surely most people put them in bins rather than leaving them on the street…?). I don’t mind £5 but if it gets any more expensive then it’ll be a little ridiculous. No, the wallet was free – although as I paid £5 for the card, I suppose it wasn’t that free afterall 😉

      Thanks for the comment!

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