Trying to Figure Out London’s Oyster Card

One thing I remember from Scotland that has not improved in 20 years is that there are a lot of different transportation agencies in the UK and they don’t place nicely with each other. So it’s a miracle, really, that London has such good public transportation considering how many players are in the game. They all operate under the name Transport for London (TFL), but they are very much separate entities (including Underground, Overground, National Rail, but there are many more!).

All of these companies servicing London agree to use a payment method known as Oyster. It’s a prepaid electronic card that offers big savings over buying individual tickets. UK residents (and visitors from some other countries, depending on their banks) can use a contactless credit card instead and get the same rates. There are other ways to pay for transport, including daily travel cards, but going with Oyster made the most sense for my trip because it offers a daily cap. That means that after spending so much, you get unlimited travel. Once I got to my Airbnb, I would only be traveling between zones 1 and 2, with a daily cap of £6.50.  I downloaded my journey history and see that if you make at least three trips in a day, the daily cap offers a lot of value.

I bought my Oyster card at Gatwick train terminal, paying a refundable £5 deposit and adding £30 of credit. It would cost me £8 just to get to Central London, plus however much to get to Kensal Green. This first day wound up being very expensive, transportation-wise, because I went back to Central London in the late afternoon, with my travel costs for the day being £15. But if I had not gotten my Oyster card and had instead taken the much better advertised “Gatwick Express” train, I would have paid £20 just to get to Central London. So I think this illustrates the value of going with Oyster.

Here is my travel history and the fares:

Saturday, June 25th:

Gatwick to Kensal Green: £10.20

Kensal Green to Regent’s Park: £2.40

Baker Street to Kensal Green: £2.40

Total: £15

Note: I did not reach any caps on this day.

Sunday, June 25th:

Kensal Green to Westminster: £2.40

Knightsbridge to Baker Street: £2.40

Baker Street to Kensal Green: £1.70

Total: £6.50

Note: My last trip was capped. If I had, say, taken a bus from Kensal Green to home, the bus ride would have been free.

Monday, June 26th:

Kensal Green to Euston (on National Rail): £2.40

Russell Square to Kensal Green: £2.90

Total: £5.30

Note: This day offered me the least value since I didn’t reach my cap.

Tuesday, June 27th:

Kensal Green to London Bridge: £2.90

St. Paul’s to Green Park: £2.40

Piccadilly Circus to Kensal Green: £1.20

Total: £6.50

Note: This is a day that if I hadn’t had a card with a cap, I would have likely walked from St. Paul’s to The Wolseley to save the £1.40 I would have spent on a full fare ride…

Wednesday, June 29th:

Kensal Green to London Victoria: £2.40

Note: This is where I cashed out my Oyster card and got my £5 deposit back, but still got to keep the card and the little wallet with three slots they’d given me to go with it. I was rather happy with the latter item since I only brought a change purse with me and was worried that my cards will get scratched up in it. Now, I have a solid and slim place to store my cards safely.

Total spent on Oyster while in London (not counting the deposit): £35.70 or about 65CAD.

Topping up Oyster is where things got really messy. There are self-serve machines at all stations where you can top up. I tried three times in one day and while TFL took my money, none of the credit was applied to my Oyster card. I knew that I had to tap my card a second time for the top up to “take,” but I never got the prompt for that. When I called my bank, they had London Overground and Southern Rail (I think) as having taken my money, not TFL. When I called the Oyster helpline, they were absolutely useless, something that makes a lot more sense now that I understand that many different companies take payment for Oyster. I’m monitoring my credit card and none of the failed Oyster charges have actually posted. Once I catch up on my bookkeeping, I will be able to confirm if Oyster released my funds or not.

How I ended up successfully topping up was going to a newsagent (convenience store/dépanneur) in Kensal Green with an “Oyster Stop” poster in the front window. She was very patient and guided me through the steps, giving me a receipt as proof that I’d added £10 to my card. I recommend topping up this way even if it’s not as convenient.

One final Oyster tip, how to use it! For rail travel, you have to touch in and out at the start and end of your journey. For buses, which I did not use, you just have to tap in. If you forget to tap out, you will be charged the largest possible fare. Also, note there are very steep penalties if you cannot provide proof of payment and that fares for some zones differ based on the time of day! I wish I had known Sunday that’s not the case for zones 1 and 2 because I would have left earlier instead of waiting for the “off peak” time to save a few pounds.

Even after using Oyster for four days, it still leaves me a little bewildered. But it was really nice to be able to pass through the gates so quickly like a local!