Which Oyster Card is best for London visitors? There are two types of Oyster Cards that you can get when visiting London, and if you don’t have a contactless debit or credit card to use on public transportation, then you’ll definitely need one of them. Here’s a breakdown of the Visitor Oyster Card vs. Oyster Card.
*This article has an affiliate link. It’s an honest breakdown of both cards, and if you decide with this information to buy a Visitor Oyster Card through one of the links in this article, it will earn a very small commission.
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What both Oyster Cards have in common
What they can be used for
Both the Visitor Oyster Card and “regular” Oyster Card can be used to pay for the underground, red double decker TFL buses, overground trains within London, the DLR, trams, the Emirates Air Line cable car, and the Thames Clipper River Bus services. Pretty much, any type of public transportation in London.
They both have a daily cap, depending on how many zones you travel through in a day. For example, if you only travel within zones 1 and 2 on a single day, you won’t pay more than £6.60. This video explains how the zone system works.
Both types of Oyster Cards get charged more for peak travel, so you pay more to travel on the Tube, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail and National Rail services in London 6:30-9:30 AM and 4 – 7 PM, Monday through Friday. Peak doesn’t apply for bus fares.
Using an Oyster Card to get to the airport
You can use either Oyster card to get to or from Gatwick airport or Heathrow airport, but can only use both for the Gatwick Express, not the Heathrow Express. It also doesn’t work for the Stansted Express, and can’t be used to get to Luton airport from King’s Cross station.
Costs and payment
Both Oyster Cards work in the same way— you have “pay as you go” credit on your card, and as you travel, the credit will be deducted. You’ll need to “top up” your card when it’s low, which you can do at just about all underground and train stations in London, including airports.
Oyster Card Expiration
Both cards and the credit on them never expire, and while only one person can use it at a time, you can lend your card to family and friends for their own visits.
Now, here are the advantages and disadvantages of getting yourself a Visitor Oyster card over a regular Oyster card. It should help you figure out which Oyster Card is best for you.
Pros of the Visitor Oyster Card:
– You can get it sent to you before you arrive to London. If you would feel better having your Oyster Card before you touch down in London so then the Visitor Oyster Card is your only option if you’re outside of the UK.
– You get some discounts and extra perks with the Visitor Oyster Card. Honestly, they aren’t amazing, but some of the notable discounts include 10% off your bill at Skylon, 10% off your bill at Where the Pancakes Are, up to 19% off rides on the River Bus, 2-for-1 entry to the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Brands and Packaging, and free glass of bubbles when you have afternoon tea at the Royal Academy of Arts. Check out all of the Visitor Oyster discounts.
Cons of the Visitor Oyster Card:
– It costs £5 activation fee, plus shipping, unless you buy it at a visitor centre once you arrive to London.
– If you don’t think about getting the card in advance, then you won’t have enough time to get it to you, and you can’t get them in London with the exception of at the visitor centre at Gatwick Airport, and on the Eurostar train to London.
The pros of using a regular Oyster Card:
– You can buy an Oyster card at tons of location around London, including airports, at London visitor information centres, and even shops that have the “Oyster Card” sign outside.
– To get one, you just need to pay a £5 refundable deposit, which you can get back if you return your Oyster card, plus your remaining balance. Ask a member of the TFL staff where the nearest location to get a refund is, or you can apply for one online. Remember that the card and credit never expire and can be given to other people.
– If you’re staying in London for seven days or more, you can add a Travel Card to your Oyster Card. This is essentially a flat rate for unlimited travel within certain zones for seven days— the more zones you choose, the more you pay. Alternatively, you can buy a paper travel card online and get it ahead of your trip.
The cons of using a regular Oyster Card:
– If you don’t live in the UK, then you can’t get a normal Oyster card sent to you before you arrive. You’ll have to purchase it when you get here, which is fairly easy unless you arrive late at night/early in the morning.
– It doesn’t give you visitor discounts like the Visitor Oyster Card
If you’re still not sure which Oyster Card to get when visiting London, don’t worry. You won’t miss out terribly on anything with either of them, so put it this way— if you want to have your card before you arrive to London and don’t mind paying the extra bit of money, then order yourself the Visitor Oyster Card. Otherwise, just pick one up at the train station or airport once you arrive, and you’ll be good.
If it’s your first visit to London, grab my free London 101 Guide, which tells you everything you need to know before you touch down in London, like how to get to your hotel from the airport, how to exchange currency, and more.
Recently visited London, and when I returned my oyster card, they even refunded me the remaining balance on the card.