Paying for public transit in London
Do not buy point-to-point tickets. What you want is an Oyster Card (possibly with a Travelcard transit pass).
GET AN OYSTER CARD — not a "Visitor Oyster Card;" not individual tickets.
If you are in town for AT LEAST FIVE DAYS, get a 7-DAY TRAVELCARD.
Now, here are the rules in more depth (and the reasoning behind them) as well as further details:
Should I buy tickets, get an Oyster Card, or get a Travelcard pass?
- DO get an Oyster Card. London's tap-it-on-the-turnstile transit card has two options. If you will be in London for 4 days or fewer, use it as a pay-as-you-go debit card When you get one charge it up with £7 per day, which should be more than enough since the daily cap within Zone 1–2 is £6.40 (more on that in a sec). So if you are in London for three days, put £21 on it. Don't worry; any outstanding balance on your Oyster Card (plus the £5 deposit you pay to get it) will be refunded when you turn it in at the end of your stay. Nice.
- Do NOT get a "Visitor Oyster Card." These are mild scams. Yes, they only cost £3 (rather than £5), are prettier, can be mailed to you (for a fee) before you travel, and come with a few modest (frankly uninteresting) discounts. However, you cannot load a 7-day Travelcard onto one (though this is supposed to change). Even worse, that £3 is a non-refundable fee, whereas you can get the £5 cost of a standard Osyter Card refunded (along with your balance) at the end of your stay. No-brainer.
- Do NOT buy individual tickets: Get an Oyster Card, which (a) makes things easier (no need to stop and buy a ticket for every ride), and (b) saves you more than 50% on most rides. An individual ticket within Zones 1–2 costs £4.80; with an Oyster Card, the same ride is £2.30. No-brainer.
- DO get 7-day Travelcard BUT ONLY IF you will be in London for 5 DAYS OR LONGER. You still get an Oyster Card; but instead of charging it with cash you put on it this unlimited-ride Travelcard. This costs £32.10 for a Zones 1–2 pass—which is all you will really need. (Travelcards are also available in old-fashioned paper form, but that's a hassle and not as flexible as having one loaded onto an Oyster Card.)
- Do NOT buy a single-day Travelcard. There is literally no point. You are throwing away money. Oyster Cards have a daily price cap, and will actually stop charging you before you even reach the cost of a daily Travelcard. Oyster Cards stop drawing down your balance once you've spent £6.40. Compare that to the £12 of a single-day Travelcard. See? You save a whopping £5.60—nearly 50%.
- Do NOT use a contactless payment card. These are credit or debit cards with RFiD chips. They are very popular in Europe, and are the way most Londoners pay for rides these days (it also offers beneficial weekly caps on charges). However, sadly, if you are from the U.S.A. chances are you do not even have access to these newfangled credit cards. Even if you do (AMEX offers some, and other banks are starting to issue them), you will still be hit with punitive foreign exchange fees every time you use it. Just don't. Get an Oyster Card.
Yes, I know, that seems like an extravagance, but when you do the math it turns out a 7-day Travelcard will almost always end up cheaper, even if you use it for only six days.
The 7-day Travelcard covering zones 1-2 costs £32.10. That is only £4.50 more than it would cost you to take just two rides per day for six days (at Oyster Card, pay-as-you-go rates; don't buy single tickets, remember?). The thing is, you will surely end up riding the Tube way more than that, and if at any point over those six days you take just two more Underground rides (beyond our two-a-day minimum), the Travelcard will save you money.
The same argument usually goes for five days as well. The price difference this time is £9.10, but that's equal to only 3.9 pay-as-you-go tickets, so if you ride just four more times than our hypothetical—and frankly unrealisitc—twice-per-day limit, you're still saving money.
Even walkers who plan their sightseeing carefully will often find themselves on the Tube thrice in a day.
- Where to get an Oyster Card or Travelcard: You can pick up an Oyster Card—and charge it up with either a pay-as-you-go cash balance or an unlimited-ride Travelcard pass—at any Tube station, ticketing machine, London Travel Information Centre (listed in the "Details" sidebar), online (tfl.gov.uk), and any of the hundreds of shops, newsstands, and off-licenses (liquor stores) around town with an "Oyster Card" sign in their windows.
How do I use an Oyster Card? - Just tap it on the circular yellow card reader to go through the gates at an Underground station (or on board a bus or tram).
For a bus or tram, that is it; get off whenever you wish. If you're on the Tube, at the end of your trip you must use the card again to "tap out" and open the gate at the final station.
(Because the charge for a Tube ride varies depending on how many "zones" you cross, the system needs to know both where you get on and where you get off; failure to "tap out" will result in your card being charged the maximum possible in the system. Normally this is not an issue, since the gates to leave the station will not open until you tap out; just be sure you don't see an open gate, forget, and sail on through.)
- How can I put more money (or another Travelcard) on an Oyster Card? - Same places you can buy one, and at most Tube stations.
- Don't put the card in your back pocket. They are plastic, and a bit brittle. You don't want to snap the thing when you sit on it.
How much does a ticket for the Tube or bus in London cost?
Ah, see, the answer to that depends upon when you are traveling, how far you are traveling, where you are getting on board, what kind of ticket, card, or pass you have, and your age.
It gets insanely complicated. I kid you not: The official fares chart for riding the local trains (Tube or light rail) is 10 columns wide by 60 columns long. And that's just for the adult fares. And it doesn't cover buses.
But in reality, there are only a few fare categories that will affect most visitors, and they have to do with zones and peak/off-peak travel times.
About London's travel "Zones"
Transport for London (TFL)—the central authority that runs all local transit—divides Greater London into concentric rings of travel "Zones."
With rare exceptions, you will only ever be traveling within or between Zones 1 and 2, which together cover all of central London and nearly every major sight, even all the way out to Greenwich and up to Hampstead Heath.
Peak and Off-Peak travel times in London
The only real factor in what you will pay is how early you take your first ride, since "Peak" fares apply Mon-Fri 6:30–9:30am and again 4–7pm. At all other times, fares are "Off-Peak." (Zone 1 doesn't observe "peaks;" we're skipping 4 and 5 since 99.99% of tourists never go there)
Actually, TFL has made it really easy on everyone, and, as usual, offers a generous exception.
If you buy an 7-day Travelcard pass there is no "Peak" and "Off-Peak"
Even if you get the one-day Travelcard (which you won't do, right?) the only "Peak" window that counts is the one before 9:30am and it only kicks in at Zone 5. The afternoon "Peak" window of 4–7pm only applies if you are paying as you go.
If you follow my advice and, for stays of 5 days or longer, get the handy unlimited 7-day Travelcard covering Zones 1–2 it will come on an Oyster card.
In addition to the £5 refundable deposit you have to pay to get the card, ask to put about £11 of pay-as-you-go cash onto Oyster Card as well.
This way, if you happen to stray outside Zones 1-2, (most likely candidate: Hampton Court Palace, in Zone 6) the extra charges will be covered.
And don't worry; you'll get any unused PAYG cash refunded (along with the £5 deposit) when you turn in the Oyster card at the end of your stay.
- Kids aged 10 and under ride for free. Just shuffle the kiddies along with you quickly as you stride through the Tube turnstile gates.
- Kids aged 11–15 can get a "Young Visitor discount"—half price—on an Oyster Card. Just make sure the child is with you when you ask the station agent to set it up.
- Kids aged 16–18 should probably just use an adult Oyster Card unless you are here for a long time, like a month. There is a special 16+ Zip Oyster photocard that allows children to ride buses and trams for free and to pay the child rates for PAYG fares (75p–85p within Zone 1-2) or on a 7-day Travelcard (£16.10). However, it costs £20 (which effectively wipes out the savings over an adult card), you have to apply online at least 4 weeks prior to arrival in London, provide a digital headshot image of your child, and bring a proof of age (passport) to the place where you arrange to pick up this special Oyster Card once you arrive in London.