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London Underground Fare Guide

How to spend the least money while traveling on London Transport's Underground and Bus network

Part one of a two part series on London's Underground

Please also see How to Best Travel on the London Underground

The original stylized Underground map, first published in 1933. The London underground train system is the world's oldest metro system, and is possibly also the world's most expensive to travel on.

Use the information below to purchase the best fares to control your costs and maximize the value you get from this excellent resource.

Single trip tickets are rarely the best value for you, even if you're only planning on making a single journey.

More commonly you'll find that one day or multi-day travel cards offer savings when you're considering multiple journeys over one or more days.

And, for most people, most of the time, an Oyster card is by far the best solution in terms of both convenience and value.

Pricing last updated to reflect price increases in Apr 2010 £/$ exchange rate of 1.55 used

Basic Pricing on the Tube

The London underground is divided into a series of six main travel zones, in a series of concentric circles ranging out from the center of London (which is Zone 1).  Here is a current chart showing the underground zones.

Nearly all of the 'tourist heart' of London is in Zone 1.

A simple journey between two stations is priced based on how many zones you will travel through.  The more zones you pass through, the higher the cost, with a basic single journey single zone fare being £4 (about US$6.20) or £1.80 ($2.80) if paying with an Oyster Card (see below).

There is no such thing as a discounted return or roundtrip ticket.  You would simply buy two one way tickets, costing exactly twice the one way fare.

Reduced rate fares exist for children.  Under five year olds are free, 5 - 10 year olds are free on buses and trams and also on the Underground with an Oyster Photocard.  Older children up to 18 also qualify for discounts (half adult fare, sometimes free if studying in London)

Discounted passes allowing unlimited travel for 1 or 7 days are available.  In such cases, a 'day' is considered to extend through until 04.30am the next morning, allowing for you to complete your travels after midnight on the same day of ticket.  There was formerly a 3 day pass as well for sale in London, but this has been discontinued.

Tickets can be bought either from automatic ticket machines or from ticket sales offices.  The automatic machines generally accept either credit cards or cash, and usually give change.  The ticket sales offices are not necessarily open all day at all stations.

You can not buy a ticket on the trains.  You have to use your ticket to go through automatic gates to get into the underground station and again to leave the underground system at the completion of your journey.  If you are found without a ticket on a train, you'll be considered a fare cheater, and can expect a hefty fine.

The Oyster Card

There is a new (well, not so new now, it was introduced in 2004) type of stored value pre-pay card called an 'Oyster' card - using this instead of tickets will usually save you money when you're buying single journey tickets, but not when you're buying all day (or longer) travelcards.

As far as we can determine, Oyster cards never expire, so you can buy one and then use it on each future trip to London.  Our expectation is that the fares will continue to become more and more skewed to favor Oyster card usage, and so it probably is worth your while to start using this new system.

Update June 2006 :  This predicted trend is indeed occurring, with Oyster based fares significantly more favorable than regular fares.

Update May 2007 :  The differences in pricing and in terms of special deals is now enormously in Oyster's favor, so much so as to beg the question 'How can the Underground justify charging £4 for a fare paid by cash, but only £1.60 for a fare paid via an Oyster card'?  Plainly there is a hidden agenda item here that is causing the Underground to so aggressively promote Oyster cards as a method of payment.

Just about everyone now should get an Oyster card for their London travel.

Update April 2010 :  It seems that the £4 fare for a single short journey on the Underground is a high water mark which has yet to be raised, while the comparable Oyster fare is now £1.80.  The cost difference is still huge, and our conclusion remains unchanged - most people should simply buy an Oyster card and never bother with cash fares.

The previous policy of an Oyster card capping its maximum daily charge to 50p less than a one day travel pass has now been changed, and Oyster cards will charge all the way up to the full cost of a one day pass (but never any more).

Oyster Daily Fare Capping

One of the clever things about the Oyster card is that it will limit your total ticket cost in a single day to no more than what you'd pay for a one day travelcard.

So, if you have an Oyster card, there's really no reason to buy travelcards, but instead, you can simply use your Oyster card and it will automatically limit the amounts it deducts from its balance to the equivalent of buying a one day travelcard.

The card intelligently computes what the lowest applicable one day travelcard cost would be based on the journeys you take during the day.

Payment Convenience

If you've ever tried to buy a ticket for Underground travel at a busy time of day (which is much of most days) and at a busy station (which is most stations) you'll know this can be a slow and tortuous procedure.  The automatic vending machines don't always work, and the lines to buy a ticket at a staffed window can be long.  The convenience of having an Oyster card and just going through the turnstiles is a very big plus (but do keep an eye on the balance remaining on your Oyster card so you don't run out of money unexpectedly).

Limitations of Oyster

The fare capping only works on a daily travelcard basis.  It doesn't then extend to multiple day travelcards.  And it also caps separately for the buses and the underground, so if you're planning on using both, you're better off with a paper one day travelcard (that covers travel on both buses and the Underground).

Another downside to using an Oyster card is you need to first buy the card, which costs £3 to purchase.  So unless your total savings are going to exceed £3 by using the Oyster card, there's little point in making things more complicated than they otherwise need to be.

But the £3 cost of the card will be made up after only two journeys, so it is no longer an important issue.  Most people who will be making several journeys will stand to easily save the cost of their Oyster card, and can continue to use this card on future visits to London too.

Danger - swipe in and out

You need to be certain to swipe your Oyster card when entering and again when exiting the Underground system for every journey.  If the Oyster system can't match the start of each journey with the end of each journey, it will charge you a penalty fare (£6) that is considerably more than the regular fare, and which doesn't count towards daily fare capping either.

Normally, of course, you need to use your Oyster card to go through the ticket barriers, but some stations still don't have barriers, and the DLR also has no barriers.  So be sure to hunt down Oyster readers, perhaps on the walls around the platform area, otherwise you'll be charged £6 for your forgetfulness.

Saving money on single journeys

If you think you're going to use more than ten single trip tickets within Zone 1 in a twelve month period, you can buy a 'carnet' of ten tickets for £17 - your cost per journey reduces from £2 down to £1.70.

Update 2006 :  This has been discontinued - another move to 'encourage' people to use Oyster cards.

Saving money on a full day of travel

If you expect to make more than one journey via underground on a single week day, then a one day travel card is less expensive than buying three one way tickets.

There are two types of travelcard - an all day 'peak' Travelcard (current cost for a Zone 1 & 2 card is £7.20), or an offpeak Travelcard valid for travel commencing after 9.30am (currently £5.60).

It is interesting to note that only a few years ago, Travelcards only made sense if you were traveling more four or more times in a day.  Now they will save you money even if you only make two journeys.

Three day Travelcards

You can also buy a three day Travelcard that offers a slightly discounted rate of £18.40 for the three days.  Because the saving is low (compared to buying three one day Travelcards), you'll probably not often buy these.

Update 2010 :  This has now been discontinued as a pass you can buy in London.  But there are three day Travelcards you can buy outside of the US - see below.

Seven day Travelcards

There is also a seven day Travelcard, which currently is priced at only slightly less than the seven day card for sale internationally below.  This costs £25.80 for a Zone 1 & 2 card (about US$37.40, and requires you to also get a Photocard issued - these are free (but getting the photo for the card is not, of course) and a bit of a hassle to obtain.

Saving money for 3 and 7 day periods of travel

All the other types of tickets discussed here are for sale in London.  But there are special three and seven day discounted Travelcards that are only for sale outside the UK (there used to be four day cards, too, but these were discontinued in 2005).

Some of these products are available from Britrail.com and others from raileurope.com, and sometimes the prices are slightly different, too.  Very confusing!

There is no appreciable saving in buying a three or seven day pass compared to the cost of passes for sale in the UK, and the one day passes are very much more expensive than in the UK.

Current 2010 prices in the US are

Pass Adult Child
One day 'Central Zone' (ie zones 1 & 2) (raileurope.com only) $14 $7
Three day Central Zone (raileurope and britrail same price) $35 $18
Three day, all zones, off peak (britrail.com only) $41 $12
Seven day Central Zone (raileurope and britrail same price) $49 $25
Seven day all zones (raileurope slightly cheaper than britrail) $89 $45

 

Using the Buses Too

All Travelcards can be used not only on the underground trains, but also on :

  • Docklands Light Rail (DLR)
  • All buses showing a white circle with horizontal bar through it against a red background
  • Some National Rail services (within the zones that your Travelcard is valid for - and excluding the Heathrow Express)
  • Tramlink (if your card includes zones 3 or 4 or 5 or 6)
  • You also can use the Travelcard to get a 33% discount off scheduled riverboat services

If you do not have a Travelcard, then most bus fares within London are a simple flat £2 cash or £1.20 on an Oyster card, and an all day pass is £3.90.

Note that some buses no longer accept cash payments, these are primarily in the 'Pay Before You Board' area in central London.

Where to Buy

All underground stations have automatic vending machines, of two main types - a simple type machine that issues a limited range of tickets and a more complicated machine that will issue a wider range of tickets.

These machines will accept payment in British currency or by Visa and Mastercard.

Most stations also have a ticket office, although these are not necessarily staffed all day every day.

Many tickets can also be purchased from 'Ticket Stops' - regular retail stores in London - typically newsagents and convenience stores.

Note that most tickets can be purchased in advance of when you want to use them.  If you know you're going to need several different types of tickets, you can save time and conveniently buy all the tickets you need at the one time.

Summary

(Pricing as of Apr 2010, prices in italics are converted from the currency you pay in to the other currency for your convenience in comparing prices, using a £/$ exchange rate of 1.45)

Ticket Type Cost Note
Single Journey, Zone 1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 1-5, 1-6 £4.00  
Oyster single journey Zone 1 £1.80  
All Day Travelcard off peak, Zones 1 & 2 £5.60 $8.70
All Day Travelcard peak, Zones 1 & 2 £7.20 $11.20
Weekend Two Day Travelcard, Zones 1 & 2 discontinued
Three day Travelcard, Zones 1 & 2 peak £18.40 discontinued
Three day Travelcard, Zones 1 - 6 peak £42.40 discontinued
Three day Travelcard, Zones 1 - 6 offpeak £21.20 discontinued
Three day, Zones 1 & 2 (US sale) £22.60 US$35
Four day, Zones 1 & 2 (US sale) discontinued
Seven day, Zone 1 & 2 (US sale) £31.60 US$49
Seven day, Zone 1 & 2 (UK sale) £25.80 US$40
Ten Zone 1 tickets discontinued
Single bus/tram journey (cash) £2.00  
Single bus/tram journey (Oyster) £1.20  
Bus Saver - six tickets discontinued
All day bus/tram pass (on Oyster only) £3.90  
Seven day bus/tram pass £16.60  

 

How to Choose

First of all, how many days will you be in London?  If the answer is three or more days, you might be better advised to buy a multi-day pass to cover the time you'll be sightseeing in the city.

Buying a three or seven day pass before leaving the US will cost you about the same as buying them in London, and for the seven day pass, saves you the hassle of getting a Photocard too.

Otherwise, buy what you need while in London, based on the table and information above.

For most people, the easiest way of managing your travel costs while in London is to simply buy and use an Oyster card.


Part one of a two part series on London's Underground

Please also see How to Best Travel on the London Underground

Originally published 28 May 2004, last update 15 May 2010
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer
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