Oyster or Contactless? Getting around London in 2015

After 18 years of the Oyster Card, Transport for London is now encouraging patrons to do an about-face and use their contactless credit cards to pay for journeys instead. It looks like we are on the cusp of another massive change to the way Londoners pay for their transport. But what does this mean for visitors and tourists to this great city? Is the bewildering London public transport system about to get even more complex?

Contactless cards have been adopted to such an extent that credit and Oyster cards are now the only way to catch a bus in London, as they no longer take cash. You can still use cash to buy paper tickets on the Tube, but since they can cost up to twice as much as travelling with contactless, it’s an option that is usually only adopted by visitors. Foreign tourists are most likely to do this, since not all contactless credit cards are accepted by the Oyster readers and they also risk extra charges by using their card overseas. As a result, they create enormous queues at ticket machines in stations near major tourist destinations like the Lancaster Gate Hotel Hyde Park and the British Museum – even more so since Transport for London (TfL) began phasing out old-fashioned ticket offices and moving staff into ticket halls. This makes the machines the only way to buy your tickets, but it does mean that TfL staff are on hand to help confused first-timers.

Apart from the cheaper price per ride and the convenience, the other reason many Londoners stick to Oyster or contactless is the cap system. Using a contactless payment card or an Oyster with pay-as-you-go, your off-peak travel will be capped each day at £8 for an adult travelling within Zones 1-4. On buses, your travel is capped at £4.40 per day; since each bus ride costs a flat rate of £1.45, the cap kicks in after your third bus ride in a day. You can also load up an Oyster with a travelcard, which gives you unlimited rides within specified zones for 7 or 30 days.

While Londoners have embraced the Oyster card, they have been reluctant to switch to the new method. One problem cited by several city-dwellers is security: they don’t want to wave their credit card around in a crowded Tube station. TfL has responded to this by looking into payment methods using something that Londoners are quite happy to hold in their hands in public: a smartphone. Apple Pay is the newest addition to the range of ways to pay for your ride; but since its uptake is much smaller than that of contactless payment cards, it still has a ways to go.

So why the change, when Oyster cards were working so well? It turns out that TfL and the British government have spent millions of pounds on the Oyster scheme over the years without recouping their losses, including £1 million in branding alone and a still-outstanding £190 million in debt for TfL. With contactless, they hope to make the network both easy to use and less of a money drain. That can only be a good thing for us all.

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