Living in London: I never thought I’d be friends with an Oyster

I’ve been called gritty and irritating before… had I have been annoying an oyster, I would have developed into a wonderful pearl by now.  I may be precious (my mum thinks I am), but a pearl, I am not.  I do, however, claim to have an Oyster as a friend.

In fact, most Londoners (although many will deny) are friends with an Oyster.  Not the oyster that sits deep beneath the waves, but that that sits within your pocket or purse.  Of course, I am talking about the Oyster Card used on all of London’s transport services.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from my witty introduction to this post and bring you straight back down to earth with talk of public transport.  While not generally exciting to most, it is certainly a necessity of modern life in a city which favours people over cars.  It is extremely common for Londoners to not own a car – relying solely on public transport (and Uber of course – but don’t mention Uber while their license is being appealed).

Don’t worry if you’ve evolved past Oyster and on to your Contactless card.  I’m equally gushy about that too!

What’s so special

Nothing particularly, aside from the fact that the city made a decision to adopt the Oyster card widely, so it’s accepted everywhere.  From Underground to Overground, Bus to Tram – so long as you have an oyster card (and of course, a few bob on there) you’ll be able to get to your destination.

Most modern cities around the world have adopted smart card ticketing for their transport systems, however, London’s system works!  (I rank it amongst the best I’ve seen, up there with Hong Kong’s)  There aren’t huge queues of people trying to get through barriers – they just work.  There aren’t crowds of people huddled around ticket machines – they are easy to use and work.  In this day and age of low quality systems, it seems sad to be amazed by something simply for the fact that it works – but here we are.

How does it work?

London has zoned ticketing, like many other cities across the world.  A single trip is calculated using fares based on where you’re going from and where you’re going to.  For those lucky enough to have a ‘season ticket’ (which is a weekly, monthly or yearly pass) trips in the included zones don’t even need to be worked out.

A commuter (I’ll hold short of calling anyone a happy commuter) will ensure that they have enough money topped up on their account by using the ticket machines in stations, online using their credit card or using an auto top up feature which deducts from their credit card.  So quite simple, make sure you’ve got enough dosh on your card before you want to go anywhere.

To get on a train or bus, it’s simple – just hold your card next to the reader on barriers or onboard the bus and a magic ‘beep’ is heard – the gates open and you walk through (or to make sure the bus driver doesn’t shout at you).  When you’re on the other side, you tap your card next to the barriers and they open again – your fare is deducted from your balance and off you go.  You don’t even need to touch off on a bus – it just charges you up front.

No need to worry about where you’re going to before you get on the train – the system works out the lowest fare for you based on;

  • how much you’ve travelled that day – there is a daily cap depending on the zones travelled
  • The fare applicable for where you came from to where you finished

Contactless – Even better!

When I was in London – people were getting used to just using their contactless credit cards instead of the oyster card.  The system still works out the most applicable fare but also now checks for a Weekly Cap (which is new).  You won’t get charged any more than this weekly cap if you used the same credit card on the tube all week!   Everything else just works as brilliantly as it does for Oyster.

What to look out for

Like everything – TFL’s ticketing is not perfect.  In the short few months that I was living in London I experienced;

  • The system thinking that I hadn’t touched off when I finished a journey – charging me over £11 for the day
  • The system thinking that I had touched In to a station rather than out – again, charging me a higher fare than I expected
  • The system got confused when I left then re-entered a station within a short period (I changed my mind about where I wanted to go – lesson here, make up my bloody mind before trying to leave the station!)
  • My Australian contactless card being slow to respond – causing some declined transactions and subsequently, not being able to use my contactless card until I resolved with a TFL officer

How did I find these errors?  My card was registered online and I could view the history quite easily.  There’s even a quick way of requesting a refund / disputing the fare online and the amount was credited next time I passed through my home station.

Why don’t I just marry the oyster card?

Well, that would be silly.  But when the laws change (I hear these sorts of things take a long time) – let me know!

How do you feel about the Oyster Card?

Do you live in London and have to use the Oyster Card every day? How do you feel about it?  Do you live in another city and think your system is either superior or complete rubbish?  Let me know in the comments below.

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