How does the Central London transport system work?

What ticket do I need to travel in the centre all day? Is there a top-up card I can use?

If you are just traveling for one day you have a few main options.

  1. Buy a paper travelcard for the zones you want to travel in.
  2. Buy an Oyster card, top it up with pay as you go credit and take advantage of the daily cap.
  3. Use your contactless credit/debit card for pay as you go.
  4. If arriving in London by train buy a train ticket that includes a travelcard.

The Oyster card is probably only a good option if you plan to come back and you should be aware of bank charges if you use contactless with a foreign card. Paper travel card is the simplest but nowadays is more expensive than Oyster/contactless capping.

I am wondering how the Central London transport system in London’s works.

The system is fiendishly complex and getting ever more so. This post tries to cover the basics but it’s impossible to cover everything in the space of a Stack Exchange answer. Fortunately most of the complex corner cases aren’t really a huge concern for the occasional visitor.

The first question is whether your service is included in the system. For services that run on rails (Train, Tube, DLR and Tram) that question is mostly answered by the “London rail and tube services” map, but note that the mappers sometimes jump the gun. For example at the time of first posting this answer Heathrow Express did not take Oyster/contactless.

London buses are also part of the system, but I’m not sure how far you can travel from London before the buses stop being London buses.

The area covered is mostly split into Zones, but there are a few areas which are outside the Zones where special fares apply.

Oyster is a smart card issued by TFL. Cards can be obtained from a wide variety of locations including rail and tube stations. Currently, there is a £5 charge for the card which is refunded in the form of pay as you go credit one year after the card is purchased. They can hold both Pay As You Go credit and some types of travelcards. It is also possible for certain discounts to be registered on an Oyster card though this is unlikely to be relevant to visitors. Oyster cards can be registered for online journey history, top-ups, etc. but they don’t have to be.

There also exist “visitor” Oyster cards. These are only available outside London, they have a non-refundable £3 charge, and they entitle the holder to discounts on a handful of tourist attractions. Otherwise they are basically the same as a normal Oyster card.

Pay as you go charges for each individual journey. You can pay either by using pay as you go credit on an Oyster card or by using a con tactless credit or debit card. The fares depend on what zones you travel to/from, what modes of transport you use, and whether your travel is at peak or off-peak.

On trains, tube and DLR you must touch in and touch out at the yellow Oyster readers (which may or may not be integrated into barriers) at the start and end of your journey, but not normally when changing from one train/tube/dlr service to another. In some cases to get the lowest fare when taking unusual routes you must touch “pink” Oyster readers at your change locations.

Touching in without touching out or vice-versa will lead to an incomplete journey fare being charged which is expensive and does not count towards caps.

On buses and trams on the other hand you only have to touch in for each bus/tram, on the busses you touch in on the bus, on the trams you touch in on the platform before bording there is normally no touching out. Wimbledon is a special case as the tram platform is behind the train/tube gatelines.

Most fares are subject to daily caps which depend on where you have travelled. If you pay by contactless there are also Monday to Sunday caps which apply to an entire week of travel measured from Monday to Sunday. Generally the daily caps are cheaper than a paper day travelcard while the Monday to Sunday caps are the same price as a weekly travelcard.

If you use contactless your travel will be billed daily, keep this in mind if you use a foreign contactless card with a per-transaction fee.

Travelcards are available for various zone contributions, daily, weekly, monthly and annually. Daily travelcards are issued in paper form, longer term travelcards must be loaded onto an Oyster card.

Travelcards and capping do not apply to “Emirates Air Line” (A cable car service in the docklands), “Southeastern High Speed” or “Heathrow Express”.

Buses are the cheapest way to get around London. The single fares are lower than other forms of transport and there is the bus hopper fare which in some cases lets you make two journeys for the price of one. All travelcards regardless of zone are valid on all London buses and similarly when determining caps a bus journey does not add any zones to your list for capping purposes.

Paper single tickets are available for tube services, but they are considerably more expensive than Oyster fares.

Rail services will offer regular rail tickets like other services in the UK. There also exist some combination rail tickets offering rail journeys in combination with either an individual tube journey or a day travelcard for the tube.

There are no paper single tickets for London buses, though paper travelcards are valid.

I’m not sure what the paper tickets situation is with DLR and trams.