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Secrets of London’s Oyster Card


Planning a trip to London? Great! This post is for you.

Live in London and haven’t discovered all the perks of your Oyster Card yet? Read on.

London’s Oyster Card not only gets you around London but also offers secret 2-for-1 deals not prominently advertised and unique card designs you have to ask for specially.

Oyster Cards are more than just the travel card most people use them for. Even a Londoner can learn something here.

Mind the gap

Transport for London (TfL) is London’s travel network authority. It oversees the Tube, Overground, Docklands Light Rail (DLR), buses and trams that help Londoners and visitors get around the city. It can take over an hour (maybe even two) to get from one end of Greater London to the other. It’s a huge network.

Each time you use one of TfL’s transportation services, you pay a fee. Most people use their Oyster Card or with a travel card put on their Oyster Card (giving them unlimited travel for a set number of days).

Oyster Cards

All you need to do to get an Oyster Card (you can get one at most Tube stations) is put down a £5 deposit and top it up with however much money you want (a minimum of £5 the first time and you can top up later at the self service machines at stations).

If you’ve got a contactless credit card, you can use that instead of an Oyster Card. You can find more info about that here on TfL’s website.

Those are the basics, but there are a couple extra TfL offers that not everyone knows about:

  • You can get 2-for-1 offers just by having an Oyster Card.
  • You can register your card and get your money back if it’s lost.
  • Sometimes TfL offers special edition Oyster Card designs. Unique cards aimed at tourists, but offered to everyone…. at least those who know about them.
  • When you leave London, you can return your Oyster Card for the £5 deposit or you can hold on to it – they never expire.

Not everyone uses all the services offered with their Oyster Card, so to be the savvy London dweller or visitor, take full advantage of your card.

This article was accurate when it was published in August 2012 but the rules and offers change occasionally, so please double check before trying to take advantage of any of the tips below.

Kew Gardens 2-for-1 tickets

2-for-1 offers

Just by having an Oyster Card, you can take advantage of the sparsely advertised 2-for-1 deals.

In August 2012, we went to Kew Gardens (costing an astonishing £16 per ticket!) for half price. We were going anyway, but found this 2-for-1 deal just a few days earlier. All we had to do was present the printed off page with one Oyster Card (they don’t do anything to the Oyster Card except look at it) and we were in.

We’ve also used the Oyster 2-for-1 vouchers to go on the London Eye for £19 for two people rather than £28 and the London SeaLife Aquarium for £23 rather than £46. That’s a saving of $30-35 USD each time for the Americans out there!

There are currently 2-for-1 deals up for Madame Tussauds (saves £30- nearly US$50) and various West End shows.

The deals change seasonally, so if you live in London, check regularly. They’re not all purely for tourists.

Check out more of London’s Oyster 2-for-1 offers.

Visitor Oyster Card

Visitor Oyster Card offer

If you’ve got the Visitor Oyster Card, you can take advantage of even more deals.

Some of the current deals are 20% off food at Planet Hollywood, a free hot fudge sundae with an entrée at Hard Rock Cafe and 15% off in-store purchases at M&M’s World.

There are even some non-touristy offers like 25% off food at The Real Greek, £5 breakfast at Giraffe and 15% off at Foyles. Be sure to check the fine print – many of these offers are only valid at certain location and certain times.

The Visitor Oyster Card also gives you 25% discount on Emirates Air Line cable car and 10% discount on single journeys on the Thames Clippers River Buses.

You can see the whole list here.

Basic Oyster Card

Protect your money! Register your card!

This seems like a no-brainer for London dwellers and tourists alike.

If you lost an unregistered Oyster Card, you’d have no way of getting the money back.

By simply going online and putting in the details on the card, your money is protected. If your card is lost, you get the money back. The better option, if you’re still in London, is to get a replacement card for free.

You can also set auto top-ups for a registered card. If your Oyster Card balance falls below £10, it will be topped-up automatically using your credit card details. You never need to worry about being short of money for a journey.

If you set an auto top-up and lose your card, be sure to report it right away, otherwise your card will continue to top-up if it’s still being used.

Be sure to register your Oyster Card in case it gets lost!

Special Edition Oyster Cards

If you want to feel a little more unique in London (or be able to easily differentiate your card from others), you can try to get a special edition Oyster Card at certain Tube stations or online.

There are two special edition Oyster Cards that I’ve found.

One is the Visitor Oyster Card. It’s acts exactly the same as a normal Oyster Card but it says ‘Visitor Card’ on it with a different design. They can be ordered online and delivered to your home (within or outside the UK) so you can have it before travelling (you can also pick up an Oyster Card at any tube station once you get to London, but it won’t be this visitor card design- just the basic blue one).

2012 Oyster Card

The other is the 2012 Oyster Card to celebrate the the Olympics, Paralympics, Queen’s Jubilee and Jamaica’s 50th anniversary. These cards could only be found at Tube stations in Zone 1 (the centre) until they ran out.

Over the past few years, TfL has released Oyster Cards (some more imaginative than others) specially for the Queen’s Jubilee with the Queen’s portrait, the Royal Wedding with a photo of William and Kate (both cards were available to everyone until they ran out) and Oyster Cards given to Olympic volunteers.

Before getting to London, order a special design Visitor Oyster Card online and have it shipped to your house. Otherwise, just wait and get a normal one when you get to London. Be prepared for queues at Heathrow if you wait – plenty of other tourists will have the same plan.

Getting your deposit back

If you are visiting London and don’t plan on coming back, you can return your Oyster Card and reclaim your £5 deposit along with any Pay As You Go (PAYG) money you had on your card. While £5 may not seem like much, it’s not doing any good sitting on your card in your wallet or in the trash.

If you plan on returning to London any time, you can hold on to your card. They never expire (as long as TfL does the transportation for London and doesn’t drastically change their system).

I still have my original Oyster Card from my first trip to London in 2009. It works great and if there are ever any problems with it, I can exchange it for a new one. I’ve gone over a year between uses and not had any problems.

To return an Oyster Card, just go to any manned ticket window in a Tube station. You should get your deposit and all your PAYG money back – if you topped up with a credit card, have that card ready since it will have to go back on it. Allow some extra time if leaving by EuroStar of Heathrow since other visitors will be returning cards at those ticket windows, too.

Note that you can’t get a deposit back for Visitor Oyster Cards ordered online (the £3 you pay covers the shipping and activation – it is not a deposit).

Tube station

Oyster Cards have loads of uses besides getting you from point A to point B. Saving you money with the 2-for-1 deals is possibly one of the best uses I’ve recently discovered and the special edition cards make your trip a bit more unique.

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