Contactless might cost more than Oyster

We’ve all heard the annoying announcements at tube stations. Why not use contactless? The fares are the same as Oyster and there’s no need to top up. In fact, as described elsewhere on this site, contactless can often be cheaper than Oyster thanks to the way it compares all combinations of caps and extension fares. However, TfL have unwittingly introduced an issue which means that sometimes contactless may cost more than Oyster.

Consider these two screenshots of journey history.  First is an Oyster card making a series of journeys, then a contactless card making exactly the same journeys.

Everything is the same until the last journey (first on the Oyster history).  The Oyster card is treating everything as off-peak and thus capping at £12.90 (zone 1-8 cap), whereas the contactless card treats the bus as peak and charges £14.40.

This problem actually dates back to December 2018 when TfL introduced weekly bus capping on Oyster.  At the time an internal communication admitted that there was a bug, but suggested that it involved making 3 chargeable bus journeys before 0930 and that rail travel had to include journeys beyond zone 6 because it relied on the anytime and off-peak caps being different.  Bearing in mind that thanks to the hopper fare you would need to start the first bus journey around 7am, I considered the likelihood of this being utilised as quite low.

However Chris, a regular contributor, recently pointed out that anyone with a railcard attached to their Oyster could take advantage using any zonal combination, even just zones 1-2.  He often takes one bus before 0930 and had noticed that recently this had been counted in the railcard reduced off-peak cap.  A search through his emailed journey history showed that this started happening in December last year, and bingo, the connection was made.

I have asked TfL for a comment, but so far nothing has been received.  I guess it will get fixed at some point, possibly with the September fares revision, but if you live in or near zones 7-9 and start with a TfL bus before 0930 then an Oyster card could well save you some money.


13 thoughts on “Contactless might cost more than Oyster”

  1. Very interesting – it hadn’t occurred to me that this might affect non-Railcard users, and thus that there might be a discrepancy between Oyster and PAYG!

  2. Hi Mike,
    I used a 16-25 railcard tied to an Oyster until 2015 and received 1/3 off journeys travelling between Abbey Wood and Oxford Circus which started before 0630. I am looking into getting a 26-30 railcard and wonder if this will still be possible for an Oyster card in 2019 given the language on the railcard website:
    “A £12 minimum fare applies for journeys starting between 4.30am-10am Monday to Friday”
    Are you able to clarify if I’d still receive 1/3 off?

    • Hi Harry,

      Yes, the individual restrictions of each railcard don’t apply when used with Oyster. You get 1/3 off all off-peak single fares and the off-peak cap.

  3. Last week, I was travelling between Hendon Central and Kings Cross St. Pancras. My firs trips were off-peak but I did later make a few peak journeys within zones 1 and 2 and finally back to zone 3. Here’s a screenshot of my oyster history for that day:

    Have I stumbled upon a loophole using my railcard?

    • Hi Khalil,

      No. The off-peak cap applies to all journeys after 0930, including during the afternoon peak.

  4. Beware that if you have a railcard attached to your oyster card and a contactless card also attached to your oyster card, using the contactless card will not give you your railcard discount. Nor will tfl refund the discount amount if you use the contactless card. This is not advertised anywhere I can see.

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for this. To clarify the confusion, you don’t add a contactless card to an Oyster card, you add it to your TfL account. You can have as many cards as you like on one account (I had ten at one stage). A railcard discount is applied to a specific Oyster card, not every card on an account. As you’ve discovered, you can’t add railcards to contactless cards or devices.

  5. I’ve been using my contactless debit card for the last year to get into London for work meetings – mostly non-peak times but sometimes peak. I assumed it would cap but looking at my card statements closely the same return journey from zone 3 – zone 1 was costing about £12 and when I used an oyster yesterday it was £7.30. TFL have ben making a fortune off me!

    • Hi Kate,

      As you know, we are looking into this off-site because there is clearly something very wrong going on.

  6. In September, in reply to a question about the £12 minimum fare [before 10am Mon-Fri] on a 26-30 Railcard you said “the individual restrictions of each railcard don’t apply when used with Oyster”, in other words you could link it to Oyster and get 1/3 off all off-peak fares.

    In that case, is there any logical reason for not allowing a Network Railcard to be linked to Oyster for the same benefit? There have been comments on this site about staff linking Network Cards “by mistake”, and I’ve heard of this happening anecdotally too. I know the TfL site still says that a Network Card can’t be linked, but I’m wondering whether this is tacitly allowed now, or perhaps soon will be.

    • Hi Sean,

      Ultimately the decision about railcards rests with the Rail Delivery Group, the umbrella organisation representing TOCs. They are happy to release cheap off-peak fares on the 16-25 and 26-30 railcards at 0930 because there is no discount on fares in the peak. It’s similar enough for them.

      The Network Card has a minimum fare that applies all day on weekdays and this doesn’t fit in with the TfL model. Staff shouldn’t be adding Network cards and there is always the possibility that an RPI might take action if they find one linked.

      As to the future, more and more extensions are being added where cheaper super off-peak fares are offered at weekends. Oyster can’t handle that at the moment, but when it finally moves to the same backend processing as contactless then there is a possibility that a weekend and bank holiday fare might be introduced. If that happens they might take the opportunity to allow Network card discounts at weekends only. I mut stress that this is pure speculation on my part at the moment.

  7. Thanks Mike. I’ve got a Senior Railcard myself and was highly sceptical about linking a Network Railcard, but a friend was convinced it was now a bona fide option on the TfL system. The only explanation I could think of was that it was there in readiness for the backend processing you mention, but it seems more likely the staff member just made a mistake.

    • Hi Sean,

      Well there in fact is the confusion. The two options are “National Railcard” and “Disabled Persons Railcard”. The former covers 16-25, 26-30, Senior, Forces, and Gold Cards. Staff are supposed to know that the Network Railcard isn’t a valid National Railcard.

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