Contactless vs Oyster

All the publicity surrounding the acceptance of contactless payment cards centres on the fact that both Oyster and CPCs charge the same fares.  But do they?  Well the answer for single fares is a resounding yes (with one small caveat*), but the methods they use to calculate caps are very different and that can end up with quite different daily totals.  Before we get into capping, we’ll start with a brief run-down of the other differences.

  • Oyster cards require a fee whereas CPCs do not.
  • Oyster cards hold a PAYG balance which is reduced every time you travel whereas CPCs charge your account once at the end of each day.
  • Oyster cards can hold travelcards whereas CPCs can not.
  • Oyster cards can have discount entitlement whereas CPCs are only for full-fare adults.
  • You can check Oyster journey history online from the following day for up to 8 weeks, while registered CPCs can access a whole year and you can follow today’s travel with about a 15 minute delay.

And so to capping.  Oyster keeps track of the zones used each day and will stop charging when you reach the appropriate cap for the zones used.  The size of the cap increases the further out from zone 1 you travel, and either matches or undercuts the price of a one-day travelcard for the same zones.  Once you have been charged for a journey on exit the charge remains deducted whatever you do.  Each new journey is charged in isolation with only the currently applicable cap able to stop or curtail charges.  This was the best system available when Oyster was first introduced where journey details are only transmitted to the central database at the end of each day.  There are some drawbacks with this system, particularly where travel from outer zones is only at the beginning of the day with lots of journeys in zone 1 afterwards.  Even if you returned to the outer zones at the end you might end up paying more than two singles and a zone 1-2 cap.  But the total paid was still no more than the paper travelcard which you would have needed, with the added bonus that if you didn’t use the full travelcard you would only be charged for the journeys.

Contactless is todays technology and allows us to benefit from significant advances.  All touches are transmitted to the central database within 15 minutes, and often quite a bit less.  The central system then looks at the journeys made so far and works out the best combination of zonal cap and extension charges.  Sometimes this can make quite a difference, particularly if your travel involves stations outside the zonal area.  This complex calculation is reworked after every journey so the details of today’s travel will sometimes include very odd fares.  And it doesn’t stop at the end of the day either.  Journey details for the whole Monday to Sunday week are also examined and an appropriate cap equivalent to the weekly travelcard is applied with extension charges where odd journeys are made outside the regular zones.

With all this flexibility, is there any guarantee?  Thankfully yes, you will never be charged more on a daily basis using a CPC than you would using Oyster.  So if you can use a CPC then there may be advantages in doing so.  The good news is that in the future the Oyster system will change to use the same processing model as CPCs, but at present there are still some significant hurdles to overcome.  The other definite is that Oyster cards are not set to be replaced by CPCs, not least because young children can’t have bank cards.

* That small caveat I mentioned at the top.  Sometimes a journey can be made in more than one way and TfL have decided not to differenciate between them.  If an out of station interchange exists in the middle of the journey it can sometimes lead to a higher fare being charged.  When the journey ends Oyster cannot reduce the charge levied at the intermediate point, whereas CPCs look at the whole journey and just charge what the single fare finder says. An example is Crayford to Custom House.  One way involves zones 6-3 when you travel via Woolwich Arsenal whereas the other way involves zone 2 around Canary Wharf.  Travelling to Custom House you will be charged for a 5 zone journey on touch out at Heron Quays or Canary Wharf DLR.  The other way it is only a 2 zone journey at Canary Wharf LU so you are always charged a 4 zone fare at the end at Crayford.

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