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Trying to figure out the London Tube - Travelling with kids - Advice?

Wow, after trying to figure out how transport options work in London, I feel really stupid. I spent time on the "Transport for London" sites and other sites. Very confusing. Inconsistent information--for example on tfl.gov.uk, the "single fare finder" and the "play a journey" calculators give wildly different prices for the same trip. (I've travelled all over continental Europe and always found public transport to be very easy to understand--but this time I am finding myself flustered and confused...)

But my main question: Has anyone here has figured out the optimal way to pay for local transport in London for kids?

Based on what I read in the Rick Steves book, I thought that this would be a no-brainer--just sign up a contactless credit card for everyone so that it could be used as an Oyster Card. Nice and simple! You don't have to carry anything extra, and you only get billed for what you use.

HOWEVER, I see that using a credit card as an Oyster card ONLY get the full fare adult rate! And they DO have various reduced rates for kids.

We have a 15-year old and 17-year old. What is our best strategy in paying for their transport? Should we buy actual physical Oyster Cards for them when we are there? Seems there is paperwork, they need photos, etc. Not sure how easy this is--should be be just using regular adult Oyster Cards for them? Or paying cash?

Also, am I correct in understanding that when we leave London (we're taking the Eurostar to Paris), we can turn in the Oyster Cards and get a full refund for the deposit price and also for any unused balance? And is this a quick and easy process? Or do we have to wait in line to do that? (We will have a tight connection leaving.)

Thanks!

If it matters, we will be in London for only five days, staying almost entirely in Zone 1. However, when we arrive we will be traveling from Heathrow in Zone 6 to our hotel in Zone 1. And also, we will be taking a day trip to Zone 6.

Posted by
5360 posts

17 year old will have to pay an adult fare anyway as there are no discounts for 16+ unless a resident in London.

15 year old could get the Young Visitor discount on a regular Oyster card for half price fares but this has to be weighed against the cost of a card of £7. Probably worth it though. Get at Heathrow. No photo etc

Ignore the Zip card options for children as they are really designed for residents or frequent visitors. The cost wouldn't pay off for a short one off visit, and the application procedure is lengthy.

Oyster cards sold after 2020 do not have a refundable deposit, just a fee to purchase. You can get back the remaining stored value though. So don't bother and use contactless payment might be best in your case.

Posted by
332 posts

just sign up a contactless

There is no need to sign up anything. Everyone who needs to pay will need their own contactless card or device. They can use and go. Setting up an account might be useful if you need a receipt or record of journeys

Posted by
985 posts

Assuming there are 4 of you and as above you should get an Oyster for the 15 year old and get the discount added at Heathrow that leaves 3 who need a way to pay.
You don't need 3 separate contactless cards - you can link devices such as phones and smart watches to one card.
More usefully you should try to get a card with no international fees if you don't already have one. You will save a bit on transport but quite a lot more when paying for everything else whilst in the UK.

Posted by
358 posts

Every traveler needs their own payment method unless free

You can use contactless, Oyster or a device based system

Oyster costs £7, non refundable

Young travelers (11-15) can get a 50% discount - but only on an Oyster, and only applied by staff. So if you will do five singles, it's worth them paying for the Oyster

You can get the refund from a ticket machine

Daily cap zone 1/2 is £8.10

Heathrow trip is £5.50 and cap is just under £15 for that day. Trip to zone 6 will be less for the single, but the cap is still just under £15

Whatever you do, don't pay cash for tickets as they are more than double the adult fare with a card

Posted by
99 posts

If you have an iPhone and/or an Apple Watch, use the “Express Transit Card” feature in the Apple Wallet. I was just in London in February and exclusively used my Apple Watch and that feature the whole time I was there. The great thing about TfL is that as long as you use the same method (watch or phone) for all of the times you enter and exit any TfL transportation, TfL will charge you the cheapest fare for your whole day traveling with the Zones that you traveled.

Posted by
4442 posts

I assume that they know or you have told them that if they get separated you or they will get off at next stop and wait for the others?

Posted by
740 posts

To the OP. City Mapper app has a list of the cost of any trip that you plan using it. And it is amazing for use getting around London. You can plan trips ahead of time, it gives you various options on walking, driving the underground etc and it even tells you where to sit on the train and when the next train is. If you have not got the app.. get it. You will love it. Make is SO easy to travel in big cities.
It WONT however understand the daily cap, so you need to find out the zones you will travel in on any give day and and once you hit the cap for that day you are done.
In general for most tourists days unless you are outside Zone 1-2 you will spend about $10 a day per person on average on the underground. As most tourist activities are in zone 1 and 2.

Is you look up Underground Zone maps you will find one you can read easily.

Where do you find the “express transit feature” for IPhone/wallet? I will be in London for about a week this fall, and I have an IPhone and Apple Watch and was wondering if it is trully riser then using an Oyster card.
Also does the other phones have something similar? I will be with three people that have Android phones as well.
Thanks.

Posted by
75 posts

Cala, yes, we'd better come up with a plan on how to regroup if we get separated. My plan is for each of them to have their phone (with maps, etc.) and to agree on meeting points. But these are kids who grew up in U.S. suburbs being chauffeured everywhere. They are not familiar with cities, or public transportation, or even basic navigation. I am very worried!!!!
:-( :-( :-(

Posted by
75 posts

Thanks so much everybody! This has been extremely helpful!

So before we leave, we will set up contactless credit cards for use with each of us parents and for our 17-year old. And so I guess we wait until we are there at Heathrow to buy the a physical Oyster Card for our 15 year old? Is this easy to do? How obvious will it be?

(I have never been to London and so have never used their transport system. But it seems in the subway systems I have used, these days there are just automated kiosks that can be hard to use. I think I read that the reduced rate Oyster Card can only be sold by a person...)

Posted by
33147 posts

a back up plan that works for many, and it is really simple so easy to remember and execute, is the next stop/station plan.

If some of the party get on and the doors close before all the party get on, everybody goes one stop and gets off and stays on the platform.

The folk(s) on the train/bus/tube train wave at those not on and go one stop and one stop only, and get off, and stay near the transport but far enough that people getting on and off don't run them over while they wait.

The folks who missed the transport get on the next one going the same place using the same door, and go exactly one stop and get off. The rest of the group should be there waiting for them.

Reunion, collective deep breaths, regroup and get back on the original plan..... whew!

other plans may also work well - just be sure you have a plan and everybody is able to execute it.

Posted by
985 posts

When you get to the tube station look for a machine and buy an Oyster card - easy to do. £7 for the card and you will need to put some credit on it. You can top the card up with more cash at any tube station so don’t start with too much. When you have the card find a member of staff (they will be there) a d ask them to put the Young Person Discount on it.

Posted by
3813 posts

I was not going to post this until Cala and the OP entered into a conversation about the kids and parents possibly being separated on the tube. It seemed "off topic" until then. How to avoid being separated on the London tube? You could use another method of transportation; bus or boat.

There is another reliable transit system around London besides the tube, and that is the bus.
This map shows the tourist attractions/landmarks around London and the bus routes that take you to them or near to them.
https://content.tfl.gov.uk/bus-route-maps/key-bus-routes-in-central-london.pdf

Travel-Lite, you and the kids are less likely to get separated on the bus, I believe.
It has the added benefit that you are seeing a lot of London while you travel, as opposed to being underground where you will see nothing.
Tap your Oyster card or contactless card on the pad near the bus driver when you enter the bus.

Another way to get around London is the river boat system, Thames Clipper/Uber Boat:
https://www.thamesclippers.com/plan-your-journey/route-map
Tap your Oyster card, contactless card, or Apple Phone/Watch to pay.
Tap out when you exit the boat.

The boat is a great way to go if you are at Westminster Abbey and wish to get to the Tower of London.
It is scenic and direct.
For destinations that are not along the riverfront, you can get off the boat near your destination and walk several blocks north or south.

Both options are far more scenic than the tube, and with no possibility of parents and kids getting separated, or so we hope! If the buses are crowded, stick very close together and exit together.
I hope this helps.

Posted by
4174 posts

What Rebecca said. The last time I was in London I took the bus and walked everywhere except the last day when I took the Tube from the station a block away from my apartment directly to Heathrow. I much preferred using the bus for all the reasons Rebecca listed. To me the Tube is about getting somewhere as fast as possible. The bus is about enjoying the journey, taking in the ambiance of the city and seeing things you've only seen on TV or in movies.

Although I travel solo with no one to manage except myself, I definitely agree that you are less likely to get separated by taking the bus. For one reason, It moves more slowly and typically won't take off if y'all are in the process of getting on.

I was once in an underground transport car at an airport when a woman and her teenage daughter were approaching it. The woman was walking at a normal pace and there was plenty of time for them both to get on. The daughter was dawdling with her head in her phone. The mom got on, the daughter didn't, the doors closed and the car whooshed out of the station. That's how quickly it can happen. I hoped they had some plans for getting back together.

Now that you've gotten good info on your pricing and paying questions I'll say that Google Maps is another tool you can use to find your way around London. I found it much easier to understand and use than TfL or any of the other similar guides for other cities.

If you haven't used it before, I put some basics for using it below.
You'll need to mess around with it more to get the hang of it. The Options button allows you to select overall preferences for your searches. I always just mark Best Route. The Depart At button allows you to be more specific about the timing of the trip.

  1. Put in where you want to go. It will be shown on a map.
  2. Click on Directions. Put in where you want to start from.
  3. Choose the train/bus symbol (or the walking one). You will get a list of public transportation options (or walking ones).
  4. Pick one and you'll see a map and a list of the details of the journey.

I hope you all have a great time in London. Eat some Tikka Masala and fish and chips for me.

Posted by
740 posts

I left my father on a train station in the middle of now where Switzerland, The conductor stopped the person in front of me just as I got on and my dad was stuck on the platform when the doors closed and off we went,
Let’s here it for cell phones.

My tack n the Bus/Boat/overground/underground is that Busses are my last ditch. The traffic is such in London that the last thing I want to do is get on a bus and get involved in the traffic.
Yes you have to make sure everyone gets on the underground but you have to do that with all of the transit methods short of a taxi which will wait for you.
The OP is not talking about little kids so that shouldn’t under normal circumstances be an issue. And if everyone has a phone they have a fallback.
Also the underground has the most frequent trips so if you do get separated (an issue truly unlikely to happen) then it has the easiest fix. Those on the train get off at the next stop, those that were left behind get on the next train and go to the next stop and get off and join everyone.
In most location this is probably about 10-15 minutes and you are fixed.
Busses and boats are on average a LOT less frequent, so are harder to correct.

Posted by
33147 posts

London buses, even with the swingeing cuts, are frequent, in most places, most of the time

Posted by
3813 posts

douglas, you make some excellent points!

I am old, so I don't care how long the London bus takes to weave its way through traffic. I enjoy the stopping in traffic as an opportunity to take a good look at the architectural details of the buildings around me. And to take some photos.
One time, my bus stopped beside a private park/garden that belonged to the residences/townhouses beside it. I was riding on the upper floor of the bus, so I was able to look over the wall into the garden for a while. Lovely.
It's not important to me anymore to get from one side of London to the other fast!fastfast! I had enough of rushing around at breakneck speed when I was younger. I was always in a hurry to get somewhere quickly. I missed a lot of sights along the way.
Now I take time to fully look at what's in London when I take the bus. It's not important to me whether the bus or the boat are the quickest way.......I just enjoy taking them.

P.S. One time my Number 15 bus stopped for a while in front of an odd little building. I asked the bus driver what it was. He said "Prince Henry's Rooms". Turns out it was the one Tudor frame building on that street left after the Great Fire of London in 1666. He said it was where Henry VIII waited until the appointed time on his Coronation Day.

I'm glad the bus stopped in traffic that day.

Posted by
33147 posts

Prince Henry's Rooms

It isn't every day one opens these Forums and comes across a "Prince Henry's Rooms".

First time, I think.

One of my all time favourite buildings - if only for the huge difference between that building and those around it. I like it a lot.

Posted by
366 posts

And with a 15 and 17 year old, make sure they have an oyster with some money on it, the address of their hotel, and a room key. Then if worse came to worse and they got separated and couldn't contact you with their cell for some reason, at least they could get back to the hotel and wait.

Posted by
75 posts

Thanks for all the help. I configured three credit cards to be used as Oyster cards... This was a difficult process as the web site was blocking us, it said, for "security" reasons. Any device using our home internet was blocked. I had to bypass this by using a VPN that ported to an server in England.

Posted by
5360 posts

Geoblocking is deliberate. There is no need to set up cards in the Oyster app for them to be used but it does help track charges.

Posted by
1097 posts

Just was in London with two teens and we used 4 contactless cards (which we did not set up in advance and it worked fine). Consider Uber with 4 people; often it’s the same cost or cheaper as the Tube, esp. for 4 people. Taxis were consistently more expensive than Uber. You really don’t need to pre-plan much for the Tube except to have a general idea of what lines you’ll be riding and where closest stop is to your hotel. Google Maps is very helpful for this.

Posted by
8824 posts

Most hotels have business cards at the lobby desk. Give a card to each family member.

Don’t need photos for Oyster cards. Simply buy the cards from a kiosk. Put £15 on each and off you go.

Posted by
75 posts

Update from the OP not what the London segment of our trip is over:

So we did buy an oyster card for our 15-year old for 7 pounds. A staff person at a tube station converted it to a half-price oyster card, and also assisted us in putting 15 pounds of value on the card. She confirmed that any unused balance could be redeemed by us at the end of our vacation.

We ended up not using the tube as much I expected, and so at the end of the trip there was still 10 pounds on the oyster. But when we tried to have the machines at the last station refund the balance, we didn't see that as an option. We tracked down a staff member He told us that while oysters sold before a certain cut-off period about (end of last year? or maybe earlier?) are grandfathered in, any value put on oysters sold after the cut-off is not refundable.

It's not a big deal. We're not talking about any real amount of money here. But it turned out getting the oyster was a mistake. We'd have been better off just using a credit card as a full-price oyster... And that is what I would recommend to others in my situation unless they are going to be using the tube a lot. If you do get an oyster, be careful with all much value you put on it, realizing this is NOT refundable. (Based on the representations of the station person that this was refundable, I almost ended up putting more money on it than I did. As it stands, it wasn't a big loss, but it could have been worse.)

Posted by
5360 posts

The £7 purchase fee is not refundable but the balance is. There may have been a miss communication somewhere along the line. However if the remaining balance is over £10 it cannot be refunded at a Tube station ticket machine only by contacting TfL by phone or through the Oyster card website / app.

Posted by
3813 posts

Travel-Lite: save the Oyster cards for your next trip to England. They can be "topped up" at any tube station. That is, you can add 20, 30, 40 pounds to them for a longer stay in London.

The initial card cost is not refundable. The card used to cost 5 pounds (base cost), but now I believe it is 7 (base cost).
This is the cost of the actual plastic card itself.
The pounds are added on top of that to use for travel, and the Oyster card is good for years.
The value does not expire.

"If you do get an oyster, be careful with all much value you put on it, realizing this is NOT refundable."
It IS refundable......The first time we went to London, when we got home, we found the correct address to mail our Oysters to in England, and received a check in the mail, which we deposited into our checking account.

To be clear......We did not receive a refund for the actual card itself, but for the balance of funds we had put on it.

There is also a window at Heathrow with an attendant/worker where you can get your refund in person.
As Marco said,
"The £7 purchase fee is not refundable but the balance is. There may have been a missed communication somewhere along the line."

Posted by
5360 posts

Having checked up, balances can no longer be refunded online. Was supposed to be a temporary "security" thing but it's been gone over a year. The current other methods for refunds over £10 are:

By email. Get in touch with TfL by filling in this online form – include your contact details and your Oyster card number. TfL aims to reply within 10 working days. This is a generic contact form.

By phone. To apply over the phone, call TfL customer services on +44 343 222 1234 with your Oyster card number. It's open 8am to 8pm, seven days a week UK time.

By post. Write to TfL Customer Services, 4th Floor, 14 Pier Walk, London, SE10 0ES. Again, include your contact details and Oyster card number.

Posted by
75 posts

Interesting, the tube employee at the station said that unused balances on the oyster (not the price for the card--the money added to to the purchased card for use with trips) was nonrefundable period. So it is possible to get a refund after all?

Posted by
6512 posts

If the card is not registered (which it won't be) then you could equally give it to someone else who is coming to London, on some future date.

It seems that the employee you spoke to was just mis-informed. Probably people don't ask for refunds on their credit too often.

Posted by
740 posts

On a trip that is costing 10s of thousands of dollars is it really worth the time and effort to try and. get back $15?

Posted by
75 posts

I agree--it's not worth the time and hassle to get a refund. Yes, I was willing to spend 5 minutes in the tube station getting a refund. But with that failed, I'm just going to let it go and also realize that even getting the oyster card was a mistake--we should have just configured a credit card and paid full fare. I'm only posting so others can learn from this.

Posted by
5360 posts

Only two days of capped tube travel in Zone 1 makes the Young Visitor discount pay off and I suspect the recommendation for PAYG balance for the trip overall was based kind of around that sort of usage. As you said, yours turned out much less than that.