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I am in London for about three days in December (Sunday - Wednesday). I have to get from Heathrow to Balham/Clapham and then to various museums and galleries in the Westminster region during this time.

I was thinking that the easiest and cheapest way to get from Heathrow to Balham was by bus to Victoria Station and then Underground to Balham - is this silly?

I'm on a tight budget but will obviously like to get around the city and sightsee etc. I am clueless as to what the cheapest way is to get my Underground tickets for this short space of time.

Is an Oyster card the most cost-effective way, or buying paper tickets?

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    Most of your questions (but not the Heathrow–Balham bit) are answered at Transportation from St Pancras station to ExCel convention center. If you're going to make at least two trips in central London, then an Oyster card is cheaper than paper tickets. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 7 '14 at 15:41
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    Do you have a contactless bank card / credit card? TFL have very recently enabled the use of contactless cards at oyster rates – Gagravarr Nov 8 '14 at 12:32
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    Although not asked explicitly, the absolute cheapest system for travelling inside Zone 1 is the Barclays Cycle Hire programme. – Gayot Fow Nov 8 '14 at 13:40
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    @GayotFow: No, the absolute cheapest is to walk :) – Flimzy Nov 10 '14 at 1:08
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    Easiest != cheapest. The easiest is to take the Heathrow Express, then a taxi to Balham. Your method is cheaper though. Cheaper still if you get an Oyster card. – Andrew Ferrier Dec 22 '14 at 20:00
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If you really, really want to save every pound, then if you get an Oystercard (or have a contactless debit or credit card) and use only buses to get from Heathrow to Balham (you can do it in three bus journeys, taking a bit over two hours in total) you will be charged £4.40, the daily cap on bus fares.

In general, if you want the cheapest way to get around London, you should stick to buses (and the Croydon tram) and not use the Underground or other rail services. Buses are slower, but they're cheaper and they go everywhere.

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    There is no one route -- the best route would depend on lots of factors like the day of the week, the time of day, and what intermediate locations you'd prefer to go through. The best bet is to go to tfl.gov.uk and enter the route into their journey planner, then restrict it to bus and tram only. – Mike Scott Nov 9 '14 at 20:35
  • Thanks so much for the advice about the buses - yes Im looking to save every penny and have alot of time on the day I arrive (sunday). Also I will have a large suitcase and have had bad past experience with some undergrounds not having lift access. I understand the buses to be better with this. If not then Ill splurge on an Uber as I dont think the mid morning sunday traffic from Victoria station to Balham will be too bad – Claire Nov 10 '14 at 7:07
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To get from Heathrow to Belham, you can take the bus to Victoria Station for £5.70 cash. Comparatively, you can take the train from Heathrow to Paddington for £21.00. People wanting to save time will take the train, which is about 15 - 20 minutes; the bus takes a lot longer. It's a close call between the two because you'll be fatigued and lagged after a lengthy flight and clearing UK immigration.

For your larger question, you would be advised to get a Visitor Oyster Card for a one-time fee of £3.00. You top up the card as you go; the lowest amount to add is £10.00. They recommend getting a Visitor Oyster Card pre-loaded with £15.00, which should last you about 2 or 3 days if most of your travel will be in Zone 1.

Oyster Visitor Cards have a daily price cap on how much you will pay. The cap varies depending upon whether you travel at peak times or off-peak times. For example, if you travel during off-peak, the cap is £8.40, even if you take 20 trips. The price cap is also a feature on standard oyster cards.

You can always get a refund of the unused balance by taking the card to a tube station or sending it to them. They refund the balance in cash and return you the card with a zero balance.

You can order a card on-line and have it sent to you, it takes 8 to 14 days for an international order to arrive by post. Transport by Oyster is slightly cheaper and you will recover the £3.00 one-time fee in about 3 days of usage. Plus you can use it in future visits because Oyster cards never expire.

To order on-line, visit http://visitorshop.tfl.gov.uk/oystercard/product/oyster-card.html

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    Is the visitor-card fares any cheaper than the regular Oyster card that doesn't cost a £3 non-refundable fee (but instead a £5 refundable deposit)? Do the regular Oyster cards that don't cost a £3 non-refundable fee expire? (Otherwise it is really misleading to tout "never expires" as a benefit of the visitor card). Does the £3 non-refundable fee get you anything except the right to wait 8-14 days for it to arrive? Who would want to PAY £3 to lose the chance to have the outstanding balance on the card refunded when you leave? – Henning Makholm Nov 7 '14 at 14:55
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    The price cap is not available on standard oyster cards? When did that change? Last I was in London, a day pass would be automatically counted if it was cheaper than individual tickets. A benefit of standard Oyster cards is that they can be fully refunded (though this isn't worth the hassle if you leave London in such a way that there's no open ticket office at your exit point). See Transportation from St Pancras station to ExCel convention center — is any part of that answer wrong? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 7 '14 at 15:41
  • @Gilles, are you thinking that this question is a duplicate of the one you answered in the link you gave? Or that they are different questions with the same answer? – Gayot Fow Nov 7 '14 at 16:10
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    Are you sure the price cap is not available on standard oyster cards? I was in London two years ago and the price cap was in place. If this changed it seems vaguely unfair to me. – JoErNanO Nov 7 '14 at 16:21
  • The part about Oyster is a duplicate, but not the part about Heathrow to Balham. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 7 '14 at 16:37
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If you totally want to maximise your budget then then the absolutely cheapest way is to walk.

Heathrow to Balham, for example, is 15 miles - google maps says a bit under 5 hours, obviously it depends how fast you walk.

Balham to Westminster is much shorter, of course.

The advantage (apart from it being free) would be that you'd get a real feeling for the genuine character of the city.

The disadvantage would be that you'd spend quite a lot of time walking through suburbs that aren't usually considered tourist attractions (but that actually show the contemporary life of the city more accurately than the Tower of London or the British Museum).

London as a city is extremely friendly to pedestrians - plan your route from heathrow avoiding the A4/M4 (big highways) and it could be quite an interesting little urban hike.

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Is an Oyster card the most cost-effective way, or buying paper tickets?

Yes, it's worth it, in strictly financial terms. You always (or very nearly always anyway) get a (slightly) cheaper ticket price with the Oyster card than you do with paper tickets, and when your journey is over, you can turn in your Oyster card and receive a cash rebate for any unused credit plus the original £5 deposit for the card itself.

So strictly speaking, even for a single journey, the Oyster card is cheaper (although more of a hassle, so maybe not worth it in an absolute sense, depending on how you value your time in relation to your money).

  • However, someone with an appropriate contactless debit / credit card is potentially better off not getting an Oyster card, as they'd save the hassle of queueing up to get one + hassle of getting the fiver refunded. Contactless cards are always the same price or cheaper than Oyster for someone with no railcards / discounts (Contactless have weekly capping, Oyster doesn't) – Gagravarr Nov 10 '14 at 5:58
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    Oyster only supports daily price capping. Contactless supports daily and weekly price capping, which has caused some controversy as it means that it is in some cases cheaper than oyster, which was always promised to be the cheapest – Gagravarr Nov 10 '14 at 10:34
  • @Gagravarr: A foreign credit card will often incur transaction fees which could make it more expensive than an Oyster card, too. But of course, not always. – Flimzy Nov 10 '14 at 12:23
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Short answer

Use your existing contactless bank card, don't buy an Oyster Card.

Reasons

  1. You can skip queuing for a few seconds at a ticket machine to buy an Oyster card
  2. You can skip queuing for a few minutes at a ticket office, after your holiday, to get your £5 Oyster deposit back - quite a few people forget this step and end up with the Oyster card permanently taking up some space in the wallet
  3. A contactless bank card uses the same fare algorithm as an Oyster PayG, and is cheaper than Oyster PayG if you stay from Monday to Sunday
  4. If it is an international bank card, you would have paid the same makes-no-difference currency coversion charges to buy an Oyster card
  5. You rather skip the Oyster and thus have one less card in your wallet during your stay

More tips

The bus service from Heathrow to Victoria is actually a National Express Coach service. This doesn't add to the daily capping. It is far cheaper to take the bus + National Rail than a Coach.

  1. Red - Bus 285 from Heathrow to Feltham station
  2. White - Southwest Trains from Feltham station to Clapham Junction
  3. Dark Green - Southern Trains from Clapham Junction to Balham

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I recommend to use public transport rather than walk stupendously long distances. Chances are, you might eventually use public transport that day and quickly hit the fare cap. That would render the money-saving long walk as pointless.

To pay the least fares, remember to touch-in and touch-out when using trains, even when the ticket barriers are open or when ticket barriers don't exist.


Also, regarding "Visitor" version of the Oyster cards: I feel this is pointless, even before the days of contactless. I wouldn't purchase this for a non-refundable £3 card before travelling to London. What if the holiday is cancelled? Moreover, it's not like there's a dearth of vending machines to buy a normal Oyster for a easily refundable £5. That said, as a commuter using the plain blue Oyster, I wouldn't mind getting a Visitor Oyster as a collectable.

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    Wouldn't the currency conversion charges be due on all transactions? Depending on how the bank charges for it and assuming the card even works, that could end up costing more. There is something to be said for the cleverness of this solution but personally I will still go with the Oyster card, it seems much simpler. – Relaxed Dec 22 '14 at 20:16
  • @Relaxed, the typical currency conversion charge is a calculated as a percentage, so the total surcharge would typically be same whether buying an Oyster with PayG, or using contactless for individual journeys. Can't agree with Oyster being simpler because you need to get a refund for the £5 deposit and unused credit. Or else it's another card added to your wallet. Moreover, the refund to your international bank card yet again might bear a currency conversion charge for converting Sterling to the native currency. So I'd say contactless is cheaper and simpler than Oyster lol! – Shumon Saha Dec 22 '14 at 20:32
  • My CC definitely works in the UK and uses a percentage as you said but both my bank card and my credit card have a fixed charge to withdraw cash. I have no idea how contactless transactions are charged or if they even work abroad. Simply worrying about all this sounds like a lot of unneeded complexity to me… Also, you certainly don't need to get a refund, I just kept my Oyster card and even if the scheme was discontinued or the card somehow expired, I wouldn't feel bad about £5. Of course, if that's a difference you care about, another solution might be slightly cheaper but not simpler. – Relaxed Dec 23 '14 at 0:08
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    Turns out there is a whole page about what works or does not work and mine possibly isn't accepted (being issued in the Netherlands). That's precisely the kind of complexity I was talking about. It might become better as the technology is more widely adopted but really Oyster is as simple as it gets, that's what's great about it. – Relaxed Dec 23 '14 at 0:12
  • @Relaxed - I feel it is misleading to tout Oyster as "never expires" for infrequent visitors. Chances are, after a long time, holding on to your Oyster and trying to find it for your next visit is an unnecessary worry. I think it shouldn't be time consuming to give the contactless a try. If an international contactless doesn't work at the first Oyster reader, there's always an Oyster vending machine or a ticket stop shop nearby! – Shumon Saha Dec 23 '14 at 6:04

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