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I'm planning a business trip to Boston, Massachusetts, during which I'll have a day or two free to play railfan and tour its public transport system.

From my research at the MBTA website, it looks like there are two main ways to pay for transit rides there: either a contactless plastic card called CharlieCard or magnetic-strip paper tickets called CharlieTicket. Both operate on a stored-value principle, but the fares are lower with CharlieCard than with CharlieTicket.

Since I only have a few days, my instinct is that the paper CharlieTicket will be cheaper for me -- but on the other hand, during that time, I'm going to ride a lot more than the typical local, or even the typical tourist. So there's a possibility that the CharlieCard will break even for me.

However, I can't for the life of me find anywhere on the MBTA website where it says what the price of a CharlieCard is. Without knowing that in advance it is hard to figure out where the break-even point is.

Does anyone here happen to know?

(The card price may be disguised as a minimum non-refundable balance or something similar, like some other contractless transit payment card systems do, but I can't find anything about that either).


Bonus question: If I determine the card is advantageous for me, is there somewhere at Logan airport I can buy one at around 7pm on a Sunday? The MBTA's list of points-of-sale requires me to select a particular neighborhood of Boston from a textual list before it will show me anything, and I don't know which of them contains the airport.

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    Note that MTBA also offers daily and weekly passes; these may be your best option if you are going to ride a lot. I haven't yet found exactly how they work or where to buy them, though. – Nate Eldredge Oct 24 '15 at 12:18
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    @Nate: Hm, yes. a 7-day pass for the price of 9 (CharlieCard-discounted) subway journeys looks pretty attractive. – Henning Makholm Oct 24 '15 at 12:30
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Charlie Card is free. If you approach any MBTA employee in South Station or Back Bay Station they'll just give you one and you can load it with your credit card at the machine. I have seen dedicated employees handing them out during rush hour.

You can't get one in Logan Airport, but you can get take the Silver Line to South Station (which is free, I believe) and get one there. Another option would be take the Logan Express to Copley square ($5) and walk over to Back Bay station, which probably qualifies as the world's ugliest train station.

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    If the card is completely free, with no minimum balance or other hidden costs, then who buys the more expensive paper tickets? Just those who need the 1- or 7-day passes (which apparently need a paper CharlieTicket to carry them)? – Henning Makholm Oct 24 '15 at 12:33
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    @HenningMakholm I didn't look at the fare structure at left, but the MBTA's Logan Airport page explicitly states that it is free when leaving Logan Airport. The way I am reading this, you only have to pay when going to Logan. – Michael Hampton Oct 24 '15 at 12:42
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    Just to confirm - unless things have changed in the last year, you can ride the silver line bus to south station (it's the last stop) for free. Then you go get a card and put money on it. Reverse direction you'll need to pay. – Joel Oct 24 '15 at 14:45
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    @HenningMakholm (re your first comment) One reason to get paper tickets is when riding transit which doesn't accept the CharlieCards, which include the harbor ferries and the commuter rail. – Nick Matteo Oct 24 '15 at 15:54
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    @HenningMakholm: The MBTA wants to steer tourists and visitors towards the paper ticket so they can charge more. That's why they are so obtuse about the card. It's a weird system but then again the MBTA is not exactly famous for it's efficiency or customer service. See also quora.com/… – Hilmar Oct 25 '15 at 1:39

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