Transport for London (TfL) has seen a drop in the sale of paper tickets after it made a small change to the ticket machines in London Underground stations.

The change took place last September during a routine fares update to the ticket machines, and the sales of paper tickets dropped overnight by around a third compared to how many were being sold before.

However, that was entirely intentional.

The change was deliberate, intended to reduce the sale of paper tickets by encouraging people to use contactless payments instead. These are cheaper for the customer and mean fewer magnetic stripe paper ticket sales for TfL.

It followed staff observations that people were requesting single or return paper tickets but then paying for them with a contactless card — so why not encourage them to use the contactless card at the ticket barrier instead?

What TfL has done is add a pop-up message on the ticket-selling machines, so if you try to buy a single or return ticket instead of a travelcard, it will suggest using a contactless card instead.

The Passenger Operated Machine (POM), to use the TfL name for the ticket machines, doesn’t show the pop-up for every journey that they can sell tickets for because not every destination accepts contactless PAYG tickets, but those that can will get the message. Over time, as more National Rail stations are added to the contactless payments system, the ticket machines will be updated to include them in the messaging.

Since the change was introduced in September 2023, TfL has seen a noticeable drop in paper ticket sales.

So the change worked.

(c) TfL

Apart from fitting in with TfL’s aim of reducing the sales of magnetic stripe tickets, the move would have reduced the fares that customers pay to travel around London.

Arguably, not offering the option to save money would put more money in TfL’s coffers, but there’s a trade-off in that offering more expensive trips will deter casual visitors from using public transport. If they see the fares are lower than expected, customers are more likely to travel more often, and if they see TfL is being upfront about fares, lingering concerns about using contactless will be reduced.

To pick a random example, an off-peak trip from Paddington to Canary Wharf would cost £6.70 if buying a paper ticket but £2.80 if using contactless payments.

So a small change that a regular London traveller would be unlikely to have noticed is reducing queues at ticket machines for everyone else.


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  1. Mike S says:

    There’s supposed to be an obligation on train operators to sell the best ticket. Not sure how this applies to TFL, but telling the customer they are getting a much better deal is the right thing to do for a customer.

    They could follow it up with “you are paying for a ticket with contactless – using contactless directly at the barrier will save you money. Do you want to proceed with this transaction? Y/N” etc.

    But I still see people getting caught by “one contactless per person”….

    • ChrisC says:

      “They could follow it up with “you are paying for a ticket with contactless – using contactless directly at the barrier will save you money. Do you want to proceed with this transaction? Y/N” etc.”

      Isn’t that what they are basically saying as per Ian’s photos?

    • paul says:

      “one contactless per person” is definitely a constraint that I see tourists struggle with regularly

  2. Wilfonzo says:

    It also has the side effect of highlighting that there are effectively no child fares for visitors to London any more. Not sure how long this has been the case but on a recent visit the pop up brought it to my attention that adult contactless is cheaper than buying paper tickets for child fares. To get contactless child fares you have to send away for a photo id Oyster card (zip card?) which costs £15; not worth it if you’re only visiting a few times a year. Got to find some way to pay for the system I suppose, might as well rinse the tourists; they aren’t voting for you. On a recent trip to the south bank it was considerably cheaper for a family of 5 to pay the congestion charge and park at the national theatre car park compared to taking the train into London and using the tube though which doesn’t feel great.

    • HoosierSands says:

      From TfL’s website:

      Travelling with children

      Children under 11 travel free on buses and trams. Children under 11 also travel free on Tube, DLR, London Overground, Elizabeth line and some National Rail services when accompanied by a fare-paying adult (up to four children per adult).

      If you’re travelling with children aged 11-15, buy a Visitor Oyster card before you leave home and, when you arrive in London, you can ask a member of our staff to add a Young Visitor discount to a Visitor Oyster card at:

      most Tube stations
      our Visitor Centres
      Victoria National Rail station ticket office

      Child must be present when adding a Young Visitor discount. This discount gives your child half adult rate pay as you go discount for up to 14 days.

      You can also buy child Travelcards online for children aged 11-15.

      Go to the Visitor Shop website to buy your card before you leave home and it will be delivered to your home address.
      No time to buy online?

      If you don’t have time to buy your card online, you can also buy a Visitor Oyster card before arriving in London from different locations in the UK and overseas.
      Visiting London navigation

    • martin says:

      >>Got to find some way to pay for the system I suppose, might as well rinse the tourists; they aren’t voting for you.

      Who is voting for TfL?

    • Paul says:

      You know that under 11s are free and on TfL services don’t require any kind of ticket right? Just head on up to the gateline and get waved through.

      And if you pay the £15 admin fee and get an 11-15 Zip card for an older child, it’s valid for those 5 whole years, so if you’re visiting a few times a year it will very likely be worthwhile.

    • Donal says:

      Re: Child oyster cards: This is not true. I got a new oyster card for my son when we visited in September 2023. Just had to find a member of staff and they worked some magic at the terminal to mark it as a child card (took 2mins max). It defaults back to an adult card after some time (think it’s 14 or 30 days).

      Now to be fair, the information isn’t very discoverable but the staff at the station (think it was Heathrow 2-3) made it hassle free.

    • Sarah says:

      That’s the young visitor discount, but once you’re in London and not at the airports they refuse.
      It isn’t available for Londoners. Children tend to lose Zip cards and then the parents need to pay for a replacement.
      The map for 5-10 year olds isn’t publicized enough.

  3. Andrew says:

    You also get the Oyster benefit of the daily cap of you use contactless.
    Contactless works on Uber boats too.

  4. Terence Eden says:

    Why is the “cancel” button centred but the “buy ticket” left aligned?

    What’s with the small font and massive line spacing?

    You “touch in on” at the start, but just “touch out” at the end.


    • Paul says:

      I suspect the mismatched text alignment on the buttons is a deliberate UX ‘nudge’ – the left-aligned ‘Buy Ticket’ text on the button ‘feels wrong’ so it forces you to really think rather than blindly tap through, and the contrasting centred text makes it feel ‘more comfortable’ to hit cancel.

    • Chris Rogers says:

      TfL have a long history of lousy grammar. During one lot of works they had massive cross-platform posters that confused ‘exchanging/for’ and ‘replacing/with’, and once I nominated them for the Idler award for bad grammar (they got second place) for the multiple warnings in every car – now gone, thankfully – that said “It is safer to stay on the train than attempting to get off”.

      I had already raised it with TfL, noting that grammatically-correct versions like ‘Staying on the train is safer than attempting to get off’ were also actually shorter. They failed to reply.

  5. James says:

    The price difference is ridiculous and penury (if that’s the right word) I have had friends and family visit London and unwittingly pay the 150% supplement.
    Annoys me that one of their first experiences in London is to be ripped off.
    Message should make it clearer how much more expensive paper tickets are.

    • ChrisC says:

      If only TFL had tool where you could put in the start and end points of your trip and it would tell you the fare!

      Oh but there is – the single fare finder.

      Plus pages and pages on their website on travel cards etc.

      And no penury isn’t the right word.

    • Paul says:

      Honestly, apart from all the advance information available online and via guide books, third parties etc, the signage at major arrival stations is overwhelming and explicit about using contactless payments, and there’s usually no shortage of staff available to help.
      If people ignore all that and buy paper tickets anyway, then this is not so much unwitting as witless.

    • ChrisC says:

      Exactly Paul

      When I plan to visit a new city I always look up local transport fares.

      Is it cheaper to just buy single tickets? Is a day / multi day pass better value? Do I need a paper ticket or do they use an app? If the latter cheaper than the former or the same?

      Takes literally minutes to do.

  6. Gary says:

    If you pay/travel using your bank card you must remember to put it through a machine at journey end! As even if you get waved through the barriers you’re card is still on the system, and it is possible that you will be charged a VERY high amount for a short journey!

    • Nick says:

      Not really, it’s about a tenner, I went St Albans from Abbey Wood and I forgot about St Albans being out of London and they just let me through.

  7. MilesT says:

    The wording is not ideal–one card per person isn’t explained (as highlighted in other comments), also as a minimum “touch out with the same card” needs to be expressed.

    Extra marks if there was an ongoing poster campaign (in interchange stations) with a QR code leading to an instructional video (in multiple languages). And maybe in key stations outside of London.

    Also: Child visitor cards (for over 11s). Given you have to pay £7 at least to access a child discount, I would suggest that when a card is flagged for child discount, the system also refunds the £7 card fee. Or just make all under 18s free (including making Zip card fee-free for residents and allowing refund by post of a child flagged oyster).

    • Paul says:

      I’m sympathetic to tourists understanding how to use the system and get the best fares, but quite honestly, if they’re forking out at least £150 per night per room for accommodation and countless more on eating out and other family activities in London for 11-15 year olds, they can probably afford a £7.90 child day Travelcard or a £7 oyster without too much sweat.

      Giving away everything for free isn’t the answer – London is already a bargain for families with free travel for under 11s and countless free museums and galleries.

    • ianVisits says:

      Remember that the majority of people affected by this will be coming into London for a day trip, and not staying in hotels etc.

    • ChrisC says:

      A screen on a ticket machine isn’t the place to show long complicated text about all the ins and outs of ticket buying,

      If it did more people would just press the “buy” button.

    • Paul says:

      I hear you Ian, but with the reprieve of the day travelcard I can’t see child fares being an issue for the vast majority of day trippers, as they’ll be travelling in and out by train anyway

  8. nick says:

    So I have a Network Railcard and I stopped using Oyster pay as you go because the Zone 1 to 6 Off peak travel card paper ticket drops to a tenner from the usual £15.45 at Southeastern ticket machines.

    I wonder if other people have discovered this discount.

    • Sws says:

      You can add your national railcard to an oyster card – which brings down the off peak cap for zone 1-6 to £10.30 🙂

  9. Tony says:

    Shame there isn’t a special visitors pass for foreign tourists.

    I just got back from Tokyo and they do a 72hr metro pass for ¥1500 (£7.50) which I think is crazy value and far better than using their Suica/Pasmo (Oyster equivalents but they have no daily cap so you’re up on the deal after a couple of journeys).

    • ChrisC says:

      Why should there be special prices for tourists?

      I’ve been to plenty of places where there aren’t any tourist rates and they pay the normal price that a local does.

  10. Chris Rogers says:

    I thught you had to register a card before using it contactless?

  11. Denis says:

    If you have aan adult Oyster card twinned with a senior railcard contactless fares are going to be more expensive.

    • ianVisits says:

      Such a person wouldn’t be buying a single paper ticket for a journey though.

  12. Petra says:

    Also, a one week travelcard for zone 1-2 is cheaper than Oyster pay as you go, as I discovered during the Olympic Games in 2012. I used oyster (as I could not commute by motorbike for 3 weeks) and discovered after that with a weekly paper ticket, I would have saved £12,- in during those 3 weeks.

    • ianVisits says:

      That was correct in 2012 – but it’s 2024 now and things will have changed in the subequent 12 years.

      There’s no price difference between contactless and oyster for a weekly travel.

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