Sydney's Opal public transport smart card is about to become the default option for a lot more people, with 14 current paper tickets no longer available as of September 1. Here's how to make the most of it so you can minimise your spend and maximise your value.
In Australian terms, Sydney is stupidly late to the smartcard party: it's already the established approach in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra (and in Melbourne there are no paper non-Myki tickets at all). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the previous T-Card project was aborted partway through implementation, which was bound to slow things up.
Secondly, Sydney has always had a mildly insane fares system in which individual forms of transport require separate tickets. In most other capitals, you can switch from a train to a bus on a standard 2-hour ticket; that's not been a possibility in Sydney during my lifetime. Most smartcard fare implementations have tended to assume this kind of transfer is possible.
The big change which has been discussed a lot (including here at Lifehacker) is that the shift to Opal means that monthly, quarterly and yearly tickets -- which attracted a discount -- have disappeared. That's bad news if you used one, but transport statistics suggest that this does not apply to most people. As commenter Beau Giles points out, just 5.6 per cent of train journeys involve a periodical ticket.
How It Works
The basics of Opal are like most other smart cards: you acquire a card (either a registered one ordered online mailed to you or an unregistered one from a retailer) and put some money on it. Every time you travel, you need to tap on and tap off, and a fee for your journey will be deducted.
There's no direct equivalent of a weekly ticket on Opal. Instead, there's what's known as the "Travel Reward". After you have made eight paid journeys, all subsequent trips are free. So if you travel to and from work on the train five days a week, you'll only pay for the Monday to Thursday.
Of course, that's not very helpful if you need both a bus and a train, as you'll have to pay for each separately. Opal handles that with daily and weekly limits. No matter what you do, you can't spend more than $15 a day or $60 a week on Opal-enabled services. (A current MyMulti3 ticket -- which also lets you travel on anything within the greater Sydney area -- costs $63, so this is cheaper for public transport addicts.)
Opal now works on all Sydney trains and ferries, but not on all buses -- that's promised by the end of the year. If your regular bus isn't covered, then sticking with a TravelTen or MyMulti is going to be better value until the change happens.
Those rules are complex enough to have many customers confused. So how you can you ensure you spend as little as possible?
Remember to tap off every time
If you don't tap off at the end of every journey, you'll be charged the maximum possible fare for the method of transport you last used ($7.00 on a ferry or $8.10 on a train -- the assumption is a bus driver would notice, it seems). That's likely to be a lot higher than you would have been charged otherwise. An added incentive: if you fail to tap off, your journey doesn't count towards your weekly "travel reward" (though it does count towards your daily $15 maximum cap).
The situation where this is most likely to happen is on trains, since many stations don't have gates that force you to use Opal. If you're having trouble remembering, set an alarm on your phone when you board your train that will go off when you leave.
On trains, travel outside of peak hours
On trains, fares are higher if you travel during peak hours Monday to Friday. Within the Sydney Trains network, peak hours are between 0700 and 0900 and between 1600 and 1830. If you're travelling from the broader NSW TrainLink network (from Wollongong, Gosford/Newcastle or the Blue Mountains and surrounds), the morning peak is slightly earlier -- 0600 to 0800.
Your fare is calculated based on when you tap on, not when you tap off. So if you're currently catching a train that leaves just after 0700, switching to one that leaves just before will save you some money. Similarly, if you can start your journey before 1600, you'll spend less.
Enjoy free breaks in your journey
One big change with Opal: you can leave a train or bus service and then rejoin the line without having to pay a second fare. Provided you rejoin within 60 minutes, it doesn't count as a separate trip. This is useful if you want to make a quick shopping stop on the way home, or if you want to use the toilets at Central while waiting to transfer. You could also combine this with the previous off-peak idea: start your journey before 1600, stop for a quick meeting on the way, and your fare will be cheaper overall.
Take bonus trips to cut your fare
The weekly reward applies when you make any eight journeys using the same method -- they don't have to be the same distance. So if you (for instance) work in the CBD and use the train to go to lunch, you'll add an extra journey -- one that might be cheaper than your usual trip to or from home. This won't work for everyone, but it does give you an extra incentive to use public transport when you might avoid it otherwise.
Cheaper airport trips
You'll still have to pay a $12.60 station access fee to visit the Domestic and International airports -- but the total you'll pay in a week is capped at $21. That means if you're making a day or overnight trip, using the airport stations will be somewhat cheaper. (This matches the price of a weekly GatePass, but doesn't require you to have a weekly ticket to buy it.)
Travel on Sundays
On Sundays, the maximum fare is $2.50 all day (and if you've hit the $60 maximum, you won't even pay that), no matter where you go. This is a welcome improvement: previously that fare was only available to people with children. But we're guessing that the Manly ferry is going to be even more crowded than it is now on most Sundays.
Have any other useful Opal tactics? Share them in the comments.