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Explore Sydney with an Opal Card & Public Transport

The Opal Card

If you’re spending a few days in Sydney you’ll probably want to pick up an Opal card.  It’s a smart card that can be reloaded and works on all NSW government public transport in the greater city area in addition to intercity trains and some regional bus services.

It took only a few minutes to pick up a card from the terminal in the airport and unlike many cities, there’s no charge or deposit for the card, you just load it up with as much as you need.  If you aren’t arriving via the airport there are plenty of other stations and terminals where you can get a card from throughout the city.  Topping up is equally easy, if you’re only visiting you probably won’t want to register and set up auto top-ups on the card but most stations and ferry terminals had machines where you can add from $10 at a time.

Not only is the electronic card much more convenient and a cost-saving over paper tickets there is a whole range of additional caps and discounts associated with it.  Here are a few you will want to be aware of

  1. All you can use Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays are $8.40. Go anywhere on the network and pay no more than $8.40, which worked perfectly for us when we arrived on a weekend and started getting orientated.  The other caps don’t start accumulating until Monday.
  2. A daily $16.80 cap no matter how many trips you take or what forms of transport. We hit this cap a few times on day trips around the wider city area.  Public transport in Australia isn’t super cheap but this helps keep it reasonable for the traveller on a budget.
  3. A $50 weekly cap
  4. Only pay for 8 paid journeys then the rest of the week’s travel is free.
  5. Pay no more than $25 in Airport Access Surcharge for the week

There are a few tricks for new users to watch out for if you want to maximise your cap savings.

  • The Airport surcharge is excluded from all the caps – other than the airport access surcharge cap of course.
  • The week runs Monday to Sunday for all weekly benefits
  • A journey groups together any form of transport when there are less than 60 minutes between tapping off one and onto the next. This can be a bit confusing and you may think you have taken way more than 8 trips but the definition of a journey is slightly different.

Overall from our experience, we found the Sydney public transport was clean and efficient, stuck pretty much to the timetable and offered reasonable value for getting around.  We put $80 on each card for the week which covered airport transfers and all other transport.  

You could have done the same for a bit less if you’d scheduled with cost-saving in mind, the big difference would be having the hours gap between tapping off and back on and saving the longer ferry trips for later in the week.  We ended up paying for 13 individual trips, not 8 because of the combining journey rule.  Still, we thought that was great value for hopping the ferries and trains whenever and wherever we wanted.

The ferries

Sydney public transport

Initially, the heritage green ferries may look a bit dodgy but we came to love the character of the different boats which range in size from little HarbourCat class on the inner harbour routes to the big Freshwater that we took out to Manly. 

You want one of these big boats if you are going out that close to the heads as although you’ll stay within the harbour you do come very close to the entrance and even with the minimal breeze it can become a bit chopping as you turn across the tide.

The best part of using the ferries is not only the big time saving getting to many destinations but the fabulous views of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and the many cliffs, coves and bays along the edge of the harbour.  There’s multi-million dollar real estate dotted all along here and if you’re headed anywhere to the right you’ll get a glimpse of Kirribilli house, the second home of Australia’s Prime Minister.

The fleet of 28 boats covers over a million kilometres a year keeping commuters connected on either side of the sprawling harbour.

The trains

The train system is frequent and efficient.  Throughout the city, all the trains we used were the two-story design with a smaller platform level area with 8 seats and standing room at each entry door.  Use of these seats is prioritised for those most in need who would find the stair access to the main seating carriages challenging.

Sydney trains

The station facilities were of a mixed standard.  Mostly I would say they were clean and we felt safe in the daytime and into the evening.  We arrived in the city via the Museum station which had no working lift and had to carry two large cases and hand luggage up three steep flights of stairs, by contrast, Town Hall station which turned out to be slightly closer to our accommodation, and Circular Quay station which we used regularly, had both lift and escalators working.

The buses

We only caught one bus and that was from the Taronga Zoo wharf up to the main entrance at the top of the hill.  I hadn’t realised you needed to pre-purchase your zoo tickets if you wanted to use the gondola access up the hill at the start of your visit.

The bus service was clean with an easy tap on and off.  Australian buses are entered through the door at the front of the bus next to the driver and can usually be exited from the front or rear door.

What are the other options?

On the harbour

There were a few places you couldn’t get to with city ferries that other companies will stop at.  If you wanted to get to some of the islands in the harbour other than Cockatoo Island you would need to use another provider.  One example is the hop on hop off ferry, a one-day ticket will cost $40, you can do a 60-90 minute tour of the harbour or get on and off at any of the 9 stops.  The ferry includes 3 island stops that aren’t available on the Opal Card with Sydney ferries (Fort Dennison, Shark Island and Garden Island).


There are also water taxi services running that provide an alternative.  Personally, we never found the need for them and they are a very expensive option but it’s useful to know it’s available.

Organised tours

Trains and buses can get you to most places you want to go but may involve a bit of waiting and connections so if your time is more limited than your finances tours may be an option.  We aren’t really fans of any form of organised tour but that’s just us, they can provide a load of local knowledge and the back story to the places you visit that you wouldn’t otherwise know about.

The Sydney Explorer buses

The Syndey Big Bus Explorers are distinctive topless double-decker buses that are another option to get you around the city highlights and out as far as Bondi.  For $59 you can get on and off at any of the 34 stops as many times as you want to during a 24-hour period from when you first use it.  

Be aware though the buses don’t operate around the clock, they start at 8.30 am and shut down at 6 pm during summer or 5 pm during the winter.  The buses hit each stop approximately every 20 minutes so you won’t be waiting too long to move on to the next stop and while you’re on board you can learn a bit about the city from the recorded commentary.

Sydney public transport in summary

Sydney is a city that is easy and cost-effective to find your way around using the ferries, trains and buses.

We didn’t miss having a car during our stay.  Most city hotels will charge extra for parking and we felt a rental car would have been more of a hindrance than an asset within the city itself.  The exception might be if you had some extra time and wanted to get out of the city and have some flexibility to explore areas such as the Hunter Valley wine region or into the Blue Mountains for a night or two.

Getting Around in Sydney
Getting Around in Sydney

If you have any questions about the Sydney public transport system I haven’t covered please drop me a message in the comments below or through the contact section of the website.  If you have any additional tips about getting about in Sydney or saving a few dollars while you do please share them with other readers in the comments.

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Eddie Wong

Wednesday 29th of March 2023

Can we use the OPAL CARD on The Sydney explorer buses to tap on and tap off when we get off the bus? Can we use the OPAL CARD to take the harbour ferry? Thank you

Toni Broome

Sunday 2nd of April 2023

Hi Eddie. Sydney Explorer buses are a hop on - hop off tour rather than a city bus (now called Big Bus Sydney) and can't be used with the Opal Card.


Saturday 21st of January 2017

Do children four and under need cards?

2 Aussie Travellers

Saturday 21st of January 2017

Hi Jen, childrens' passes (or tickets) are required for children aged 4 to 15. If the child is not yet turned 4 they won't need one |

Melissa @ All Around Oz

Tuesday 8th of March 2016've made long for the days I lived in Sydney and caught the ferry from Manly across to Circular Quay every day and then sprinted up three flights of stairs to make my connecting train! Loved the ferry and the harbour views. Great way to start and finish a day.

2 Aussie Travellers

Thursday 10th of March 2016

Thanks Melissa, I didn't know you were from down there. It's such a lovely trip out to Manly and back, not sure about the stair sprint for work but it sure is a lovely spot out there.

Julie Small

Tuesday 8th of March 2016

Great post and congratulations on working all that out. Born and bred in Sydney and I still work in Sydney - I use public transport everyday and I feel so sorry for tourists coming here trying to negotiate this overly complicated and clogged system. This should really help them.

2 Aussie Travellers

Tuesday 8th of March 2016

Thanks Julie. We did love the ferries but yes I can imagine commuting is quite a different scenario! Although having spent many years in Auckland, NZ I have to say any public transport system is impressive after that :)

Lyn (aka) The Travelling Lindfields

Friday 4th of March 2016

Great info on the Opal card. Since it is relatively new even Sydneysiders like myself are still learning all the rules. You may want to keep an eye on the cap thing though. I have read recently that there is talk of changing it. Apparently too many people are getting free trips at the end of the week.

2 Aussie Travellers

Sunday 6th of March 2016

Thanks for the heads up Lyn, I update articles when info changes so I'll keep an eye on it. I heard while we were down there this time that they were discussing some changes but for now it's excellent value and appears to be achieving pretty much what they were aiming for on the commuter front at least so hopefully they keep the basis the similar.

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