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Explore Sydney with an Opal Card & Public Transport

Sydney Public Transport
The Sydney public transport system is excellent for getting around to all the top spots and spending time out on the stunning Sydney Harbour. Here’s how to get around the city and save a few dollars too.

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 are a whole range of additional caps and discounts associated with it.  Here’s a few you will want to be aware of

  1. All you can use Sundays for $2.50. Go anywhere on the network and pay no more than $2.50, which worked perfectly for us when we arrived on a Sunday and started getting orientated.  The other caps don’t start accumulating until Monday.
  2. A daily $15 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 $60 weekly cap
  4. Only pay for 8 paid journeys then the rest of the weeks travel is free.
  5. Pay not 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 forms of transport when there is 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, efficient, stuck pretty much to the timetable and offered reasonable value for getting.  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

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 boat 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 minimal breeze it can become a bit chopping as you turn across the tide.
Sydney public transport

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 harbours edge.  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 Kirrabilli house, the second home of Australia’s Prime Minister.

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

The trains

The train system is frequent and efficient.  Through 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 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 gondala access up the hill at the start of your visit.

The bus service was clean with 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 $46, 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).

hop-on-hop-off-ferry

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

These distinctive topless double decker buses are a another option to get you around the city highlights and out as far as Bondi.  For $40 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 8.30am and shut down at 6pm during summer or 5pm 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.

18 Comments

  • Ahhhh….you’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.

  • 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.

    • 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 🙂

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • After traveling to Australia two separate times, I’ve still not made it to Sydney…plans are in the making. So, I am filing this away as I will definitely be revisiting it closer to my trip. Love great tips!

    • Thanks Corinne. Australia it’s the easiest to see in limited time, its huge and diverse but Sydney is a popular arrival point and can be worth allowing a few days to explore the harbour city. Which parts have you been to Corinne?

  • What an useful post. i am glad you put this together. Each transport system has its own rules and details to take into consideration. It is good to familiarize yourself with the public system of a city you are visiting. You would not believe the number of oops I had one time in Madrid because I wasn’t aware of certain rules.

    • I always do a bit of research myself when we’re hitting a new city but often the official information is limited and skims over the rules meaning as a traveller you might not be aware of the best deals or how to make the best use of them. I imagine Madrid would be fairly complex!

  • I think one of THE best Sydney experiences is taking a ferry trip across to Manly and back from Circular Quay. The views are fantastic and you can take some great photos of the bridge, the harbour and the Opera House from out on the water.

  • Great tips – lots of locals complain about our public transport but really I think it’s great overall and from a visitor’s perspective a fantastic way to see the city. A bit late for your visit but they are half way through installing lifts at Museum Station at the moment, I think the project is scheduled to be completed mid-year.
    If you get back to Sydney maybe try a few bus routes – there are some great ones through the eastern suburbs that are perfect for visitors.

    • I totally agree that perspective can be very different when you live in a city and rely on its transport system for the daily commute. We did neglect the buses and eastern suburbs a bit on this visit favouring the beaches on the ferry routes. It’s a great city, we’ve been before and will definitely be back to pick up some of the parts we missed. Thanks

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