Sydney Airport's Opal card loophole exposed

By David Flynn, June 21 2017
Sydney Airport's Opal card loophole exposed

A little-known loophole in Sydney's Opal card is allowing travellers a nearly free ride to Sydney Airport's domestic and international stations – and it's costing the NSW Government an estimated $1.3 million in lost revenue.

The trick lets users skip the $13.80 'access fee' levied at the privately-owned and operated Airport Link stations and pay barely $3.50 for their entire journey to the airport.

It's come about because the Opal system lets travellers tap-on to start their trip with a credit of only $3.38, and lets them tap-off at the other end with a negative balance.

Savvy airport train travellers buy an Opal card – which requires no up-front deposit – and choose not to register it, and then use the card as normal until the balance is no less than $3.38.

At that point they can use the card to travel to Sydney Airport domestic or international stations, exit those stations with their card in negative balance and then simply throw their Opal card away.

For example, a peak-hour trip from Chatswood in Sydney's north to the domestic airport station costs $18 – of which $13.80 is the station access fee – but an Opal card with a balance of just $3.40 makes the trip cost less than a cup coffee.

The trick doesn't work on the return journey, however, as the airport stations require any Opal card to have sufficient credit to cover the access fee.

This loophole has resulted in a revenue sinkhole for the NSW Government.

"Unregistered Opal cards with negative balances cannot be recovered unless the passenger adds value to top up the card," the NSW Audit Office says, because cardholders can simply "discard their negative balance cards."

A likely fix will be to raise the minimum tap-on amount or charge a purchase price for each Opal card, as is done with many similar transport cards around the world.


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 378

That seems like a lot of effort. I couldn't see a lot of people doing this on purpose. Maybe tourist on their way out of Sydney and don't understand the charges involved.

Its actually not much effort. When you land you buy an opal card with $10 on it, scan the gate and when you arrive at the other end you exit and throw card away.

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1245

But see: 

"The trick doesn't work on the return journey, however, as the airport stations require any Opal card to have sufficient credit to cover the access fee."

I do this all the time. I catch the bus to and from work each day so I buy an Opal card, use it for a few commutes and when the balance is low enough I set the card aside for my next trip. I fly domestic every two weeks so it's worth doing.

..or just walk to/from Mascot station and enjoy the health benefits.


Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 730

What a bureaucratic bungle up that is.  Can't they get anything right. Down here in Melbourne we re invented the wheel with our Myki card, cost billions and took years and never works. We need an Army of fare evader agents to quell the problem of free loading, and we don't even have transport yet to the airport.

"we don't even have transport yet to the airport." lol, and you guys never will. Tolls and Airport parking cost crushed the last attempt.

23 Feb 2015

Total posts 262

Have to say I am pretty disappointed David that you would run an article promoting fare evasion.

You call the people who do this "savvy". I call them dishonest.

18 Apr 2015

Total posts 67

Completely agree - I was taken aback reading it. Public transport receipts never cover the cost to provide public transport infrastructure/services which many in the public don't fully realise. 

09 Jun 2017

Total posts 31

Get over yourself. The Government and these extortionate fares are the real criminals

Sad to see ausbt advocating (even if indirectly theft... Really going down hill.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Sep 2014

Total posts 50

At no point does this article 'advocate theft' and suggest that readers engage in the activity be reported on. It simply states this is a loop hole that exists, this is how individuals exploit said loophole and [x] is the cost to the gov, and a fix is likely in the works. Mind you I disagree with the fix statement because… NSW, however, your assertion is baseless. 

18 Apr 2015

Total posts 67

The problem, apart from publishing the article and potentially exacerbating the problem, is with using the word savvy. It's like saying a shopper is savvy if they enter quantity of 1 when they have 4 avocados at self checkout. Just because you can get away with it doesn't mean it's not theft.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 May 2015

Total posts 75

This is proof that the fare to and from the airport is too expensive. $18 is outrageous and makes it one of the most expensive transfers in the world. I'm currently in Europe and in the last month have taken public transport from airports in Berlin, Hamburg, Budapest, Prague, Madrid, Birmingham, Helsinki and the list goes on. A typical one way fare from these cities is between 3-6 euros. Make the price fare and less people will exploit this loophole.

25 Feb 2013

Total posts 62

It's no wonder people try and screw the system, the system is screwed. Australian airport travel costs are extortionate. There is no legitimate reason for the train trip (in Sydney or Brisbane) or bus trip (in Melbourne) to the airport to cost as much as it does, and it is undoubtedly damaging to business and the economy overall. 

Even in the US - where they get every other part of public transit wrong - they get airport travel right and this kind of gouging doesn't happen.

In fact, most cities have it linked up to their public transit at cost, and some (e.g. Boston) actually run *free* public transit airport options 


Emirates Airlines - Skywards

30 Nov 2015

Total posts 730

It appalls me that Governments here in Australia can enter into contracts that hold the public to ransom for 30+ years as they did in Melbourne with Citilink to the Airport and the Sydney Airport Train Gate fees, very sad shortsightedness.

09 May 2011

Total posts 23

This is hardly "theft" - it is a legal loophole which can be used as  a result of poor requirements, planning, and testing on part of the NSW government when implementing the entire Opal card system. This is Project Management 101, and unfortunately is a common cock up in many high profile projects.

The system is built to allow the cards to go into debit after exiting the barriers at the airport. So fix it. Until then, let the financial debt add up.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2013

Total posts 138

I believe this is journalism not advocating theft. Infact, if at all, it is promoting the concerned department to be more active on supervising and eliminating loopholes. Only when these things are made public, someone higher up will think this is important to fix. This will never make me put less money on the card, i'm sure the majority of the ausbt readers would think like me too. There are always going to be people who will abuse the system whether they read it here or not! 

11 Dec 2015

Total posts 85

This sin't anything specific to Opal card - all cashless transport card systems work the same way. When you tap on, the card doesn't "know" where you're going, so as long as you have the minimum balance to make the cheapest possible journey on the system, you'll be let in. 

Now in say, Singapore, the loss isn't very big because the most expensive journey is only a few dollars anyway, so most people don't bother to "cheat" this way. But because of Sydney's ridiculously expensive airport "access fee", this loophole becomes a viable option for regular commuters. 

The solution of course is to stop the price gouging, get rid of the access fee and make the airport stations just like any other, then people wouldn't bother "cheating". 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Feb 2016

Total posts 9

I am travelling in Japan and this isn't a problem. You can swipe into the gate with the minimum fare but when you try and exit, the gate doesn't open unless you have the required credit. If you are below the required amount you can go to the fare adjustment machine and top up your credit. Very simple and evasion is harder.

13 May 2016

Total posts 31

It's only $2.50 on Sundays folks!

31 Oct 2018

Total posts 1

Top up kiosks before you exit. Lots of systems do it. In Japan an alarm goes off if you evade. It puts the ass in embarrassed I tell you.

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