Sydney Airport's Opal card loophole exposed

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
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


  • Dave


    21 Jun, 2017 03:27 pm

    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.
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  • clarkysdonga


    21 Jun, 2017 04:35 pm

    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.
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  • eminere


    21 Jun, 2017 07:50 pm

    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."
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  • DeepAvThroat


    21 Jun, 2017 03:34 pm

    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.
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  • AwaywithMike


    21 Jun, 2017 03:47 pm

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


    21 Jun, 2017 04:05 pm

    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.
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  • clarkysdonga


    21 Jun, 2017 04:37 pm

    "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.
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  • Steve987


    21 Jun, 2017 09:22 pm

    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.
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  • superflyer


    22 Jun, 2017 12:01 pm

    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. 
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  • Gary Swift


    23 Jun, 2017 10:08 am

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


    21 Jun, 2017 10:10 pm

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


    21 Jun, 2017 10:32 pm

    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. 
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  • superflyer


    22 Jun, 2017 06:40 pm

    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.
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  • AlexTravAddict


    21 Jun, 2017 10:27 pm

    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.
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  • Jon W

    Jon W

    21 Jun, 2017 10:49 pm

    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 
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  • sgb


    22 Jun, 2017 09:32 am

    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.
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  • gardermoen


    22 Jun, 2017 09:54 am

    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.
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  • Say Mee


    22 Jun, 2017 02:33 pm

    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! 
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  • Trogdor


    22 Jun, 2017 03:29 pm

    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". 
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  • Jyrn


    23 Jun, 2017 05:16 pm

    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.
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  • Mavers


    23 Jun, 2017 03:01 pm

    It's only $2.50 on Sundays folks!
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  • Brandi Br Moses


    31 Oct, 2018 06:40 pm

    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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24 May, 2019 05:18 am


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