There are three trains – the ‘Gatwick Express’ (about £20, 30mins to Victoria), ‘Southern’ (about £12, about 35 minutes, to Victoria), and ‘Thameslink’ (about £10, 40 / 50 mins, to Blackfriars, Farringdon and St Pancras). All trains go about every 15 minutes but bigger gaps late at night or early morning when you are most likely to be travelling from an airport.
If you don’t have an ‘Oystercard’ you’ll want to queue up at a machine and buy a ticket. Your choice of train will depend on probably which train is departing next, which station you want to go to, and whether you want to spend £20, £12 or £10. Finding the right ticket on the machines isn’t easy unless you want ‘Gatwick Express’. You’ll also have to keep one eye on the board in case your chosen train leaves while you are queuing up to buy a ticket. If you have the wrong ticket for the train you get on, you’ll need to pay a penalty.
If you have an ‘Oystercard’ you don’t need a ticket, and can go through the gate and the fare will be deducted from your card. But bear in mind it will still cost £19.80 with ‘Gatwick Express’, and £14.20 or £8.10 with both Southern and Thameslink, depending on whether it is ‘peak’ or ‘non peak’. (Peak usually means when people are going to work or coming home).
So note if it is ‘peak’ and going by Thameslink, then even if you have an Oystercard, it is cheaper to buy a ticket (£10 rather than £14.20).
An extra complication is that the Southern trains and Gatwick Express trains look similar. The difference is that Southern trains stop at Clapham Junction and East Croydon, and it says ‘Southern’ on the train times electronic board. But the physical train which arrives may have Gatwick Express written on it in large letters and have a voice onboard saying it is Gatwick Express, which could cause a stress if you have a ‘Southern’ ticket. But you’ll pay £8.10 to go to Victoria on it in about 35 minutes so that’s the best bargain.
This is a ludicrously complicated and potentially stressful system which nobody has thought about as an overall system. For Europeans arriving in Gatwick and trying to figure it out: this is because the UK fell in love with free market in travel systems and thinks it is good that all the train companies compete, although the competition is a bit of a myth because the government still controls the track, the ticketing prices and quite a bit of control over the trains themselves.
I read that the UK spends as much on trains as other European countries but the difference is that the UK gets the public to make a bigger contribution for the price of getting there.
It ends up with a solution where there’s a play-off between simple and expensive (just buy a Gatwick Express ticket) or less expensive and complicated as described above. If you don’t know the system then you might just pay more than take the trouble to work it out. So we have a system which rewards the wrong sorts of behaviours and rewards people who know how to play the game. This is the kind of culture we should be getting away from.