Transit 101 – Episode 3 – Transit Fares


Welcome back to Transit 101, where I talk about everything that you need to know about using public transit. In this episode, I’m going to talk about all things transit fares! Topics will include the following:

Paying with cash or tokens

Paying with a mag-swipe card

Paying through a smartphone app

Paying through a smart-card

Ordering transit fare media online

Customer Service Centers and Third Party Vendors

Paying with Cash or Tokens


Paying for your transit journey with cash is very simple to do – especially if you’re paying for only a one-way trip. However, you’ll need to make sure that you have exact change with you at all times – as transit operators cannot handle change. If you need to make change, I strongly advise that you visit a customer service center, or a grocery store service desk. In some cases, change machines may be provided on-site at a transit center. You’ll want to contact your transit agency or visit their website to view updated fare information so that you’re not boarding the bus or train unprepared.

Most transit agencies allow customers to purchase one-day transit passes on board the bus, please make sure to have exact change and notify the bus operator that you’ll be purchasing a day pass prior to inserting money into the farebox. This will allow the operator to enter the necessary code to register to the farebox that you’re purchasing a day pass. Many transit agencies also have ticket vending machines that accept cash as payment for purchasing transit fare media.

While many transit agencies have eliminated tokens as fare payment, there are a small number of agencies that still accept tokens. If your transit agency accepts tokens as fare payment, you can normally purchase tokens at a customer service center or other designated sales outlet. Please be sure to insert your tokens in the designated slot on the farebox or turnstile.

Paying with a Mag-Swipe Card

Front of a PSTA GO Card. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012 (You are welcome to share this photo for NON-PROFIT-GENERATING PURPOSES, but please provide credit to me. Thank you.)

Many transit agencies produce mag-swipe cards for use as transit passes. These cards come in many forms; but often include One-Day, Three-Day, Five-Day, Seven-Day, Fourteen-Day, and Thirty One-Day categories. Pass categories can vary by transit agency, so please be sure to contact your transit agency or visit their website for a listing of available passes and how much each pass costs.

Back of a PSTA GO Card with the dates and times of first use and expiration. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012 (You are welcome to share this photo for NON-PROFIT-GENERATING PURPOSES, but please provide credit to me. Thank you.)

To purchase a transit pass, you can visit a customer service center or ticket vending machine. Many transit agencies accept both cash and credit/debit cards at their customer service centers and ticket vending machines. As I mentioned earlier, many transit agencies also allow customers to purchase a one-day pass on board buses with cash.

When activating your transit pass for the first time, be sure to insert your card into the designated slot on the farebox or ticket reader machine so that it prints the date and time of first use and the expiration date and time. Please see the photo above for an example of this. After your pass is activated, all you have to do is swipe the black stripe of the pass along the reader on the farebox, turnstile, or ticket reader machine.

SunRail Ticket Validator.


For transit systems that use the “Tap And Go” procedure, simply tap your pass against the ticket validator screen until you receive a message stating that your ticket is valid. This procedure is also done for smart cards (i.e. Chicago’s “Ventra” fare system).

Paying through a Smartphone app

Many transit agencies are gradually shifting away from mag-swipe cards as the primary form of payment. While many transit agencies will continue to accept cash for some time, many agencies are enticing customers who have smartphones to use an app to purchase transit fare via a credit or debit card. While some apps can only be used for purchasing physical transit passes (like a mag-swipe card) other apps can allow a customer to add value to a smart card (i.e. Chicago’s “Ventra” fare system) or the app itself can act as the transit pass (i.e. Flamingo Fares App).

When opening the smartphone ticketing app for the first time, be sure to follow the screens to set up your account, including adding your credit or debit card information for purchases. Locating these screens will vary per app, and some apps will have these screens appear for first time users automatically.

Once you’re finished setting up your account, including desired payment method, head to the screen to purchase your tickets. Like mag-swipe passes, smartphone app tickets can be separated into different categories. Be sure to take note of the price of each ticket and how long the ticket is valid for before selecting, as in many cases, you will not be able to receive a refund if you select the wrong ticket. And unlike mag-swipe cards that haven’t been activated yet, you won’t be able to transfer your purchased ticket to someone else.

Once you’ve selected the ticket that you wish to purchase, tap the ticket and go through the purchasing process. You will be asked to confirm your purchase before it becomes final. Once your ticket has been purchased, it’s ready to be activated. When you’re ready to use your ticket, follow the screens on the app to activate the ticket. Once the ticket is activated, follow the prompts to show the bus operator or rail ticket inspector your valid activated ticket.

With the Flamingo Fares App, when a ticket is activated, you will be able to open to ticket and be greeted with a screen with moving text. You will need to show this screen to the bus operator or rail ticket inspector to certify that your ticket is valid. To further ensure that your Flamingo ticket is valid, tap the screen so that it changes from pink to gray. This is will tell the bus operator or rail ticket inspector that your ticket is indeed valid.

Always be sure to take note as to when your ticket expires. Once your ticket has expired, you will be prompted to purchase a new one.

For the Tampa Bay Region (Hillsborough, Pinellas, and coming soon – Sarasota – counties), here’s a short video on how to use the Flamingo Fares App (put together by PSTA).

Paying with a Smart Card

Credit: Ventra Chicago

For transit agencies that utilize a smart card for transit fares (i.e. the Chicago CTA and Pace Bus via “Ventra”), you’ll want to first make sure that you’ve purchased and activated your card. Your transit agency will provide instructions on how to do so and can also help walk you through the steps to using the card. With smart cards, you’ll simply use the “Tap and Go” procedure that I mentioned earlier in this post by tapping your card against the fare validator screen. Once you receive a message that your fare is valid, simply proceed to the bus or train for boarding.

Transit agencies that utilize smart cards often make it easy for you to manage your account. This can be done online or even through a smartphone app. The Chicago “Ventra” fare payment system recently launched its own smartphone app so that customers can manage their account and add funds to their smart card easily and efficiently. Some agencies (including the Chicago CTA and Pace Bus) allow the smart card to also be used as a normal debit card, so that you can store money on the card not just for transit fares, but also for regular purchases – like that grab-and-go sandwich when you don’t have time to dine in before your commute to work.

If you live in or are planning to visit the Chicago, IL area, the “Ventra” website will provide all of the information that you need to purchase, activate, and manage your “Ventra” card, including how to download the smartphone app.

 Ordering transit fare media online

Many transit agencies allow you to purchase transit tickets online. Simply visit your transit agency’s website and select the link to purchase your desired fare media. Since the purchasing process for each transit agency varies greatly, I will not be able to provide a step-by-step process. Any detailed questions should be directed to your transit agency’s customer service team.

Customer Service Centers and Third Party Vendors

Many customer service centers, located at major transit hubs and some rail stations, allow you to purchase transit tickets directly from a customer service agent. Cash and checks are accepted at the customer service centers, though restrictions may be placed on the acceptance of checks. For credit and debit card purchases, you may be directed to a ticket vending machine if one is available.

Many transit agencies partner with third party merchants (such as CVS Pharmacy) to sell transit passes. Check with your transit agency to see if such an arrangement is in place and if so, which vendors take part.


While I do my best to provide the most accurate information regarding fares in this post. Some things may change over time – such as the way that smartphone apps work. This post is designed to provide a general overview on the types of transit fares available and how to purchase fare media. If you have any detailed questions about your particular transit agency’s procedures, please contact their customer service team.

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