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Comparing London’s Hop On Hop Off Open Top Sightseeing Buses

Author: Bob Handford
This a broad discussion of the Hop on, Hop Off Sightseeing buses so popular in London.

What everybody agrees on is that Hop on, Hop Off Sightseeing buses are an excellent introductory orientation for the first time visitor to London.. However Hop on, Hop Off Sightseeing buses are not meant to be a replacement for London\’s excellent public transport.

London is a 24×7 city and the Hoho buses run basically 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.. I would suggest you only need 1 initial day of using the HoHo buses to get a feel of London, use the guides on the buses to bounce of ideas then use public transport to get around for the rest of your trip.

The Three Major Hop on, Hop Off Operators

The three main operators of hop on. hop off sightseeing buses in London are:

a) Original London Tour
b) Big Bus
c) Golden Tours Panorama

Original London Tour and the Big Bus are the long established operators and arguably are near mirror images of each other in term of the product being offered. Anecdotally they seem to have around equal market share.

Golden Tours are the relative new kids on the block and after several years of operation now offer a product almost on par with Big Bus and OLT – but not quite in my opinion.

What Are The Differences Between the 3 Operators?

All three services offer essentially  the same product in very similar vehicles.

London is quite spread out and all services have more than one service route to cover the attractions.
Each operator has two routes that largely duplicate one another covering the West End and along the river to the Tower of London, this is where the biggest customer demand is and all the most popular attractions are.
To the west of this core area are the Kensington museums, Harrods, Kensington Place and the hotel districts around Gloucester Road. For the purposes of this article we’ll treat this area as also part of the core area.

All three services main routes cover this core sightseeing area with very little variation between each operator.

Main Attractions Not Covered by HoHo Service
Notable attractions for not being visited by any HoHo bus are the London Zoo, Camden Lock Market and the Imperial War Museum.

Hotel Districts Not Covered by HoHo Service
The only major hotel district in the centre of London not covered by HoHo buses is Earls Court – but you can walk to Gloucester Road in 10 minutes where all 3 operators operate .
For those in the Bayswater, Lancaster Gate and Paddington areas Big Bus has a main route stopping while the other two have hotel connector services.

Commentary, Audio Guides & Apps
In Bob\’s opinion if you are fluent in English its well worth opting for the guided routes. Guides differ a lot and its pot luck on the individual guide you get but most are very informative, good fun and a big plus.
All three operators have a main route with an English speaking live guide.

Audio guides are available on all services, but languages supported varies between operator
OLT : French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, German, Japanese & Kids’ Channel
Big Bus : English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Mandarin, Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese & Kids’ Channel.
Golden Tours: : English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Mandarin & Russian

Big Bus have a free app for iPhone and Android that provides interesting facts and information on attractions, landmarks, shopping and dining.
Find your chosen destination with ease and locate the nearest bus stop to you, using the 3D map that also integrates with Apple/Google maps.

Frequencies
All three services start up main sightseeing services around 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and start winding down about 5 p.m.
Frequencies vary by season but in the peak summer season  you’ll be very unlucky to wait 10 minutes.

WiFi on the HoHo Bus
Only Golden Tours advertise free WiFi availability on their buses.

Night Bus Tour
Big Bus now operates a night bus hop on hop off tour running until the end of September 2016.
Although the night bus service operates on a hop on, hop off principle there are only 3 night tours every evening 30 minutes apart starting from Westminster Bridge.
In 2016 the night bus service is being offered free to those who purchase the Big Bus 48 hour ticket, or you can buy a night bus specific ticket. The standard day tickets are not valid for the evening service, (apart from the promotional 48 hour ticket).

Golden Tours Sightseeing Bus

Price Comparison - Which Is Cheapest?

Broadly Big Bus and Original London Tour go head to head on price with only small differences. At any one time either can be cheapest. They both offer a very similar service with only subtle differences.
In general, Golden Tours tend to be softest on price.
All operators watch each other like hawks, if one makes a move on price, the others normally follow within hours.

Big Bus, Golden Tours and OLT  all offer 24 and 48 hour tickets.
Golden Tours also offer a  72 hour ticket.
Golden Tours and Big Bus also offer a 1 calendar day ticket that is slightly cheaper than the 24 hour ticket. By calendar day it means the ticket expires at the end of the calendar day whatever your start time. Its worth noting the calendar day tickets do not include the river cruise.

Note: Big Bus, OLT and Golden Tours tickets all use ticketing measured in 24 hour blocks, whether it be 24,48 or 72 durations.
So, if you start using a 48 hour ticket (the time you step on the first bus or get your ticket validated) on a Monday at 2 p.m. the tickets expire at 2 p.m. on the Wednesday.

Note: The cheapest tickets are in advance, purchased on-line. You are e-mailed e-tickets immediately after purchase.
Tickets bought on the day and from most ticket outlets and hotels are full price.

Operators differ slightly, but you print the e-ticket or  store it on your mobile and show the ticket on boarding the first bus of the day. Your tickets are time validated on boarding and your first 24 hour period starts from this time.

Note:  With OLT & Big Bus the discounted advance purchase tickets can be redeemed at any time within six months of purchase – there are no restrictions, the best companies with regards flexibility.
The OLT & Big Bus flexibility is particularly useful if the first day in London it rains or you oversleep. The flexibility allows you to delay the start by a few hours or indeed by a day.

With Golden Tours you have to stipulate the first day you want to travel when you purchase.

The Cheapest Prices Are In Advance On-Line
You can buy tickets on the day but the cheapest prices are on-line, direct from each operators web-site.

Promotional Pricing & Concessions

Child, Seniors & Family  Tickets
All operators offer child tickets valid for children aged between 5 and 15 years inclusive.
Children under 5 years of age may travel free of charge.

At this moment in time there are no concessions for seniors.

All operators offer a family ticket providing for 2 adults and 2 children.
The Big Bus family ticket is priced so that one child effectively travels for free.
Golden Tours is similar.
Original London Tour at this moment in time offer a price with a very small discount over buying individual tickets.

Summer 2016 Promotions

Original London Tour – Travel before or on 1st October 2016, 24 hour tickets will be valid until the end of service the following day. After the initial 24 hour validity, you can continue exploring London on all 6 bus tour routes, but you will not have access to the River Cruise or Walking Tours.

Big Bus – Travel before or on 30th September 2016, 48 hour tickets come with free Night Bus Tour

Winter 48 Hours For The Price Of 24 Hours Promotion
In the winter months all operators traditionally offer a free days promotion.
This historically has been made available by all operators from around late October to early March.
Exact dates vary from year to year and are not publicised in advance. Its a case of one operator firing the starting gun and the others following with the same offer within hours.

Promotional Codes
Whilst there are from time to time the odd promotional code available for small discounts, this is not North America.
The best price is normally gained by simply purchasing the advance on-line tickets and if you are visiting one of the major attractions getting a sightseeing bus and attraction package, (see section below)

Big Bus - Now Included In The London Pass

Original London Tour & Attravtion PackagesThe London Pass is a flat rate sightseeing pass to many (but not all) of London’s main sightseeing attractions. You can buy a London Pass for 1,2,3,6 or 10 day durations.
The London Pass gives you entry into over 60 London tourist attractions and a river cruise on the River Thames.
The London Pass also now includes use of the Golden Tours Hop On Hop Off bus for the first day only of you using the London Pass, whatever the duration of the London Pass.
The London Pass Discussed Including Current Discount Codes Available

Save Money - Buy Attraction Tickets & Bus Tour In One Package

If one of London’s major sights like the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye etc are on your must see list when in London, you can get an additional discount by purchasing attraction tickets plus sightseeing tour in one package in advance from the Original London Tour.

The beauty of this promotion is that you don’t have to use the attraction tickets on the days you are using the hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus

Original London Tour & Attravtion Packages

Free River Cruises and Walking Tours

Both Big Bus and OLT use the same river cruise company, City Cruises. In Bob\’s opinion City Cruises are better received than Thames Clipper used by Golden Tours.
The Thames Cruise should be a highlight of your day, I would recommend you take advantage of the facility. The cruise itself lasts about 30/40 minutes.

Big Bus and OLT both offer three walking tours. A royalty/changing of the guard walk, a pop music/media walk and a Jack The Ripper/ Gruesome walk. Bob has only joined the OLT walks and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the guiding offered. They will each take 75-90 minutes of your day though.

Golden Tours just has at the moment a daily royalty walk and a not daily Beatles themed walk.

You have to take the river cruises and walks on the same days as your bus tour ticket. You cannot take them another day.

Note with the Golden Tours 1 calendar day ticket no walking tours or river cruises are included in the ticket.

Summary

In summary Big Bus and OLT are very, very similar with little to choose between them. You might identify one of the minor differences as being significant to your individual needs.

Golden Tours has grown and offer a near identical product to the big two. Lower frequencies, less walking tours and in Bob’s opinion not so good a river cruise as OLT/Big Bus means its not quite on parity yet.
However Golden Tours is softest on price.

Links To London's Major Hop On Hop Off Sightseeing Buses

Original London Tour Tickets

Big Bus London Tour Tickets
Panorama 24 hour London Tour Tickets

Questions and Discussion

If you have any questions or have anything you wish to add please use the discussion facility below.
I\’ll normally get back to you within 24 hours.

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  • Serena Chapman

    @Supersly – Thanks for your review. Based on what you wrote I changed my mind and booked with the Big Bus Hop on Hop Off and I’m glad we did. You were right, they were very regular and seemed to come before any of the other busses. And having the Wifi was a huge plus for my teenager. All the staff were very helpful. The only thing i’d like to add is that all the bus tours are VERY SLOW due to heavy traffic, Don’t plan to take it if you need to be somewhere by a certain time. It took 3 1/2 hours to get across town to the Tower of London! Also If you only have 1 day to do the tour take the Live commentary tours as they’re much better. We got the 2 day pass which included the evening tour but we were so fed up of moving at a snails pace (sometimes not moving for 15+ minutes) we switched to traveling by Tube which is much quicker. If you have the option to do both the day and night tour only do the night tour around the London Eye. It’s not worth doing the whole night tour unless that’s all you purchase.

  • Ann

    Hi Bob we are traveling to London this weekend and I gave booked the big bus 48 hrs ticket, do you know if it stops anywhere near London St pancreas train station and premier Inn tower bridge? Thanks Ann

    • Bob

      The Green Link route of Big Bus is scheduled to run every 20 minutes from 08:50 at St Pancras

      The main red and blue routes of Big Bus interconnect with this and run much more frequently to the Tower of London. Frustratingly the buses run past the Premier inn Tower Bridge not stopping and then crosses Tower Bridge to the Tower of London.
      Its probably a 10-15 minute walk to retrace your steps.

      If you want to go out in the evening apart from the Butlers Wharf/Tower Bridge area youlll need an Oyster anyway and taking the Underground and/or bus would take a fraction off the time to go direct between St Pancras and the hotel.than using a HoHo bus which as a mean sof getting around London is slow

      The Underground runs direct to London Bridge from St Pancras which is about 10 mins walk from the hotel or you can take the Underground to Tower Hill from where the 42 or 78 bus crosses Tower Bridge and pass the hotel

  • Dawn

    Hi
    Is it cheaper to buy the Thames cruise on the day or buy beforehand with big bus. I noticed a £20 extra charge for the ticket with the 30 minute cruise. Thanks

    • Bob

      Not sure I understand the question properly
      Both Big Bus and OLT use City Cruises that you can buy tickets off their web site for £10
      The core 24 hour and 48 hour tickets include the City Cruises cruise as part of the ticket.
      There are slightly cheaper tickets sold by Big Bus that do not incluse the river cruise but nowhere near £10 cheaper.
      So if you want the river cruise buy the HoHo ticket that includes the river cruise as part of the ticket

      • Dawn

        Hi Bob, I didn’t see the cruise on the first 24 ticket info. I see it is a lot cheaper now. Sorry for the mistake and thanks for getting back to me.

  • Wandy

    Hi Bob. Very details comparison. I plan to choose Big Bus Tour. We will be staying next to Bethnal Green Station. Looking at the Bus Route, the nearest is Stop No 16, St Paul; is this a St Paul Cathedral, or another St Paul in London?.
    Or any other nearest stop i should consider without hassle to change train.

    • Bob

      Yes, using the Central Line to St Paul’s would bring you to St Paul#s Cathedral for stop number 16 on Big Bus

      Its the same fare on the Underground to anywhere in zone 1 wherever you go from Bethnal Green so you could go to Tower Hill (opposite Tower of London) changing train at Liverpool Street as another option where the river cruise starts as well as being a major stop for BiG Bus

  • Terry Williams

    Hi Bob. Love Your site. We will be in London for five days in mid-September. I purchased the 3-day London Pass but planning to go to Hampton Court on the first day. I asked specifically if we must use the hop-on-hop-off pass on the first day. They replied no, we could use on any of the three days. Can you verify?

    • Bob

      If London Pass have confirmed you can use the HoHo Bus any day that is all the verification you need I would have thought.

      Hampton Court is on the railways 2 for 1 promotion so If you have problems getting all the London Pass attractions in the 3 days make the Hampton Court trip on the 4th day buy a return train ticket to Waterloo or get a 1 day Travelcard zone 1-6 from a railway station, print the 2 for 1 voucher and get 2 people in for the price of one.

      If you have taken the Transport option with London Pass for 3 days the Visitors Oyster card that comes with it it is only broadly funded for travel within zones 1-2 so you will probably have to top that up to get to Hampton Court by train within the days

      • Terry Williams

        Thanks for the suggestions. We bought tourist oyster cards separately. It looked like a better deal for five days. We are travelling by underground to Richmond and up the Thames to Hampton Court. From there we’ll decide whether to bus back to Richmond with a stop in Teddington or take the Hampton train back to London. We’ll utilize the London Pass the next two days. We have reservations to tour Buckhingham Palace which everyone is excited about.

  • Edward

    Hi Bob! Going to london on july 28-30 and will be staying at queens park hotel (bayswater). The train stops at euston station on the 28th. What bus would you recommend for me pls.this is my first time in london.thanks

    • Bob

      The Hop Off Hop Off Buses are not meant as the main way you get around London.
      Probability is that you just need an Oyster card to get around bought at Euston Underground Station on arrival.
      The Underground will take you effeciently to Queensway Underground by your hotel (Victoria Line to Oxford Circus where you change to the Central Line to Queensway)

      Details of Oyster are at:
      https://www.londontoolkit.com/briefing/oystercard.htm

      If you want to use a HoHo bus as a good way of introduction to London on your first day then as your accommodation is in Bayswater I would opt for the Big Bus.

      • Edward

        Hi Bob! Thank you.I did some research and I found out that we can use our contactless card on all forms of transportation,we might just use them as it says that would be just the same as buying oyster PAYG.

        • Bob

          Yes you can use contactless on the buses, underground and most railways in London for adult fares only but not on the HoHo buses

          You need a separate contactless card for each person,

  • Julie

    Thank you for this comparison it is very useful. I will catch the train into Euston. Can I get on the tour buses there or do I need to get the underground to the nearest pick up point? Where would the nearest pick up point be?

    • Bob

      While all 3 operators offer services to Euston they are not the main routes, but for the most part feeder services that link into the main routes.

      Original London Tour only have one route an hour that actually call at Euston, but if you cross the main road in front of the station (Euston Road) and walk down by the side of the Hilton Jotel and then past Tavistock Square you will come to the Royal national Hotel where OLT’s Museum route terminates that runs quite frequently.

      Golden Tours have the most comprehensive route that goes past Euston but still not as frequent as the main routes in the centre

      Big Bus have a feeder service also scheduled about every 20 minutes that starts across the Euston Rad opposite the Hilton Hotel in front of the church and basically just feeds into the main routes in the centre

      So in summary yes you can join the tours at Euston rather than get a tube or bus into the main routes in the centre but it may well eat up some of your precious time

  • Michelle

    Thanks for the article! Very helpful.

    You mention (and so does Big Bus website) that the smartphone QR code needs to be presented to a big bus sales rep to get a paper ticket prior to boarding the bus. Can this be done at any stop on any route?

    • Bob

      There should be a sales person at each bus stop, certainly the main ones.
      If not I’m sure the bus driver will let you get on to the next bus stop where there is a person.

      • Michelle

        You rock! Thanks for the quick answer 🙂

  • Carole.midura

    I have a ALS AND COMING TO LONDON 13 JULY FOR 3 DAYS. ARE THE BIG BUS OPERATORS HRLPFUL WITH MY SITUATION? WILL THEY GIVE ME RXTRA TIME TO GET ON? I WILL HAVE 5 PEOPLE WITH ME. THANK YOU.

    • Bob

      For an authorative answer on the help you can expect I would contact Big Bus and get it in writing waht the situation is, so if the help is not offered you have a reference

  • Kirstinl

    Quick question…if we are arriving in London late afternoon, will either operator allow us to ride in the evenings? I see that Big Bus has a night tour–is this included in a 24 hour pass or must this be purchased separately?

  • Maria v

    Hello Bob, your article is very very helpful, thank you so much.
    I will be coming to London next month with my family and we will be dropped off at Victoria Station, my question is which is the best way to get from Victoria Station to Warren Street Station or nearby, we will be traveling with luggage and thats why Im not sure if we will be allowed in any public transport. Your response would be very helpful, Thank you so much!

    • Bob

      The quickest, cheapest and fastest transfer between Victoria and Warren Street is the Victoria Line of the Underground.
      As long as your party can independently carry their luggage down escalators there is no reason why you shouldn’t use the Underground.
      It probably won’t be the most pleasurable experience but it is the cheapest, fastest and quickest

      • Maria v

        Thank you so much for your quick response, I truly appreciate it.

  • Caroline

    Hello, thank you for a wonderful article. I will be traveling with a group and considering the Big Bus HOHO for their first day in London starting near London Liverpool Station. Two questions: I am a bit concerned about traffic on a weekday and am wondering what the slow down typically is for scheduling; as well, I would like them to have the experience of the boat tour and/or walking tour. How would you suggest best combining one or both in a day trip? (On a 24 hour ticket I suppose they could be done the second day) Thank you.

    • Bob

      Traffic in London is just something you have to live with I’m afraid – its got wose in the last year as so much road has been given over to cycle use.
      I would certainly recommend taking the boat tour between the Tower of London and London Eye/Westminster.
      You might want to look up Tower Bridge lift times to see if you can get your visit to the Tower of London area to co-incide with Tower Bridge lifting

      • Caroline

        Thanks so much. One additional question. Is there a good place to find the schedule for the river cruise; in particular the last departure time from Westminster Pier to exit at Tower Bridge.

  • Beth

    My Husband has hearing loss and the option of plugging in headphones or hearing the guide on his blue tooth capable hearing aids are extremely helpful. do any of these have this option? Thank you.

    • Bob

      I have no information on this aspect – I think its a case of contacting the individual companies direct.

      • Beth

        Ok, thanks.

  • susan

    This is very helpful – thank you. My daughters and I have a 10 1/2 hour layover at Heathrow and we are hoping to take the Heathrow Express into London and then jump on a bus. Where would we need to get off of the Express in order to catch a Big Bus? We are hoping to see as much as we can in our limited time.

    • Bob

      The Heathrow Express is a non-stop premium priced train service that only stops at Paddington Station – there are good discounts if you buy on-line from the Heathrow Express web site advance tickets bought 14, 30 and 90 days in advance, the further out, the cheaper the ticket

      Arriving at Paddington that is just outside the very centre of London you’re best advised to plump for the BiG Bus service which has a major route that visits Paddington Station

      • susan

        Again, very helpful! Due to the fact that we have such a limited time I figured that the Heathrow Express was our best option. Would you agree or suggest something else? Should we also pre-purchase Big Bus tickets before arriving?

        • Bob

          I don’t think there will be much in it between Heathrow Express and the London Underground.

          The Heathrow Express runs every 15 minutes and takes 15 minutes to London Paddington from Terminals 2 and 3, 20 minutes from T5 and probably 30 minutes from T4 as you have to change train.
          Paddington is on the edge of the centre of London

          The London Underground runs every 5 minutes and takes about an hour to Leicester Square at the centre of London and a hub for all the Hoho routes

          Buying your tickets on-line in advance gives you the cheapest tickets than buying on the day and for purchases until the end of May there are some 10% off codes on our main web site for Big Bus

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