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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 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 now product offering has gradually expanded to be almost as comprehensive as Big Bus and OLT – but not quite.

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 : French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Polish, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin and Russian
Golden Tours: : French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, Japanese

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.

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 normally are cheapest 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.

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.
Operators differ slightly, but you print the e-ticket or in some cases 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: The Golden Tours 1 calendar day ticket doesn’t include the walking tours or the river cruise.
The Big Bus Tour has walking tours and river cruises included in its 1 calendar day ticket.

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

Both Big Bus and Golden Tours you have to stipulate the first day you want to travel when you purchase.

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 the use of the winter promotion above, the advance on-line tickets as detailed in the paragraph below and if you are visiting one of the major attractions getting a sightseeing bus and attraction package, (see section below)

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.

Important! Big Differences Between Ticketing Conditions On Lowest Prices

It is tempting to choose between tours purely on lowest price, this can be a significant mistake.
The cheapest tickets are purchased on-line direct from the respective web sites of each company. You pay using a credit/debit card and a confirmation/voucher is e-mailed to you immediately.
However, on-line tickets do have  different booking conditions between the companies, so do factor these differences into your purchasing decision.

Original London Tour Discounted On-Line Tickets
OLT offer 24 and 48 hour tickets.

With OLT  the good news is that vouchers can be redeemed at any time within six months of purchase – there are no restrictions, the best company with regards flexibility.

The OLT flexibility is particularly useful if the first day in London it rains or you overseleep. The flexibility allows you to delay the start by a few hours or indeed by a day.
Both Big Bus and Golden Tours you have to stipulate the first day you want to travel when you purchase.

With OLT you print your voucher out or have it scanned from your mobile device at any of the bus stops around central London.
Valid ANY date, ANY time within 6 months.

Big Bus Discounted On-Line Tickets
Big Bus have tickets for 24 or 48 hours or 1 calendar day. The 1 calendar day ticket is slightly cheaper than the 24 hour ticket.

Bbring your printed e–ticket with you, and present it to a member of Big Bus staff at your chosen boarding point.
E-tickets are named. You will be asked to present the credit card you used when making the booking as proof of identification.

If you have access to a smartphone with internet access, then you will have the option to have your tickets sent to your mobile. If you choose this option then you will receive an SMS message with a web link to your unique QR code ticket.
Simply present your QR code to a member of the Big Bus sales team before boarding the bus and you will then receive a paper ticket, which you will need to retain throughout your journey.

Golden Tours Discounted On-Line Tickets
Golden Tours tickets are for 24,48 or 72 hours and there is a 1 calendar day option too.
Note with the Golden Tours 1 calendar day ticket no walking tours or river cruises are included in the ticket.
Like the others bring your e-ticket to the first boarding point for validation.

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.

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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  • 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?

    • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

      If you buy a 48 hour Big Bus ticket they are currently running a promotion where the night tour is bundled in free, but otherwise the night tour is separate

      There is also a 10% discount code for Big Bus valid until the end of the month.

      Codes are on:
      https://www.londontoolkit.com/whattodo/big_bus_sightseeing.htm

  • 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!

    • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ 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.

    • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ 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.

    • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ 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.

    • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ 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?

        • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ 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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