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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 new kids on the block trying to get traction in the market. However they have now been going 3 years and look to be a permanent fixture. Their 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 And Audio Guides
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

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 with Big Bus and OLT you’ll be very unlucky to wait 10 minutes.
Golden Tours are less frequent, but still very acceptable frequencies

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.
Big Bus has a 1,2 & 3 day tickets, OLT  offer 24 hour, sometimes 48 hour tickets.

Golden Tours broadly mirror the big 2 and have much improved the scope of their offering since starting up. You can still make the argument that Golden Tours are not quite on par with Big Bus and OLT but there is now little in it.
Golden Tours are the softest on price and also offer 24,48 or 72 hour tickets.

Note:
Big Bus tickets are for calendar days, so if you start a 2 day ticket at 2 p.m. on a Monday it expires Tuesday evening, not 2 p.m. Wednesday.
OLT and Golden Tours tickets are in 24,48 or 72 durations, so if you start a 48 hour ticket on a Monday at 2 p.m. the tickets expire at 2 p.m. on the Wednesday.

Normally if one operator changes their price or implements a promotion the other two react within hours.

Winter 48 Hours For The Price Of 24 Hours Promotion
In the winter months all operators traditionally offer a 2 days for the price of 1 promotion.  Exact dates operable change from year to year, as soon as one starts offering the promotion, the others follow instantly.
In the past the promotion has been active between the months of November and February, but every year dates are slightly different.

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.
Expect the cheapest advance prices to be 20-30% cheaper than if you purchased on the dayl.

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 have very different booking conditions between the companies, so do factor these differences into your purchasing decision.

Original London Tour Discounted On-Line Tickets
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. Golden Tours like OLT has a 24/48 or 72 hour duration ticket so if you are late starting at say 2 p.m. your ticket lasts the full duartion until 2 p.m. in 1,2 or 3 days time. Big Bus tickets are calendar days so if you start at 2 p.m. you have “lost” the mornings validity on the ticket.

The (perhaps) bad news with OLT is that you can only redeem the print at home vouchers at 14 validation points in Central London.
The validation points are: Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Victoria, Tower Hill, Kensington Palace Gate, Russell Square, Westminster Bridge, Queens Gallery, Charing Cross Road, Bayswater Road, Parliament Street, Aldwych, and York Road.
When you order there is a map detailing where these points are in London.
In contrast, both Big Bus and Golden Tours you simply validate your e-ticket when boarding the first bus anywhere on the network.

Big Bus Discounted On-Line Tickets
The good news with Big Bus is that e-tickets can be validated at any boarding point on the network.
The bad news is that unlike OLT the cheapest tickets require you to stipulate the exact date you want to start using the ticket. So if it rains…
Big Bus are also unique in that their tickets are for 1,2 or 3 calendar days, not the 24,48 or 72 hours of Golden Tours or OLT. This means that to get the full value out of the ticket you need to start first thing in the morning. If you had a 1 day ticket and boarded your first bus at 2 p.m. it expires that evening, with Golden Tours and OLT it would be valid until 2 p.m. the following day.

Golden Tours Discounted On-Line Tickets
Golden Tours have the same advantages and disadvantages as Big Bus with regards ticketing conditions.
The only real difference is that Golden Tours tickets are for 24,48 or 72 hours while Big Bus are for 1,2 or 3 calendar days.

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.

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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  • Koalacash

    Taking the high speed train from Paris to London for one day only one Tuesday mid June. What metro stop would be the closest or recommended to start the big bus tour?

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

      The Eurostar trains terminate at St Pancras Station.
      Big Bus and OLT have feeder services to St Pancras or you can walk to the Royal National Hotel in about 10 minutes where the OLT have a main terminus on their Museum Route

  • Kathy Ly

    Hi Bob,
    For OLT, can I buy tickets at any bus stops? Thanks.

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

      There are reps at the major stops who will sell you tickets but they are more expensive that the discounted tickets purchased in advance

  • Miles

    You say that the OLT vouchers have to be validated at one of their validation points. Does this validation have to be done on the day I use it? That is, can I validate it on Monday, then use it starting Tuesday, and still have the 24 hours use? Or does the 24 hours start ticking at the moment I validate the voucher?
    Thanks for all the helpful info on this site!

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

      To be honest I’m not 100% sure on the answer to this one – I think its the case you hand in the voucher and you get the bus and boat tickets stamped for immediate use, but there may be a facility for you to ask for the stamp to be delayed.

      You’ll need to contact OLT direct

  • Isabelle

    Is it possible to book a specific time to visit the Tower of London when buying an OLT + Tower of London ticket and avoid the long queues?

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

      I don’t think there is a timed entrance option.
      To be honest the queues at the ticket desks at the Tower of London are not normally that significant, the real queues are after you get in queueing to see the Crown Jewels where there is no fast lane – best strategy is to get there at opening time in my view to avoid the queues inside for the Crown Jewels.

      • Isabelle

        Many thanks for your quick response. Thanks also for all the useful information on this web-site.

  • Deb

    Bob.
    Your site is AMAZING. Looking for any and all suggestions… We arrive May 24 and are staying through June 2 – Hilton on Park Lane for the first half, and Hilton Canary Wharf for the second. We purchased a London Card, but we arrive in the early AM on Sunday and thought the Original HOHO would be a good plan. Questions:

    1. We plan to purchase a seven-day Zone 1-2 Travel card, so to get to our hotel from Heathrow, would it be best to purchase a ticket on the Heathrow Express to Paddington and take a taxi to the hotel? Or is there a better option?
    2. I thought we’d buy an online one-day Original HOHO, but do you know if there’s a stop near our hotel in the Park Lane area?
    Any and all input is much appreciated.

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

      For the Heathrow – Hilton Park Lane you have 3 viable main options

      – Heathrow to Hyde Park Corner by Underground then about a 400 yard walk. By far the cheapest option, trains every 5 minutes, journey time about 50 minutes on the tube. By Oyster fare 3,10 or 5.10 GBP

      – Heathrow Express to Paddington then black cab to hotel. Heathrow Express runs every 15 mins and takes 15-25 minutes, a black cab from the station ranl will take about 10 minutes. Heathrow Express is 21.50 per person plus about 10 GBP for the cab

      – Pre-book a privatr car with driver to meet you as you exit customs. Will take 40-55 mins depending on traffic and will cost from 55 GBP depending on size of vehicle required

      For 10 days the cheapest way of getting around London is to buy an Oyster card at Heathrow and assuming you are travelling around London every day load a 7 day Travelcard zone 1-2 for 7 of the days.
      Heathrow is in zone 6 and Oysters can’t be used on the Heathrow Express

      All the Hop On Hop Off Buses have stops at Hyde Park Corner where your hotel is situated.
      Only thing to mention with OLT is that when you buy the discounted tickets on-line, the good news is taht they are flexible, so if its raining you can postpone to another day. The bad news is that the voucher you get e-malled has to be exchanged for tickets at a validation point. The nearest validation point to Hyde Park Corner is Victoria or Buckingham Palace, both about 10-15 mins walk.
      Big Bus on the other hand you just hand your voucher in on boarding the first bus at Hyde Park Corner. Downside is that they are not flexible like OLT with the discounted on-line tickets, you have to stipulate the day you want to use when ordering.

      • Deb

        Thanks very very much. I’ve read that getting to Heathrow from Canary Wharf is even trickier. We’re leaving on a morning flight on a Tuesday. Catch a taxi to Paddington and take the Heathrow Express? And one more question… we’re also looking at a day trip to Paris and back and am thinking of going the Monday before we leave. Do the excursions ever have trouble making it back the same day or anything we need to be aware of?

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

          Heathrow to Canary Wharf is a pain, the worst hotel transfer you can devize from Heathrow as its the other side of the city.
          Flying into Gatwick or Stansted is much better for Canary Wharf
          By public transport you need at least 2 changes, by private car you can spend a lot of time stationary.

          The train to Paris and back is pretty reliable.

          Most museums in Paris close one day of the week, (the Louvre is Tuesday)
          List is at:
          http://en.parisinfo.com/what-to-see-in-paris/info/guides/weekly-closing-days-of-cultural-sites-in-Paris

          If you are going independently Eurostar fares are eye watering if you pay on the day or a day or so before.
          For the leisure traveller, the sensible fares at sensible times you need to buy a bout 3 months ahead from the Eurostar site

  • Maggie

    Enjoy reading your very informative and detail descriptions about London. We’ll arrive in London Heathrow on September 2 and stay at Hilton London Paddington till the 5th and board the Princess Cruise from Southampton. I have the following questions:
    1. Which is the best transfer from airport to the hotel for us?

    2. Which is the best HOHO bus for 2 days for us and I can’t walk long distance?
    3. Which is the best transfer from my hotel to Southampton Princess Cruise Terminal?

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

      There is seldom a universal best way, there is a cheapest, quickest, less stressful option but each option has its own market serving different priorities.

      Personally I would suggest

      For Heathrow to your hotel the Paddington Express train is cheaper than a taxi, assuming you are not a family group and is faster. Your hotel forms the front of Paddington Station and you can walk staright from the station platform into the hotel

      The Big Bus HoHo Bus offers the most frequent service that serves Paddington Station and in terms of what is offered is otherwise almost identical to the OLT offering

      There are 2 door to door options between your hotel and your cruise ship.

      Assuming there are two of you a private car and driver will cost between 155-and 185 GBP depending on amount of luggage you have and will take about 2 hours
      See:
      http://www.londontoolkit.com/travel/southampton_london_taxi.htm

      The cruise bus service stops at Stonehenge for best part of 2 hours on the way dowm. Price is 64 GBP per person plus cost of Stonehenge tickets if you want to go in. The coach picks you up at your hotel around 7:30 a.m.and you’d be at check-in for your cruise around 1:30 p.m.
      See:
      http://www.internationalfriends.co.uk/white/londontk/southampton-cruise-bus-from-150-central-london-hotels-via-stonehenge.html

  • Izzul Rani

    if i buy using the OLT . Do i need to redeem my ticket ?cant i use the printed ticket or the e-ticket?

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

      With OLT you cannot just print out what is e-mailed to you – you have to take it to one of the validation poits and exchange it for tickets for the bus and boat

      Big Bus you can just walk aboard at any bus stop with the printed voucher, but Big Bus is not as flexible as OLT with when you can use the ticket

  • Red Hood

    Hi Bob. Thank you so much for your informative article. I will be staying at Finsbury and have booked HOHO on OLT. Where would be the best place to validate my tickets tickets and what will be the best way to get there. Thank you so much for your kind advice.

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

      Given its the same price wherever you go in Central London on the Piccadilly or Victoria Line from Finsbury Park might as well go to Piccadilly Circus to validate – its the main hub for all their routes in the centre of town

      • Red Hood

        Thanks Bob. Must I validate the ticket on the day I plan to use their service or can the validated ticket be used whenever I choose to. Thanks.

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

          When you get your ticket validated your 24 hours start from that time with OLT

  • Madeleine Raymond

    Thank you very much for your informative and unbiased article. We will be staying near Gatwick airport. I assume we would get the train into London from Crawley – which station would be the best place to pick up the HOHO tours? Thanks.

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

      Most trains from Gatwick, Crawley or 3 Bridges Station go to Victoria Station whic is a major hub for all three Hoho bus companies

  • san

    Hello,
    We will be travelling into London from Esher.Which of the HOHO tours would come nearest to Waterloo station or which would be our nearest point to board?
    My son was born on 3/3/2004, does he travel for free on underground or does he need a oyster card?
    Thanks

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

      Esher is outside the London public transport zonal areas, presumably you’ll be buying straight return train tickets to Waterloo.
      Unlike the London Underground, buses etc the trains only offer free travel for kids under 5 year old

      If you exit Waterloo Station across the road bridge to the London Eye all the HoHo buses have stops around this or the York Road.

  • Joe

    Hi,I will be arriving in Dover by cruise.Seems that the best way to get o London is by train.
    That being so which station is better to pick up a hop on hop off bus?
    Thanks,
    Joe
    Ps if there are any tour companies doing the Dover London round trip let me know.

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

      The most convenient place to get the train to for a HoHo bus would be Charing Cross or London Bridge Stations

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