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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.
They have a couple of services that OLT and Big Bus do not, namely a cheaper 3 hour tour – one lap of their hop-on, hop off tour bus without the ability to hop on or hop and off and longer duration ticket availability.

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 operattor 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.

To the north of the central core area is the British Museum, St Pancras Station and Bloomsbury hotel district.
Another area outside the core covered is again to the north and its really driven by the location of Madame Tussauds.

All three services cover the British Museum , St Pancras and Bloomsbury routes with separate services that interconnect with their main services.
Big Bus and OLT service Madame Tussauds with their main routes, Golden Tours with a secondaty route.

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 Euston, Bloomsbury and Kings Cross St Pancras areas one of the secondary routes services .
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 3 Hour One Curcuit Service
One option that differentiates Golden Tours from the big two is they make available a 3 hour ticket which is not Hop On, Hop Off.
Basically you get on their bus and go for an orientation tour of London doing one curcuit of the Golden Tours route with commentary from the guide. This of course is significantly cheaper than the 1 day Hop On, Hop Off ticket.
You can choose which route you use with this ticket but the blue route is the most complete and comprehensive route covering nearly all that is worthwhile in London.

Golden Tours Sightseeing Bus

Panorama 3 hour London Tour Tickets

Price Comparison - Which Is Cheapest?

Broadly Big Bus and Original London Tour go head to head on price offering 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 but 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, Queen’s 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.
However 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 if 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 and the cheaper  3 hour London orientation tour which the others don\’t offer (as yet) has its market..

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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  • 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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