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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. Partly as a result one imagines, frequencies are less, geographical coverage is less and the bus fleet is older – but crucially cost is less too.

What Are The Differences Between the 3 Operators?

London is quite spread out and all services have more than one service to cover the attractions. The core area covers the West End and along the river to the Tower of London, this is where the biggest customer demand is.

To the west of this core area are the Kensington museums, Harrods, Kensington Place and the hotel districts around Gloucester Road, Bayswater and Paddington. To the north of the central core area is the British Museum 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.
Nearly all central attractions are covered. Notable for not being visited by any HoHo bus are the London Zoo, Camden Lock Market and the Imperial War Museum.

Central hotel areas not covered are Earls court, Swiss Cottage and out to Docklands/Canary Wharf.

In terms of coverage Big Bus and OLT are significantly better than Golden Tours. If you are staying in the Bayswater/Lancaster Gate area you might favour Big Bus for better frequencies there. Golden Tours do not cover Bayswater, Lancaster Gate, Paddington, Bloomsbury and Kings Cross hotel areas that contain the British Museum primarily.

Big Bus have two major routes, red and blue, both of which duplicate each other for most of the route. The red route has the English guide commentating, the blue route has audio commentary in 8 languages.

The blue route is longer, doing a loop around Hyde Park / Kensington Gardens including Harrods, Kensington Museums, Kensington Palace and the hotel districts of Gloucester Road, Bayswater and Paddington. A full lap is typically 2.5 to 3 hours. Big Bus also has a green feeder route which basically breaks out from the blue/red route at the Strand striking out north to cover Bloomsbury, British Museum, British Library and Kings Cross.

Original London Tour has a slightly different slant to Big Bus. OLT too have two main routes red and yellow, red being the one with the 8 language audio guides, yellow the one with an English speaking guide. The OLT routes are overall slightly shorter than the Big Bus routes at around 2.25 hours as they don\’t go out to the Kensington, Bayswater area. Instead they have a third route, the blue museum route. It is an audio based route at good frequencies that starts at Bloomsbury/British Museum and then goes across London to Kensington, Harrods, Kensington Palace and Gloucester Road hotel district interchanging mid-way with the red and yellow routes at Piccadilly Circus. Further more they have two other feeder services to fill in the gaps of Bayswater, Paddington and Kings Cross.

Golden Tours have two routes. The blue route is essentially the same as the Big Bus blue route but doesn\’t visit Bayswater and Paddington. Its scheduled time is 3 hours. The red route is just a shorter version of the blue route covering no new ground. Its purpose is to provide better frequencies in the central core area. Golden Tours do not go to Bayswater, Paddington, Bloomsbury or Kings Cross areas. Frequencies are much less than Big Bus/OLT.

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.

Of the audio guides all have English, French, Spanish, German and Italian. Big Bus doesn\’t have Japanse, the other two do. Big Bus & OLT have Russian. OLT have a Kids Channel. Big Bus has Portugese and Mandarin.

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.
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 24 & 48 hour ticket, OLT do not (only 24 hours).
Golden Tours you should be able to pick-up at a price 10-20% below that of the big two reflecting the less comprehensive product being offered.

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
The cheapest prices normally available are on-line, direct from each operators web-site. Expect the cheapest advance prices to be 25-50% cheaper than if you purchased on the day from your hotel.

Important! Big Differences Between Ticketing Conditions On Lowest Prices

It is tempting to choose between Big Bus and Original London Tour purely on lowest price.
This can be a big mistake, the cheapest on-line tickets have very different booking conditions between the companies, it is a big mistake not to factor these in your purchasing decision.
The cheapest tickets from both Big Bus and Original London Tour are on-line and after purchase you are e-mailed a voucher that you print out. You then exchange the voucher for tickets at validation points in London.

Original London Tour Cheapest 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 (perhaps) bad news is that you can only redeem the print at home vouchers at 13 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.

Big Bus Cheapest On-Line Tickets
The good news is that vouchers can be validated at any boarding point.
The bad news is that the cheapest tickets require you to stipulate the exact date you want to use the ticket. So if it rains…

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.


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 it can hang around a couple more years may grow into something comparable or superior to the established pair, In my opinion, at this moment in time, what Golden Tours offers is a cheaper price and the cheaper still 3 hour London orientation tour which the others don\’t offer (as yet).

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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  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    Consecutive days

  • Lisa

    Hi Bob,
    I’ll be in London for 4 days and staying near westminster abbey. I will be using 1 day to visit Stonehenge and Bath. I want to take my son to most of the top attractions like… tower of london, london bridge, big ben, changing of the guards, westminster, Hyde park, london eye, thames cruise, St Paul’s cathedral and a few others(time permitting ) and ofcourse abbey road. We will have 3 days to see attractions. Is it worth getting the London pass or should we just do the big bus hop on hop off and pay entrance fees when necessary? I heard most attractions are free… ? Any info would be appreciated. I don’t want to spend alot of money for a 3 daybpass if I don’t need to.

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