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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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  • Marian

    Hi Bob,

    I use wheelchair, and my family and I want to buy tickets for HoHo, but which is better for wheelchair?? I could transfer to the chair but if we want to down fast I have to stay in my wheelchair. So wich operator do yo recommend me??

    Thanks Bob, regards

    • Bob

      All 3 main operators use almost identical buses

      • Marian

        But are they accesible for wheelchair?? I mean for stay in the wheelchair?

        • Bob

          They nearly all have wheelchair provision on the lower deck.
          However, they are all fairly vague about specifics and ask you to contact them directly so they can make an individual commitment that fits your personal needs

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