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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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  • Andrea

    Hi!
    I’m staying in London for a week, then heading to Lancaster by train. Which train station would be better, Victoria or Euston? In London, I’m staying near Lancaster Gate. Thanks!

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

      Trains to Lancaster from London depart from Euston, not Victoria

      • Andrea

        Thanks a lot!

  • Teresa Bluell

    Hi
    We are in London this weekend and want to take a bus tour of the city, but also want to go on a tour of the Chelsea futbol stadium. Is there anywhere on the tour where we can get off and either walk or take public transportation to get to the stadium? Thanks!

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

      The nearest the Hoho buses come to CFC is Gloucester Road Underground Station

      If you had a street map you could walk to CFC in about 20-25 minutes through Earls Court and West Brompton Cemetery or the London Underground 3 stops to Fulham Broadway

      • Teresa Bluell

        Thanks so much for the info! My husband is a huge English Premier League fan and the stadium is a must see for us on this trip. I’m sure we can get a street map at our hotel. Thanks again.

  • ace

    Hi so I’m going for a 7 day trip to London. I’m travelling alone. I want to know if its better to explore the city by hoho or by walking around London. If you say walk can you please suggest to me how to go about it.

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

      There is no universal answer to your question.

      London is a good walking city, if you find walking a rewarding way to explore a city rather than tours then walking will be best for you.

      There are many good street maps of London available in newsagents shops many are aimed at visitors and have all the main sights and many you will not be aware of marked

      • ace

        Hi Bob,
        Thanks for replying so soon.
        I think I’ll go for both. Get a feel by hop on hop off and rest by walking.

  • Vicky

    Hello again Bob,
    Do you know anything about Cardiff?

  • Vicky

    Hi Bob,
    I am taking a 3 day trip to London with my 15 year old daughter who loves Dr. Who and Sherlock. We were going to do the London bike tour the day after we arrived from the US, however I am beginning to think we might be too exhausted to maneuver our way through the streets especially with everyone driving on the opposite side of the street than we are used to. Would you still suggest we do the bike tour or would you recommend the bus tour?
    Thank you!

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

      A bike tour is certainly a niche that very few visitors would contemplate.
      I assume the bike tour would not take you on the main roads, just the biike lanes and through the parks.
      If its something you would enjoy in your home big city I’m sure you’d enjoy it in London – I suspect the breaker will be the quality of the bike tour so check Tripadvisor etc for reviews

    • Vicky

      Hello Bob,
      We have decided not to do the bike tour, for we were planning riding the morning after we arrive in London from the US, and I am afraid our jet lag may get in the way of reason as will riding on the opposite side of the street. If we were staying a few more days, I would consider it. Whereas the hop on hop off bus seems like a more relaxing and informative start to our vacation. Thank you for all the valuable information on this site!!

  • BeckyFred

    Hi Bob,
    What a gem you are helping all of us tourists! My 14 yo daughter and I are traveling through London on a short trip. Coming into St-Pancras, staying in S. Kennsington near Earls Court, departing from Heathrow. (2 days total) Thinking of getting the London Pass to see all the touristy stuff w/o having to wait all day in lines, but not sure if we should add the Oyster card, Travel card or do the Hop on Hop off bus. Your suggestions are GREATLY appreciated!

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

      Regards transport around London the core of your needs will be an Oyster Card each bought at Kings Cross St Pancras Underground Station.
      Don’t buy the transport option that comes with London Pass as its a Visitor Oyster Card and not as good.
      You can use the Oyster also on the Underground from Earls Court out to Heathrow where you can hand back your Oyster and get the deposit and any balance refunded.

      For your 14 tear old ask for a Young Person’s Discount to be loaded onto the Oyster which gives half price travel. You may well have to show age id like a passport.

      The London Pass is fine and very convenient but I would do the research before hand as for 1 or 2 days it may be cheaper just to buy the tickets independently.
      Also be reaistic on what you can visit in 1 or 2 days, with London Pass you have to be very busy to break even on cost.
      Write down what your must see’s are in London then see if the London pass covers them and whether it is cheaper to buy tickets from the attractions own web-site or a discount broker like the Discount London web site.

      A HoHo bus is an excellent first day orientation of London if you had a longer stay but is a very slow way of getting around London

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