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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.

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 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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  • Berthe Nado

    Hi Bob! I will be visiting London in late October for 2 days, and I would like to see a West End Show as well as the Harry Potter Studios, and my hotel is in King’s Cross. I was thinking about taking a Hop On Hop Off combined with Tower of London to do the major sites, what do you think?

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

      The beauty of London is the variety that has something for everyone at all budgets.

      If its your first time in London then a Hop-On, Hop Off Sightseeing bus on the first day is probably the best way for a visitor to get orientated and informed with London. If the Tower of London is a definite “must see” it makes sense to buy the combination ticket and save a little money.

  • mandy

    Hi Bob we are travelling to London by train in November with 2 children they want to see the sights and go to the British Museum and natural history we are only there for a day. Which bus would be your recommendation to do this please we pref don t want a long journey as we dont have the time? We also, if time want a river cruise. I don t know if to get a London pass as i know the museums are free but might be better for saving time???

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

      Which train station are you arriving at?

      • mandy

        Liverpool st 8am on a sat

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

          Liverpool Street is in the business district of London, none of the hop-on hop off sightseeing buses go here. The nearest stop you can pick them up is probably at the Tower of London about a mile away. (2 stops on the Underground)

          In November you will find it very tight to do a lap of the HoHo bus about 3 hours before you stop at specific attractions.

          I think it would be a good idea to first check out the train tickets available.
          If you can get an off-peak Groupsave day return fare bundled with a 1 day Travelcard which would cover all your public transport needs in London.
          (Though if your children are under 11 they travel free without tickets on the buses and underground)
          This would probably be the cheapest option and would also qualify you for the 2 for 1 promotion run by the railways, for places like the Tower of London

          See:
          http://www.londontoolkit.com/whattodo/london_travelcard_2for1.html

          If your kids want the British Museum and the Natural History museum ten I guess thats where you will have to go, though they are far apart from one another. The Natural History Museum is a natural for kids, especially the Dinosaur section. Most kids find the British Museum a bit dry so it might be a quick visit after you have seen whatever is inspiring them to stipulate this.
          The Science Museum is worth checking out for kids as its got good interactive bits and is next door to the Natural History Museum.

  • John Steinke

    Hello Bob, Will be arriving in London on a Sunday morning. Staying at a small hotel on Sussex Ave (near Paddington Station). Want to tour all the major sights. Have two evenings booked. 1 – Ceremony of the Keys and 2 – Medieval Banquet. Need to get from London to Southampton on Wednesday. What are our best choices for touring London and to get to Southampton?

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

      For 3 days the best (both cheapest and fastest) way to get around London is the London Underground supplemented by public buses.
      For 3 days just by an Oyster Card at Paddington Station.
      The HoHo buses (above) are an excellent way as a first day to quickly get orientated with London and up to speed quickly when time is at a premium.

      From Paddington there is no universal best way and the amount of luggage you have may well be a factor in determining what is best.
      In Europe traveling heavy is one case of around 29 kg (44lbs) and a handbag or shoulder bag and provision for luggage on public transport reflects this.

      The options are laid out for you at the page below
      http://www.londontoolkit.com/travel/southampton_london_transfers.htm

      From Paddington the cheapest options by coach and train use termini the other side of Central London from Paddington, though it is possible to go an indirect route to Southampton from Paddington Station changing at Reading.

      A private car is about a 2 hour journey.

      There is a cruise bus service from London hotels to Southampton Cruise ships. It has pick-ups at a couple of hotels on Sussex Gardens which is a hotel strip of about 30 small hotels in terraces together along about 400 yards of the road. This stops at Stonehenge for nearly 2 hours on the way down to Southampton
      See:
      http://www.internationalfriends.co.uk/white/londontk/southampton-cruise-bus-from-150-central-london-hotels-via-stonehenge.html

  • kevin clarke

    Hi Bob in London for 2 days this month, will do Science and the Imperial War museum’s on Fri and the misses will want to go shopping on Sat any recommendations to fill in the rest of Friday and where to go on Sat both high end and markets.
    thanks for your help

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

      Personally speaking I think if you have a real interest in the subject matter you will find a combination of both museums tight and they are not close together.
      Harrods Department Store is just around the corner from the Science Museum so you might want to combine both at the same time.
      On Saturday Morning there is Portobello Market, at Notting Hill, the most interesting part being the antiques and collectors areas.

      Pretty close but not walkable from the Imperial War Museum is Borough Market, a food market which is very good value,
      As is Fortnum and Mason the Quen’s grocer on Piccadilly between Green Park and Piccadilly Tube. The area around Fortnum & Mason is the highest class shopping districts in London with Saville Row Jermyn Street for Gentlemen and Bond Street where the top jewellers and watchmakers are plus auction houses.

  • Steve Kennedy

    Hi Bob what is your opinion of the oyster card for visitors

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

      Oyster Card for Visitors just seems to me like a scheme to gouge innocent tourists. A lot of visitors seem to think they are getting a favourable deal with Visitor Oyster – but you are not, arguably the reverse.

      The standard Oyster Card bought in London you pay a £5 deposit which is refunded when you surrender the card at the end together with any balance left on the card at any TFL outlet including Underground Stations. You can load 7 day Travelcards onto the Oyster as well.

      The visitor Oyster you pay a non-refundable administration charge.
      You can claiim back the balance by writing to TFL and requesting a refund at the end of the trip. They then send you a cheque in British Pounds which once you have paid foreign exchange fees will probably be almost worthless.
      You cannot load 7 day Travelcards onto the Visitor Oyster

      Otherwise they’re identical.

      • Steve Kennedy

        Bob
        What about the London Pass

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

          London Pass may save you some money and it may be cheaper to pay for tickets individually, You really have to work it out for your own itinerary.

          Crudely speaking you have to have a very busy schedule that includes sights on the London Pass to make it work financially, but many people put a high value on the convenience and the fast track tickets on some of the attractions offered by the London pass

  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    The beauty of London is its shere variety, there is no universal “best” sightseeing
    Most visitors fall into two camps, those that tread the well worn tourist trail as instructed by the guide books and tourist marketing which is fine if your interests lie in history, architecture and fine art.
    Others follow their personal interests/hobbies which if you have an interest outside the above is normally both more rewarding and much cheaper.

  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    The Hop On, Hop Off buses are not the way you travel around London. They are excellent for a first day to quickly get orientated to London and get up to speed and revise where you want to visit in detail on following days.
    The Royal Horseguards is close to Trafalgar Square, the geographical centre of London. But London has no “downtwon” area, you can walk to the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Trafalgar Square in 5 to 10 minutes.

    I would recommend the HoHo bus the first day and if you are set on the London Eye you’ll save a little money by buying a bundle from OLT. After that just travel using the Underground supplemented by red buses, buy an Oyster Card for that.

    There is an OLT stop about 150 yards from your hotel on Whitehall or you can walk around the corner at Trafalalgar Square and the main OLT visitor centre is located there

  • Brudah_B

    Hi Bob, Thanks for the great advice. We arrive at Heathrow in a couple weeks for a 3 day stay in London before our cruise. What is the best way to get from the airport to Cartwright Gardens in the Camden/Primrose Hill? We plan on getting the HOHO one-day pass. What do you think about the bike tours? Cheers

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

      The only Catwright Gardens I am aware off is in Bloomsbury, part of Camden but nowhere near Primrose Hill. Makes sense as there are several small hotels in Cartwright Gardens.

      There is no universal “best way” from Heathrow and if you are going on a cruise I guess you may well be traveling heavy with luggage.
      Bloomsbury is quite inconvenient as its the other side of the city centre from Heathrow.

      The cheapest (by far) and as quick as any is the London Underground direct from Heathrow to Russell Square then a 5/10 minute walk.
      (if you are travelling heavy – more than one large case and a handbag/shoulder bag) it will be a stressful experience.

      Alternatives are basically the Heathrow Express or Heathrow Connect train from Heatrow to Paddington then a cab
      or just book a private car with driver in advance which may well be cheaper than the train/taxi option

      The Original London Tour HoHo bus has a terminus outside the Royal National Hotel just around the corner from Cartwright Gardens

      I’ve no real insight into bike tours. Bilkes are a very popular way of getting around London, but tours are very few and far between.
      London is a world class walking city if you just invest in a good street map, and for every bike tour there must be 50 walking tours which demonstrates the relative popularity.
      Check out London Walks who have a good selection of walks, but there are many companies and excellent “one man bands”

  • Anne Little

    Hi Bob, We will be arriving in London on the Eurostar at St Pancras station, we only have five or six hours in London before we have to board another train. I was thinking the hoho bus would be our best hope of seeing the most on London in the time we have. Is there a stop near this station to catch the bus or is there a stop near by?

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

      The Big Bus HoHo bus picks up at St Pancras but it is not the main route, so by the time you transfer to the main routes you have no contingency if the bus gets held up in traffic.

  • Francesco

    Hi Bob, i will stay in London for three days. I have see that Golden Tours has five lines and it makes an offer for 72 hours. Can i consider it the best choice for hoho?

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

      I would not say that any of the Hoho companies are “Best”.
      Golden Tours if you wanted 3 days would be the cheapest, though their product is not as full as the other 2.

      My main point would be why you think you need a 3 day pass. Personally I cannot see much point in having anything more than a 1 day pass.
      HoHo buses are superb at getting an initial orientation of London but are not very good as a way of getting around London.
      An Oyster Card using the Underground and buses is much cheaper, much faster more flexible and is available 24×7.

      • Francesco

        So, according to you, I should make a 1 day pass with an other company for my first day in london and then an Oyster Card for the other days?

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

          Its your decision but that would be my personal recommendation.
          It really depends what you want the HoHo bus for.
          I would toyally reject using the HoHo buses as the way of getting around London, just use the Underground and buses with Oyster.

          What they are very good at is getting you up to speed getting orientated with the layout of London and what it has to offer.
          The 3 hour Golden Tours ticket does this orintataion quite well
          Big Bus and Original London Tour have larger bus networks than Golden Tours and may pass close to your hotel where Golden do not so you might want to check that out but do not do the 1 day tour.
          If you are viisting one of the major blockbuster attractions the OLT tour+bus bundles may give you a good discount than buying bus + entrance tickets separately.

          Big Bus and OLT have I would suggest a better river cruise and walking tours than Golden.

          • Francesco

            Thank you bob. Last Question: which between the Oyster Card and the TravelCard is better? And is the London Pass useful?

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

            Less than 5 days an Oyster is better than Travelcards

            The London Pass is useful if you value convenience and some of the fast track tickets.
            Whether it saves you any money could go either way – you really have to work it out for yourself which means you have to know exactly where it is you want to go in advance

          • Francesco

            So, in your opinion, for a three-days holiday is better for me to buy single tickets instead of the london pass…

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

            For my personal requirements a London Pass would not be a good investment.

            Every product has its market, only you can decide whether the facets of the London Pass are worthwhile for you personally.
            This will require you to compare the relevant costs and make a judgement, its a not straight comparison – there is no universal best option that applies to everyone.

          • Francesco

            Thank you very much… can you give me the last suggestion because now i’m planning my trip… i shouldn’t buy a 72 hours hoho, isn’t it? Because i’m not sure to use the tube… i’m not expert but i believe that in a panoramic bus i can see the city better…

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