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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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  • Susan Regi

    Hi I will be travelling with my husband to London in April for 2-1/2 days. Reaching around 4 p.m at Heathrow airport and staying at Indian YMCA at Oxford Street. Would like to cover all the tourist spots and the cruise. Which bus operator stops are near by ? I meant the hop on hop off and would also like to know if the Oyester card would be suitable for us? Thanks

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

      For your public transport needs an Oyster Card will be the cheapest option.

      Regards the HoHo bus i would suggest Original London Tour as they have a terminus for their Museum Route in front of the Royal National Hotel by Russell Square near your hotel and a stop at the British Museum even closer.

  • Kennitha

    Hi Bob, Appreciate your article. It is very informative and really saves our time. I am planning to visit London by National express coach from Hampshire with my family on 5/01/2012. Luckily weather seems good that day for now. I am travelling with my parents and my dad is a disabled person. He can walk but if any of these buses offer wheelchair access or if not is it convenient to carry our own wheel chair from Hampshire and commute using these buses? My main priority is to show them London Eye, London Bridge, Buckinham Palace at the best price. Because of his disbility I do not want to stress him more. However if wheel chair can be taken easily all over we will visit other places. Could you please suggest the best option?
    Thank you.

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

      To be honest I can’t recall ever seeing wheelchair users using the hoho buses, so I don’t think I can be of much help in terms of informed first hand knowledge.
      Both OLT and Big Bus say they accept Wheelchairs and then when you read further there are lots of caveats, like not all the buses are equiped to do so. You should also be aware that staff may be reluctant to give assistance if needed, not because they don’t want to but have been trained not too because of the implications of someone not being trained having a mishap.

      I would suggest you follow the suggestions of OLT and Big Bus and give them a call to discuss so you are on firm ground in terms of expectations.

  • Swapneel

    Hi Bob…first of all thanks for such a wonderful article. I am travelling to London for 1st time on a business visit, staying at Hotel Grand London Hyde park, near Paddignton. Which Hop on Hop off tour operator will be convenient for me. This is my first visit and I want a good orientation tour, with Madam Tussaud and London eye on my list to cover. If time permits, i will love to see Tower of London and St Paul’s cathedral and Trafalgar square.

    It will be great if you can advice how can I plan my visit. I have roughly two days with me.

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

      If you are staying in the Paddington area BIg Bus has the highest frequencies in that area of town with pick-ups on one of their main tour routes.
      Until the end of February all the HoHo bus lines are offering 48 hour duration tickets for the normal 24 hour price and visits all the places you have listed.
      See:
      http://www.londontoolkit.com/affs/london_big_bus.htm

  • michelle

    hi Bob, first thanks for the great info!! second , im coming down south frm newcastle with my daughter(12yrs) for a day in London. We are aiming to do as much as possible in one day. Do you think the hoho is a better option that just tube, bearing in mind she is ASD and we havnt a clue where anything is lol Also our bus home isnt til 10.30pm from victoria , where can we visit after the 5pm bus finishes? thanks in advance

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

      If you have not been to London and haven’t a clue then the HoHo buses are an excellent introduction. London is spread out and the HoHo buses get you up to speed with informed commentaries very quickly.
      Having said that if you are only in town 1 day the HoHo buses are a very slow way of getting around the city, compared to the tube.

      You might want to consider using the Golden Tours 3 hour panoramic tour (banner at the top of this page) which isn’t hop-on, hop off but gives you a very good orientation and you’ll pass nearly all of the main places to see and more and the commentary will probably give you ideas on your priorities afterwards.
      The Golden Tours bus starts only about 100 yards from the front door of Victoria Coach Station.
      The other factor is the weather – its no fun on the top of an open top bus in the middle of winter in the rain, so you might want to check out the weather forecast the day before before finalising plans.

      The alternative to the HoHo bus is a 1 day Travelcard zone 1-2 for each of you giving unlimited rides on the Underground and buses. Some of the bus routes are tours in themselves though without the commentary.

      What to do is really a personal thing, the beauty of London is its variety, there is truly something for everyone and the day of week you are coming

      Most of the museums which are free shut about 6 p.m. amd will have days when they are open later. If shopping is your thing then places like Harrod’s, Fortnum and Mason and perhaps Hamleys are experiences if you are not into shopping.
      Also look at web sites like Londonist and Time Out for special events on in London for the day you are in town.

  • Diane

    Hi coming into King’s Cross Saturday with my 7 year old who wants to see Buckinham Palace, I want to see the poppys, then total tourist stuff like Hamleys and Harrods, Covent Garden and maybe the Eye. Staying at Doubletree Hyde Park. Is there a Big Bus stop near King’s Cross please as was just planning to use the 48 hours on one of these and jump on and off as return train is 5pm Sunday or do either of the HoHo’s stop nearer our hotel? Would also like to catch a show can you advise how safe tube is after a 730 showing so I’m guessing around 10pm finish and also can you still buy the discounted tickets on the day or are they a thing of the past? Don’t know London at all this is a tester to hopefully become annual treat with kids once I get over being a country mouse! Many thanks

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

      I would not recommend at all using the Big Bus (or any HoHo bus) as the way you get around London.it would be very slow and would compromise your ability to see everything you have planned. Big Bus only operates between about 9 and 5.
      Buses do go to Kings Cross but it is a feeder service not one of the main routes.

      I would suggest you get an Oyster card at Kings Cross Underground Station and use the tube and perhaps buses as well as the way to et around.
      The Oyster gives unlimited travel on London’s public transport in the centre for a maximum of £7 per day at the weekends. Children under 11 travel free without a ticket on London’s buses and Underground
      The DoubleTree is mid-way between Queensway and Notting Hill Underground on the Bayswater Road.

      The tube runs until about midnight and is perfectly safe with the normal common sense precautions. There is a bus that stops by your hotel that runs 24×7 about every 5-10 minutes and goes to Piccadilly Circus at the heart of the West End.

      The Hop On Buses are very good as an orientation if you have not been to London before, but not as the way to get around.

      If you walk up the Bayswater Road from your hotel towards Notting Hill Tube check out Diana’s cafe on your right. Its where Princess Diana used to go when she was lonely with the young kids, lots of meomento’s/pics insiide if you’re interested in Diana,

  • Dave

    do these tour companies offer discounts for carers with their kids

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

      If they do, they do not advertise the fact.
      Best contact them directly via their web-sites

  • Gopika

    Hi we are staying at thistle Kensington and were looking at taking a 2 day hoho pass as not sure how much we will accomplish in one day with a 5 year old kid. Which pass do you reckon is better? Also do any have a skip the line for London eye. And we may take a cruise. Thanks

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

      At the moment all the main HoHo operators are running a 2 for 1 promotion until February where if you buy a 24 hour ticket, its valid for 48 hours.

      A river cruise is included with all the HoHo tickets.

      HoHo buses are not the quickest way to get around London which is spread out, the London Underground is much faster.

      You can buy fast track tickets for the London Eye direct from the London Eye web-site

      • Gopika

        Thanks so much. Would you have any knowledge about legoland packages with pick up and drop from London?

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

          To my knowledge there is nobody who does day tours from London with hotel pick-ups.
          The railways do combined train and admission deals from London like this one linked below
          http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/legoland-windsor.aspx

          I’m sure Great Western who run the trains out of Paddington near your hotel also do something very similar

  • Shatarupa Chaki

    I am staying in Gloucester Place, where can I redeem OLT vouchers

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

      Nearest OLT validation point is Baker Street Box Office (corner of Baker Street & Marylebone Road)

      • Shatarupa Chaki

        Thanks a ton Bob

  • Alibaba

    Hi Bob, If we were to start off a trip with one of the bus tours at the Tower of London (around 2pm on a Tuesday), I would assume BB would be the only option?

    As for the extra bonus day for the winter season (which started October 1st this year)… does that mean my first day will be from tuesday 2pm to Wednesday 1:59pm, and then the second day would be from Wednesday 2pm to Thursday 1:59pm….?

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

      If you purchase on-line for the discounted tickets it doesn’t matter whether you use Big Bus or OLT. OLT have one of their validation points at Tower Hill/Tower of London, Big Bus you can exchange for tickets on boarding

      You are right with regards how the 48 hours for the price of 24 hours works

  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    Wimbledon is in the suburbs so there is nowhere nearby where you can catch a sightseeing bus.
    Personally I’d get the train from Wimbledon to Waterloo, the main London rail terminus from Wimbledon.
    All of the Hoho buses pick-up either at Waterloo Station itself or by the London Eye across the road.

  • Taren

    Bob, truly appreciate your response and thank you for your advise.

  • Taren

    We will be going to St Giles London from Heathrow by underground. We need to change to the Northern line at Leicester Square. Is there an elevator or escalator where we need to lug our bags up/down stairs? At Tottenham Court Road Station, is there any lift or escalator? Thank you.

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