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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.
Both Big Bus and OLT  offer a 24 hour ticket, Big Bus also offers a  48 hour ticket that gives a free night tour as a bonus. During the off-peak months both regularly have “extra day free promotions” and in 2015 Big Bus have been changing their offerings quite regularly.

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, 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.

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. In 2015 the promotion was extended into April.

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.

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 do have  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. Big Bus, Golden Tours and OLT have tickets in blocks of 24 hours so if you are late starting at say 2 p.m. your ticket lasts the full duration until 2 p.m. in 1,2 or 3 days time.

OLT, Big Bus and Golden Tours you simply validate your e-ticket when boarding the first bus anywhere on the network, your time using the ticket starts from this point.

Big Bus Discounted On-Line Tickets
The cheapest tickets require you to stipulate the exact date you want to start using the ticket. So if it rains…
Big Bus have tickets for 24 or 48 hours.

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 have tickets for 24 or 48 hours only, though with Big Bus you get a free night tour on the 48 hour ticket..

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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  • http://www.lesliefehling.com Leslie Fehling

    My 83-year old mother and I will be arriving by train at Paddington Station from Exeter at 1:00 pm on October 15 in preparation for flying back to the US the next day. We would like to check our luggage at the train station and take a bus tour ofLondon during the afternoon. Please confirm that luggage storage is available there. Is Big Bus (blue tour) the best option to pick up near Paddington Station? Where exactly would we catch the bus?
    When we return to Paddington to get our luggage, we need to go to the Hilton Garden Inn near Heathrow (East Perimeter Road, Hounslow). What’s our best option for that? My concerns are ease of travel, dragging luggage with us, having to change trains. Do we take a train to Heathrow airport? Or to a different stop that’s close to the hotel?
    Thanks for your help!
    Leslie

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

      The Left Luggage office at Paddington Station is by Platform 9, rates are quit expensive

      See: http://www.left-baggage.co.uk/index/about-left-luggage

      The Big Bus Bus Stop is on London Street by Norfolk Square
      If you come out the front of Paddington Station by Garfunkels Restaurant with the Mercure Hotel over it the road in front of the station is Praed Street
      London Street is a street opposite the front of the station abd the Mercure Hotel, there is an Angus Steak House on the corner

      The Hilton Garden Inn is the far side of the airport about 300 yards from Hatton X Cross Underground Station.
      Personally I would not take the train into London Paddington but get off at Reading where you can get the Rail Air bus to Heathrow (you should be able to get a train ticket that combines both)
      (If you are coming from somewhere like Bristol or Bath it might be as quick and chaeper to get a direct National Express coach to Heathrow)
      Get off the bus at Terminal 5 and get the H56 Hoppa Bus that runs every 30 minutes to your hotel
      You can dump the luggage in your room then use the Underground to go into London
      Note the HoHo buses take best part of 3 hours to do a full curcuit and they start running down about 5 p.m.

      From Paddington, the no hassle but quite expensive option is to get the Heathrow Express from Paddington to the end of the line at Terminal 5 Heathrow then get the Hoppa Bus as above
      The much cheaper but perhaps stressful option is the London Underground to Hatton Cross Underground about 300 yards from your hotel changing train at Earls Court

      • http://www.lesliefehling.com Leslie Fehling

        I think your advice is sound, Bob. As much as I’d like to do the city tour, it seems like we just won’t have enough time. And those “left luggage” rates are ridiculous! I think we’ll take your advice and go directly to our hotel, then take the Underground into London later in the afternoon. I have no idea where to go or what to do, though. If you were a tourist who had never been to London before and only had a few hours in the late afternoon and evening (in October), what would you do? Dinner somewhere and walk past a few sights? What train would I take to get there? I know these questions are very general, and I’ll understand if you can’t really answer them, but I’ve never been to Great Britain before, never ridden a train or subway, and it’s a little overwhelming trying to figure this all out.

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

          One of the beauties of London is taht there is something for everyone, really comes down to where your interests lye
          These free self guided walks might spark a them for you to follow

          https://www.londontoolkit.com/walks/london_walks.htm

          • http://www.lesliefehling.com Leslie Fehling

            That is so helpful! I think we could probably do most of the walking tour in the time we have. We’ll be able to see some of the highlights, even if it’s just a cursory walk-by. On the map of the route, are “Westminster”, “Charing Cross” and “Embankment” tube stations? So, we could take a train from the Hatton X Cross underground station and arrive at Westminster, do the walking tour and finish up at Charing Cross, then take a train back to our hotel from there?

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

            If you buy a zone 1-6 off-peak Travelcard each at Hatton Cross Underground Station this gives you unlimited rides on the buses and Underground in London
            The Travelcard costs 12 GBP

            Probably worth getting a reasonable street map of Central London and pick-up an Underground map from the sttaion,

            In the centre there is always an Underground Station within 3-4 minutes walk.
            Probably be a good experience going on the top deck of a red bus, some of which are minii-sigtseeing tours in themselves

            Below is a link to a bus map of Central London and at the top right is a simplified map for tourists with ideas for bus routes that go past the sights
            The number 15 bus from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London is just one odea

            https://tfl.gov.uk/cdn/static/cms/documents/bus-route-maps/central-london-bus-map.pdf

            The area around Trafalgar Square / Leicester Square/ Covent garden is the entertainment,theatre, restaurant area many tourists gravitate to in the evening
            On the way into London you can get off at Knightsbridge Underground and Harrods Department Store is next to the Underground Station

            Last Underground back to Hatton Cross is about midnight

  • Melina Teufel

    Hallo! We are planning a trip to London on Friday. I will take a tour with Original and visit London Eye and Tower of London. I will take a combined ticket from OLT.
    Where will I get the tickets for the 2 attraktions? Can I take the visit to London Eye on Friday and the tour on sunday? Is the ticket on a fix day and time valued?
    Thanks for your help!!!
    Melina

  • Maria

    Bob,

    I have been told there is a new HOHO Company, London City Tour offering good value for money. I would appreciate if you could confirm what I have been told. Apparently they are offering a free card including an entrance to one of the most popular tourist attractions, a day tour or a meal. Do you know the prices and some feedback on the service?

    Many thanks

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

      I do not know anything about this new service apart from what is on their web site linked below which includes prices, routes and the attraction offer

      http://london.city-tour.com/en/

      • Maria

        Many thanks for quick response. I have found all I needed in the website you just provided.
        I think I will try this new one. The routes are nearly the same as the rest and promotion looks nice. Let’s see!

  • Maggie

    From the photos posted on the website, the Big Bus’s upper level does not have any cover while the OLT and the Golden both have partial cover. Am I right?

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

      None of the operators have a uniform vehicle across their entire fleet so you may have come to the wrong conclusion.

    • http://www.loseitorbuildit.com/ tpishdad

      Not sure about all their busses, but we did ride a week ago on Big Bus and it had a partial cover. But makes it harder to take pics with the reflection from the window. Most sat in the open. We had good weather…bad weather you can always go down to the 1st level.

  • Maggie

    Thank you Bob for your prompt reply. I understand the Big Bus offers a free Night Bus Tour with 48 hr booking, but I was not able to get any information regarding the time and the route of such tour on their website. And also with the OLT’s upgrade to 48 hr, can I do it when I first board the Bus? Could I book the London Eye fast track with the Original bundle?

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

      Big Bus Night Tour Map is at:
      http://eng.bigbustours.com/UploadedFiles/Night_Tour_Map_July_15_201507082846.pdf

      With OLT bundle you would buy 24 hour ticket + bundle on-line, then when you board the bus and exchange your voucher for tickets you would upgrade to a 48 hour ticket.
      I should emphasise that this is OLT’s current arrangement they have changed their 48 hour offering quite frequently this year so if you are coming some time ahead ….

  • Maggie

    My husband and I will be staying at Park Lane Hotel, London from September 2 to 5 and then take the Princess Cruise from Southampton. Since I have difficulty walking long distance, we are planning to take Hop-on Hop-off for 2 days. Before we decide which one is most suited for us, can you help me with the following questions:

    1. Which bus has pick-up points at Park Lane Hotel for most of their routes including night cruise?
    2. I found the Big Bus offers $33 for 48 hrs tickets on line but couldn’t find 48 hrs ticket on the Original site. Does the Original offer 48 hr ticket on line?
    3. Can I book the London Eye with the Big Bus?

    Many Thanks,
    Maggie

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

      Park Lane is about 1km long but all 3 HoHo companies have main routes along it with stops at the northern end at Marble Arch and the southern end at Hyde Park Corner

      Big Bus have just dent me an e-mail saying they’ve just changed their prices to the 33 GBP price you mention for 48 hours

      OLT keep changing their stance on 48 hour tickets in response to the activity of the other HoHo’s. At this moment in time you can buy a 24 hour ticket with OLT for 26 GBP on-line and when you exchange your ticket in London buy a 7 GBP upgrade to a 48 hour ticket for an additional 7 GBP – making it identical in price to Big Bus.

      This tit for tat promotional activity goes on all year.

      At the moment only OLT is offering a ticket bundle with the London Eye

  • MagicNanny

    Hi Bob, Thanks for all the useful information I’ve already read. I am travelling from Euston Station to my hotel in Primrose Hill next Friday – can you advise the best bus to get there ?(I have an OAP pass) and the nearest stop to pick up the HoHo bus from Primrose Hill. Many thanks. Hazel.

  • lams

    I have family visiting next week, and they want to go on an open topped tour. It’s going to kill me having to fork out twenty odd quid for a bus ticket!

  • Denise Hurst

    We’re taking 2 grandchildren aged 4 and 6 to London from Manchester for the day tomorrow (6th). The day of the tube strike!! Is it worth getting one of the bus tours? And is it better getting it in advance or are there going to be reductions available once there? the kids want to go on the Eye and go to the natural history museum and see where the queen lives etc. We’ll be there from about 10am (Euston) until about 8pm and want to plan it the best way we can.

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

      Regards the Hop On, Hop Off buses you’ll get the cheapest fares on-line in advance., the best you will do on the day is price parity but probably you’ll pay more

      With the tube closed it’s going to be unpredictable what traffic will be like, it could go either way.

      With the Underground down, the only real alternative is to use the red buses if you do not use the HoHo buses
      The kids ride free on the red buses and you can buy an adult 1 day bus pass for £5
      If you have an Englosh OAP pass you can use that on the red buses
      Just need to invest some time in studying the bus map

      If you go for the HoHo buses I’d suggest you walk down 5 minutes from Euston Station to the Royal National Hotel just before Russell Square where OLT have a terminus for the Museum route
      Check what time the last HoHo bus is as it will be well before 8 p.m.

  • Megan Brooks

    Hi Bob,

    My family and I will be traveling to London for 2 nights (first time ever) and we are considering doing the HOHO option. I’m thinking about doing the Golden Tours one since its the cheapest option.

    My question is this: How easy is it to go full circle on a tour? We would be starting by Gloucester road (since we will be at the Marriot) and we’d want to end there as well. I’m worried that they will stop the tours and I’d have to pay for the subway home. I did see that some of the companies have a hotel drop off route, is that worth the extra money?

    Also, a little off topic, but do you know the best way to get to and from the Harry Potter studio tour?

    Thanks!

    ! -Megan

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

      There is no problem doing the full curcuit on Golden Tours the only thing to watch out / check for is the last bus times which are very early evening depending on time of year.
      A full curcuit without getting off is about 3 hours

      You’ll no doubt need to get an Oyster Card for the adults and kids under 11 travel free on Underground and buses, so after getting orientated using the Underground and red buses will probably be a big plus for speed and your kids will probably remember ” using the Underground and the red buses longer than the sightseeing buses

      Harry Potter is just outside London.
      As I understand it tickets are sold out now until September. Independently the way to harry Potter is Underground to Euston from Gloucester Road then the train to Watford Junction using your Oysters and kids under 11 free. At Watford Junction there is a Harry Potter shuttle to the studios.

      I think some of the tour operators have bus shuttle+tickets tours that start at Victoria. Last time I looked they had some free tickets towards the end of August

  • Jennifer Bell

    Hi,

    Sorry if I posted this twice. My family is doing a one day trip from Paris to London on the Eurostar. Can we catch a HOHO bus at the Kings Cross St Pancras station, or do we need to get ourselves to a “boarding bus stop”? I’m interested in the OTL and the Big Bus tours. Thanks.

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

      Both Big Bus and OLT come to St Pancras but they do so in the form of connector services which are not that frequent

      For OLT the first bus on
      the morning service departs Kings Cross St Pancras, Pancras Road (stop
      ‘T’) at 10.01am, with buses departing every hour until 12.01pm. The
      afternoon service from Marble Arch to St Pancras commences at 3.23pm
      with buses departing at a frequency of every 30 minutes. The last bus to
      depart Marble Arch for Kings Cross and St Pancras is at 5.53pm.

      Big Bus have a similar service which I do not have times for.

      Personally unless there is a bus imminent I would walk to the Royal National Hotel, in Bloomsbury the terminus for the OLT Museum Route. Its about a 15 minute walk from St Pancras Station with kids.

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