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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.
They have a couple of services that OLT and Big Bus do not, namely a cheaper 3 hour tour – one lap of their hop-on, hop off tour bus without the ability to hop on or hop and off and longer duration ticket availability.

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 operattor 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.

To the north of the central core area is the British Museum, St Pancras Station 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.

All three services cover the British Museum , St Pancras and Bloomsbury routes with separate services that interconnect with their main services.
Big Bus and OLT service Madame Tussauds with their main routes, Golden Tours with a secondaty route.

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 Euston, Bloomsbury and Kings Cross St Pancras areas one of the secondary routes services .
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 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.
You can choose which route you use with this ticket but the blue route is the most complete and comprehensive route covering nearly all that is worthwhile in London.

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 broadly mirror the big 2 but are the softest on price.
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 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 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 and the cheaper  3 hour London orientation tour which the others don\’t offer (as yet) has its market..

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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  • Matthew Sweeney

    Hello Bob. Thank you for the info. So helpful! My question is this: My father and I will be arriving at Heathrow at 7:20am (later this Spring). We have one day in London. Is there enough time to make the start of the tours at 9am, or will this be cutting it too close and our better bet is to stick with the 3 hour option offered my Golden Tours?

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

      Normally it takes 45-75 minutes to get through customs at Heathrow and another hour to get into Central London by Underground.

      All the hop on services default hop on ticket are for 24 hours from boarding the first bus rather than a calendar day.

      Big Bus do have an on-line only ticket available at the moment (they won’t commit to if this is permanent) which gives a hop on ticket slightly discounted to the 24 hour ticket on-line. The offer is for a calendar day rather than 24 hours which might actually fit your needs

      The Main alternative for you would be the Blue Route of Golden Tours on their one curcuit 3 hour offer.

  • Thomas

    Hello bob,
    I will be staying at the crown plaza Battersea and was wondering which HOHO service would be closest And station closest to me for that service? Is the clapham junction I’m guessing the closest and best way to get around if I’m seeing the main sites in the city zone 1/2?

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

      Nearest HoHo bus will be at Victoria.
      You can get the local 44 or 170 bred bus to Victoria or you can walk to Clapham Junction and get a train.

      HoHo buses are not meant as the way to get around in London, that is the job of the Underground and buses.
      HoHo buses are great for the first day int own though to get you very quickly orienttaed with Central London and quickly up to speed in an informed manner.
      London is spread out and using HoHo buses to get around would be very time consuming

    • Thomas

      Thank you, I will be traveling with 2 kids as well for 5 days so would you also suggest the oyster pass with London pass to get around tube if most sites are on London pass we want to see? Not sure if DLR is best means of travel from the battersea hotel? TIA

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

        If any of your kids are under 11 they travel free on the buses, DLR and Overground without a ticket but not the railways.
        The DLR doesn’t go anywhere near your hotel, maybe you are referring to the Overground that has a service from nearby Clapham Junction. (The main trains from Clapham to Victoria and Waterloo are the standard railways so free kids doesn’t apply on these unless they are under 5)

        For 2 days an Oyster is best unless you have a credit/debit card that supports contactless payment

        See:
        http://www.londontoolkit.com/briefing/contactless_cards.html

        For your kids you can get an adult Oyster loaded with a “Young Persons Discount” that gives you child fares – but this can be loaded only at zone 1 Underground Stations and Heathrow Airport Underground Stations

        See:
        http://www.tfl.gov.uk/fares-and-payments/travel-for-under-18s/travelling-with-children?intcmp=25255

        There is a good journey planner at the link below for planning journeys. You can type your hotel postcode/zip code a syour departure point
        See:
        http://www.tfl.gov.uk/plan-a-journey/

  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    The way to get around London is by the London Underground.
    Tottenham Court Road Underground Station is by your hotel.
    For 4 days an Oyster Card is the cheapest ticketing option and also includes the red local buses.

    The HoHo buses are great for an initial days orientation, they are not the way you travel around London.

    • Karen Thomson

      Where do you buy an oyster card and does that only do for the underground,,,how much is an oyster card,,,sorry for all the questions bit as you’ll probably have guessed I’ve never been in london before

      • Karen Thomson

        Just realised you’ve said that includes red buses

  • Kim

    We have used Avios points for a 3 1/2 hour Vintage Double Decker London Tour with Thames Cruise; it will be on our third day in London. I have been wanting to do a hop on hop off bus as an initial intro to London (this is our 1st visit) but I would like to know if the tour and the hop on/off would be redundant (trying to budget wisely). Any help is greatly appreciated, thanks!

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

      The hop on, hop off buses are best on your first 24 hours in London to very quickly get up to speed and orientated where everything is, get ideas for places to visit that escaped you when planning and you get a a surprisingly good commentary on the “live” guide buses that is a great background to build upon on subsequent days.

      The HoHo buses are not the way you get around London, that is the London Underground and to lesser extent the red buses.

      The Red Routemaster tour is more a traditional tour than the hoho buses and much of the route would duplicate a subsection of the hoho offering.

  • Julie Macnab

    Hi Bob, I’m travelling to London mid feb and am wondering if I buy the OLT pass and get it validated at one of the relevant places is it active for 48hrs or is it just the rest of that day and the following day? Also is there a validation point near to the London eye? Thanks

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

      HoHo buses are vaild for 48 hours from the time you first board the first bus.

      There is a validation point on Westminster Bridge at the southern end close to the London Eye, opposite St Thomas Hospital

  • craig Ingerson

    Hi Bob am staying at Palmers lodge-Swiss cottage. Do any of the tour operators go near there the hop on hop off ones. f not what are my best options Have about 3 to 4 days in London what would you recommend

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

      Nearest the HoHo buses get to Swiss Cottage is Baker Street, there are many red London buses linking the two.

      HoHo buses are not meant as the way you get around London, they’re great for a first day getting to know London orientation, but you get around using public transport for the most part, chiefly the Underground.

  • Pat

    We are arriving on an overnight flight from Chicago on Sunday, March 15. We plan to take the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross and walk to the Tune Hotel Kings Cross from there. It sounds like we should buy the Oyster Card at Heathrow. We plan to a HoHo bus on Monday when the rest of the family arrives. We will have all day Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before we take the Eurostar to Paris on Wednesday. We will need to keep moving on Sunday to combat jetlag so I am guessing we would want to use the tube or bus on Sunday to go somewhere to keep moving until bedtime. I don’t know how much to load on our Oyster cards or what HoHo bus to pick. Any suggestions? Thank you.

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

      Sounds like 25 GBP on the Oyster should do you.
      When you hand back the Oyster at St Pancras Underground Station you will get any balance left on the card refunded.
      When you go through ticket barriers on the Underground your balance will show and there are machines everywhere where you check your balalnce and top them up if need be using a credit/debit card

  • Andrea Denny

    Hi, we’ll be staying at premier Inn Kensington olympia in march, where wld we catch (nearest)either the olt or bb tour from?

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

      Nearest stop for both HoHo buses is Gloucester Road Underground Station about 10 minutes walk from your hotel along the Cromwell Road

  • http://www.londontoolkit.com/ Bob

    Consecutive days

  • Lisa

    Hi Bob,
    I’ll be in London for 4 days and staying near westminster abbey. I will be using 1 day to visit Stonehenge and Bath. I want to take my son to most of the top attractions like… tower of london, london bridge, big ben, changing of the guards, westminster, Hyde park, london eye, thames cruise, St Paul’s cathedral and a few others(time permitting ) and ofcourse abbey road. We will have 3 days to see attractions. Is it worth getting the London pass or should we just do the big bus hop on hop off and pay entrance fees when necessary? I heard most attractions are free… ? Any info would be appreciated. I don’t want to spend alot of money for a 3 daybpass if I don’t need to.
    thanks,
    Lisa

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