Tour the United Kingdom’s capital riding atop a double-decker bus.
By Carrie Whitney
The image of a double-decker bus is synonymous with London, England, but in addition to the public transportation type, a bus with a more sightseeing nature has roamed the UK capital for more than half a century. Today, several hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tours welcome visitors throughout the year, offering an elevated perspective on the city’s many sites and sights.
If the idea of a London bus tour feels overly touristy, it offers some useful benefits that make it worth the potential for stigma, especially when taken at the beginning of your stay. The hop-on, hop-off nature of the London bus tours makes them ideal for getting an overview of a significant area of the city while customizing the tour to your whims. Interested in shopping at Harrods, visiting The National Gallery, and riding the London Eye, but as for the Tower Bridge and Marble Arch, simply seeing them would be enough? One of the city’s bus tours allows you to participate in each of those far-flung activities in whatever manner you chose and get a great view along the way.
If you only have a couple days in town, the bus tour will allow you to see a lot in a short amount of time while offering the flexibility to spend more of that time where you want to. If you are planning a longer stay, taking the tour when you first arrive can help you get the lay of the land with an overview of several main areas of the city before deciding more specifically what you want to do.
Of course, when visiting a city, it’s always fun to try to blend in with the locals. And this can be said of London, where taking the Tube is simple and convenient with an Oyster card, which can be topped up with cash or a credit at the station. But London has numerous interesting and historic landmarks and getting from one to the next by public transport means missing the sights in between. As attractive as the Underground trains and stations are with their mix of bright, primary colors, getting to know the city at street level offers the chance to take in a lot more. In a place where double-decker buses are quintessential, why not enjoy the view from the top?
Hop-on, Hop-off London Bus Tour Options
There are a handful of hop-on, hop-off bus tour companies operating in London: The Original Tour, Big Bus Tours, Golden Tours and City Tour. Each company offers multiple routes and special attraction deals that let you pair your bus ticket with a visit to one or more sights for a discounted rate. You can also buy discounted tickets to certain attractions on board if you decide later that you want to check out Madame Tussauds or St Paul’s Cathedral, for example. Another way to access a bus tour is with the London Pass, which includes dozens of attractions and a one-day hop-on, hop-off bus tour.
How a Hop-on, Hop-off London Bus Tour Works
You can buy a ticket on the bus or on the street at some of the bus tour stops, but it is usually less expensive to purchase online. The tours offer one-day, 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour options, plus attraction add-ons. As an example, the Premium Ticket on the Big Bus Tours includes 48 hours of access to the open-top, double-decker bus, including four routes. It also gets you a river cruise and the company’s walking tours with one of its tour guides.
The clock on your pass starts ticking when you board your first bus. With the 24-hour pass, if you start touring at 11 a.m., your access won’t end until the next day at 10:59 a.m. During your time of access, you can take any of the routes and get on and off as many times as you like.
On board, riders have the option of sitting on either level of the bus: the top is more fun, of course, weather permitting. With complimentary headphones, you can listen to the pre-recorded commentary, which the buses offer in several languages. In between sights, music plays in place of the commentary, so expect to hear a lot of “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” which can become tedious by the 47th hour of the tour! But by then, odds are that you may have memorized the pre-recorded commentary, so you can always go without the headphones and simply enjoy the scenery. Some buses also include live guides who add their own take on the city’s famed landmarks and keep things fresh if you are riding the same route multiple times.
Each bus company has many bus stops throughout the city, which are easily spotted by the branded signs; you can get on or off at any of these. The Original Tour boasts more than 80 stops, while Golden Tours has 70, according to the companies’ websites. You don’t need to hop on at the same stop where you hopped off. You can walk from one place to another and find a bus at a different stop even if it’s on a different route, as long as it belongs to the same company. The bus routes have overlapping stops too, so you might be on the orange route and ride to an orange/yellow stop where you can change to the yellow route.
If the tour bus company offers a night tour, this is an exciting way to see London lit up in the dark (unless it’s summer, in which case the tour background will be duskier). The night tour is an extra feature and may not be a hop-on, hop-off style tour, so plan to sit back and relax. You’ll get the chance to view several landmarks during a guided tour that lasts about 90 minutes. Night tours depart at different times and follow either one route or a special route.
With so many options, the experience of a hop-on, hop-off bus tour offers flexibility and is perfect for a traveler who likes to keep a level of control but still see the sights with ease.
Hop-on, Hop-off London Bus Tour Tips
- Some bus tour companies offer an app for download, which can be helpful in finding stops and tracking arrival of the next bus.
- Tour buses include onboard free Wi-Fi, but keep your expectations low.
- Make sure you are aware of tour end times, so you won’t get stranded. The bus tickets might be offered for 24 hours, but the tours don’t operate around the clock. Some routes stop earlier than others.
- River cruises are operated by partners, not the bus tour company.
- Some of these companies offer bus tours in cities around the world, but level of experience may differ by location.
Odds of Encountering Children: Good, but you can always hop off at the next stop if any individual proves too much to tolerate.
– Photos by Carrie Whitney