Double-decker hop-on, hop-off bus tours can be found all around the world, but have a longer history in Europe than in the US. Imagine a clever guide, a place to rest your feet, great photo opportunities, free local transport, and the breeze in your hair and you have the charms of a hop-on hop-off city bus tour.
Europeans and even some Asian tourists embraced the idea of seeing a city by bus for the first time, without having to worry about traffic and parking. These bus tours are especially popular and visible in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The Hop-On, Hop-Off Concept of Sightseeing Spreads
The most famous double-decker buses, of course, are the ones first used for local public transportation in London. One of the first of its kind was introduced in 1951 in England. That first bus clocked up an amazing half million miles of service but in 1970 was sold to a group of five young people planning a worldwide bus journey. After bussing their way through New Zealand, the group changed their minds. The bus spent a decade as an information exchange center, another 10 years as an encyclopedia center and even served for a while as a mobile diner. More than 10 years ago, the bus was returned to service as — what else — a tour bus, in a venture that lasted briefly.
Hong Kong started their own tour bus system back in 1949, while Singapore Bus Service launched their first double-decker in 1977. But American cities have also been adding the buses in recent years, with San Francisco and Las Vegas among the more recent entrants.
"I've seen this in Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, Johannesburg — almost everywhere. It was so blatantly obvious to bring this idea to Las Vegas," said Raymond Capel, whose company introduced London-style, red-colored, double-decker buses to the gambling capital.
He pointed to another advantage of the buses: Tourist photos from the top of the bus come with an unobstructed view. It's no surprise that the guided bus tours have turned out to be immensely popular wherever they are introduced. What better way for families to get an overview of a city and decide which areas of special interest should be visited in greater detail at a later date?
Buses are Top Value & Environmentally Friendly
Some of the hop-on, hop-off buses can be booked in conjunction with day cruises or other types of transportation for discount savings. Passengers should also know that some services offer discounts for booking online, too.
In addition to value, another advantage is that the buses don't halt during bad weather. You can still see all the sights from inside on rainy days, then choose to get off at whatever stop interests you. Many companies even give out souvenir rain parkas! Still another advantage of this type of bus tour is that you generally don't need reservations, in contrast with a half-day city tour, for example, that must be arranged through your hotel in advance.
A good strategy for viewing urban highlights at your own pace (recommended for families) is to buy a hop-on, hop-off bus pass that usually lasts at least 24 hours, and perhaps 48 hours. You might want to consider staying on the bus for one complete cycle; many routes will take only two to three hours for a full city introduction. It's usually easy to figure out stops, and tour bus lines generally use different colors to help guide passengers to where they can board.
What should you expect in a hop-on, hop-off? A lot of stops (London has about 90), but also the most popular tourist stops. Prices should be all-inclusive, with no add-ons. Air-conditioning is nice but not always necessary. Tickets are generally good during the day and night, which should give visitors plenty of time to get the feel of a city. Knowledgeable driver/guides are good to have, of course — ones who not only provide interesting information but also have some sense of humor.
The Future of Urban Sightseeing
Passengers should also be aware that in addition to hop-on, hop-off buses, most companies usually offer other tours that may be of interest even if you can't get off anytime you want. Some of these are very specialized and appeal to various interests such as CitySights New York City Night Tour which in a whirlwind two-and-a-half hours covers a comprehensive view of the sprawling city, with sights that include Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge. The only drawback with this tour on a recent visit was that the guide was so far wrong in so many of his facts that passengers muttered their objections. It was also a cold night, but most double-decker buses have heating inside the lower covered area.
In some ways, it seems appropriate that New York would boast the ultimate development in double-decker tour buses. The city has been a pioneer in the development of the practice among American cities, though it was not always a smooth ride. There were some tough times in the late 1990s when the first double-deckers entered service with 80 British-made tour buses. New York's four original service providers found themselves in a highly competitive market.
"To many visitors, they (the buses) have come to symbolize a city that now seems more accessible and fun," wrote The New York Times. Everyone agreed the buses were fun, but not everyone liked them. Out-of-towners found themselves encircled by two or three sidewalk hawkers from rival companies.
The bruising competition for tourist dollars was such that Marc Wurzel, a Consumer Affairs spokesman for the city at the time, compared it to a "rugby scrum on the streets of Manhattan." The city threatened a moratorium on any new bus tour operators. Public criticism involved where the buses should stop, how long they could remain idle, and how much air pollution they caused.
Today, that short sad history seems to be behind us and CitySights NY is only one of the companies gloating in its success.
Finding Double-decker Bus Tours around the World
The Internet has made finding local tour operators much easier for families. One online resource, Viator allows you to book any of thousands of tours and activities worldwide, including many hop-on, hop-off bus tours. There are also a few large companies which have dominated the bus tour market for years.
Gray Line has been around for more than 100 years, and is now comprised of dozens of independent touring companies using their brand. Gray Line claims to offer services in more than 700 destinations worldwide via motorcoaches, trolleys, double-decker buses, vans and mini-buses.
Since 1935, Starline Tours has run guided bus tours in many cities. Their line of larger, "topless" double-decker buses now ply the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas and New York.
Turibus began in traffic-clogged Mexico City, expanded to the historic UNESCO World Heritage city of Puebla and now serves Merida and Vera Cruz.
And in the city where it all began — London — the upstart British company Big Bus continues to win awards for its innovative guide services. Begun in 1991 with just two buses, Big Bus has now added stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, Washington, San Francisco, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and, yes – Dubai!
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.