The Pros and Cons of the Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour Bus

by Gray Cargill on July 5, 2011

Bus turistic Madrid

A typical HOHO bus

You see them in almost every major city that is a tourist destination: The brightly-colored double-decker buses packed with tourists snapping photos of every building, every landmark, every dog they see whizzing on a fire hydrant. Maybe you’ve been on one. Maybe you’ve made fun of everyone on one. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve done both (but won’t admit it). The truth is, there are pros and cons to most things in life and the hop-on, hop-off (or HOHO) buses are no different. I had avoided these buses all my life until my trip to Spain. I viewed them as being for lazy tourists, or elderly tourists who couldn’t get around as easily as me using regular public transportation or my own two feet. And frankly, they’re expensive, and I’m cheap frugal.

But when I checked into my hostal in Barcelona, the friendly young woman at reception stopped to take the time to show me a tourist map of Barcelona, and as we were chatting about all the things I wanted to see and do in my two and a half days there, she suggested I get a pass for the HOHO bus. “Everything is so spread out,” she said. “It’s easier to see things that way. You can just get on and off as you want.” That seemed. . .reasonable. As cheap as I am, there are instances when time is more valuable to me than money. I wanted to maximize my time in Barcelona.

So after lunch at Placa Catalunya, I sought out the first bus stand I could find to purchase a ticket. As it turned out, there are (at least) two tour bus companies in Barcelona and unless you look really closely at their logos (one looks like Kokopelli’s eyeball, the other looks kind of like an @ sign), you wouldn’t know it. (I actually bought a pass from the lesser-known tour company, which is probably a blessing, since it didn’t seem as crowded as the one that is most promoted.) From what I could tell, the two buses had very similar routes and their bus stops were often quite close, so I really had to pay attention so I didn’t get on the wrong bus. Over the next two days, I gained more insight into the pros and cons of the hop-on, hop-off buses which I’d like to share with those of you who haven’t yet tried them.

Parc Guell, Barcelona

The HOHO bus takes you to major tourist sites in the city

The Pros

  • The buses do stop at every major tourist site in town (though they are spread out between two or three different routes).
  • You get to watch your journey at street level, which is prettier than the nonexistent view on the metro and helps you get the “lay of the land”.
  • You can indeed hop off any time you want and hop back on again (at any stop, not necessarily the one you got off at) when the next bus comes along.
  • You don’t have to figure out a complicated metro map or wonder when you get out of the metro station which direction your destination is in. It was usually pretty obvious when I got off the bus where I needed to go.
  • There is an audio guide which describes each site you visit, so you’re not just buying a ride, you’re also buying a tour, so to speak. There are also brochures with written information about sites.
  • The staff member on the bus whose job it was to check tickets and hand out guides and brochures spoke some English, so was available to answer questions.
  • You can get some good photos from the top of the bus.
  • These buses are useful for those with mobility issues, who might have trouble getting around down in the metro stations.
  • I never had to wait more than a few minutes for a bus. They run frequently.
  • You don’t have to worry about pickpockets on these buses.
Vespas and tour buses

But it might not be the best mode of transport

The Cons

  • Did I mention the bus stops at every major tourist site? Yes, this is both a pro and a con. Just as with regular trains and express trains, the more stops you have, the longer it takes to make the journey. Each bus route takes about 90 minutes. There were things I wanted to see on each route. I had to sit through a lot of stops I wasn’t interested in to get to where I was going. This was not an efficient use of my time. It would have been much quicker to take the metro and walk.
  • It is way too expensive for what you get. I purchased the 2-day pass for 30 Euros, which at the time was about $45 USD. That was a pain in the wallet.
  • In order to really get your money’s worth out of the bus tour, you have to get the headphones so you can listen to the audio. I neglected to ask for them, and no one offered them. Thank God I grabbed a brochure, so I could at least read about the sites.
  • You are really exposed to the elements if you’re riding up top: Hot sun, cold winds, and rain. If you have long hair, the wind will snarl it. I kept getting bits of dirt blown into my eyes, which hurt like hell. I finally started riding inside the bus because I was getting sick of getting dirt in my eyes.
  • These buses can get crowded at times, especially in a port city like Barcelona, when cruise ships drop off thousands of tourists at a time.
  • The bus didn’t run as late at night as I would have liked.
  • At some stops, you may find the line to get on the bus is so long that you can’t get on the first bus that comes along.

While it was an interesting experiment for me, I don’t think I’ll do it again. Never say never, but it’s just too expensive, and I lack the patience for sitting on a slow bus taking a roundabout route to get where I’m going. The argument that is generally made for taking these buses is that they save you time. No, they don’t. Unless you stay on the bus the whole time and just look at landmarks as you drive by–without getting off to explore–you’re not really saving any time, you’re wasting it. My advice is that if you don’t have mobility issues and you can read a map, save yourself some money and time and just take the metro to get around Barcelona.

Gray July 23, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Thanks, Raul. Cabs are usually the most expensive option for getting around, short of renting a car or a limo, so I can see where the HOHO would be better than that, for sure.

Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) July 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I agree with the list of pros/cons. Traveling with some older folks in northern Europe, the HOHO made a lot of sense. However, the price point may or may not be true depending on where you are. In Copenhagen, we would have paid through the nose taking taxis whereas the cost of the buses for 2 days was much more reasonable financially. In addition, the 2 days allowed us to use the first day to see all the areas of the city and get our bearings and then, the second day, we used it as a way to move around (though we walked a lot too between different places). Nice summary of pros and cons for sure.

Kirstin July 15, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Yes we sat on the top deck. It was a beautiful sunny day.

Gray July 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Free is always good no matter what, Kirstin. Did you ride on the top deck?

Kirstin July 14, 2011 at 11:24 pm

We were given a free HOHO pass for London from our airline.. I have to say it was kinda nice to get a tiki tour of all of the places to see which ones we would go back to for further investigation.. But we didn’t actually HOHO, we just stayed on the bus the whole way round..

Gray July 12, 2011 at 11:23 am

Heh. Well, when you’re not getting dirt blown in your eyes, the view is pretty nice from up there.

Tracy Antonioli July 12, 2011 at 9:35 am

Thanks so much for this post. I’ve always wanted to take one of these tours but have hesitated, mainly because of many of the things you’ve listed in the cons. When we were in London, my main thing I wanted to do was ride the typical double decker bus, and for some reason we didn’t do that. It seems all I missed out on was dirt in my eyes!

Gray July 9, 2011 at 11:03 am

Marsha, I think you’re right. Our dad must’ve really gotten around. LOL. (Kidding, Dad! Kidding.)

Aw, Sabina, the streets of New York City aren’t so mean. But you’re right. I can’t imagine wanting to navigate the metro with little kids. In that case, the HOHO bus could be ideal. I didn’t say I liked the HOHO tours. In fact, I probably won’t do another one, but I can see why they might work for some people.

Sabina July 9, 2011 at 12:28 am

I’ve ridden the big red bus in Manhattan a couple of times – once with my friend and her two young daughters and once with my brother, sister-in-law and baby niece. This was just the ideal way to get around with people who might have a little trouble nagivating the mean streets of
New York City. Another time, years earlier, I rode it myself while in London. It was the very first city I visited overseas, I was alone, and it was a great way to see the sights with no stress or trouble. I totally recommend these tours. I’m glad you like them too!

Gray July 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I prefer walking tours, too, Roy, in fact, I was going to take the Runner Bean free walking tour that day, but I had a conflict, so I couldn’t.

Roy | Cruisesurfingz July 7, 2011 at 8:09 am

I’ve only done a HOHO once (in Dublin). It was fun but frankly, I find walking tours WAY more fun.

Marsha July 7, 2011 at 5:57 am

Hm…Gray, sometimes I swear you’re like my “sister from another mister.” I’ve never done the Hop On-Hop Off type tours before because I too am just way too cheap–ahem!–frugal. I can’t think of anything less appealing than sitting on a bus with a bunch of other tourists to check out a city. I prefer to be ground level, getting around the same way locals do. The only benefit I can think of is as a photography junkie, I’d see the city from a different position which might make for photographs with a different literal (and figurative) perspective. Maybe I’l try one out on my next trip to see if it’s worth doing.

Gray July 7, 2011 at 4:49 am

You know, Kris, I’ve never done a duck tour, but I always thought I should try it sometime just once for the experience.

Kris July 6, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Hi Gray,
I have mixed feelings about those, personally. The “duck tour” types in particular can be pretty fun (unless you intend to don a wetsuit and swim from one spot to another). But yes, in cities with really great public transportation, they can be a total waste of money for a tourist willing to learn a metro map. I’d suggest the HOHO buses when you are not in the mood for a DYI tour of the city, when the public transportation is lousy or when you can cross any body of water from within the bus…

Gray July 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

That was pretty much my conclusion, Kirk. It might work for some people, but it just didn’t for me.

Bluegreen Kirk July 6, 2011 at 8:39 am

i’m not sure if I would really want to take the hop-on tour bus. I mean it has some great pros but it just seems to me that the cons in my opinion weigh more heavily then that pros. number one being too many stops!

Gray July 6, 2011 at 5:20 am

You raise a good point Marie, and I forgot to put that in my list of Pros: When you’ve been walking all day, and your legs are tired, it’s nice to be driven around to get a rest.

Gray July 6, 2011 at 5:18 am

I wish Barcelona’s had been affordable, Andrea. Ah, you’ve been to Zaragoza! I met some women headed there, and I wondered what they’d find there. Pretty.

Andrea July 6, 2011 at 4:03 am

Sometimes when going to a new city I’ll take one of these buses, just to get a bit of an overview of the city and to see where I might want to go back and explore in more details, especially if I don’t know much about the place before I get there. I always thought they were quite affordable so don’t have a problem taking them now and then.

Eurotrip Tips July 6, 2011 at 3:06 am

I think they might be useful for large cities, but for smaller places with sights within walkable distance from each other, it doesn’t make much sense. It also depends on the rest of your journey – if you’ve been walking 10km+ a day since the beginning of your trip, this kind of tourism definitely sounds appealing.

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