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.
- 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.
- 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.