ONE OF AN OCCASIONAL SERIES
Hop-on, hop-off tour buses are a handy but pricey way to orient yourself in a major city you’re seeing for the first time. Consider regular city buses instead — especially in a city like London.
You’ve seen them. Every big city that considers itself a tourist attraction has them. The hop-on, hop-off tour bus.
They make continuous loops through town, most lasting about an hour, hitting the major tourist sites — or at least the places local tourism officials would like you to think of as the major tourist spots — with running commentary from the bus driver or a tour guide on board.
They invariably are double-decker buses, usually with the upper deck open. And for a set price, you can ride any time during a 24-hour period, get off at any of the stops along the route, and jump on the next bus when you’re ready to leave.
If you’re new to a place, it’s a good, quick way to scout out the town, even if you don’t get off the bus. You can make notes, mental or otherwise, on the spots or the neighborhoods where you want to spend more time later or one subsequent days, whether they’re on the tourist maps or not.
The downside is cost. The fare on a hop-on, hop-off bus can vary greatly, from $13 in Liverpool UK or $20 in San Francisco to $37 in Paris and $43 in New York City. Even though kids’ fares are lower, it can still add up to a pretty hefty fee.
In many cities around the world, however, especially British cities or countries that used to be British colonies, there is a low-cost alternative — the double-decker city bus.
London is famous for them, of course, but you’ll find them throughout the British Isles and as far away from Europe as Hong Kong.
Take London. Granted the local red double-deckers of the Transport for London municipal service run a lot of specific end-to-end routes through the city, as opposed don’t just do fixed loops through tourist areas — but is that really a disadvantage? You get to see not jut tourist London, but more of real London, which can hold just as much fascination as the tourist zones.
And you can do it a hell of a lot cheaper. Riding one of these from one end of a line to another is £2.20, or about US$3.65. Compare that with that $37 charge for a hop-on, hop-off bus in London.
And if you get one of their Oyster card passes, it’s not only cheaper still, but incredibly easy to use. More on that in a minute.
If you’re on a double-decker bus and your aim is a cheap bus tour around the city, you obviously want the seats at the very front on the upper deck. Unlike the tour buses, the upper deck is covered, but once you take that front seat up top and take in the view, trust me, you won’t care about that.
It’s like being in the driver’s seat, without having to drive. You have a 180-degree view of everything.
If you plan to score these seats, however, you need to be aware of two things:
- These seats are popular.
Locals and tourists alike prize the front upper-deck seats, so your best chance of finding them empty tends to be early, or late, or on less-popular routes. London divides its public transit map into six zones, and virtually all of the “tourist stuff” is in Zone 1. This is where the competition for those seats will be at its most intense. Don’t plan on sleeping in.
- These seats aren’t the most comfortable.
Double-decker buses, not only in London but everywhere, are not known for their legroom. The seats upstairs are tighter than the ones downstairs, and the seats up front on the upper deck have the least legroom of all. If you’re taller than, say, 5’9,” comfort will be an issue. Just keep telling yourself the price is right and the view is worth it.
MAKE LONDON YOUR OYSTER
As cheap as public transit is in sprawling-but-congested London, transit passes makes it even cheaper, and the best pf them is the Oyster card.
It’s a smartcard with one of those RFID chips embedded in it. You buy it pre-loaded with a certain amount of money;the minimum is &£5.
The regular price £2.20 price of a London bus ride drops to £1.30 when you use it. Make as many trips per day as you want.
When you board the bus, just touch the card against the touchpad near the driver. That’s it, you’re good to go. And the same card works the same way for subways and trams within London. Touch the card to the touchpad and you’re in.
If your Oyster card runs low or runs out, you can easily “top it up” with a fresh infusion of cash at any London Underground station or designated shops all over the city. And if you register it, you can get it replaced if it’s lost or stolen — and no one else can use the old one. Sweet.