Ah, the hop-on/hop-off tour bus. For those that care about the idea of a “tourist” vs. a “traveler”, these tour buses lean towards “tourist”. They provide some independence, but, yes, they are touristy. But is that bad? Well, I guess that depends on what you’re looking for.
Below I’ll tell you about some of my personal experiences with these buses around the world. I’ll also give advice on when it might be a good time to pick the hop-on/hop-off tour and tips to help make the most of your experience.
Hop-on/Hop-off Tours: The bad
Our Rome Experience
The first time I remember making a decision that the hop-on/hop-off bus may be a good option was during a visit to Rome. We arrived at Termini Station and were bombarded with options to see the city. When we travel we typically use public transport to get around and walking tours to learn about the city. However, we were only in Rome for the day. My goal for the day was to see as much as possible.
The double-decker, hop-on/hop-off bus appealed to me because we could sit on the upper deck and “see” Rome. It was a beautiful day and I didn’t want to spend a minute of it underground. Also, the buses provide a narration of the city. The stops at the popular sites along the way meant we still had some independence to get closer to the must-sees and then pick up the tour again when we were ready to go. Best of both worlds.
The reality? Not quite as nice. We hopped on to the bus at Termini Station. Easy. We were probably patting ourselves on the back as we took up prime seats on the top of the bus. As the bus inched its way from stop to stop, we were pointing out the long lines for the Colosseum and crowded sidewalks filled with tourists trying to make the most of it. We picked a spot to stop at, and off we went.
Now, the smart thing we did was decide in advance our must “experiences”. These were the places that I wanted to see up close. For me, those the Vatican and the Trevi Fountain.
Why it wasn’t good
To make this story a little shorter, I’ll explain both stops as one. The hop-off is great. It is all still very crowded (we could barely squeeze our way to get close enough to the Trevi Fountain to toss a coin), but we made it. We ate gelato and made our way back to the bus stops.
The hop-on? Not so great. Unlike the initial hop-on at Termini station, the rest of the hop-ons were crowded. The buses arrive at the stop already filled with people and the only spaces available are those made vacant by the hop-offers. But, if the hop-offers know anything it’s that it’s hard to hop-on, so they don’t want to leave.
So, this was the scene. A crowd of, say, 15 people are gathered at the stop. The bus pulls up and stops… not at the front of the line. Everyone rushes the door and wherever the front of the line was established no longer exists. Three people get off the bus, so three random people get to board. The bus leaves, a new line forms, a new bus arrives and people scramble to it in no order. You can wait a while.
What I know now that I didn’t know then is that it was a holiday weekend and this bus option was just going to be difficult. But, don’t worry, I have learned some lessons.
Our French Experience
Here we were again. We had a few hours in Paris on a beautiful day. The bus wasn’t an option, but we thought a Seine Boat hop-on/hop-off option would be fun. We bought our tickets and waited river-side. Now, one benefit of the boat vs. the bus is that the boat can’t just stop anywhere. A real line can form that can be honored on the basis of first in line, first on boat. However, we quickly learned that beautiful days in European cities bring out all the people and it took a few boats before we were able to board. Since our time was limited we decided to just hop-on and stay on until we did the whole circle where we could hop-off and leave Paris. In this instance, it probably would’ve made more sense to just do a bus tour.
Hop-on/Hop-off Tours: The good
We stayed away from the tours for a few years, but decided to give it a try when we were in Philadelphia and again in Quebec City. These felt like a more positive experience and here’s how setting our expectations helped:
- We tried to board the buses at their first stop. This helped make it more likely that we can get a good seat and sit together.
- We did the entire route without hopping off. Then we could easily gauge the busyness and determine how many stops we could make later.
- We had a backup plan.
Why it was good
It’s fun. The kids loved being on the bus and seeing the city from above. I loved being able to listen to the story of the city. In Philadelphia, we had an actual guide (instead of a recorded tour) which added so much more personality and authenticity to the tour.
Built in break time. Kids get tired. It’s fun to get out and explore, but we also liked the idea of having the bus to go back to and relax. Public transportation and even taxis just don’t provide the same downtime that a hop-on/hop-off bus can. We didn’t mind driving past the same places over and over again when we needed the break.
When is the hop-on/hop-off tour a good idea?
Hop-on/hop-off tours give you a good idea of a city’s layout. They are a good option if you are doing a longer city visit and want to take the first day to get the lay of the land. You can then plan out the rest of the trip based on your personal experience with the city.
Hop-on/hop-off tours are great if you’re in the city for a short time. Especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do, you can see the city and still have some independence to go off on your own later,
Don’t do a hop-on/hop-off tour if you already have a plan. For example, I could have saved a lot of time and heartache if I just found my way to the Vatican and Trevi fountain outside of the tour bus.
Hop-on/hop-off tours maximize what you see and give you an opportunity to meet other city visitors. But in that, you do lose that personal city experience and opportunity to interact with locals. Too much time on a hop-on/hop-off tour bus can make different cities all start to seem the same, so use with caution and give yourself plenty of time off the bus.
Tips for using a hop-on/hop-off tour bus (or boat)
- TIP ONE: Do it for the information they provide both in the commentary and in helping you get used to the city.
- TIP TWO: Go on the bus the first day of your trip and, if your trip is only one day, early during the day.
- TIP THREE: Go around the circuit once to get all the info, and then stop where something interests you. If it’s too crowded when you try to reboard you can always go to public transportation and still feel like you got your money’s worth.
- TIP FOUR: On the bus either sit in the very front or the very back if you can. Those are the best views.
Throughout this website, I may suggest a hop-on/hop-off tour bus, but the decision is ultimately up to you.