Londoners don't ride open-topped sightseeing buses, partly because they already know what London looks like, but mainly because they're not stupid. Why fork out £25, £29 or £31 to see buildings you could see from a normal London bus for a fraction of the cost?
But a new entrant has just entered the market, offering open-topped two hour trips for a pound. Is the megasightseeing.com option any good, or is it simply a spoiler to damage the competition? I coughed up the price of half a cup of coffee and went to find out.
Seriously, one quid?
Actually there's a 50p booking fee, so £1.50. But that's still the same as a normal London bus, and even with a Hopper you couldn't see all these sights for a single fare.
No but really, one pound fifty?
Well, not always. This is a Megabus promotion after all, and they specialise in offering a minimum number of tickets at the lowest price, then upping the cost as more people come on board. Weekday fares are more likely to be £3 or £5, and at weekends you'll be lucky to get on board paying less than £7. I've seen £14 demanded for one trip next Sunday. But why pay that much, when with a bit of forethought you can grab a seat for a pound?
How do you pay?
The driver can't sell you a ticket, so you have to pay in advance online. That said, you can use your phone to buy a seat right up until the moment of departure.... which I guess Stagecoach are keen for you to do, as you'll probably pay over the odds.
How does the service work?
There are three starting points - one by the Tower of London, one by the London Eye and one on Park Lane. One bus departs each of these every hour, on the hour, and makes its way round a 14 mile circuit. It's a non-stop trip, so you end up back where you started two hours later. Best not drink too much before you board.
Do the buses run to a timetable?
The start time's fixed, but after that there are no other stops, so a timetable doesn't matter. Be warned that my bus turned up five minutes early, but I saw another depart quarter of an hour late.
I like buses. Tell me about the buses.
They're blue double deckers and they have no roof. They're also named after historic Londoners, for example King William I, Queen Victoria or King Charles II. Every morning Winston Churchill and King Henry VIII roll out of Bow Garage and glide past my front door.
I really like buses. Tell me about the buses.
They're 12 year-old Alexander ALX400s on a Dennis Trident chassis, repurposed for use as open-topped buses. King Henry VIII used to operate on ordinary bus routes in theRomford area before he had his top chopped off and waterproof seats fitted. The seats aren't too uncomfortable, thankfully.
What's the route?
It depends where you get on, but it's a one way loop. From the Tower of London you head west up the Embankment as far as Big Ben, return up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, reel back to do Pall Mall and The Ritz, nip up to Marble Arch and back, skirt Buckingham Palace to the South Bank, then finally wiggle over Waterloo, London and Tower Bridges via St Paul's and City Hall. According to the publicity you pass 50 points of interest. Technically there are considerably more.
Is there a map?
Yes, here. There's also a free printed map available on board, in a rack at the bottom of the stairs, but nobody points this out until you're sat in your seat and the commentary mentions it and by then it's too late to pick one up.
Is there a commentary?
Indeed there is. Don't expect a human being to stand on the top deck and tell you things, this is all electronic and pre-programmed. That said, the GPS system works pretty well, so the relevant commentary generally kicks in at an appropriate time when you can see what's being talking about. The volume from the speakers is usually audible, although sometimes passing traffic or road works blanks it out. It's all in English. Sid is more annoying than Marilyn.
Who are Sid and Marilyn?
They're the characters who do the commentary. Marilyn's a Blue Badge tour guide and she does most of the factual stuff. Her input is short but informative, and even I learned a few things. That said, the target audience is definitely out-of-towners, with foreign tourists very much in mind. Sid represents the mascot on the side of the bus, and he's a bit more slow and patronising. Thankfully he doesn't chip in too often.
How up to date is the commentary?
Given the service only started last week, very. The commentary even recognises that the Houses of Parliament are sheathed in scaffolding so you can't see much at the moment. Florence Nightingale, the Pankhursts and the women who built Waterloo Bridge all get a mention, so it's not as sexist as the naming of the buses appears to be.
Was it cold?
I didn't think so, but the other four people on board all put their hoods up. Do watch the weather forecast before you book, because there's no shelter whatsoever upstairs. You definitely wouldn't have wanted to be riding around in Monday's wind and rain for two hours (and I note the fares didn't drop to reflect that).
How bad was the traffic?
We endured some bad jams on the way round, including three of at least ten minutes. It's not too bad being stuck in traffic when your view is the Houses of Parliament or Trafalgar Square. It's rather less enthralling to be idling behind a lorry round the back of the National Theatre. Our trip was so delayed that it lasted ten minutes over the allotted two hours, despite the driver taking a bit of a shortcut at one point.
Is the tour any good?
Come on, how often do you normally get to ride round London upstairs in an open-topped vehicle? Heading across Tower Bridge was an obvious highlight. I also enjoyed the opportunity to ride down roads normal London buses don't get to follow, like the long tunnel on Upper Thames Street. But mainly it was simply a good excuse to stare at central London for two hours - the famous bits and the not so famous bits inbetween. On a more practical level, if you ever have any friends in town keen to see the sights, this'd cover it without breaking the bank.
Can Stagecoach be making any money out of this?
The combined fares taken on the tour I went on wouldn't even cover the minimum wage, let alone the driver's actual pay, fuel costs and wear and tear. But there are 45 seats on the top deck, and if they were all full even at the £7 rate, that's a nice little earner.
What are the downsides?
It's cheap and cheerful, as you could tell when one of the competitors' £30 tour buses pulled up alongside with a uniformed host recounting anecdotes in real time. The twenty minutes from Marble Arch back to Westminster Abbey were a bit dull. Because it's an open topped vehicle, I suspect I've inhaled more exhaust fumes than my lungs would have preferred. Certain sights are only seen from a distance, or from the side, or glimpsed briefly as the bus turns away from them. Nobody gets off until the end, so tourists can't use the service as a way to hop round town. But you get what you pay for.
Was it worth the money?
Obviously it was a worth a quid, yes. It would definitely have been worth three quid, and probably five quid, and maybe seven quid, but I wouldn't rush to pay more. Book ahead, and you need never do that.