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Hop On Hop Off: my only bad experience in Stockholm

As you’ve probably guessed from my posts about Sweden, my trip was a great success. I took part in two familiarization tours: one before and one after the TBEX conference. The first was an introduction to the Stockholm archipelago and Swedish military history. In the second, I visited several manor houses and castles in the southern province of Sörmland.

In the few days I was free to choose my own path in Stockholm, I visited several sights, including taking a tour up Storkyrkan tower, going to the Nordic Museum, the Medieval Museum, and several other destinations.

a pretty street in the oldest part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan

a pretty street in the oldest part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan

I was able to do much of this because Visit Stockholm kindly provided a free Stockholm Pass (affiliate link) and free transportation pass for each of the bloggers attending the conference.

One of the items covered by the Stockholm Pass is the Hop On Hop Off bus and boat operated by Strömma.

This was the only experience I had in Stockholm that was negative in any way.

Hop On Hop Off, but which one?

The first problem I and many other bloggers encountered was figuring out which Hop On Hop Off bus to get on. The flyer provided by the company shows a route with 24 stops. It’s not clear, though, on its rather cartoonish map, where exactly the stops are, or how they are marked.

the printed map for the Hop On Hop Off routes: red for the bus, green for the boat

the printed map for the Hop On Hop Off routes: red for the bus, green for the boat

Which leads to one of the major problems with the Hop On Hop Off bus: there are two companies with the same name. Both are called “Hop On Hop Off,” and their logos are very similar. They both do circular routes, and their stops are nearby each other’s stops. One has a red bus, while one has both green and red buses. One has open top buses, but not all of their buses are open top.

The Stockholm Pass we received only covered one of the companies, not both. That meant that tourists end up waiting at the wrong bus stop, only to find out from the driver of the arriving bus that they’ve waited at the wrong place.

This happened to me several times. One of those times, the driver of the competing company, when I asked where I could catch the other company’s bus, sent me in the wrong direction. A fellow blogger, Cacinda Maloney of PointsandTravel.com, told me this:

Even the guy who sold the tickets was scamming people and telling them to hop on to the competitor’s bus, when he knew he was sending them to the wrong one.

Clearly these two companies do not happily coexist, to the detriment of the tourists.

Overcrowding

You would think, given that Stockholm was crawling with travel bloggers that week, that the Hop On Hop Off company would make sure that things run smoothly. It didn’t.

It was the middle of July—peak season for tourism in Stockholm—and the buses filled up. Once they were full, they passed by the next stops until someone wanted to get off. When I wanted to take the bus one day, two buses passed by (on an every 20 minutes schedule) before I got to board. The waiting tourists did not stand in a neat line and, feeling increasingly desperate after waiting for up to an hour, pushed and shoved to get in. Then extra people were allowed to board too, but had to stand.

The Hop On Hop Off bus is meant to be a tour bus. Passengers are given small headphones so they can listen to narration about the sights they are passing. The plugs for the headphones are next to the seats, which means you have sit to use them. You also have to be able to look out the window. The people who had to stand could not do either one.

How NOT to run a bus route

So why was it so crowded? The company certainly was not ready for the tourist numbers it got. It seemed to me that it could have predicted a peak at that time of year and added extra buses along the route. Instead, we just were expected to wait. I’m sure some people—those who hadn’t already spent money on the Stockholm Pass—just went to the competing Hop On Hop Off company.

leaflets from the Hop On Hop Off and the Stockholm Pass

leaflets from the Hop On Hop Off and the Stockholm Pass

But it gets worse. Here’s Cacinda’s story:

The other two people I was with ended up leaving, but I persevered. However, I wish I hadn’t, as we took some mysterious trip out to the cruise dock, as apparently the bus caters to the cruise line tourists!  Upon returning to the main area of town, I promptly got off, I did not want to experience any more than that!!  It was dirty and packed full of tourists.

I was astonished to hear this. At peak season, knowing how much their buses would be in demand, they picked up cruise tourists and ran the same route with them? Without putting on extra buses? Not a good way to run a business!

The Hop On-Hop Off Boat

I also tried out the Hop On Hop Off boat, run by the same company. It covers eight stops on several of Stockholm’s islands. It provides a good quick look at the center part of the city and, like the bus, includes recorded narration about particular buildings and islands, but without any broader chronological history.

Inside a Hop On Hop Off boat

Inside a Hop On Hop Off boat

I took one of the last circuits on the boat one day. It wasn’t crowded, but food wrappers and leaflets littered the floor. Attached to the back of each seat is a narrow shelf and, since the only trash can is in the bow of the boat, people leave their litter on the shelves. It gets knocked to the floor very easily, and stays there.

The next morning, I took a boat again for just a couple of stops. This time, it was cleaner. It would help if they swept it after each circuit and not just once a day.

The bench seats are very close together, so my knees, if I sat straight, pushed up against the seat in front of me. (I’m about 5’7″ or 171 cm.) Fortunately, I could sit sideways because the boat wasn’t full.

Here’s Cacinda’s account:

The “floating bus” wasn’t any better [than the bus] as it was a hot afternoon and we took one step inside the boat and realized we would sweat our tushes off, so we got out of there fast!

My advice to the Hop On Hop Off companies

  1. Talk to each other and cooperate in peak periods. Whatever history you have between you, work it out so you don’t lose business.
  2. Share the bus stops.
  3. Alternatively, one of the companies needs to re-brand completely so that it is completely clear who is who. Get a different name, a different logo, and a different and consistent paint job. Mark your bus stops well so that it’s clear they belong to your company.
  4. Put on extra buses in peak periods. Never make anyone wait while a full bus drives by. Never make anyone stand.
  5. Run a completely separate service for cruise ship passengers on a different route. Otherwise the individual tourists waiting at your bus stops will feel as if they’re being passed by.
  6. Keep the buses and boats clean.
  7. Both companies: take part in the Stockholm Pass so that passengers could take whichever bus is first available.

My advice to Stockholm tourists

  1. I eventually discovered that the public transportation—trams and the metro especially—is efficient, clean and frequent. Use that for transportation instead."<yoastmark
  2. If you want a sightseeing tour and have the Stockholm Pass, be warned: all the sightseeing excursions involving boats or buses and the one walking tour listed in the Stockholm Pass booklet are run by the same company, Strömma. That doesn’t mean they’re bad; I don’t know, since I didn’t take any of them. They offer tours to specific destinations outside Stockholm: probably good when you only have a short city break. (Please leave a comment below if you have taken any of Strömma’s other offerings and tell us how it was!)
sunset in Stockholm

sunset in Stockholm

The Stockholm Pass

I should point out that none of this is criticism of the Stockholm Pass itself. If you are only going to Stockholm for a few days and want to take in a lot of sights while you’re there, it can be an excellent way to save money on admissions. Go to the tourist office in Sergels Torg, pick up the Stockholm Pass flyer and do the arithmetic to see if it works with your plans.

Here is a link to buy a Stockholm Pass: if you buy through this link, I get a small cut of what you spend.

Disclosure: As a participant in the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference, I received the Stockholm Pass for free from Visit Stockholm. All opinions are my own.

13 Comments

  • cindy

    September 3, 2016 at 2:15 am

    Wow. My experience – once I convinced someone that I wanted the NEAREST stop and not the FIRST stop — was pretty good. It was sort of confusing to know which bus was which, but there were a few key words I could use and the guys selling tickets (even for the competitor) were always helpful in directing me to the right stop. I did NOT like that the bus included on the pass didn’t have windows that fully opened – the buses sucked for photography. But still, I found them pretty easy to use and never so crowded I couldn’t get a seat. I get why they go to the cruise ship port and, as a former city planner, I found it kind of interesting, but I agree that they should have a route that skips the cruise port for those who don’t need to go all the way out there.I did do one of the tour boats – out to Drottningholm — and thought it was pretty good. Still, I agree with ALL of your suggestions. . . and I had a lousy experience at the Stockholm info center when I went to pick up my pass, so even though my pass was free, my overall impression of the city’s visitor services was pretty negative.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      September 3, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      I did have a feeling that ordinarily the Hop On Hop Off bus isn’t bad, but it was the day I took it! I didn’t have any problem with the info center, except I had to wait, but isn’t wasn’t very long.

      Reply
  • Betsy and Peter Wuebker

    September 3, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    We were on the same route as you, Rachel, as you’ll recall. Everything you’ve pointed out is spot on. We waited and waited and waited. Then when a bus finally stopped, after several had gone past, the coordinator at the stop was verbally abused by the driver. The driver walked off the bus and refused to drive it for a while. When his tantrum was over, we managed to score a couple of seats. Big mistake. We endured the tour of the cruise ship parking lots that Cacinda mentioned. Finally we abandoned ship. This whole experience was shocking, as we’ve had such great luck using Hop On Hop Off in other cities as a way to get our bearings when we’re in a new city. Perhaps Visit Stockholm and the City Pass will rethink their affiliation with this company.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      September 3, 2016 at 5:05 pm

      I heard about the driver who refused to drive! I guess it was either after or before I got on the bus. I didn’t include it in the post because I wasn’t sure if it was true. I suspect he was just fed up with pissed-off tourists yelling at him, when probably none of it was his fault!

      Reply
  • JD

    September 4, 2016 at 6:30 am

    Thanks, Rachel. If I do get that chance to travel over at some point, I’ll keep in mind to stick to public transport. It may be a bit more $, but I’d rather bypass that whole disorganized mess, any day.

    😉

    Reply
  • Sonja

    September 5, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    That’s a shame. Always found the Swedish tour operators to be very efficient… My tip to avoid all this disappointment is to take the 75 minutes (or 1h15min) Panorama bus tour, if possible the last one of the day (included with the Sockholm Pass, too). I did that during TBEX in July after I had returned from my day trip to Birka. I boarded the bus, which was almost empty, at around 7 pm. You stay on the bus, so you can’t hop on and off. But I didn’t found that to be necessary. The bus goes by all the important landmarks of the city and you can listen to commentary via the headphones in your language of choice. It’ll give you a good overview of the city, so you can go back with your 24, 48 or 72 hours travel card, which is probably easier than hopping on and off anyways: http://www.stromma.se/en/stockholm/sightseeing/sightseeing-by-bus/stockholm-panorama/

    Reply
  • Victoria@ The British Berliner

    September 7, 2016 at 8:52 am

    What a stressful bus trip! I’m awfully surprised, as Sweden is usually so organised.

    I’m one of those people who go on Hop On Hop Off bus tours, as I very much like the “Original” one organised from the English base! It’s usually a great way to see the overview of a town, the guides are a laugh, and you get to see where things are, so that you can go back again, and do it slowly! However, if the bus doesn’t come, or takes a route that you’re not aware of, it can be frustrating. And not getting a seat? Well!

    ‘Hope your next experience will be better.

    Thanks for sharing Rachel.

    Reply
  • Jane Riddell

    April 24, 2018 at 12:17 pm

    Helpful article. Having read it, will now continue to sightsee on my own. 72 hour transport passes are great for people happy to visit sights themselves as I have been doing since I arrived. Might I suggest that you date your articles? This would make it easier to know how recent they are and therefore relevant, as things do change.

    Reply

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