DC Buses: Hop On Hop Off vs Public Transportation

Are hop on hop off buses worth it? Are regular city buses better? We are going to compare hop on hop off buses to the public buses here in Washington, DC. The three factors that we are going to compare them on are: price, frequency of service, and the information that you get on the ride.

Hop On Hop Off Tours Vs. Public Buses in Washington DC

There are actually several public transit agencies in the Washington DC metro area. If you’re staying downtown you’ll probably notice just two buses: the Metrobus and Circulator.

Metro Bus

Metrobus is run by WMATA, the same people who run MetroRail. They have routes all over the Washington, DC metro area.  It’s probably the most similar to the Regional Transit Agency that your own city might have.

DC Circulator

Circulator is run by the DC Department of Transportation, and it has routes almost exclusively in DC. If you do use the public bus when you visit, it will probably be the Circulator. There are very convenient routes around the National Mall, Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and other popular tourist destinations.

Hop on,Hop Off Buses

Hop on hop off buses, on the other hand, are run by private bus operators. They are called hop on hop off buses to distinguish them from the more standard sightseeing buses, where you might drive around and see the sights from your seat.

Hop on hop off buses are priced in a way where you typically pay for a one-day or a two-day pass and then get unlimited rides during that time period. There are at least four different hop-on hop-off tour operators in Washington DC right now. They all have slightly different routes and slightly different pricing, but they more or less offer the same service.


Each of the hop on hop off DC buses have their own pricing. The one-day pass options that hop on hop off buses offer usually is in the $30-$40 range, with the two-day pass usually in the $50-$60 range.

On the other hand, you can ride the Circulator right now for $1 per Ride. The Metrobus is for $2 per ride. You can pay for the public buses using your SmarTrip card, which also works on the Metro. It is really cheap transportation. So in the price category, we are going to say that the public buses are the clear winner.

Frequency of Service

The DC buses all run on different frequency of service.

Circulator advertises that all buses on all routes will run every 10 minutes. However, from experience, it doesn’t always work out that way.

The hop on hop off buses vary depending on the company and the route. They advertise frequencies of one bus every approximately 20 to 40 minutes. Another thing to keep in mind is the operating hours for these services. The hop on hop off buses end every day around 5 or 6 p.m. The Circulator’s National Mall route ends at 8 p.m. during the summer season. During the winter season at 7 p.m.

Another thing about the Circulator is that you can download the NextBus app on your phone or just navigate to nextbus.com from your mobile browser. It will show you an estimate for the amount of time you have to wait at the stop where you’re standing and you can look at a map of every bus on the route. So, that there is no guessing about where a bus is or how long you’re going to have to be standing there. With longer hours and more frequent service, the public bus is the winner in this category too.

Tourist Information

Information is where these two types DC buses really start to split apart. Public buses are transportation. There’s no tour guide and you can’t expect to get any information about where you’re going or what you’re seeing. If you’re not going to sign up for a walking tour or a bike tour or anything other guided experience, then you might actually find it valuable to pay extra for a hop-on hop-off to get this information.

Some of the hop-on hop-off bus routes have live narration, which is exactly what you want. Steer clear of any bus company that only uses a recording. The one exception to this is if you want the tour in another language, in that case a recording might be the better bet. In any case the winner in this category is obviously the hop on hop off bus.

Our Recommendation

If you just want transportation between the monuments, the memorials Georgetown, and some of the other very popular tourist destinations, check out the Circulator. If you want a narrated tour, but you don’t want to sign up for a walking tour or anything else on the ground, then a hop on hop off might be worth it.

The most important thing is to do your research in advance and make sure that the hop on hop off company that you pick has routes that go to the places that you want to go, and has a live tour guide and not a recording.

Coming to Washington DC, and want to book a tour?

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation’s Capital. Trip Hacks DC provides tips,  tricks and travel hacks for planning your trip; and guided tours to show you around once you get here. Our tours are family and school group friendly and our guides specialize in the major Washington, DC sites.  Click here to check out the upcoming tour options and to book your tour here today!Feel free to contact us if you have any tour questions.

About Trip Hacks DC

Trip Hacks DC was founded by Rob, a veteran tour guide in the Nation's Capital.

Everyone wants to get the most out of travel experience; we know that planning a trip can be fun but sometimes stressful. The tips and travel hacks offered here will help you make the most of your trip and avoid missing out on the best things the city has to offer. Our trip planning e-book is the perfect resource for every first-time Washington, DC visitor.

If you're looking for a guided experience once you arrive, Trip Hacks DC specializes in private tours; but has public tours options as well. Visit the Guided Tours section to learn about some of the suggested tours and the trip planning resources section for help preparing for your trip. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

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