City Passes: Good value or good way to ruin a visit?
As summer is upon us, many of the world’s great cities are clogged with tourists racing from one famous attraction to the next. Especially on our first-ever visit to any famous city there’s a tendency to try to jam in as many of the ‘checklist’ attractions as possible, and buying a City Pass might seem like a very good option.
At this point pretty much every large city on the planet has at least one ‘City Pass’ available, which allows visitors to pay a flat fee upfront for a given number of days worth of free admission to various museums and other attractions. For each city they are obviously different, but oftentimes the math does make it look like they can offer great value. However, in many cases these cards might feel more like a ball and chain, so we’ll discuss who should consider them and who shouldn’t below.
Three City Pass examples
Not long ago we looked closely at two of the more popular city passes, asking is the New York Pass worth it, as well as if the Paris Pass is good value. In both of those cases the pass itself has a shockingly high price tag, but they are still very good deals for many people. Our London Pass review shows that it’s quite good value from a price standpoint, as long as you aren’t more interested in the many free museums.
More City Pass reviews
Rome and Vatican Pass – This is an interesting one because it covers exactly what most people come to see, including fast-track entries to the attractions with the longest queues. You can save money by skipping this one if you don’t mind waiting in ticket lines, but those in a hurry will appreciate the value here.
Dublin Pass review – Long story short, if you are going to visit the Guinness Storehouse Tour and the Old Jameson Distillery Tour, then the Dublin Pass is probably very worthwhile.
Berlin Card review – Most sights in Berlin are fairly cheap, so this card is only wise for people trying to see the city in only one or two days.
Go Los Angeles Card review – The top sights in Los Angeles are the theme parks, which are very expensive. If you think you might want to visit at least two of them, this card can be helpful and wise.
Go Oahu Card review – Similarly, this card can save money for those who want to see at least two or three of the top sights.
Go Chicago Card review – The main Chicago museums and such are pricey, so this card is helpful, especially when it’s offered on sale, which is most of the time.
Go Miami Card review – If you are going to Miami to relax on the beach or go to night clubs then forget this one. But for a family visit, this card is worth a look.
Go Orlando Card review – Speaking of Florida, this card is good for many of the larger non-Disney theme parks and attractions there, including Legoland.
Go San Diego Card review – This card includes both Legoland and the famous San Diego Zoo, so it’s a pretty good deal for anyone wanting to visit both of them.
Go San Francisco Card review – There aren’t many expensive attractions in San Francisco, but this card includes a wine tour that makes it worthwhile by itself.
New York CityPass review – If you are going to go to the most famous (and expensive) attractions in New York City, then give this one a long look.
New York Explorer Pass review – This pass offers small packages that can save money for the top attractions, and it often is discounted.
Las Vegas Power Pass review – This pass is ideal for families with kids who want to spend their days visiting the many premium attractions in Las Vegas and the surrounding area.
Go Las Vegas Card review – The Go Las Vegas Card is great for families who are trying to keep the kids busy during the day.
Go Washington DC Card review – The US capitol has many free attractions, but many great ones are covered by this card.
Boston CityPass review – There aren’t many famous attractions in Boston, but this simple card can still be worth it for some.
New Orleans Power Pass review – If you are visiting New Orleans you will almost certainly find this card to be good value, as long as you are well organized.
The math and economics behind City Pass offers
If you look at the two specific examples linked above you’ll notice that a visitor really does have to hustle around town for several days in a row in order to save any significant amount of money on these cards. Someone who was intent on getting the maximum value for the card might collapse from exhaustion and perhaps not have much of a great trip in the end anyway.
So don’t think you’ll actually save much money because for most people the cards end up costing visitors more by encouraging them to lock in more sights than they might otherwise be in the mood for. The math is simple, really, in that these offers are very profitable for the sellers because they lock in a high flat fee when many visitors might otherwise get tired or distracted and skip many of the sights they are paying for upfront.
It’s also worth pointing out that these city cards almost all offer high commissions to websites and agencies who sell them, not unlike extended warranties on electronics, and this fact alone tells you they are very profitable for those who produce them.
Still, for the right sort of visitor, they can be very worthwhile, and we’ll go over the pros and cons now.
Pros of City Passes
Skipping queues – Probably the most valuable single feature of nearly all these City Passes is that they allow you to skip at least the ticket queue, and less often the main entry queue. During busy seasons this could mean seeing 4 attractions in the same time someone else can only see 3 because they spend hours buying individual tickets.
Budget control – If you lock in, say, $150 in attractions before you even arrive somewhere, you’ll at least be sure you won’t run out of money before you leave. For some people shopping, food, and drinks can swallow their whole budget, making important museums tempting to skip.
“Forcing” you to visit top cultural attractions – For some of us it’s easy to drop a few top museums off our itinerary if they are individually expensive or crowded. With a City Pass, you’ll force yourself to go, most likely.
Makes planning your visit easier – This could possibly be on the cons list as well, but if you’ve prepaid for, say, 40 different attractions, then it’s pretty easy to focus on those so you don’t waste much time flailing around or trying to decide what to do.
Cons of City Passes
Probably end up spending more – As mentioned above, it’s most likely that you’ll actually lock in greater expenses with a City Pass, though you’ll see more as well.
Attempting to get value will wear you out – Honestly, in order to actually “save” money with these passes you’ll be trying to hit 4 or more attractions per day, which can be exhausting and possibly not too enjoyable on the day.
“Forcing” you to visit top cultural attractions – Many of the world’s great tourist cities are actually wonderful just to hang around in, and there are endless free attractions in all of them as well. With a City Pass you’ll feel obligated to do checklist things instead of just soaking the city in.
Removes most spontaneity and serendipity – Similar to the above, buying a City Pass means you’ll be far less likely to be able to meet and hang out with locals, or take in a free theater performance in the park, or spend an hour or two in a wonderful antique market. And if you do skip out on the prepaid attractions, you’ll feel guilty for doing so.
Who should get City Passes?
All things considered, these City Passes are probably only best for:
- People on their first-ever visit
- People on very tight schedules
- People who are SURE they want to see all the famous attractions
- People who are more interested in locking in attractions rather than those trying to lock in savings
If you meet several or all of the above criteria, and that’s actually a lot of people, then buying a City Pass could be a fine idea. For cheapskates and slow/independent travelers, they probably do more harm than good.