With the summer travel season now upon us, it’s time to revisit one of the more controversial topics when it comes to trip-budgeting. I’ve researched and written a lot about “city passes” in the past, and those are some of the most popular articles on this site. Simply put, they are really great deals for many people, but certainly not for everyone.
I’ll list the main points of consideration below, but during the busiest travel months the formula changes a bit and they are probably a better fit for many people who’d be better off without them during spring or autumn. The primary difference is that the ticket queues for the most famous attractions can range from one to two hours all summer, and your time is more valuable than that when on holiday.
City pass basics
City passes are available for virtually every major tourist city on the planet, usually purchased in advance by mail or for pick-up upon arrival. You buy a pass good for anywhere from one day to six days which includes admission to most or all of the top attractions in that city, and you often have an option to include a public transportation pass for the same number of days.
In most cases you only need to average 2 major attractions per day in order for them to pay for themselves, so if you can fit in 3 or 4 or 5 things per day they are excellent value. Better still, they almost all allow you to skip the ticket-buying queue for the attractions, so you can usually just show your card at the main door and stroll right in.
Reviews of the most popular city passes
Since this site is all about breaking down prices and expenses, we’ve written a full review and analysis of each of the major passes. The most important thing you’ll learn on these pages is which attractions ARE included and which AREN’T. Needless to say, you only get good value when it includes things you are interested in seeing and doing.
- Review of the Paris Pass
- Review of the London Pass
- Review of the New York Pass
- Review of the San Francisco Pass
Is a pass right for you? Here’s the short version
It’s easy to get excited while planning a trip and let the city pass offer hypnotize you into thinking you are going to visit 5 or more museums every day, but it rarely works out that way, probably for the best. Here is a short version of the points to consider when evaluating a city pass.
A city pass IS good for:
- Visitors in town for short stays
- Visitors who are specifically interested in enough included attractions
- Families with younger children (long ticket queues and kids don’t mix)
- Culture vultures who don’t want to waste time standing in queues
A city pass IS NOT good for:
- Visitors staying over a week in town
- Anyone on a modest backpacker budget
- Anyone who goes to museums just because he thinks he’s supposed to
If you are staying for a long time then you will probably be happier spacing out the big attractions, and if you are struggling to even afford a hostel bed then you should probably minimize the pricey attractions and concentrate more of free thing.
It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your desire to visit enough of these things. Touring 4 museums in one day might sound great before you leave, but that’s an ambitious schedule once you are there. Fortunately, all the passes include things like city tours and other whimsical things to balance the museums out a bit.
Even better value in summer
During the cold months all of these cities have shorter attraction hours and ticket queues tend to be minimal. But from June through September, nearly everything stays open until late, often until 9pm or even later, and ticket queues are often ridiculous. For example, the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty is a 20-minute ride, but the ticket line is often 2 hours during summer.
See four major attractions per day instead of two
When most major attractions are open from around 9am until around 9pm during summer, it’s pretty easy to fit in four of them per day if you don’t have to worry about the ticket line. Assuming you arrive at the first one near opening time and spend about two hours there, that means when you get out you’ll still have 10 hours for three more things. And if you finish at 8pm it’s still light outside and a good time for a relaxing dinner.
Without a pass you’ll either be spending a few hours per day out in the hot ticket queue, or you’ll more likely end up only going to the less-popular attractions or giving up due to boredom and exhaustion from all the waiting in between.
Your time while abroad is worth a lot more than you might realize
Considering the cost of airfare, each waking hour in the city you are visiting might have cost you $10 or $20 or even more. In one sense, this time is invaluable because you might never be back, but even in a pure economic sense it’s easy to see why spending hours in ticket queues (among other tourists rather than locals) is a terrible way to spend your valuable time.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with just “hanging around” any of these major cities, and hopefully you’ve included at least some of your time for doing just that. Randomly wandering the streets of Paris is one of the great joys of travel, and it doesn’t cost a thing, so don’t feel guilty if you are skipping the Louvre. But if you want to have time to see the Louvre AND walk around in no particular direction, then a city pass is the way to go.