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 review – 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. You'll also find that there are several other great attractions included in this pass, making it a good option for those planning on staying for a few 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. If you think you'll just be visiting a few smaller attractions, you might want to reconsider and visit some of the larger attractions instead. This way you'll make sure that you get your money's worth from the card.
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. Not only will you be able to explore the island on more of a budget, but you'll get to share these attractions with your children as well as most of them are very kid friendly.
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. Most of the attractions and activities on this card are better suited to adults visiting the Windy City, however, there are a few that will work well for children as well.
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. Included in the card you'll find access to attractions such as the Miami Seaquarium, Jungle Island and Zoo Miami. You'll also find the option of taking the Key West Day Trip excursion.
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. One thing to note about this card is that is a great choice for families as there are some many kid friendly options in Orlando itself.
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. This card is also a great fit for families with both teenagers and young children, as well as large groups. If you're traveling solo or as a couple, you'll also find some fun and entertaining activities to enjoy.
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. You'll also find that the card comes in a variety of time ranges. This means you have the option of getting a one day card all the way up to a five day card, which is great if you're planning on being in the area for a week.
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.This pass includes the Empire State Building, the American Museum of Natural History and a trip on Circle Line Cruises. You can buy this pass for both adults and children, so it works if your traveling as a family as well.
New York Explorer Pass review – This pass offers small packages that can save money for the top attractions, and it often is discounted. These packages range in size from three attraction choices to 10 attraction choices and are great for both those who are only visiting for a few days and for those staying a bit longer.
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. With this pass, families and non-families will find a few different options, including being able to select how many days you want the pass to cover. These range from one day passes to five day passes.
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. With this card you'll find entrance into various different attractions including the Hoover Dam Tour, a meal at Planet Hollywood and a comedy show. You'll also find that the card comes in three types, one offering three attractions, another offering five attractions and the last one offering seven attractions.
Go Washington DC Card review – The US capitol has many free attractions, but many great ones are covered by this card. When purchasing this card, you'll find that you have two options, a three attraction card and a five attraction card. You'll also find a total of 10 attractions to choose from, making it so that you can really customize your card.
Boston CityPass review – There aren't many famous attractions in Boston, but this simple card can still be worth it for some. With this pass you'll find the option of purchasing one for adults and one for children, making it more family friendly. Some of the more popular attractions included are the Skywalk and the New England Aquarium.
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. With this pass, you'll find yourself gaining access to the New Orleans bus tour, the National WWII Museum and the San Fransisco Plantation House.
Chicago CityPass review– The Windy City is home to a good number of popular attractions, some of which are great for families. Some of the more attractive attractions include the Shedd Aquarium and Skydeck Chicago where you'll find a pretty impressive view of the city as well as a dining option and shopping.
San Francisco CityPass review– Though the city itself is known for being a very expensive one, visitors will find lots of things to do and see at a fraction of the price with their CityPass. With the pass you'll have access to popular attractions including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you're thinking about getting this pass, keep in mind it's best for families staying at least 3 days in the city.
Go London Card review– If you're seeking a various amount of cultural attractions, then London is your city. Here you'll find museums all over the place, along with other interesting attractions. With the Go London Card you'll have access to these attractions via a 3, 4 and 5 choices card, allowing you to really cater your vacation to your wants. There are also some great attractions for children as well.
Go San Antonio Card review– Welcome to the big state of Texas, home to big hair, big burgers and lots of huge attractions. Some of the attractions that call San Antonio home are Six Flags Fiesta, the San Antonio Zoo and the Natural Bridge Caverns. Because there is a nice variety of attraction types, you'll find that this card is good for both adults and kids.
Go All Florida Card review– If you're looking to visit multiple parts of Florida, then this is the card you'll want to look at. With this card, you'll gain access to attractions and things to do in cities around the state, including Miami, Orlando, Key West and more. Some of the more popular attractions included on the card are the Miami Zoo and Busch Gardens.
Go All California Card review– Much like the All Florida Card, the Go All California Card is made for those who plan on visiting more than one city during their visit to California. With that in mind, the cities listed on the card are pretty spread apart, meaning that you'll want to plan your attraction list ahead of time so that you can avoid traffic and long drives on the highway during busy rush hour.
Go Boston Card review– With this card, you'll find several different card options including a 1 day, 2 day, 3 day, 5 day and 7 day card. You'll also find a nice selection of attractions to visit and partake in during your visit, even if you choose to stay for a full 7 days. Some of the more popular attractions include the hop-on, hop-off trolley, the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Stockholm Pass review– If you're planning on visiting Stockholm over a long weekend or for a few days during the week, you'll want to take a look at this pass. Some of the attractions you'll be able to visit are The Royal Palace, the hop-on, hop-off bus and the Vasa Museum.
Vienna Pass review– A beautiful city with lots to see and do, Vienna offers visitors a chance to learn more about its history while taking in the sights and sounds that make this city so popular. However, because you'll only need to spend a little time at each attraction, you'll find that you can visit a bunch of them within a few days, making it so that you may only need a 2 or 3 day pass compared to the 6 day pass.
Barcelona Pass review– One of Europe's most popular cities for sight seeing and things to do, Barcelona acts as a crown jewel, attracting visitors from around the world. With this pass you'll find yourself privy to 16 major attractions throughout the city, some of which are good for children as well.
Swiss Travel Pass review– This pass is geared toward visitors who plan on taking at least two of Switzerland's scenic train routes within a period of 3 or 4 days. If you do this, then you'll find that the pass is worth it and will save you money in the end. With the pass, you'll also be able to chose between first and second class, making it easier to cater to your wants.
Berlin Pass review– Noted as one of the most popular cities in the whole of Europe, Berlin offers guests plenty of things to do and see, making it a great destination for both adults and families with children in tow. Here you'll find the Berlin Dungeons, the Berlin Insiders Walking Tour, the LEGOLAND Discovery Centre and the Berlin River Cruise.
New Orleans Power Pass review– A tourist city thriving with culture, New Orleans attracts visitors from around the world who share stories, drinks and a good time. With this pass you'll find that basically everything is included, making it so that you can really change up your pass to fit what you want to do that particular trip. Some of the attractions covered include the New Orleans Bus Tour, a cooking demonstration class and a Haunted History Walking Tour.
Venice Card review– An Italian city worth visiting, Venice offers travelers a look into the past with beautiful architecture and more. If you're looking to visit all of the main attractions during your stay, you'll find that the Venice Card is a good deal. It's also best for those who plan on staying in the city longer than just a few days, that way you'll have time to really see everything and not feel rushed through each attraction.
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.