You’ve seen them in almost every big city you’ve traveled to, ads for them on the official tourism site, half the unofficial sites, and every printed tourist rag you pick up anywhere. For one price, the card you buy gets you admission to a whole slew of museum and attractions, maybe covers the local public transportation system, and provides discounts at some shops and restaurants.
Deal or no deal?
In general terms, it depends on how much sightseeing you are going to do. You usually have to do a lot in a short amount of time to make the numbers work. Like “48 hours in __(insert city here)___” not “My leisurely week of unhurried sightseeing.”
What do you get with that city card?
The deal equation depends a lot on what the card includes. In some cities, some major attractions aren’t part of the deal. In this $43, 72-hour Muze Card for Istanbul, for example, a mix of great and obscure museums are on the list, but not the Basilica Cistern or Dolmabahce Palace. If time is money though, this will save you some—you get to skip the lines and go straight in, which is a big plus when cruise ships are releasing their throngs.
The Budapest Card in Hungary doesn’t help you with queue-jumping and if you look closely, you find that some of the most popular spots are not on their list. You just get a small discount at the House of Terror Museum and the Opera House. If you’ve got kids along, you only get 25% off at the zoo. It only gets you 10-20% off at the most famous indoor/outdoor bath houses.
The card is around $37 for 72 hours, with the public transportation part of that being worth $6 per day. So if you’re planning to take the subway a lot, you could justify the card because you’d be spending half that amount on transportation anyway. Same with the Lisbon Card—the transportation part alone is worth 18 euros of the €39 3-day pass. So hit a good number of the museums that are free (the big art and history ones) and it’s worth it. If you hate museums, take a pass.
Who goes to Paris without visiting any museums though? The Paris Museum Pass is worth buying for most visitors, especially during the busy summer months, because it lets you skip the long lines. Priced from 39 (two days) to 69 (six days) euros, the longer you’re there the better deal it is. With the six day one coming out to a shade over €10 per day, you don’t have to run around like an Amazing Race contestant to get your money’s worth. With 69 museums included, you’re sure to find plenty you’ll like and you can even go back again to the same one another day. And yes, it includes the biggies like Notre Dame and The Louvre.
The San Diego Card will cost a family of four the equivalent of a few plane tickets: the 5-day one for two adults and two kids would come out to around $800. The list of 47 included attractions includes some high-ticket items though, like the San Diego Zoo, Legoland amusement park, Sea World, and Knott’s Berry Farm. So it’s a big investment, but one that works out on paper if you do it right.
So the answer of whether buying one of these cards is a good idea or not depends a lot on your style of travel, the time you have, and what kind of sightseeing you like to do. Go through this list before whipping out your credit card.
Pricing out city tourist card deals
Figure out how many true sightseeing days you have. On arrival and departure days, for instance, you probably don’t want to be doing anything structured and jet lag can sap your stamina for at least 24 hours.
Decide which sites are your biggest priority and look up the rates for those if you paid individually. You may find they cost far less or far more than the card total. (You can see sample San Diego prices right on the city pass site.)
Don’t factor in the restaurant and shop discounts when doing the math. These are usually at tourist traps and the most expensive shops. You’re better off avoiding both.
Do value the intangibles, like how much time you will save if your pass lets you cut the line to get in famous places. Flashing a transportation pass is much simpler than keeping track of exact change in a foreign currency or buying individual tickets each time from a kiosk.
Price out a local transportation card. If you enjoy strolling in parks and exploring cafes more than looking at paintings and artifacts, a subway or bus pass may be all you need. For cities with huge metro systems like London and Madrid, this can save you a bundle.
Make good use of coupons This used to mean ordering something like the Entertainment Book, but now you can just log onto Groupon, Living Social, or whatever local versions exist for the city you’ll be visiting. You can get half price meal deals and lots of discounted activities. Where I live in Tampa, for instance, there’s a steady stream of sightseeing boat tours, jet ski rentals, kayak rentals, manatee snorkeling trips, and fishing trips. Heck, these days you can go directly onto Groupon Chile and find deals for Santiago.
Have you bought a city card that was a particularly good deal? Or did you waste money on one that wasn’t?