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Your Pass to City Life: Making The Most of City Pass Cards

by Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Feature Columnist and PassPorter Message Board Guide

Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles -- these are some of the most glamorous and most visited cities in the world. The number of tourists they receive means they all share something else in common. Each of them has their own city pass, created especially for visitors. They all have different names and the programs vary slightly, but the idea is the same wherever you go. They're designed to give you free or discounted access to some of the main attractions in each city and usually also include free travel on public transport such as subways and buses for the duration of your pass. They may also offer discounts for particular restaurants and shops. But are they good value for money and will they work for you?

INThat's the dilemma that we quite often face. Cities are one of our favorite destinations -- outside of Disney of course! Where else can you find such a range of things to see and do in such a small area? Most cities have more than enough to occupy you for two or three days and in many cases, you could easily spend a week in the bigger cities and still not cover everything. That's why most city passes are available in different durations, ranging from a single day for those who are just taking a day trip, up to a week for those who plan to take their time.

The first thing to consider if you're planning on buying a city pass is how long you're going to need one for and the most important thing to find out is how each pass works. Some, such as the Helsinki Card, are activated for periods of 24, 48 or 72 hours from the first time they're used. That means you can first use it early on a Saturday afternoon and a 48 hour card would then be valid until early Monday afternoon. Unfortunately, they don't all work that way, as we discovered when we tried out the London Pass recently. We had to buy a two day pass, as this one works on calendar days, so if you activate it on a Saturday afternoon and want to use it on Sunday morning, a one day pass won't be enough.

Once you've worked out how many days you're going to need, you can start to work out whether a city pass will actually represent good value for you or not. Before you can make that decision, you need to have a good idea about what places and attractions you'd like to visit during your city break.

For example, most of the main attractions are included in the London Pass, but there are a couple of significant omissions, namely the London Eye and Westminster Cathedral. If you're planning to visit during its summer opening, Buckingham Palace isn't included either. That means you'd have to pay for each of these out of pocket. If they were in your top three of places to visit, the London Pass may suddenly not work that well for you. Equally, the Go Los Angeles Card only includes admission to Universal Studios Hollywood if you purchase a three, five or seven day card. If you've only got two days to spare and that's one of the places you want to visit, then again this may not be the best way to go. It's also worth not taking everything you read on the official web sites for granted. We discovered that some of the attractions listed for the Helsinki card, for example, were actually free to everyone, but the official literature promoted that you could get free admission with the card. It's always worth checking out all the information for yourself, just to be on the safe side.

Once you know where you want to head for and whether the city pass you're looking at includes those places, then it's time to start doing some simple calculations. How many places do you realistically think you're going to be able to visit during your time in the city? Come up with something that will be achievable for you -- after all, you know how much you can pack into your days. Then have a look at each of those places and what their full admission cost. Add it all up and then compare it to the price of a city pass for the same period. If you're not planning on visiting particularly expensive places, you may just be better paying out of pocket.

Let's look at the New York Pass as an example. A three day pass is currently $102 for adults. If, during your three days, you think you're going to be able to fit in visits to the Empire State Building and experience the Skyride there, see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, take tours of Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center and NBC Studios, head out one night for a harbor lights cruise and visit the Bronx Zoo, then those attractions would otherwise cost an adult something like $137. If you think that's too ambitious, then the pass may suddenly not be such an attractive option.

Something else worth looking at is whether your pass includes free access to public transportation during your stay. Some passes include this automatically but for some it is an option. For example, the London Pass gives you the option of buying a pass just for attractions or one that includes travel on buses and the Tube. Again, look carefully at these. We found that the one day pass with travel was great value, but it was cheaper to buy travel passes for two or more days than pay the price charged by London Pass.

You may now be thinking that the decision about whether to buy a pass on your next city visit isn't that straightforward after all. That's certainly true, but a little bit of research can tell you whether it's going to save you a lot of money or be a bad deal. Only you know what you can achieve during the time you're in a city and it certainly does pay to do the math before you get there and work out exactly which option is best for you.

[Editor's Note: Some cities and regions have more than one city pass program available. For example, Go Los Angeles and CityPass both have pass programs for Los Angeles/Southern California, each offering different combinations of attractions and features. The Southern California City Pass includes admission to Disneyland, while Go Los Angeles does not.]

Related Links: London: An Insider's Guide -

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Updated 04/06/07 

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