City passes: are they the best way to explore a new city?

Is a city pass the best way to explore a new city?

Three major attractions in one day? Please tell me you're not serious.

This was the selling point of a city pass I saw advertised, with promises of huge savings on entry fees to some of a city's most popular tours and attractions.

Among the choices were a major zoo, some first-class museums and world-famous buildings - most of which would warrant at least half a day.

The entry fees should be discounted, because the experiences certainly would be.

City passes are such a mixed bag when it comes to value and offerings; they can be the key to either a wonderful city stay or a mad rush to do a lot and enjoy nothing.

They can allow you to visit attractions you might have otherwise skipped or push you into doing things you probably should have skipped.

Working out the potential value of a city pass is simple: add up the individual ticket prices of the attractions and compare them to the cost of a pass.

But how many of those attractions do you really want to visit, and how much time do you want at each?


Are you leaving yourself time to just wander around the city and soak up its atmosphere, because there's a lot more to travelling than seeing major attractions.

Another thing to look at is whether there are benefits beyond the dollar value, such as being able to skip the queues or get into an attraction that might otherwise be booked out.

If you've only got limited time in a city, or if you have as little patience as I do, dodging a two-hour queue is a tangible benefit.

Something that can really make a city pass worthwhile is the inclusion of public transport.

I'm a huge fan of using public transport when I travel, not just because it's usually one of the most efficient ways to get around a city but because it's a big part of getting the feel of a place and its people.

One of the best city passes I've come across is Austria's 'Salzburg Card', which gives you unlimited access to public transport as well as entry to most of the city's attractions.

The card is ridiculously good value at around $35 per adult for 24 hours, $47 for 48 hours or $54 for 72 hours of transport and sightseeing.

If you ride the funicular up to explore the Hohensalzburg Fortress and then take a return trip on the cable car to the top of the Untersberg mountain, you've just about paid for a three-day pass.

And because the pass is not a huge expense, you don't feel the pressure to rush around and cram in as much as you can.

I've also used London's hop-on-hop-off red double decker bus passes on several occasions.

They might be touristy, but they're an excellent way to get around the city, or to get your bearings as a first-time visitor.

Last time we visited we picked up a family pass for about $125 and got 48 hours instead of 24, thanks to a special offer.

The pass included a Thames river cruise and gave us discounted entry into some of the attractions we visited, so it was an absolute bargain, especially when you consider that a single trip on the London Underground costs us more than $15.

Passes are always worth a look if you're planning to visit a zoo or wildlife attraction, as these are usually an expensive day out.

By the time you make your way to the zoo and pay for entry, you might be able to get a ticket to another attraction as well.

With any pass you plan to buy, it pays to check online before you go, as there are often discounts for advance or online purchase.

Museum passes are also worth investigating if you're a culture buff, again depending on how many you want to cram in.

However, it pays to do a bit of research on museums and galleries, as many have a free day on a set day of the week or month.

The US is particularly generous on this front, with many of its institutions free some or even all of the time.

How long this will continue in buildings not maintained by the government is questionable, with the costs of upkeep a struggle for many.

The Washington National Cathedral has announced it will next year switch from voluntary donations to a US$10 admission fee for tourists.

The cathedral already has a “requested contribution” of $10 per visitor but the average donation is only a third of that.

Voluntary donations have also become a contentious issue, with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently taken to court over its US$25 “recommended” admission price.

The museum dodged a class action by stating that one penny is an acceptable donation for those who are short of cash.