What is a City Card?
Most major cities in Europe and North America, as well as many other cities around the world, offer tourists what I will blanketly call a “City Card”. Sometimes known as a “City Pass”, “Travel Pass”, or most commonly by the name of the place (eg. the “Copenhagen Card”, the “Go London Card”, the “New Orleans Power Pass”), these cards offer users specific perks for a set price.
You get free or discounted entrance into certain museums and attractions, plus potential extras like a walking/bus tour or guided river cruise. They often include unlimited access to a hop on/hop off bus or trolley or even free access to public transport like the subway or city bus system. Normally, there are different time frame options, from a one-day card to a three or five-day card. Sometimes you have a choice between individual cards and family cards.
So while all city cards are similar, they all have different options and inclusions. I’m going to go over the pros and cons of city cards in general, which may or may not apply to all specific city cards. Read to the bottom to get my ultimate conclusion on if they’re worth it and my cheeky tip if you do decide to use one.
One of the big benefits of city cards is that they eliminate a lot of the hassle and worry of planning your trip and your budget. You just buy one item and can use it to sightsee and travel around as much or as little as you want without calculating every little expense along the way. The only thing to keep track of is what is included on your card, in case there is an attraction you really want to see that is not.
Forces You to See More/Things You Might Skip Otherwise
As a budget traveler, I often find myself skipping attractions I might otherwise be interested in because they are too expensive. Why would I pay $30-50 to see one attraction, when I can see 5, 10, even 15 free or cheap ones for less than that! With a city card, I’ve basically paid one price to see however many attractions I want (that are included), so I might as well check out as many as I can. It won’t cost any more to see those expensive attractions and the more attractions you see, the lower the average “cost” of each becomes.
For example, if you buy a $50 city card and use it to see one attraction, that’s a $50 attraction. If you use that same card to see ten attractions, the average cost of each is $5. Effectively, you might get into that $30 attraction for $5. On the other hand, you might also “pay” $5 for another attraction that without the card would have been free or just a buck or two… Ultimately, it gives budget-conscious travelers a real incentive to get out and widely explore the place they are visiting.
This can be a great benefit sometimes and a non-existent one at other times. Since with a city card, you effectively already have your entrance ticket to included sights, you don’t have to stand in line to buy one when you get to each. In the middle of the high season at peak times, this can save you half an hour, an hour, maybe more just waiting to get it. It effectively gives you more time to see the attraction itself and probably allows you to see more attractions in the same amount of time. If like me, you embrace the offseason or like to avoid crowds and visit at a slow time when there is no line, this is more of a moot benefit.
This can be a really big benefit, especially in larger cities or ones where the attractions you most want to see are pretty spread out. If transportation (be it by specific tour bus or public transport) is included in a city card (it isn’t always), you can save a lot of time and money getting around. I tend not to use public transportation very much when traveling, opting to walk most everywhere instead.
This is a great way to get your exercise and to get a more tactile feel for the foreign land you are visiting, it also takes a lot of time and sometimes places are just too far to walk to. Usually, you can see a wider variety of things when you use public transport and again, having an all-access pass to get around would justify it to my inner Frugal Fanny and eliminate the anxiety of counting up costs for each ride.
City cards can be quite pricey. As a budget traveler, I turn and run from fees over about $10-15… Pretty much all city cards are well over double that. Major cities have so many free and inexpensive things to do, I hate to shell out the big bucks for an all-inclusive card when I can get a bunch of fantastic cultural and unusual experiences for much, much less. I find the only way the cost might be worth it is if you are extremely interested in seeing all the big, expensive attractions.
Forces You to See More
I know, this was on my pro list, but it can also be a con. More is not always better. If you are running around trying to get the best value out of your city card and seeing as many sights as possible in the given time frame, you might end up skimming to surface too much.
A couple of years ago, I visited Edinburgh briefly on my way to the Scottish Highlands. I basically had one day to see the city. I rushed around seeing all the big places I wanted to see. Ultimately, I felt like I was just getting a cursory glimpse before I had to run off in order to have time to see all the other places on my list. My last stop of the day was the National Museum of Scotland. I only had about half an hour before it closed, but wanted to give it a quick once-over. Oh man, when I stepped into the huge, multi-level, glass-ceilinged gallery, I knew I had made a mistake.
I looked over the floor plan map and chose what I thought would be the most interesting exhibits to check out in my limited time. Making my way to them, so many other things caught my eye that I wanted to stop and look at, but I didn’t have time. There was so much more to see that interested me than some of the other places I had rushed through earlier in the day. I was so bummed that I didn’t have more time. So last year when I had the opportunity to go back to Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to rectify that error. I spent an entire day in the National Museum of Scotland and I still did not see it all!
Sometimes a quick visit to multiple attractions is all you need. Fine, great. But if I’m going to spend the money on a city card, I feel like I want to get the most out of it and see everything I can. This means I would lose money or value if one particular attraction held my attention and I wanted to spend a lot of time there. By “forcing” you to see more places, city cards also “forces” you to see less of each place. You get more surface value, but less depth.
Wear You Out
Besides giving you less time to explore an attraction in depth, running around trying to make your city card worth the expense by seeing as much as possible can be very draining! Not only are you seeing less of places, but the stress of trying to get around to everything and always looking at the clock means you might be too tired to actually internalize what you do see. Your eyes may take in a museum, attraction, view, but your mind doesn’t really register it. Attraction hopping may not exhaust everyone equally, but there is certainly more of a chance you will tire more quickly the more you are running around and not taking your time.
Eliminates Spontaneity & Unusual Attractions
Along the same lines as the previous “cons”, using a city card closes the window on spontaneous sightseeing and checking out more unusual attractions. What happens if you buy a city card and then you strike up a conversation with a fellow traveler in your hostel who tells you about this really cool, hole-in-the-wall art cafe or specialty museum that sounds right up your alley but isn’t included on the card?
I, for one, would at least second-guess changing my plans to check it out if I had already effectively spent the money to see the more mainstream attractions included on a city card. Or what if you get to a city and somehow it doesn’t strike your fancy. Not everywhere is everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes I roll in somewhere and after a day (or a few hours) of wandering around decide I really am not feeling it’s vibe and would rather move on. If I had bought a city card, I would feel like I was obligated to stick it out and stay since I had already made that financial commitment.
Makes You Skip Free Attractions
There are so many fantastic sights, attractions, museums around the world that are absolutely free. As a budget traveler, these are my first go-tos, of course. The free stuff may not be the best stuff or the stuff that interests you the most, but it may just be! By purchasing a city card, you often try to get the best value out of it by going to all the paid attractions that you basically already paid for when you bought the card, and you end up missing out on the free ones. This could go either way, depending on what the city has to offer and what you are particularly interested in seeing.
So basically, before buying a city card, check it out very carefully. What attractions are covered? Are there any extras like tours, cruises, public transportation? Research what kinds of sights are available in that city and pick out the ones you would most like to see. Then compare that list to the list of what is covered on the city card.
Put an actual value on each thing. Here’s a hypothetical: your must-see list includes 3 museums with entrance fees the equivalent of $30, $8, and $0. They are far from each other, so you’d have to spend at least $10 on public transportation. You would also love to see the city from the river that runs through it. A $40 city card that includes all the museums, public transport, and a river cruise is definitely worth the purchase. If the city card includes the $30 museum and the $0 museum, but not the $10 one and none of the extras, it’s not worth it.
Be sure you know what you definitely want to see, what you might be interested in seeing, what you don’t care about, what each of these items costs, and which are included on the card. If the numbers add up, great – buy away! If they don’t, it might be more of an expense than it’s worth.
I am a solo budget traveler and that’s what I normally write about here at The Global Gadabout, so you can probably guess my city card conclusion… Ultimately, I have found that city cards are usually NOT a solo budget traveler’s best option. They can save you money when used strategically, but I only find them to be worth it in maybe 1 out of every 50 cities I travel to.
Share with Other Travelers
If you do want to try to take advantage of some of the city card perks (transportation, that big expensive museum, you really want to take that river cruise!), consider sharing it with someone else. A lot of city cards don’t have a name attached to them. If you meet a like-minded traveler at a hostel, ask them if they want to split the cost of a card and divide up using it. This might work best with multi-day cards. You use it to see a bunch of the expensive stuff quickly in one day, for example. Then hand it off to your buddy. They can do the same the next day while you focus on a single attraction or all the free places.
Or say you have two days in a city and they only offer a three-day city card. You could use it for two days, then sell your last day to a traveler who is just arriving. Alternatively, maybe you don’t care about the included walking tour but you want the worry-free entrances. See if you can find someone who doesn’t care to see a bunch of paid attractions but would love the tour. Get them to chip in a bit and let them take the walking tour portion. A card that isn’t worth it just for you can potentially be a good value when shared.
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