Are tourist city passes worth it?

Our take on how to make the most of your big city trip

A view of the Seattle city skyline from our boat ride on the Puget Sound

Our move to Seattle in January 2012 was the culmination of our dream to experience someplace very different from Texas, and it was also the beginning of our eventual jump into long-term travel.  It whetted our appetite for learning about new places, and we were excited about the cross-country move.

But when we arrived, we were also overwhelmed.  In addition to looking for a place to live, we were challenged with getting to know our new home city.  So much to do!  So much to see!  Where should we start?  To be honest, we didn’t learn a lot about the city ahead of time; we knew that it was beautiful and rainy and home to Starbucks and Gray’s Anatomy, but as for the specifics, we hadn’t much of a clue.

So during our first week there, we decided to act like tourists and did what many tourists do–we purchased a Seattle CityPASS.  This sightseeing pass gave us discounted admission to several popular attractions, including museums and the Space Needle (both daytime and evening visits, provided that we went within 24 hours).  The pass also included a boat ride on the Puget Sound, and not only did we get expansive views of the skyline, the captain also gave us an overview of the city’s history and some of its important landmarks.  The city pass turned out to be a great introduction to Seattle!

Seattle at dusk, as seen from the Space Needle.  Mt. Rainier is in the distance.

We’ve since used city passes in several other destinations, including Paris and London, but we chose to skip the passes in many other places.  With the summer travel season upon us, we thought we’d share some of the tips that we’ve learned as well as advantages and disadvantages of using this sightseeing tool.

The basics:

  • There is no single brand name or company that produces sightseeing passes.  CityPASS offers packages for 11 major U.S. cities and Toronto, whereas European cities have different brands.  Many smaller cities don’t have official city passes per se but may put their own packages together or offer coupon books.  Austin, for example, has a Pass Book.  Today’s blog post will be focusing mainly on the the passes that you’d find in major cities.
  • Some cities have more than one option.  New York, for example, has the CityPASS and the New York Pass.  The latter is more expensive but has many more attractions, especially very touristy ones (e.g., Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a Big Bus tour).
  • Some passes, especially in major cities, offer a huge variety of attractions, while others may be limited to five or six choices.
  • Most city passes will have expiration dates.  In Seattle, for example, we had nine days to use all of the vouchers once we started.  In the bigger cities, you may also have multiple day options (e.g, with the London Pass, we had a choice of 2, 4, or 6 days).
  • Some passes may include transportation options, such as discounted Metro passes.
  • Many city passes let you cut to the front of the line, which is of course really nice when your destination is packed with other tourists.
Marie Antoinette’s cell door (the Conciergerie, Paris)
  • Another benefit of the sightseeing pass is that you have the option to visit smaller, out of the way museums and attractions that you might not normally get to.  In London, we went to the Fan Museum because it was included in the London Pass, and they had an authentic, traditional afternoon tea experience.  Their tea room was closed, but we toured the little museum anyway and learned more than we ever thought possible about the evolution of fans!  And in Paris, we visited several small museums, including the Conciergerie, a palace turned into a prison, which housed Marie Antoinette before she was guillotined.
At the Panthéon in Paris

We also visited the Panthéon, once a church but now a mausoleum where many distinguished French citizens are buried, including Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

It’s very unlikely that we would’ve visited any of the above sites if we didn’t have a city pass.

Is a city pass right for you?

We visited numerous major cities throughout Europe last year and investigated the sightseeing passes in most of these places.  We learned that not all city passes are created equally.  And based on your particular interests, a city pass may not be worth the purchase for you.  Here are some suggestions for determining whether or not to invest in a pass:

  • First, know what your priorities are, and look carefully at the list of attractions that the pass offers.  When planning for Paris, our initial intention was to purchase the Paris Pass.  It offered access to dozens of attractions, but close examination revealed several items (such as a bus tour and river cruise) that weren’t of interest to us.  The Paris Museum Pass, on the other hand, still had many options (50 attractions) and encompassed every site we wanted to visit, including the greatest museums in France, and it was a bargain compared to the Paris Pass.
  • As in Paris, many city passes are expensive, and you need to do the math regarding whether or not purchasing a pass makes sense for you.  Here are examples from our travel experiences:
    • In London, we bought a six-day London Pass, which cost us about £150 (at the time, the pound was really strong, so we spent close to 200 USD).  For us, given that we had a week in London and there were so many places we wanted to see, the city pass was a good buy.  We also purchased an Oyster Card at discount, giving us unlimited access to the Tube, which we used the heck out of, traveling from one end of the city to the other.
    • Like I mentioned above, we investigated passes in other cities and for the most part found that buying a pass would’ve cost us more than if we selectively paid admission for the venues we were most interested in. 
  • Passes won’t include every popular attraction of course.  We didn’t visit Buckingham Palace or Parliament, for example, because we were locked into the London Pass, and neither of those sites was included in the pass.  Also, be prepared for some duds.  The Conciergerie and the Fan Museum may have been wonderful discoveries, but the London Bridge Experience, for example, was way too touristy and downright horrible (for us, at least).
  • If you don’t want to act like a tourist or be surrounded by tourists, you shouldn’t buy a pass, at least in the high season.
  • Even if you purchase a pass that’s supposed to put you at the front of the queue, be prepared for long lines in the busy season.  We were in Amsterdam for one day last August and so didn’t bother with a pass, but the city was so packed that getting into the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House was not only next to impossible for us, it was difficult even for those with passes.  The wait was hours long, and as we walked past the snaking lines, we saw hundreds of people holding their passes expectantly, no doubt thinking, “C’mon, people, we have a pass.  Doesn’t that count for something?”  In high season, when every other European is on vacation with you, apparently it doesn’t!
Canal 3
What did we do in Amsterdam? Not much, other than look for windmills and walk the narrow streets that ran along the beautiful canals
The ceiling of the chapel at the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich
  • Especially with the more expensive passes, you have to be willing to work your butt off to get your money’s worth.   There are two downsides to this: 1) you may need a vacation after your vacation–we exhausted ourselves, especially in London; and 2) you lose the spontaneity that comes with a more open-ended experience.  Some of our favorite moments turned out to be hidden side streets and random discoveries (like with the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich), and if you’re constantly on the go, zeroing in on target attractions, you may miss something unexpected and wonderful nearby.
If it hadn’t’ve been for an attempt to escape a major downpour, we would never have visited the Old Royal Naval College Greenwich in London.  Its Painted Hall has been described as “the Sistine Chapel of the U.K.”  And it was free of charge to enter!
My Paris must-see list. (There was more on the back)
  • Know thyself (and thy traveling partners).  When it comes to exploring a city, I am a frenetic traveler, and nothing is ever enough.  I want to see and do everything.  The city passes are therefore perfect for me.  Dale, on the other hand, prefers a bit of spontaneity and the opportunity to meander, and he also wants to come up for air between sightseeing tours.  I loved the multitude of options offered by the city passes, but as our trip progressed I learned to relax and value the unscripted days as well, and these turned out to be some of our most memorable experiences.
  • In some places, the best attractions are free.  Here are two examples from personal experience:
    • London: Many of London’s best museums–world-class institutions–are free of charge, and the ones we visited were fantastic.  We could’ve easily spent most of the week exploring the freebies and only purchasing tickets to a few select venues.
    • Washington, D.C.:  You can spend days and days exploring the most important sites of this amazing city and not drop a dime on admission fees.  The U.S. Capitol, the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Museums (19 of them!), the memorials and monuments….  This city offers an extravaganza of history and culture, and all of it’s free.  (Note that some places, like the Capitol and the White House, have strict admittance guidelines and require reservations well in advance).

A few other suggestions for getting the most out of your trip to a major city:

  • You don’t have to leave the U.S. or even, possibly, your state to experience great city passes.  In Texas, for example, look at Houston.  It has a excellent museum district, and the iconic NASA space center is nearby (this is really cool and worth a visit).  The Houston CityPASS offers admission to the space center as well as some of the city’s other top attractions.
  • If you’re going to a popular city (e.g., Amsterdam) or traveling during a busy season, plan ahead.  Research what you’ll need to do to get into the attractions you want to see (or have alternatives if you can’t get in).
  • Keep an eye out for free stuff: most museums have free admission on certain days, and any decent-sized city is going to have free concerts, plays, and so on, especially in the summer.  Pick up a local paper or look for a free city app that highlights local attractions and current events.
  • Check online for coupons and 2-for-1 passes.
  • Get to know a city by taking a walking tour early in your visit.  We took New Europe walking tours in Berlin, Hamburg, Barcelona, and Madrid, and I cannot overstate how valuable these were.  The tour guides were locals who worked for tips, so it was in their best interest to give the best, most entertaining tours possible, and they succeeded.  In a three-hour tour we got an overview of each city’s history as well as ideas for the must-see sites and great places to eat.


As you can see, there is no clearcut answer as to whether or not you should buy a sightseeing pass, but I hope these suggestions have given you some ideas for how to make the most of your trip, and if you’re going somewhere this summer, we wish you safe and happy travels!

One of the best travel bloggers out there (especially for budget travel) is Nomadic Matt.  He has incredibly useful guides to many cities as well as seemingly endless travel tips, and I would suggest perusing his website before taking your next trip.