City Cards – Are they worth it?

This little blurb was originally part of my Backpacking in Portugal post but it was a bit of a tangent and added to an already lengthy post. I thought I would write a separate post on the topic of city cards in general and let you know what I’ve learned and how I feel about them.

If you were not aware, most big tourist cities offer a card at their tourist information desks and airports that gets you free public transportation and free or reduced entrance to their major attractions. Some even go so far as to give you discounts to local businesses. The cards always come with a cost/benefit tradeoff which can be a bit tricky to judge in the heat of the moment. I thought I would walk you through how I go about deciding whether the card is worth it for that particular city.

The first thing you need to look at is what’s included in the card. If the card will get you free public transportation (which most do) then your next step is to find out a.) how extensive is that city’s public transit system, b.) how much you will likely use it and c.) how much public transportation would cost for the duration of your stay.

If you decide that the public transportation system in the city is good, will get you where you want to go and know the cost for either buying individual tickets every time you need it or the cost of a day (3-day or week long) pass, you can subtract that price from your City Card. If you decided you won’t use the public transportation, you can stop reading here because it is unlikely that the card will payoff itself solely from the attractions.

Once you have subtracted the cost of the public transportation from the price of the card, it’s time to look at what else the card offers. Most all of the cards let you into the smaller museums for free. This is a good value if those museums are any good. If you have a lot of time to spare you can look up each and decide whether or not it is interesting and then add up how much those attractions would normally cost. If at any point the savings on the attractions you want to see exceed the price of the card, you’ve got yourself a good deal.

However, most of the time we don’t have the luxury to know how good the attractions are and how much they normally cost in advance. This is were you have to have a feel for the cost of things and take a sampling of the attractions that look interesting.

Things are getting a bit theoretical so I will give you Lisbon as an example. The Lisbon card costs €19 for 24 hours, €32 for 48 hours or €40 for 72 hours (be sure to double check whether the card lasts a certain amount of hours or is tied to the days of the week). I was looking to buy it at noon of Tuesday and needed it until noon of Thursday. That’s three calendar days but only 48 hours so I automatically saved myself €8.

If you didn’t know, Lisbon is on a giant hill which means public transportation is crucial. The attractions are also spread out all over the city so the public transportation is your best friend. A day card for public transportation in Lisbon cost €6 and is tied to the day meaning that I would have to buy 3 day (€18). So I subtracted the €18 I would have otherwise spent on public transportation from the €32 card which left me at €14.

So, I needed to see at least €14 of attractions to make the card pay off. The card got me into 7 museums for free and countless others for a discount. Being on such a budget, I planned on only seeing the free attractions to get the most of my card and avoiding spending anymore money.

With this mentality, each attraction would only had to have cost €2 each in order to make the card break even. From my experience, that sounds about right for a cheep museum after a student discount. So assuming I went to all seven museums over the course of three days (which sounded do-able) the Lisbon Card was a good deal. Any additional savings from discounted museums would be value added on top.

To contrast, I chose not to get one for Helsinki because the city was so small you really didn’t need the public transportation if you planned well and the few attractions in the city were already fairly cheep. It simply wouldn’t benefit me to get the card.

So there you have it. My thoughts on the City Cards and how I decide if they’re worth it. Aside from the rational reasoning behind the decision, there are two other points I would like to mention.

The first is in regards to public transit. You might consider getting the city card (or at least a ticket that lasts your entire stay) to remove any barriers keeping you from fully exploring where you’re at. I know that when I was in Berlin and had to pay for each bus/subway individually, it really kept me from going out on short, “just for fun” trips. When I had the month ticket, it was so easy to say yes to things knowing that I could just get there without feeling guilty for it being “just a small trip.”

The other thing I’d like to point out is similar. If you’re a cheapskate like me, then you might be tempted to skip out on some of the most important or convenient things in a city just because they cost too much. Having half off of a city tour or the museum you really were interested in is much better than paying full price obviously but it’s also freeing mentally to know that it’s essentially free because you already paid for the card elsewhere in your trip. So go out there and take the boat tour or hop on an incredibly tacky hop-on-hop-off bus if you want. You got a great deal on the rest of your trip.

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