Inside Travel: European city cards

Tourism passes can help save money on key attractions and public transport – but some are better value than others, says Simon Calder

August is the peak month for British holidaymakers – and for many travellers, it will be their first experience of Europe since sterling's precipitous fall in value in the final three months of last year. When sightseeing in a foreign capital, an excellent way to stretch your budget – or so it appears – is to buy a card that gives free or discounted admission to a range of attractions, and frequently public transport, too. The "city card" concept is becoming increasingly popular around the world – sometimes with schemes run by the tourist authorities, sometimes by a company. Once a city-card programme is set up, the income from sales is pooled between the participating attractions and providers in a complex calculation involving visitor numbers, normal admission prices and prevailing public-transport fares. City cards also often provide a range of promotional (and modest) discounts on specific shops and restaurants.

The concept appeals to both the tourist industry and the visitor. From the point of view of attraction providers, it encourages tourists to visit more venues than they might otherwise. Visitors enjoy (hopefully) a more intense and rounded experience while saving cash, and perhaps dodging queues.

Yet the value of these passes varies dramatically from one city to another. Some are bargains even for people who plan to see only a couple of top sights. But others can feel like swizzes that turn a profit for the tourist only when quality is sacrificed for quantity, with an absurd amounts of sightseeing concentrated in a limited time.

One of the few good things about the Barcelona Card – €26 for two days – is the 10 per cent discount for booking online at bcnshop.barcelonaturisme.com. Sure, the card bestows public transport, but the price of a normal unlimited-travel day pass – price €5.80 – is hardly excessive. And all you get at the vast majority of the city's attractions is a modest discount: 20 per cent at the Museo Picasso (saving a whacking €1.80), 9 per cent at the Sagrada Familia, and a measly 5 per cent at Barcelona FC's Camp Nou stadium (the museum tour, not a home match).

The basic Berlin WelcomeCard ( visitberlin.de/welcomecard) at least costs a modest €16.50 for two days, compared with €12.20 if you were to buy two one-day public transport passes. But again it offers only discounts rather than free admission: at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, for example, you save barely €3 on the normal entry price.

The Roma Pass ( romapass.it) is one of the better city cards. Costing €23 for three days, it covers all buses, trams, underground and suburban rail lines. It bestows free admission to the first two (of more than 40) museums and historic sites, with reduced entry thereafter. With standard admission to the Colosseum at €10, and to the Borghese Gallery at €8.50, you need to make only five public-transport journeys (normally €1 each) to show a profit. One drawback is that the Vatican Museums are not included, but this is understandable since the home of the Pope is in a separate country.

A similarly "stripped-down" pass is the Paris ComboPass Lite ( paris.conciergerie.com), costing €42 for two days' transport in the French capital, plus entry to the two leading museums, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. Normal admission to these sights is only €9 and €12 respectively, and unlimited travel is available with the Paris Visite card at €14.40 for two days; total, €35.40. But what makes this a worthwhile prospect is a one-hour cruise on the Seine, itself worth €10.

Culture-plus-cruise is also the offer in the Dutch capital. Amsterdam arguably has Europe's most intense concentration of art museums, but the strangely named "I amsterdam card" ( iamsterdam.com) is not much of a passport to the Golden Age. At €48 for two days it is one of Europe's most expensive city cards. While it covers city transport, the relatively short hop out to Schiphol airport is not included. (For comparison, a 48-hour public transport pass bought separately costs €11.50, but Amsterdam is the city above all others that is built for walking.) Normal admission to the much-depleted Rijksmuseum is currently €11 for the highlights in its annexe; the marvellous Van Gogh Museum makes an impression at €12.50; and the stylish new Hermitage Amsterdam is €15. Frankly, you risk cultural burn-out if you attempt more than this trio in two days. Again, the clincher could be the free canal cruise, normally €12, which provides a fresh perspective on the city. But consider also the Dutch Museum Card, which costs €39.95, covers all the obvious collections in Amsterdam, and is valid for 400 museums across Holland for a full year.

Last and most expensive: the London Pass ( londonpass.com), price £52 for two days, not counting public transport (an extra £7 per day). Yes, it gets you free entry to some major attractions, including the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral, but those two total just £28 (or less if you book them online). Another benefit is one day's hop-on-hop-off access to City Cruises vessels on the Thames – serving these and other attractions, and normally priced at £11.50. But since so many of the capital's great attractions, from the British Museum to the collections in South Kensington and the Tates Britain and Modern are free, you would need to go for a wide range of paying attractions to make the London Pass worthwhile. The one exception: at some free museums with temporary, paid exhibitions, the Pass secures free entry. So if you are a twice-a-year visitor to the capital, keen to keep up on the latest openings, then it is possibly worthwhile; otherwise, get yourself a pre-paid Oyster Card and celebrate all the great National Museums and other collections to which you and the rest of the world can get in for free.

Longer term, there is the happy prospect that the Mayor's office is working on a single card that will link transport and culture.

My favourite city card isn't marketed as such at all: it is the Swiss Pass ( swisstravelsystem.com), which offers excellent unlimited travel on the nation's extraordinary rail network – and throws in free admission to more than 400 museums in Switzerland, too. A four-day pass costs Sfr260 (£150).

Additional research by John Sannaee

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor