Monday, September 14, 2015

Are city cards worth in Europe? My assessment

As I landed in various European cities for my weekend trips- Amsterdam, Brussels, Bergen, Kaunas etc, I had to take a decision on how I would approach my spending and site seeing. Should I take them up one by one, pay as I visit or should I invest in a city card (such as I am Amsterdam Card, Brussels Card, Bergen Card etc). After some assessment, I reached a conclusion that these cards are not very suitable for my needs. Below is my assessment on these cards and why I felt like not buying them. It might be useful in your decision making if you are visiting Europe. Do share your thoughts as well.
What these city cards promise?
  • Free access to many of the attractions
  • Discounted access to some of the attractions
  • Free ride in select public transportation in city limits
But there are some drawbacks
  1. City cards demand a huge up-front payment, irrespective of usage, non-refundable.
  2. It is not like if you pay for this card you don’t have to pay for anything else. Many key attractions might be excluded or you have to pay a discounted entry fee
  3. It is never possible to visit all free entry attractions within the validity of the card. You will be able to visit a few attractions only in a day.
  4. City card may not let you bypass ticket queue at an attraction. You still have to wait in line, validate your access and go inside. It may save some time, but not necessarily eliminate waiting time.
Let us review some of the above aspects.
You won’t have time to visit all the attractions- a city card may give you free access to 20 different attractions in city. But in a day, you won’t have time to explore all of them. Considering that most attractions are open from 10 Am to 6 PM, assuming each attraction takes 1-2 hours to explore and factoring another 30 minutes for travel between these attractions and waiting at queue to get in, you can practically visit 3-4 major attractions in a single day. If attractions are close to each other, are small enough to be explored quickly and if crowd is less, you will be able to cover few more. Sometimes buying individual tickets might be cheaper.

Some of the most prominent attractions may not be free on city card: Having to pay extra, even though discounted a bit will be a pain, as you have already spent lot of money on the city card. Deciding between visiting a key attraction that costs you extra vs visiting a less important attraction with free access will be a tough choice to make.

City card that includes only Hop on hop off is just not worth it. Usually hop on hop off buses arrive once in 30 minutes. If you miss one by a few minutes, you will have to waste precious 25 minutes for next one. If it happens 3-4 times, that is precious few hours. Many European cities have frequent public transportation, so get a card which gets free access to trams, buses, metro etc in city limit. Many cities offer 1 day/2 day travel card with unlimited usage of public transportation (often excludes airport to city). Buying such a card alone might be more valuable. Some are valid for 24 hours from first use, while other come with specific calendar days, irrespective of what time you buy it.

Majority of free attractions that come with a city card are museums. Museums are of different kind and can get boring after sometime. It is very unlikely that one individual will be interested in all kinds of museums- art, history, and military and so on. More than 2-3 you may neither have the time nor interest to explore museums.

Many attractions in a city could be anyway free- for example parks, beaches, outdoor monuments, palaces and great looking buildings, viewpoints etc

Buying card online may not always be good idea. Online receipt may still have to be exchanged for a physical card so you have to run around trying to find out where to do it. Losing some time and money in the process. Most of them will not be refundable if your plans change. So be careful.

If some attractions are closed for renovation or other reasons, there won’t be any refund or compensation on your city card. For example, if a church is booked for wedding, it may close early or may not even be open to public on that day. Similarly if you go in off season (say winter), many attractions will have very limited opening hours or may not be open at all. So factor these for your visit.

My guideline to deciding if a city card is worth investing
Identify top 5-10 attractions you plan to visit in a city in a day. Identify how much it would cost to buy tickets to each of them and compare it with city card cost. If you feel card is cheaper or at least pretty close, then buy it.

Study locations of key attractions in a city. If they are all within walking distance (they are in Amsterdam, Kaunas and Brussels) you can usually manage without any cards.

If you have several days to spare- say 4 days, then city cards may be worth. On Day 1 and 2 you can explore all places covered in the card, day 3 and 4 you can explore places which are anyway free or those not part of the card.

If the card gives you priority access (i.e. you don’t need to wait in line to validate your card- just flash it and walk in) then it might be worth as it saves time at ticket counter, assuming attraction is very popular and often crowded.
What are your thoughts? Have you explored a European city with a city card and found it very useful?

Update: I feel Helsinki city card is worth it. More details on it later

Read my posts on Germany, Denmark, Sweden and rest of Europe here