This week in Zagreb, Croatia, I saved 20% on tickets to the ballet. In Paris, I got in free to all the best museums. In London, I skipped the line at Shakespeare's Globe theater. And whether you're traveling to Boston or Berlin, you can do it, too.
Although the name and specifics may vary by destination, most cities offer a tourism pass. Some can be customized to your particular interests (sports? museums? restaurants? check) and others offer unlimited access to the best the city has to offer for a particular time period.
The Zagreb Card, for instance, offers discounts of 10% to 50% on museums, galleries, restaurants, city tours, and shopping, with unlimited rides on public transportation (including the city's ultra-convenient tram) for 24 or 72 hours.
The Paris Pass offers free admission to more than 60 museums, from the most famous (the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay) to lesser-known ones that you might skip were it not for a complimentary guidebook and free admission (Museum of 3D Relief Maps, anyone?) The Berlin WelcomeCard includes theaters and shows. Go San Francisco includes rides on the cable car. The New York City Pass includes admission to the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and other attractions.
Step Right Up
Another benefit to many of these cards is convenience. If you've ever stood in line while counting out foreign currency, or waited while someone else did, you'll appreciate the swipe-and-go feature many of these cards offer. If you're traveling with children, this feature can more than pay for itself in terms of expediency.
Many of these passes come with guidebooks, maps, and companion apps to make finding the participating locations a snap. If you purchase a pass, keep an eye out around town, as many establishments will have a sign in their windows advertising that they participate in the pass program. When in doubt, ask, especially before dining.
All This for the Price of Admission
The price for the card varies by city, but generally is based on number of days and attractions. If you're someone who wants to spend an entire day in the Louvre (and you could spend it all on line for the Mona Lisa), then the museum's 14 euro admission fee might be a better bargain than the two-day adult pass price of 105 euros (one of the more heftier price tags as passes go). But if you're in Boston and want to go to Fenway and then on a whale watch, the GoBoston card will pay for itself, with plenty of extras to spare.
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Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of Rick Seaney, the co-founder and CEO of FareCompare, says that many airlines put their fares on sale on Monday night or Tuesday morning, then competitors scramble to match them.
Shopping after 3 p.m. Tuesday is likely to net you the best prices. Also, expand the scope of your searches to include nearby airports, red-eye flights and different dates to get the best deal. "Price points tend to drop dramatically the last week in August, so if you can delay your trip, you can save a lot," says Seaney.
You know all the typical airfare search sites, but the best deals now may be found through social networking. Airlines have been known to post deals on Facebook or Twitter (just beware of scams). You can also sign up for email promotions on carrier websites. And sites like FareCompare and Kayak have airfare alerts to let you know when prices drop.
How do you know when the price is right? Seaney gives these guidelines for what he considers a fair deal for round-trip tickets: $150 or less for an hour flight, $210 or less for two hours, $280 or less for three, and $340 or less for over three hours.
If the flight costs more than $400 or $500 round trip, it's probably worth paying with miles. And don't forget you can share. "Anyone who has miles can get a ticket for anyone else. If you have an uncle who flies all the time, tell him you'll give him $200 if he'll book your tickets," suggests Seaney.
Many airlines now charge you if you'd like to select a seat in advance, and United just announced that even families with small children will no longer be given priority to board first. But the remaining seats are often released 24 hours prior to the flight, says Seaney, and you can make a selection then. If that doesn't work, throw yourself at the mercy of the gate agent. Often he or she will take pity on you. Finally, don't finagle a fee-free seat and then spend $20 on lunch and snacks. Pack security-friendly (and airplane-friendly -- nothing smelly, please) foods for the trip.
In New York, the card ranges from $80 for a one-day adult pass to $210 for a seven-day. In San Francisco, a one-day adult pass will set you back $55, or $165 for seven days. In Berlin, 17 euros will get you 48 hours; get five days for 30.90 euros.
A city pass can save you time and money, if you make the most of it. Know your style. If you're someone who wants to spend one or two days going as deeply into one museum collection as possible, or who will rent a bicycle and tour on your own steam, such a pass might not offer any great savings, and could cost you more than it's worth. But if you want to explore as much of your vacation destination as possible, including some of the lesser-known places, at steep discounts, it could be just the ticket.
Molly McCluskey does not own positions in any companies that sell tourism passes. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.