Museum or Heritage Passes May be Better for Nomads
City attraction passes are a popular way for tourists to save money by paying a flat fee for admission to many top tourist attractions. But if you’re a nomad, are they really the best option? Or are there other options traditionally marketed to locals that may be a better bet?
City Attractions Passes
A City Card or City Pass bundles the admission for many attractions at one low price. The most famous example may be the London Pass, but similar offers exist in cities around the world. If you’ve gone to a city’s visitor’s center, flipped through a visitor’s guide, or done research online, you’ve probably seen them. And you may have asked the question…
Does a City Card Really Save You Money?
Let’s be clear: city cards wouldn’t make a profit if they saved every tourist a bundle of money. Because they have to be used in a limited time span, they will only save you money if you are extremely strategic about planning your days, open to visiting venues that weren’t on your tourist checklist, and pretty much indefatigable when it comes to visiting tourist attractions.
When we got the London Card, we did wind up saving money, but it required the kind of planning normally confined to military campaigns. As we learned the hard way on our first day, there was no room for spontaneity, lingering, or for that matter lunch. We spent longer than we’d scheduled at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which meant when we got to Westminster we had to wait an hour, which meant we had to scrap two other attractions that we’d planned to visit. That put us in the red.
In order to recover and extract every cent of value out of the pass, we realized we’d have to keep to incredibly strict timings. I planned our next day to the minute. I front-loaded the attraction likely to have the longest line, the Tower of London, and made sure we got there right at opening. With the way I planned the rest of our day, in the end we saved a little money, but wound up completely exhausted. If I’d done this on day one, we might have saved even more, but we also would have had a serious case of Tourist Attraction Burnout.
Nomad tip: If you want to see the Crown Jewels, get to the Tower of London right when it opens and go directly to the Crown Jewels exhibit before you look at anything else. We did this and were able to walk right through; an hour later the line wrapped around the building.
Is it “Saving” if You Wouldn’t Have Gone There?
In the end, for us to hit the value that we spent, we had to visit some venues that weren’t on our “must see” list. In London, we “saved money” because we visited the expensive observation deck at the top of the Spire, both because it was pricey and because it was open long after most other attractions on the list. We would never, ever have spent our own cash to go up there.
This is another goal of these attractions passes, however: to get you to visit attractions you might not otherwise stop into. It’s why the London Pass includes things like the London Brass Rubbing Centre and the London Fan Museum. These are somewhat esoteric museums that aren’t necessarily at the top of the list for first-time tourists. But if you’re around the corner and it’s “free,” why not? Some of these offbeat places may turn out to be your favorites, but we’ll get to that part later.
Before You Buy: Are Those Venues Actually Open?
You may assume that everything included on a city pass will be open the days you’re there. When we went to Nantes, we learned that wasn’t the case. And, unfortunately, the Pass Nantes site was not the final source of truth we were hoping for.
We ran into our first issue when we went to a venue listed on the Pass Nantes site as part of the program. The venue said they no longer accepted the Pass. When we went to the visitors center, which runs the pass, to let them know, they pointed out that they’d blacked it out on the handouts in the center. This wasn’t much help if you’d bought the Pass online.
In addition, the website listed hours for the various venues, but didn’t note that a couple of spots on our must-see list were closed the weekend we were there.
In the end, we broke even, but it was still a disappointment. We’ve noticed on reviewing their site that they’re much better at keeping up with venue closures now. But in the future, we will do another layer of research before we buy.
Not Quite So Limited Passes
City passes tend to be very time limited. There are regional passes that are less limited and are perfect if you’re planning to travel around. For example, Historic Scotland has its Explorer Pass, which can be purchased for up to 14 days and admits visitors to 77 locations. English Heritage offers an Overseas Visitor Pass, which admits visitors to over 100 sites over up to 16 consecutive days.
Short-Term Attraction Passes: The Verdict
If you buy a 24, 48 or 72-hour attraction passes and plan intensively, you can tick the boxes off your sightseeing checklist and save money. If you’re only going to be in a location for a couple of days and are really focused on specific venues, this may be a great option. You might even find a pass that you can use for two weeks. But what if you’re staying longer?
Better for Longer-Term Nomads: Options for Locals
When we spent three weeks in Edmonton, we bought the Edmonton Attractions Pass. Unlike the typical City Card model, the Edmonton Attractions Pass is geared toward locals and can be used for an entire calendar year. If you’re planning to stay in a location for a while, this gives you a lot more flexibility in planning. Rather than a three-day sightseeing marathon, we checked out an attraction every day or two over the course of our stay, and ticked off nearly every attraction on the list.
Sometimes the Venues You Wouldn’t Have Picked Will Surprise You
Like the London Pass, we visited some places we wouldn’t have visited if we hadn’t had the Edmonton Attractions Pass. But to our surprise, some of these attractions we wouldn’t have picked out on our own turned out to be our favorites.
In particular the Alberta Aviation Museum wound up being our favorite attraction in the entire area. It’s a labor of love built by a lot of volunteers, and uses aviation as a lens to tell the history of Alberta in the 20th and 21st centuries. Their exhibits are not quite as shiny and polished as the more well-funded Reynolds-Alberta Museum. But their ability to capture so many individual aviation stories and weave them into a tapestry of history meant we spent even longer at the Alberta Aviation Museum. It’s an excellent example of how storytelling can make an exhibit.
Museum and Heritage Passes and Annual Memberships
The Edmonton Attractions Pass isn’t the only one of its kind. Many cities and nations have cards or passes geared toward locals that offer admission to many museums and sites for one set fee. Finland, for example, has Museot Helsinki. This 69€ pass gives access to over 300 museums across the country. It’s easy to get a lot of value out of this one if you are spending a couple of weeks in Finland, whether in Helsinki, Tampere or elsewhere.
But Finland isn’t the only country with this sort of offer. The Netherlands has museumkaart. English Heritage membership will nab you entrance to nearly 400 heritage sites, including Stonehenge, which makes it a great idea for the nomad spending a couple of months in England.
Some other options that are smaller in scale can also give you exactly what you need. Copenhagen has a Parkmuseerne pass that offers admission to six museums, Berlin has annual Staatliche Museen zu Berlin membership, and Barcelona has its similar Articket BCN.
Membership can also open doors in a greater geographic area. For example, members of the Royal Ontario Museum can access both the Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM) and the Museum Alliance Reciprocal Program (MARP), which combined grant access to over 350 museums across North America.
While city attraction passes may make sense for a tourist, nomads will probably be able to get more value from memberships and passes that are promoted to locals. After all, as a nomad, you are a local, even if it’s only for a few weeks.