Discount passes can knock 40 percent to 60 percent off the cost of visiting big-city attractions -- at least if you're really big on visiting the top attractions. At least one discount program is available in more than a dozen top-visitor North American cities. Two outfits dominate the field.
CityPass offers passes for Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California, Tampa Bay, and Toronto. In almost all of these cities, the pass covers the most important local art and natural history museums, zoos, and at least one observation tower. Waterfront city passes typically include harbor cruises, and some passes include all-day on-off circulating sightseeing buses. And the passes always include a handful of special-interest attractions that very few ordinary travelers would consider.
The basic formula is about the same everywhere: Each pass provides admission to a handful of what CityPass calls the city's "top" attractions over a nine-day period. The attraction lists are heavy on museums, zoos, and aquariums, but they also cover many key commercial attractions.
A few seem to be standout values:
The San Francisco CityPass, at $89, starts out with a three-day Cable Car and Muni passport, nominally $32, that includes unlimited rides on the cable cars, usually $6 a trip, as well as on the city's extensive bus and light rail systems. If you added only a Bay sightseeing cruise ($31), the de Young Museum ($15), and the California Academy of Sciences, you'd come out ahead of the game.
The Chicago pass, at $99.75, focuses on the city's museums and observation decks. You come out ahead even if you visit only the Skydeck ($49), Field Museum ($36), and Museum of Science and Industry ($33), and the pass provides VIP or skip-the-line entry to both museums -- a big plus.
The Southern California pass, at $353, is a value mainly if you would otherwise buy a three-day Park Hopper ticket for Disneyland, California Adventure, and a "magic morning," nominally $315, and also visit either SeaWorld ($93) or Legoland ($95).
But some passes omit what most visitors would consider the city's blockbuster attraction. The Boston pass does not include the Gardner museum, for example, and the Philadelphia pass does not include the Art Museum. Also, the attraction pickings are pretty slim in several of the cities, on several passes.
Go (city) Cards from Smartdestinations.com are available for Boston, California (all), Chicago, Florida (all), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, London, Miami, New York, Oahu, Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington. Where they overlap, Go cards cover many of the same attractions as CityPass, plus a lot more minor attractions, and they're more flexible. You can buy them for varying durations and for varying lists of attractions, depending on destination. But, as far as I could see, they do not provide VIP access or local transit anywhere.
One very useful option is to build your own pass: You choose the attractions you want to visit, and by the time you enter the third, you see a net price that's lower than the box office prices.
Buying Your Pass
Obviously, passes are good deals, generally, only when you visit more than one or two blockbuster attractions in any city. If not, you risk overpaying. Visit either citypass.com or smartdestinations.com to review options and download. You can't say that either CityPass or Go Cards is better than the other; coverage varies and you have to look at the individual city deals.
Both CityPass and Go Cards offer a mix of 10 percent to 30 percent discounts for children and youth, with age brackets that vary by city. Neither offers senior discounts.
Other passes are available in some cities. Leisure Pass sells passes for New York and Philadelphia, for example, and iVenture covers Honolulu and San Francisco. For a quick look at available options, google "visitor pass in (city)." Also, check viator.com, an agency that specializes in selling local tours in many destinations, including city passes.
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