Ever used a CityPASS booklet? These bundled tickets for museums and attractions in tourism-heavy cities can save you lots of money – possibly. They claim to offer 50 percent savings on major attractions in 11 North American regions. But what's included? And are these places that you'd actually want to explore?
The answer isn't always straightforward, but it boils down to what your interests are and who you're traveling with. Here, we explain how the CityPASS program works and assess the ticket value for some popular cities.
About the Pass:
CityPASSes are available in 10 U.S. regions – New York City, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hollywood, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California – and Toronto. Each booklet of tickets generally covers admission to five major attractions, which often include art and science museums and historic landmarks. It sometimes covers public transit passes. Tickets can be claimed in any order, but they must be used within nine days (14 for Southern California). The pass allows you to skip the lines at some (but not all) of the attractions, and some booklets even include exclusive deals, like unlimited cable car rides in San Francisco for seven days. If you're feeling ambitious, add-ons are available at an additional price.
Booklets can be purchased online or at any of the attractions included in the CityPASS. For online purchases, you can print out vouchers with a $1 processing fee, to be exchanged for physical booklets at the first attraction you visit, or have the booklets shipped to you for $10. Note that while there are different prices for adults and children, the "combined savings" mentioned on the website refers to how much one booklet saves you, not additional savings if you purchase multiple booklets.
Two tips: Updates to CityPASS prices and itineraries kick in every March, but booklets can be used for up to two years. This means that 2013 CityPASSes, purchased through February 2014 will be valid through February 2015. Because the prices of the pass go up every year, this can save you an extra $20-$50 (depending on the city) on the upcoming 2014 CityPASS. Before you buy, also check the CityPASS website, which has good advisories on occasional attraction closings and re-openings alongside solid site-specific tips.
Is it Worth it?
Needless to say, CityPASSes only make sense if you're interested in the attractions they cover. Some questions to ask yourself: What kind of a traveler are you? Do you love the arts? Would you go to four amusement parks in one trip? Because the booklets make deals with the biggest, most popular sites, you should also consider whether you've visited a city before, and what you've already seen. Another factor is flexibility, particularly when some art museums offer free or pay-as-you-wish days. We've taken all of this into consideration in breaking down current adult ticket prices and comparing them to 2013 CityPASS rates. Here's the breakdown by city...
San Francisco – $84
- Muni 7-day Passport ($29) and 7-Day, unlimited-use cable car pass ($6 per single ride)
- California Academy of Sciences ($29.95)
- Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure ($28)
- Aquarium of the Bay ($21.95) or Monterey Bay Aquarium ($39.95)
- Exploratorium ($25) or de Young Museum and Legion of Honor ($10)
Value verdict: For travelers who aren't driving in the city, the Muni and cable car passes are very attractive. For further comparison: A Muni pass, which does not include cable car or Bart rides, is typically $29 for seven days and $15 for one day; single Muni tickets are $2 and single cable car tickets are $6. If you buy a weeklong Muni pass and ride the cable cars four times, that's already $53, and you haven't been to a single attraction yet. If you add just the California Academy of Sciences, the pass has already paid for itself. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, de Young Museum, and, for kids, the Exploratorium are local favorites. Choose just one more and the pass has saved you a significant amount.
New York – $106
- Empire State Building Observatory ($27)
- American Museum of Natural History ($27 with a space show; pay what you wish for general admission)
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (pay what you wish; $25 suggested)
- The Museum of Modern Art ($25)
- Choose one: Top of the Rock ($27) or the Guggenheim Museum (otherwise $22)
- Choose one: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ($18) or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise ($29-$35)
The value verdict: We're on the fence on this one. This booklet includes great institutions for museum lovers. Even NYC residents like myself end up visiting the AMNH plus a major art museum at least once a year. But we have two caveats, the first of which is that several of these museums offer pay-what-you-wish admission or are free on specific days. This makes a huge difference. If you can plan your visits around those free or low-cost dates and times, CityPass only saves you a few bucks (though it does let you skip the ticket lines). The second is that, for returning visitors, NYC is home to a multitude of small museums that are equally as delightful as the big ones – and they're not included in the pass. (The Museum of Art and Design is a great example, and a personal favorite.) If you're looking for off-the-beaten-path attractions or can get away with paying less on your own, this might not be for you.
Boston – $51
- New England Aquarium ($24.95)
- Museum of Science ($23)
- Skywalk Observatory at the Prudential Center ($15)
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ($25)
- Choose one: Harvard Museum of Natural History ($12) or Old State House
The value verdict: Go for it. The Museum of Science and the aquarium both make a fun romp for the curious and young at heart, and if you plan to visit both – as many first-time visitors to Boston do – the pass has more or less paid for itself. Add the stellar Museum of Fine Arts, and you've got yourself a great deal. The Skywalk Observatory in particular isn't exactly a must-see. For great views of the city, peer out the windows from the Observatory hallway for free – or snag a window seat for drinks at Top of the Hub, a restaurant on the 52nd floor at the Prudential Center.
Southern California – $306
- 3-day Disneyland Resort Park Hopper ticket to Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park ($260)
- Universal Studios Hollywood (regular $84)
- SeaWorld San Diego ($84)
The value verdict: The savings might be significant here – more than $100 for adults – but this is an expensive pass, and it's all theme parks. If you're a park nut, or taking the kids on the trip of a lifetime, this could work. But five days of parks in two weeks is a lot if you have other sightseeing goals. Our tip if you'd like to visit just two of these parks: Check their sites for smaller partnerships that help you save on tickets.
Philadelphia – $59
- The Franklin Institute ($16.50)
- Phila Trolley Works Tour & The Big Bus Company ($27 for 24-hour pass)
- Adventure Aquarium ($45.95)
- Choose one: Philadelphia Zoo ($16) or National Constitution Center ($14.50)
- Choose one: Eastern State Penitentiary ($14) or Please Touch Museum ($17)
The value verdict: This is a nice booklet with a price that's pretty easy to swallow, particularly if you're traveling with children. The Please Touch Museum lets kids go wild; the Franklin Institute, known for a larger-than-life heart that visitors can walk through, is highly interactive and engaging for budding young scientists and the curious grownups who accompany them. The appeal for animal lovers here, with included zoo and aquarium passes, is clear – though you can always swap out the zoo for a little history at the National Constitution Center. The pass is a good one for those interested in the classics.