Before leaving, we printed our CityPass vouchers. At the Art Institute of Chicago, we zipped through the doors while showing our CityPass, which included VIP entry into the permanent collection, an audio tour and a 3-D digital movie.
The CityPass was something we had never used, and it worked better than expected. Later that day, we headed to Skydeck Chicago in the Willis Tower, the Western Hemisphere's second-tallest building. As we walked past the two-hour queue to the separate, shorter one for CityPass holders, I can't tell you how many times we high-fived each other. Thrilled by this expedited entry process, we rode the elevator 103 floors to gape at dizzying views of Chicago's breathtaking skyline.
We visited every attraction in our Chicago CityPass package, sidestepping lines and not even feeling badly when we could only stay a short time. Later, we analyzed our savings: We'd paid $100.75 for CityPass; the customary entry fees for those five attractions totaled $215.
CityPass was the brainchild of two tourism pros who wanted to simplify travel by curating a list of popular attractions and then market them as a group. Mike Gallagher spent years working at theme parks, and Mike Morey owned a research company focused on museums, aquariums and zoos. The pair negotiated reduced prices and asked the attractions to offer expedited entry. CityPass kept the number of attractions small and allowed plenty of time to see each one.
"When they met in the early 1990s, Gallagher and Morey researched what they thought about when they planned vacations, specifically what was stressful for them," explained Deborah Wakefield, vice president of communications at CityPass. "That's when they decided to market a city like a theme park."
The New York pass is the top seller, bought mainly by international visitors staying long enough (18 days, according to the U.S. Travel Association) to make a
"CityPass doesn't include every attraction, because we want you to go at a leisurely pace, and not race onto the next thing," Wakefield said.
In a 2016 study conducted by its partner attractions, 98 percent of CityPass users were satisfied with their pass mainly because of the line-skipping privilege.
Nearly all major U.S. cities and many international destinations sell at least one travel pass. They discount multiple attractions, but before you buy, analyze whether using one is cost efficient for you, then develop a strategy. Prioritize what you most want to see, consider how long you might stay at each attraction, and roughly figure out transportation in between. I'm not saying you can't wing it, but when you plan your time, you will maximize your travel-pass rewards.
International travelers can benefit from using passes, too. Before our family of six (two adults, two young adults and two seniors) flew to Switzerland last summer, we bought each person an eight-day Swiss Travel Pass from
RailEurope. (The pass costs $393; $336 for those 27 and under.) It included unlimited use of trains throughout Switzerland and free entrance into many museums, castles and boat rides. We were entitled to half-price tickets on the Chocolate Train and gondolas to Mount Pilatus, Mount Titlis and Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. By trip's end, we calculated a total savings of $1,332 for the attractions alone — added to the convenience and lowered stress levels of train travel. No car rental, no getting lost, no searching for bathrooms — and Swiss trains run like clockwork.
In October, we found a $33 Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass on Facebook. The pass saved us $13 each, or $26 total, on the use of the trolley, the Cave of the Winds attraction and the Maid of the Mist boat ride near Horseshoe Falls. Best of all, skipping several entry lines allowed us to cover almost all the attractions in one day.
To learn about Disney passes, I consulted Liliane Opsomer, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World With Kids." Opsomer recommends buying Disney tickets in advance to avoid standing in lines, and making Fastpass+ reservations for your favorite attractions as soon as possible. Visitors staying longer than a week can buy a Platinum Pass, at $779, for one year of unlimited use of the theme parks. A one-day ticket costs $119 during peak season. Annual pass-holders also get perks such as free parking, dining discounts and room-rate discounts at Disney resorts.
For people who like to pack in as many attractions as possible (guilty), the GoCity Card offers an all-inclusive package for Boston and Las Vegas, as well as other cities. Buy the passes online, then download the GoCity Card app onto your smartphone to present for scanning at attractions. There also is an Explorer Pass for the District, which includes three attractions for $54. You can visit the Newseum ($26.83) and Mount Vernon ($20), and take a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tour ($39) at a savings of $31. You have 30 days from visiting the first attraction to use it, and GoCity offers digital guidebooks in English, Chinese and Spanish.
Now a convert, I'm studying travel passes for our upcoming trip to Rome. They work especially well for first-time adult visitors interested in major attractions, we've found, although you can't always skip lines, and in some instances, you'll still need reservations for add-on activities like walking or Segway tours. And while you may not avoid the Travel Time-Suck entirely, tourism passes can give you a much-needed advantage.
Sklarew is a writer based in the District. Find her on Twitter: @DCWriterMom.
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