At first glance, the Lisboa Card looked like a terrific deal. For just $44 (NZ$69), it offered three days of unlimited access to mass transit as well as Lisbon's most popular museums and other attractions.
But the card was less useful than I'd hoped. São Jorge Castle and some other key attractions weren't part of the program, although the card qualified me for an admission discount. And the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology was among the museums that were closed or undergoing renovations when I was in town.
The card did pay for access to the Metro and a ride on Tram 28, a popular streetcar that runs past many of the city's most interesting sites. But I could have bought a monthly pass for about the same amount of money.
Why did I think the card was a good idea? It turns out I was looking at outdated information online. Some articles said the card was more widely accepted than it is. I made the mistake of assuming the sources were accurate - an expensive lesson.
City passes provide discounted access to a city's attractions and transportation. They're marketed through companies such as CityPASS, which sells them for many American destinations, and Leisure Pass Group, which sells them for many US and European destinations.
Some city pass programs operate as charities for the public benefit. For example, the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a nonprofit organization in San Diego, manages a program called the Balboa Park Explorer Pass on behalf of the park's attractions. A one-day pass buys admission to as many as five venues, including the Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
"The value of city passes depends on how much you value convenience and time," says Konrad Waliszewski, chief executive of the travel guide app TripScout. He's done extensive research on the passes and found that they can save money for some visitors.
"It's absolutely worth it if you're travelling during peak season or plan to visit more than three sites included in the pass," he told me. "Otherwise, you're best buying tickets a la carte."
How do you determine whether a city pass is worth it for you?
I asked Jon Owen, chief executive of Leisure Pass Group, which offers the app-based Go City multi-attraction passes in 24 destinations, including Rome, London and Paris. He recommends that you carefully review the participating attractions to determine whether they align with your interests.
"Look for a pass that gives you flexibility," he adds. Some passes allow you to skip the lines (that was a great feature of the Lisboa Card), and those that include ground transportation enable you to reach more attractions in a day.
I also asked city pass users whether they were worth it. Most people said yes, but the endorsement came with advice to read the fine print and ignore the hyperbole about "free" access to the "best" attractions (after all, it's not "free" if you're paying for it).
Travellers should also ignore the hundreds of uncritical articles that pop up when you search online for the passes. They've been placed there by savvy marketers and may contain misleading or outdated information.
Nat Took, a backpacking blogger and frequent traveller, paid $111 for a one-day Amsterdam Pass. "It was not entirely worth it," she says. "I had other plans that weren't included in the city pass, so overall I did not get my money's worth."
Her advice: Plan carefully. Map out the attractions you want to see — especially the pricier ones — and visit only the ones covered by the pass. Don't deviate from the itinerary or you'll waste money.
"If everything you want to see is included with the pass and you are clever about it, you can make it worth it," she adds. "But there's a lot of planning involved and you then restrict yourself to what is on the pass."
Grainne Foley says you have to run the numbers before you buy a pass. She's an RV blogger who travels with her husband and two kids in the United States. While motoring through Tampa recently, they decided to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
"We had only planned to buy tickets to the aquarium," she says. "But when they suggested buying a city pass that would also give us access to the Lowry Park Zoo, Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium and the option of visiting the Museum of Science and Industry or Chihuly Collection, we jumped at the chance." For the Foleys, the passes were a great deal.
Last summer, while I was living in Houston, I tried the Houston CityPASS. My kids and I visited places we usually wouldn't have seen, such as the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Museum of Fine Arts. The main attraction, of course, was Space Center Houston, which was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Most frustrating was a provision in the pass that allowed us to visit one or another attraction, but not both. For example, we could go to the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts. The next time I buy a city pass, I'll make sure it's not an "either-or" proposition. Still, the same itinerary without the CityPASS would have cost about 40 per cent more.
A city pass can save you a lot of money. But read the fine print carefully and research your itinerary beforehand. Otherwise, you might end up with an overpriced mass transit card.