Summer's nearly here, and Americans are planning their big blowout vacations. For many people, that planning includes mapping out their travels in big tourist cities.

Too many people just buy a tourist pass for a lump sum and forget about it. They mistakenly think that simply flashing that card at the admission booth or on the tourist bus will take care of everything they need. They're wrong. They're spending money they don't have to spend.
For example, the London Pass promises "free entry" (you pay for it, so that's already wrong) to 55 attractions. A one-day pass costs £39 for adults and £25 for kids. The problem is simple: Most worthwhile major attractions are only open from 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. If you spring for it, you'll have only six or seven hours a day to get your money back.

One of the most expensive attractions in town, the Tower of London, costs £17 adults/ £9.50 kids, and it will take about three or four hours to see properly. Then you'll have to take time to eat lunch, and then add more time to get across town to see something else. But nearly everything else in London is less expensive than the Tower -- so most people can never break even, let alone save money. You can buy more days of validity, but you can almost never catch up to the price of your purchase.

In San Francisco, the Go San Francisco card offers about 50 attractions, but most of them are things you're never going to be able do. The local Six Flags is on the card, but you'll never have time to do anything else that day, so the savings will be a wash. A regular adult day ticket would cost the same as the card anyway -- and in fact, a kid's ticket from Six Flags would cost $10 less than the card.

Never, ever buy a tourist pass card without sitting down with a list of the attractions you want to see, their admission prices, and a map. Compare that with the attractions the pass offers for the price and time. That's the only way to know whether you will possibly have time to see enough stuff to make it worth the money you'll be paying. Be realistic about the time it will take to see things, eat, and get around -- it always takes longer than you think. In most cases, you'll discover you'd be better off to buy your admission tickets a la carte.

The only widely available pass that seems to give you enough time is the CityPass, which is sold for 11 North American tourist destinations. Since most are good for nine days, you'll have the chance to wring the value out of them. They're only valid for five or six attractions, but those attractions are always the cream of the crop; most other passes puff up their lists with galleries and tourist traps that you can see in 10 minutes.

Some local convention and visitors bureaus offer their own free discount cards, and those are generally worth picking up. Orlando, for example, puts out the free Orlando Magicard. It doesn't exist as a for-profit consumer product, but as a means of publicizing hotels, golf courses, and minor attractions. Its discounts on hotels and restaurants are clearly announced online.

But the second someone asks you to plonk down cash for a tourist pass, get out your clock and compare the real admission prices to the price of the card. You'll rarely find realistic savings on those cards.

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