By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 1/23/2008 11:22:52 AM ET 2008-01-23T16:22:52

Every city in Europe seems to offer some kind of special discount card for tourists, and the practice is common in other major capitals as well. At first glance, they all seem attractive. You pay one price and gain "free" admission or across-the-board discounts to all the city's attractions. Look at the offer closely with a calculator and a guidebook, however, and that great deal may be less than it appears.

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If you plan to "do it all" and have the time to make the most of them, then almost any of these cards with a long validity period can be a good deal. The New York CityPass gives you a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan and entrance to five of the most popular attractions: the Empire State Building Observatory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. Good for nine days, it's a $131 value for $65, and allows plenty of time for taking in each one of the city's major museums. It's a bargain if you planned to do all that sightseeing anyway.

The SydneyPass in Australia also gives you ample time; both the three-day and five-day passes are good for any days within eight calendar days. The $325 five-day family pass may sound daunting, but it covers two adults and a gaggle of kids from one immediate family for all public bus, boat and rail transportation (including to the airport) and a sightseeing bus that's hop on, hop off.

Beware the pressure of a short visit, however. The Paris Museum Pass works out to only 10 euros a day ($15) if you buy the six-day version, but the two-day version at 30 euros ($45) will leave you exhausted trying to get your money's worth. After all, admission to the Louvre is less than 10 euros and the museum is worth a day of its own. The Go San Diego Card gets you into a lot of attractions and saves you a bundle at some, but are you really going to visit anything else after spending a day at the San Diego Zoo?

The I amsterdam Card includes public transportation, a canal cruise and free admission to 24 museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, but at more than $50 for a 24-hour pass and $64 for a 48-hour one, it requires a lot of sprinting and frantic sightseeing to make the card pay off. The Cape Town Pass, in South Africa, is a downright rip-off, with prices similar to Amsterdam's but no public transportation and no major must-see museum.

If the card is inexpensive enough, though, it can be worthwhile for a short visit without making you exhausted. The ZürichCARD, in Switzerland, for instance, costs just a shade more than $30 and is good for 72 hours. It includes all public transportation (including airport transfers), a sightseeing cruise on the lake, admission to 40 museums and a welcome drink at 20 restaurants.

To decide if a city card in your planned destination is worthwhile, do this:

1. Decide how much time you really have for sightseeing and taking public transportation. On arrival and departure days, for instance, you probably don't want to be doing anything structured.

2. Check online and in your guidebook to see how much things really cost and then compute the per-day price of the city card. You are often better off paying as you go.

3. Ignore the touted restaurant and shop discounts when doing the math. These are usually at the most popular tourist restaurants and the most expensive shops. You're better off avoiding both.

4. Decide if the intangible benefits make a pass worthwhile. With the Paris Museum Pass, for instance, you get to skip the ticket lines. In the busy summer months, that's worth a lot. Similarly, with a transportation pass you don't need to carry lots of local change or one-way tickets for buses and trams.

5. Look into a card that covers just transportation. If you'll spend your day wandering around in parks or sitting in cafés, a subway or bus pass may be enough. London's Oyster Card, for instance, knocks the current $8 Tube rides down to a price that's less choke-inducing.

6. Check into coupon books. For U.S. cities, two-for-one coupon collections such as the Entertainment Book can quickly pay for themselves if you'll be in town for more than a few days. And they still have value if you pass the books off to a local when finished.

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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