By Renee Sklarew
Special to t
You’re moving forward, inch by inch, closer to your destination. Or are you? Someone in front of you fumbles for lost tickets. Another person’s credit card malfunctions. Your precious vacation time is wasted — I call this the Travel Time-Suck — in a line.
In September, my husband and I had an entirely different experience when we visited Chicago for the first time. We like to research the sights we most want to see, and after adding up the cost of these attractions, decided to buy a Chicago CityPass — a travel pass available in major U.S. cities that offers discounted rates.
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 and an audio tour.
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 marketing 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 cost-effective.
"CityPass doesn’t include every attraction, because we want you to go at a leisurely pace, and not race on to the next thing," Wakefield said.
In a 2016 study conducted by its partner attractions, 98 percent of CityPass users were satisfied with their pass.
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.
Now a convert, I’m studying travel passes for our 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. And while you may not avoid the Travel Time-Suck entirely, tourism passes can give you a much-needed advantage.
Renee Sklarew is a writer based in the District of Columbia.