The #1 Reason to Buy a Museum Pass When Visiting Europe
[Last Updated Feb 2020]
One of the most useful things I picked up from Rick Steve’s Italy guidebook during my trip to Italy in 2015 was how valuable museum passes are.
Museum passes are also sometimes known as “city cards”, e.g. the Firenze card for Florence. They give you either free or reduced-price entry at a pre-determined list of museums for a specified amount of time (usually two or three days). The list of museums is extensive and usually includes all the must-sees, although there are exceptions. For example, the Roma pass does not include the Vatican Museum, where the Sistine Chapel is. That actually makes sense, as the Vatican is technically its own country, but it’s not intuitive. Always double check the list of museums included in the pass to be sure.
The museum passed are only valid for 2-3 days and typically include a long the list of museums. This is why I used to think it would be really hard to visit enough museums to make these cards worth it. However, I’ve used them in several cities now and have experienced first-hand how they work. I’ve come to realize that their main benefit is not actually saving you money. Their most prized benefit, in my opinion, is saving you time.
This will not be immediately obvious, as these cards are marketed mainly as money savers. And in many cases, you will save money as well. Each pass is different. You should sit down and cross-reference your list of must-do museums against the list of museums covered by the card and see if you’d come out ahead money-wise. I certainly do recommend doing that and I think it’s a good step to take. However, if you find that you’re not going to save money with the card, or it would take a really aggressive sightseeing schedule to save money, or you’d need to visit museums you were not originally planning to visit to save money, I do challenge you to figure the time savings into the equation.
Many of the museum passes in Europe come with skip-the-line privileges, which I personally consider to be invaluable. Without this privilege, you could potentially stand in line for hours. As in, 3-4 hours or more. And that’s per museum. That could be a third or a half of your day (again, per museum) depending on your sight-seeing stamina. Now think back on how many thousands of dollars you’ve already spent just on your airfare and hotel. Are you really willing to stand in line for this long per museum to save yourself a little bit of money? And it’s probably not that much money, once you do the cost-benefit analysis above. It is very likely that each hour you stand in line could be saving you just a dollar. Is an hour of your time worth saving a dollar?
I would actually argue that the tighter your budget is, the more value you gain by saving yourself time when traveling. The tighter your budget, the better you have to be at spending your money on things that provide immense value compared to the cost. Don’t look at the cost alone. Take a look at the value as well.
This shift in perspective is especially hard for those of us who’ve grown up in modest households or on tight budgets. Things like museum passes can easily be considered a luxury, an expense that is not a necessity as opposed to transport, hotel, meals. And I think it’s good to really ask yourself what you can do without. At the same time, you are spending valuable time and money to get to your destination. Any marginal expense to immensely elevate your experience is EXACTLY what you should be spending money on.
Another perk of these cards is flexibility. If you don’t have a museum pass, you can still skip the line by purchasing your tickets in advance for a specific time slot – but that’s not available at all museums. Also, it can feel almost burdensome to have it all scheduled ahead of time. The flexibility provided by the Firenze card was invaluable to me in Florence, where I took the opportunity to spend a rainy afternoon at the Uffizi. It was so nice to not have a schedule and just be able to duck into whichever museum I wanted, whenever I wanted. After all, one of the best things about going on vacation is the ability to go with the flow!
Museum passes vary by city; the benefits are not identical and could change over time. Make sure you always look up what the current program looks like for the city you’d be going to. I’ve personally used the museum passes/city cards in Rome, Florence, Berlin, Hamburg and Istanbul. I’ve linked up the official site for each below. I will be adding more cities as I go – feel free to subscribe here so you don’t miss future posts!
Brussels – I did not use the Brussels Museum Pass because I only had one full day in Brussels. The only museum I visited – the Royal Museums of Fine Arts – wasn’t included with the card. However, Brussels is full of other quirky, unique museums that may make the Brussels Museum Pass worth it.
Berlin – I used the Museum Pass Berlin for 2 days as part of my 2-week trip to Bulgaria and Germany in August 2016.
Hamburg – I used the Hamburg card for 1 day as part of the same Germany trip as above.
Rome – I used the Roma pass (three-day version) as part of my 2-week trip to Italy, Austria and Slovakia in September 2015.
Florence – I used the Firenze card for the first three days of my six-day visit to Florence as part of the same trip as above.
Istanbul – I used the Istanbul Museum Pass for a 2-day visit as part of my 2-week trip to Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey in May 2019.
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