City Transportation: Get a Pass or Pay as You Go?

transportation pass

Unless you have an unlimited budget, you probably have to consider things like finding the cheapest way to get around in a new city. And almost any city with a decent transportation system has a lot of options, which can be overwhelming. So how can you decide which will be best option for you?

Know where you’re staying and know where you’re going

Even if you don’t plan your vacation down to the last second, you should always pull up Google Maps and figure out where your hotel is relative to the general areas you will want to visit. This will give you a good idea of how much time you’ll be spending on public trains, trams, or buses. Sometimes, you’ll find that you’re close enough to everything or the city is small enough that you really won’t be using public transportation. If that’s the case, you’re better off buying individual tickets when you need to go somewhere.

Getting a short-term pass

Almost all cities have at least one kind of tourist transportation pass that gives you unrestricted access to public transportation for a specified amount of time. Most of these are overpriced. For instance, in Prague, you can get a 3-day pass for around $12, while I can get a monthly pass for a little over $20. But of course, a monthly pass isn’t useful for someone here a few days, ensuring that tourists buy the expensive short-term pass regardless.

Is a pass going to be worth it for you?

transportation pass

The key consideration is whether you’re going to be using public transportation enough to justify the cost of the pass. There’s no hard formula on that. You have to guess depending on your location. But in general, there are some factors that may sway you one way or the other.

The kind of transportation you need to use

I hate buses. If at all possible, I avoid riding them. But if I have to, I rather get a pass so I can jump on any bus without having to worry about getting the right amount of change for my ride. So if your day-to-day travel in a city includes a lot of buses, the pass may be a better option.

Length of the pass vs length of your stay

Sometimes it works out perfectly that you’re going to be somewhere exactly three days and they have a pass that is exactly three days long. However, sometimes you find yourself picking between a day pass and a seven day pass when you’re only going to be there four. This is a situation where it helps to eyeball your expected transportation use. You certainly don’t want to pay for an extra three days that you won’t use at all.

That being said, the longer pass might still be a better value. This may be the case if buying individual day passes or buying individual tickets as you go will approach the cost of the longer transportation pass.

General advantages of getting a pass

london tube

Sometimes a pass can add value that is not related to cost: that’s convenience. If you’re in a city with a large train system, going on the subway or metro may be relatively simple. But buying a ticket for a bus or tram may not be as straightforward. If you have a transportation pass, you don’t have to worry about any of that. You can hop on any train you like without having to go through the trouble of getting a ticket each time.

Another advantage is safety-related. Lost tourists are never easier to spot than at a machine they don’t understand while they fumble with their wallet trying to get a ticket. If you’re in a city like London or Paris, there are pickpockets on the lookout for someone like you. So the best thing you can do to avoid being targeted, or being successfully robbed, is to not buy a public transportation ticket six times a day in a busy (often touristy) train station.

Skipping the ticket altogether and fare-jumping

fare jumping

This isn’t common in the US, because we have no such thing as honor, but many countries in Europe run transportation systems that are based on the honor code. This includes the Netherlands, Germany, and the Czech Republic to name a few. You’re not blocked from entering the train or tram by anything; there are no gates or turnstiles. It’s just expected that you have paid the correct fare and have a valid ticket.

It’s a beautiful system, especially if you’ve ever been to a major event and then experienced a bottleneck of people trying to get into a train station to leave it. That doesn’t happen here. Paul McCartney can sell out an arena and everyone will be on their way home after the show in 15-20 minutes.

Of course, the other clear advantage of this system is you can often ride for free. The question is: should you? You can answer that for yourself however you like, but as someone who has been busted by Czech control agents, I wouldn’t take the risk. If you’re doing it to save money, remember that the fine for getting caught is two or three times as much as you would be paying to ride legally. If you’re doing it to save yourself the hassle of buying a ticket, then get a pass. And then you don’t have to worry about it.

Besides, there’s nothing more satisfying than being stopped by one of those bloodsucking fiends who thinks he’s going to make 40 Euro off you and showing him a valid ticket.