You may know all top European destinations offer a city card to make exploring easier, straightforward for travelers. These cards advertise discounts/deals on public transportation, city attractions and leisure activities so you don’t have to worry about wasting time, planning the city expedition to the last detail or sacrificing convenience.
I agree city cards for travelers can appear attractive at first and may seem ideal to explore European cities.
But they aren’t the smartest option to give the bang for your buck.
They’re expensive. They restrict your itinerary. They even force you to cover (almost) all the city card attractions just because you paid to have a discounted/free access to them.
There’s another, better alternative to these cards — public transport tickets/passes the locals use daily. They’re cheaper, give you more autonomy and have no control over your day-to-day activities.
You can discover a city at a pace that suits you (or your group) to immerse in local culture and community without feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
This post (second in a three-part Europe transports series; check out the first part here) isn’t for people who’re okay with overexerting themselves or seeing only the “top” sights of a city.
If you’re thrilled to travel cheap just so you can see authentic local hide-outs, enjoy your stay or explore because you want to, then keep reading.
Few things to remember before we jump into the transport passes:
- Most European cities require you to validate your ticket (paper/plastic) before or after boarding. The fines for not validating range anywhere between €40 to €100, changing from one city to another. Make sure you follow the rules. (You’ll find the self-validation units near entries and exits.)
- You can buy tickets onboard from drivers in buses and trams, though many times they’re more expensive than the original prices. I’d still suggest confirming this mode of purchase before using the public transport of that city.
- If you buy a single, one-way ticket, please check whether you’re allowed to transfer from one type of transport to another in your journey. For example, taking a bus then changing to metro to reach your destination. Each city has different regulations for such travel.
Let’s start with Northwestern Europe.
London is one of the leading economic, historic and cultural hubs of the world. This dynamic, vibrant city has so much to offer to every type of traveler. Transport for London (TfL) issues a paperless transport card called Oyster. The plastic, pay-as-you-go smart-card takes you on ‘bus, Tube, tram, DLR, London Overground, TfL Rail, Emirates Air Line, River Bus services and most National Rail services in London.’
You can buy the Oyster smart-card at any Tube, London Overground, TfL Rail stations or designated Oyster Ticket Stops, including newsstands, for a £5 deposit. (Don’t worry! You can get the deposit back by returning the card.)
TIP: London is broken down into nine zones (Zone 1 to 9). The city implements fare capping – meaning it limits the amount you pay for your travel in a 24-hour timeframe. For example — if you travel through Zone 1-5 in one day, the maximum amount you’ll pay is £11.60, even if your journeys exceed that amount. Here are the capping limits based on each zone.
Note: You’ll pay £80 if caught without a valid transport ticket.
Amsterdam – with its serene canals and quirky neighborhoods – is a top Europe destination. Its lively and comforting lifestyle beckons travelers from around the globe. A perfect place to unwind and get high on cheese, cycling and coffee shops (who can resist that?!).
Instead of buying I amsterdam City Card (starting from €59 for 24 hours), opt for GVB day passes which cost €7.50 (one day) to €34.50 (7 days). They give you the freedom to travel unlimited on GVB routes, for any distance or at any time, on its metros, trams and buses. These routes are well-connected to the major city neighborhoods.
FYI, GVB day passes for children cost €3.75.
The only drawback of the pass is that you must travel in Amsterdam on GVB-run transports and can’t use it on regional Connexxion and EBS buses or trains.
You can buy GVB passes at city tourist information centers, metro station vending machines, webshop and service points.
Note: Fine for non-validation on public transport ranges from €70 to €85.
Vienna is a poetic ode to the grandeur of renaissance. The city epitomizes European history with impeccable architecture and culture (who in their right mind can resist Opera?). Every street questions your idea of beauty with surreal, drop-dead locales.
Vienna – like other cities – gives out 24, 48 and 72 Hour Pass (and an 8-Day Ticket). The 24-hour pass costs €8. You can travel unlimited on Vienna’s public transportation — tram, bus, metro.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the absence of turnstiles or manned counters to verify your tickets before boarding. It was the responsibility of each passenger to validate their ticket without fail (and they all did).
The Vienna Card (for travelers) starts from €13.90 and offers free travel on public transports throughout the city and 200 discounts on famous city sights. An exception compared to other overpriced cards, however.
Note: Vienna city charges €105 penalty if you’re found without a valid ticket on-person.
Budapest is a marvelous city where life flows through culture effortlessly. From renowned thermal baths, delicious Hungarian cuisine to historical designs, Budapest is climbing through the bucket list of travelers.
Another reason to visit Budapest: The city is considerably cheaper than other top European cities and offers similar (and even better) options to indulge in a true European getaway.
A single ticket costs HUF 350 (~ €1.15). A block of 10 tickets is for HUF 3000 (~ €9.65). Travelcards (unlimited travel within a specific time range; different from Budapest Card for tourists) start from HUF 1650 (~ €5.30).
Note: Budapest’s M1 (or Line 1) was the first ever underground train network on the European mainland. It’s as awesome as it sounds! You get to see the yellow trains running through the original, preserved metro stations dating back to 1896 connecting to many historically significant places.
The fine for non-validation is HUF 16,000 (~ €51) and gets reduced to HUF 8,000 if paid on the spot or within 2 days from the time of penalty.
In the next and last part, I’ll discuss the Eastern, Southern and Western Europe transport passes you should choose instead of pricey city cards.
. . . .
You don’t have to become a journey planner or spend hours on end to decide your European city adventures. You can easily explore best of Europe on a budget thanks to its excellent, world-renowned public transport networks.
Traveling, even touring, is best when it follows your pace and interests. The Europe city cards may make the basic planning simpler but fail to make the act of discovering fun and satisfying.
What city passes did you use to make your Europe travels epic?