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London Pass: Taking a shortcut to history and more

Tourists walk by the Windsor Castle, west of

Tourists walk by the Windsor Castle, west of London, on Aug. 1, 2012. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

What's the only downside to the VIP secret called the London Pass? The wrath of your fellow travelers when they see you jumping the line at visitor sites like the Tower of London.

Take the balding man at the gate, mopping his face. When I stepped in front of him -- politely, of course -- he frowned, yanked up his shorts and puffed out his chest. "Sorry, miss, but you'll have to wait your turn," he growled. "The end of the line is way back there, around the corner." I didn't bother to look at the block-long queue of weary sightseers shuffling over the hot pavement. I'd seen them already. Now I was thanking my lucky rabbit's foot I'd planned ahead.

"See, uh, this is my London Pass," I explained, showing him my shiny blue-and-yellow plastic card. "I bought it way ahead of time and it gets me in without a reservation and without waiting. It's good for dozens of places you probably want to see. Like the Churchill War Rooms, Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey. It's a good deal." I added, babbling apologetically.

To prove the point, I showed him the book that came with the pass, a guide so useful I'd already abandoned the travel guide I'd lugged across the Atlantic. "And here's my Visitor Oyster Card," I said, whipping that item out, figuring that if one travel boost was good, two were better.

"The Oyster Card is a prepaid bus and subway pass costing about half of the price of tickets bought in cash at the station. You can jump on any bus or tube train and go from one end of London to the other, and you can buy the Oyster Card at any train or tube station, or at a London tourism office, or at the VisitBritain website," I said, running out of breath.

"No kidding," he said, peering at both cards as if we were playing blackjack and I was dealing. "We just arrived yesterday. Whaddaya think? Should we invest?" I could have launched into the pros and cons, but it seemed more politic to smile and retreat into the Tower's inner courtyard, a lot safer now than it was when Anne Boleyn and her ilk came to stay and lost their heads.

I could have explained that if you're in London for just a day or two, buying a pass might not make sense. Walking through Hyde Park, window shopping on Piccadilly and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace are outdoor thrills. And the London Pass, while discounted, isn't free. A one-day adult pass costs £49 (49 pounds, about $79).

But the real value of the pass isn't the money you'll save. It's that the pass opens every door, literally, taking all the hassle out of touring a major world city in high season. With the pass in hand you can go to the head of the line at every attraction, castle and museum, and be admitted on the spot. No waiting in line for hours, no changing money. And if you're a go-getter, sightseeing all day, the pass does save money.

As for the Oyster Card, you'll need it, too, to get to those river boats and stadium tours. The tube will get you there in quick time; the bus provides leisurely above-ground sightseeing. Tube stations are in walking distance of everything, the employees are helpful, routes are well-marked, and touching the card to the electronic reader instantly opens the turnstile.

The bad news is that adult ticket prices to top attractions have soared. The Tower of London charges about $32£19.95; the Churchill War Rooms, the statesman's wartime headquarters, charges about $24£14.95; Windsor Castle costs about $29£17.75. These three alone justify buying a one-day pass. Better yet, the pass introduces you to other hidden gems, from museums, galleries and palaces to sports venues, gardens, the Zoo, Funscape, Ben Franklin's house, walking and bicycling tours, backstage theater visits, Thames River cruises, and discounts at restaurants, stores, malls and museum shops.

Visit the Canal Museum, formerly a 19th century ice storage warehouse on the Thames River. This hidden spot tells the story of the era when trade goods came to London from coastal ports via canalboats. Riding in on the tide, the boats unloaded their cargoes at riverside warehouses like the one that now houses the museum. Don't miss Kew Palace, in Kew Gardens, the elegant little gem where mad King George III retreated in summer to sip tea, fret about the upstart American colonies and find solace in the shade of the garden's rare plants.

Have you seen the Handel House Museum, or the Courtauld Gallery, or All Hallows by the Tower, London's oldest church, founded in 675? I hadn't. How about the guided tour of the Rock'N'Roll Walk, in Soho and Covent Garden; the tour of Wembley Stadium; the guided bicycle tour; or the hop-on-hop-off Thames boat ride? To make the most of both the Oyster Card and the London Pass, I checked off places I wanted to see and grouped them by neighborhood. And I tried to go to the most popular attractions early, to miss the crowds. The shorter the line, the easier it is to cut.

If you go

Buy your Visitor Oyster Card online, for any amount, at the Transport for London website, tfl.gov.uk. (They recommend a £30 card for a 3-4 day stay.) You can also purchase one at visitbritain.com, or in any train or tube station. VisitBritain is a source for all London travel, including tours, lodging, events, openings, maps and special discounts.

The London Pass guidebook includes photos, full descriptions, suggestions about making advance reservations (often required), other discounts, a map, closest bus and tube stops, hours, addresses and phone numbers. Go to londonpass.com for prices and mailing instructions. Or buy it on arrival at Heathrow or Gatwick airports, at London train stations or at the office, at 11a Charing Cross Rd., near Leicester Square. Adult and child prices for one day are £49 and £33 (about $79 and $53); three days are £73 and £50.40 (about $118 and $81); six days are £97.20 and £68 (about $157 and $110).

Because rates for the London Pass and the Oyster Card depend on travel dates, discounts and other variables, prices quoted here may vary slightly.

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