Bad parent confession: We have never visited New York City as a family. Full disclosure: This bothers me more than it does my husband.
With three children separated in age by six years, top to bottom, taking a bite out of the NYC apple felt like more than I could chew, for a whole slew of reasons.
Luckily, over the winter, my husband had a conference in New York, and I tagged along. Even though he and I had time together, I got to explore on my own (my last visits were decades ago), and think about how we could manage with our children in tow. Yes, you need to plan. But the good news is that NYC isn’t nearly as daunting as I remembered. Here’s what to consider before you start packing.
Think about what you want to do or see, and find accommodations nearby. You want to use your limited time exploring, not moving from point A to point B. I can’t begin to cover all the overnight options, from traditional hotels to Airbnb, but I can say that our conference hotel just south of Central Park (at 7th Avenue and 53rd Street) made all the difference in my experience. A subway stop was around the corner, but I was close enough to reach several of my tourist goals on foot. I felt incredibly savvy and urban as I walked, in the early-morning darkness, to join the line for The Today Show plaza. And after I shopped at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I didn’t have far to carry my purchases.
Be realistic! New York is a big place, and it’s filled with desirable attractions. You’re not going to see or do everything, so make your peace with that before you go. When we travel, I ask each kid to identify one thing that’s important to him or her. This could be a meal at a particular restaurant, a souvenir purchase, or a certain tourist attraction. (I continue to veto Ripley’s Believe It or Not.) In New York, I had what I thought was a reasonable list to see and do, and I did most of what was on my list. One tour was unexpectedly canceled, so I missed out on Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone. But I did shop at a great (and affordable) resale clothing shop recommended by a NYC friend, an unexpected treat.
3. Transportation (part one)
We took the train to New York, which I found relaxing. I’d do this with the kids, because I have no intention of driving in NYC – or paying to park my car while I’m there. Amtrak offers free WiFi, so homework, games, and even Netflix are available. Plus, if you sit in the “quiet” car, there’s no bickering allowed! You can also bring your own food, which saves money and keeps everyone happy. We disembarked at Penn Station, a central location in Manhattan and an easy cab ride (or perhaps walk) to where you’re headed.
4. Transportation (part two)
Yes, I used the aforementioned subway. It was clean enough, felt safe, and I didn’t get lost. I made sure my first trip came at an off-peak time, so I wouldn’t feel other riders’ frustration with my indecision. I did get confused once, and left one track for another, only to realize I was correct the first time. I missed my train, but another came quickly enough. I wouldn’t hesitate to take the kids; in fact, I think they’d love seeing the Art Deco tile decorations and observing the riders around them. The New York subway may not be the oldest in the world – that’s London’s Tube – but it’s the nation’s largest, and it runs 24/7. It’s a tourist attraction that has the added benefit of being useful.
Advance planning helps here, too. I took protein-rich snacks and some fruit with us. Breakfast wasn’t included at our hotel, but apples and oranges were free for the taking in the fitness center, so we did. Decide if a meal is going to be an event deserving time and expense – like the long lunch my husband and I enjoyed with old friends at Bar Bacon, a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen – or simply fuel to keep you and your kids going. If it’s the latter, nothing beats a classic bagel. If you want to splurge just a little, try any of the many Halal Guys food carts, offering delicious Middle Eastern wraps or platters. Husband and I ate high – our lunch at China Grill was a great way to end our trip – and low – classic New York pizza slices were dinner one night.
6. The Cost
Visiting New York City can be expensive. When we go as a family, we’ll pay a lot for accommodations, because I’ll want us to be centrally located. But that expense will save us a bunch in time and energy, because we’ll be closer to the things we want to see and do, which means everyone will be happier. Again, it comes back to choices. The Today Show plaza experience is free. The NBC studio tour is not. People-watching in Battery Park is free. Riding the ferry around Lady Liberty is not. The National September 11 Memorial is free. The adjacent museum is not. (The museum is incredibly thorough and well worth the cost, however, if your kids are old enough.) With a mix of experiences, you can see what you want while keeping within a budget.
It was a great opportunity to visit New York with my husband and without our children. It gave me the chance to get comfortable with an unfamiliar place and plot, just a bit, for when we go as a family. Best of all, now I know of two free public bathrooms (Herald Square Macy’s and the M&M store at Times Square). Priorities first!
Photos: Paula Peters Chambers