Back at the start of August, I made the spontaneous decision to take a weekend trip to New York City with my 6-year old son and I thought I’d share a few tips I learned along the way. Before you read any further, though, keep in mind that I am not an expert traveler by any means, but I am experienced. With quite a few trips within the USA as well as nearly a dozen international trips under my belt, I have experience, but I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert in the field. Also, my family travels on a budget. We don’t fly first class, staying in fancy hotels is not our priority, and we’re not interested in fine dining. If those things are more your style, just understand that’s not our style and my advice on those experiences would be totally useless, unfortunately.
If you’re still with me, though, my son and I had such a wonderful experience in NYC and I want you to have just as much fun. So here’s a few tips to help make that family trip to The Big Apple more enjoyable.
1. Don’t be afraid to travel with kids.
I can’t stress this tip enough, you guys, which is why I’m placing it at the top of the list. Yes, traveling with kids is different from traveling solo and in some ways, it’s definitely more complicated, but don’t let it hold you back! Not only does traveling teach our kids great life lessons, but I absolutely LOVE experiencing new places through the eyes of my children. There’s nothing like it and NYC with kids is definitely a great choice. I personally felt that 5-6 years old was a perfect age for a first trip to the City, but some might argue you can start even younger than that.
2. A NYC vacation does not have to be expensive.
I have found great deals to NYC on websites like Kayak and Hopper. In fact, if you live in the continental US, it’s probably one of the most affordable stateside flights out there if you plan it right.
Apart from the affordability of getting there, there are so many ways to spend very little and still have an amazing trip to the City. You could make an entire day of meandering in Central Park and just down the road is The American Museum of Natural History. The museum was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Best of all, though they have a suggested price to pay for both adults and children, it operates on the policy of “pay what you want,” meaning you could literally pay $1 and gain entrance. I don’t suggest being too stingy if you can afford to pay, but this is a fantastic option for those who wouldn’t otherwise have access or for larger families. And apparently, there are other local museums that follow this policy as well so do your research.
Then there’s The Staten Island Ferry, which is completely free, and gets you fairly close to The Statue of Liberty. Of course, just walking the New York City streets will leave you with plenty of free entertainment and attractions. And while New York City is a great destination for true foodies who enjoy fine-dining experiences, there are so many great options for those of us traveling on a much tighter budget. From street vendors (don’t knock it until you try it!) to cheap hot dogs or slices of pizza, you do not have to spend a fortune to eat well in The Big Apple.
3. Stay outside of Manhattan.
Finding an affordable hotel in NYC? Now, THAT can be a bit more challenging. Your Manhattan hotels are going to cost you a pretty penny, prettier than what my family prefers. Through the guidance of others on Trip Advisor forums, I booked our hotel in Long Island City, not to be confused with Long Island. It was only a 15-minute subway ride from Times Square, in our price range, and even provided a delicious continental breakfast each day, a rarity among the majority of NYC hotels. Before you book a place, though, ALWAYS check out guest reviews on websites like Trip Advisor. We may not care about staying anywhere fancy, but we want clean and safe. Those guest reviews always help us find what we’re looking for.
4. Know your child and plan accordingly.
New York City is known for their Broadway plays and musicals. While many shows have age restrictions for children, there were a few shows at the time of our trip where my son would meet the age requirement. So I really considered going, but I know my son. I know his interests and his attention-span and I was convinced that even though thousands of other kids his age would probably thoroughly enjoy these shows, even though everyone told me we just had to go, the chances were very slim that my kiddo would truly appreciate it. So we’ll save that for another trip. There was still more than enough to keep us entertained!
5. Use the subway.
Probably my biggest fear about this trip was that I was going to be using the subway. Look, Friends, I am somewhat directionally challenged. I get furious, for example, when my GPS expects me to know what “Start out going northwest on Such and Such Avenue” is supposed to mean. Where the heck is northwest?? Left or right at the stop sign, Siri! Left or right!?
But I am here to tell you that I successfully navigated the NYC subway system and you can too. I learned through my research before the trip, that there are some great free apps out there to get you around on the subway. I used Citymapper with no complaints. I would suggest that if you are as new to the whole subway thing as I was, that you do a little reading on understanding the NYC subway system and terminology in case you run into any unexpected issues with the app. But also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re uncomfortable asking strangers who seem to know what they’re doing, you can always find a NYC police officer or subway attendant to help you out.
6. Buy a 7-day unlimited MetroCard.
In order to ride the subway, you will have to purchase a MetroCard. There are various purchase options, but I went with the 7-day unlimited option. You only have to use the card about 12 times and the unlimited card pays for itself. With kids, you will use that EASILY even in just a weekend trip, especially if you stay outside Manhattan. The more you can utilize the subway to rest little tired feet, the more pleasant your adventure is sure to be. Plus, the 7-day card allows you to ride the local buses as well (we used the bus to get us to and from the LaGuardia airport) as well as the Roosevelt Island Tram-which my son loved, by the way- and for a total of $32 per card, it’s so much more cost effective and doable than taking a taxi, Uber, or Lyft everywhere. You need one card for each traveler, but kids under a certain height can ride for free.
7. Bring a power pack or portable phone charger.
My son and I spent from 9am-8pm exploring the city every day. As I used my phone for taking pictures and getting us from destination to destination via the Citymapper app, my phone battery died often. You don’t want to have to stop what you are doing constantly to find the nearest Starbucks so you can plug your phone in and wait for it to charge. Luckily, you can purchase a portable phone charger which will allow you to keep exploring and charge your phone at the same time. Depending on the type of phone you own, there are lots of great and affordable options out there. If you click on the Amazon link below, something like this is great for iPhone users, but there’s tons of options for android users as well.
8. Be flexible!!!
Before our trip, I had made an itinerary for each day of our NYC adventure. When you look at a map of NYC, it doesn’t look that big, but it really is spread out. It took much longer for us to get from point A to point B than I had anticipated and that messed up my itinerary. But don’t let that ruin your day! It’s great to have a plan, but don’t be too rigid with it. Getting lost, bad weather, traffic, etc, etc, can all play a role in forcing you to change your plans at times.
9. Don’t let the rain (or snow) stop you.
We traveled in August, which can generally be one of the rainiest times of year in NYC. Again, it was a spontaneous trip. Had I had a chance to plan it better, August probably wouldn’t have been my top choice due to humidity and rain. We were fortunate that we actually caught NYC during a slightly cooler August weekend, but we did get rained on a fair amount. Yet rain and snow in NYC is seriously not a big deal. Pack a rain jacket or winter coat and some close-toed shoes, and have at it. If you’re really dead set against walking the City in the rain/snow, there’s plenty of indoor activities you can find to keep the whole crew entertained.
10. Plan downtime in your daily schedule.
My son and I were only supposed to be in NYC for about 2 days and I thought we had to go everywhere and do everything. I tried to squeeze adventure into every second of our days. I realized on our first day there, that I should have factored “downtime” into each day. My son is only 6. We were doing a TON of walking every day in August heat and he was quite the champ, but he could have really benefited from more time with no agenda and no pressure. Whether it’s just taking a break in your hotel room watching TV or resting at one of many parks in the city, don’t skimp on the downtime.
11. Soak it all in.
This was a trip that neither of us will ever forget. We bonded over New York pizza, conversations on the Subway, dinosaur exploration at The American Museum of Natural History, people-watching in Central Park, history discussions on The Staten Island Ferry viewing The Statue of Liberty, and sugar rushes at Dylan’s Candy Bar. And in my son’s words, the best part of the entire trip was absolutely “Everything!”