My husband and I really wanted to go to New York for his fortieth Birthday last year and we were originally planning to go on our own. But then we had a change of heart. Our kids are aged ten, seven and five now. They can walk unaided, are fully toilet trained and can sit for long periods of time and amuse themselves. We’ve spent years avoiding foreign travel (particularly long haul), due to the sheer effort and organisation that is required to take three young children away on holiday. But we felt we’d done UK holiday parks to death and had reached a point where we were itching for some adventure further afield. It didn’t feel right to not share this with the kids. It was time.
First stop – book flights. That was the easy bit, but at the same time it was a scary moment knowing that we had actually committed ourselves. We were really doing this.
Second stop – accommodation. This is always the difficult bit when organising a holiday for a family of five and New York was no exception. When I looked on line at hotel rooms, the majority would only allow four people per room (the drop down menu for adding children often only allowed a maximum of two). The problem is, if you try to book two rooms, you can’t always guarantee that they will be interconnecting.
I got around this problem by contacting the hotels directly to find out what they could offer us. Hotel rooms in New York are notoriously small and the last thing I wanted from my holiday was for all five of us to be cramped in to a small space and getting on each other’s nerves. When you have a large family, it doesn’t matter how large the room actually is, you are much better off if you can spread yourself out over two rooms instead of all being in the one.
I was lucky to find a room at the Hotel Beacon. It was a one-bedroomed suite, with two Queen size beds, plus a double pull out sofa bed in the living room area. There was also a kitchenette, complete with cooker, hob, microwave, fridge/freezer and coffee machine. This was the perfect option for us, as it had enough beds for all of us, the space to move around in (and be able to put the two younger kids to bed, whilst we stayed up in the other room) and as we were staying on a room only basis, we had the option to be able to use the facilities in the room for breakfasts and light meals.
Third stop – planning the trip. One thing’s for sure, you know with a city break that you won’t be spending your time relaxing by a pool. But the good thing about choosing a location like New York is that it has so many famous landmarks you know what you want to see before you even get there. This is a great advantage when it comes to planning your trip.
The first thing I did was make a list of all the places that we each wanted to go to (I love lists, so this was no problem at all for me). Then I printed some maps of New York city and highlighted all the locations. I used MapaPlan.com where I found separate maps for the Uptown, Midtown and Downtown areas of the city. New York is huge, so it is easier to break it down in to sections. I could see which of the museums, shops and sites that we wanted to go to were near to each other, so that we could plan our days.
Things to organise before going to New York:
1. Application for each family member to ESTA, a pre-entry visa that must be completed by all foreign nationals before entering the United States.
2. Pre-book tickets for major attractions. There are three main New York ticket passes that are available:
New York City Pass – a pre paid ticket for entrance into six of the major New York attractions.
New York Explorer Pass – you pay for 3, 5 or 7 attractions (you don’t have to pre-book which ones).
New York Pass – one pass that you pre pay for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 days.
The selling point of these passes is that you save money on entrance tickets and can skip ticket lines.
I chose the Explorer pass, as I thought it would work best for us. My advice upon returning is that the City pass is by far the best option. Every place we went to had a separate queue for City pass holders. We skipped some queues with our pass, but in most cases still had to join a ticket queue along with everybody else.
3. Booking a Broadway show:
If you plan on seeing a show whilst you are away it is advisable to pre book your tickets, as they sell out months in advance. I used Kanoo Travel and they were really helpful. They got me eight fantastic stall seats for the Saturday matinee showing of Matilda.
Fourth stop – enjoy the holiday. I’m not saying we had a rigid itinerary, but we knew what we wanted to see and we knew roughly where everything was. Once there, we had to allow for jet lag and to gauge how the children would cope with the full on days, but on the whole, we stuck to our original plans.
Here’s my guide on what to see:
1. Natural History Museum – huge dinosaur section and a space centre worth visiting for.
2. Metropolitan Museum of Art – full of ancient artefacts. Particularly of interest if you have Percy Jackson fans.
3. Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum – set on the aircraft carrier, Intrepid. Includes numerous aircraft carriers, Concorde and the retired space shuttle, Enterprise.
4. Top of the Rock, Rockefeller Centre observatory – amazing views of the city, including a direct view of the Empire State building. Not as busy as the Empire State building either.
5. Toys R Us, Times Square – huge toy shop, with a Ferris wheel at its centre. Displays of Transformers, Lego figures and a life size T-Rex make it well worth a visit. The kids had more fun in here than at FAO Schwarz, which is only really worth a visit for the floor piano.
6. American Girl store – one for the girls, but a must. Beautiful store dedicated to this hugely popular doll.
7. Central Park – a gorgeous space in the middle of a busy city. Look out for the Hans Christian Andersen and the Alice in Wonderland statues, the model boating lake and the zoo.
8. Statue of Liberty – a boat trip to Liberty Island and entrance to the statue is included in the City Pass tickets (tickets to go to the crown are extra).
9. Grand Central Station – apart from seeing where Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria escaped to from the zoo (for all Madagascar fans), parents are sure to appreciate this beautiful station building.
Where to eat:
I looked specifically for restaurants that had a gluten free menu, so we could be assured we would at least be able to find something our five year old could eat. But these restaurants are all family friendly too.
1. Pappardella – Uptown – a short walk from our hotel, this Italian restaurant was able to provide gluten free bread and pasta and sorbet desert, so my son was over the moon. For the rest of us, there was a good choice of tasty and reasonably priced dishes.
2. Nice Martin – Uptown – also near our hotel, this French restaurant was pricey, but the food was good.
3. Viand – Uptown – this restaurant was literally next door to our hotel and opened all day. They had a fantastic choice for breakfast and although they didn’t have gluten free options, they were very flexible on mixing and matching options from the menu, plus they had soya milk, which was a bonus.
4. Nizza – Theatre district – lovely Italian restaurant, which also offers a gluten free menu.
5. American Girl Store – Midtown – we ate in the restaurant here. It was pre-booked and any allergy requests were specified upon booking, which meant that my son was catered for in advance. The lunch was a three course set menu, with a choice of main courses.
6. Bills Bar & Burger – Downtown (near World Trade Centre) – fantastic food and great service. Was pleasantly surprised to find that the burgers were wheat free and they offered gluten free buns.
We thought that we would end up having to get two taxis everywhere we went, but all of the yellow cab drivers were happy to let four of us in the back (though I’m sure that it wasn’t legal). Travelling by cab was not my favourite way to get around New York though. The roads are terrible. Not only are they horrendously busy, they are full of potholes after the long harsh winter. The cab drivers are impatient and swerve in and out of the traffic queues, speeding up whenever possible, only to be heavy on the brakes as they catch up to the rest of the traffic again.
The subway was a little tricky to work out, but one local showed us how to get a Metro card, where you put in an amount that you need to travel, so that it is all on the one ticket (each subway journey is $2.75 per person each way). There are no officials working down there to ask, but for some reason when you get down to the subway, the locals are more friendly than they are up on the street!
New York may have a reputation for being unfriendly, but apart from the occasional service worker, we found quite the opposite. More than once, we were approached by a local whilst studying our map and asked if we needed help, pointing us in the direction we needed to go.
Fifth stop – the verdict:
April was a great time to go. It was busy in the main areas like Times Square, Broadway and down by the World Trade Centre, but in general it was nowhere near as busy as I was expecting it to be. The weather was great, warming up over the course of the week to be pleasant enough to walk around without coats on, but not too hot that it became unbearable. We all had a fantastic and unforgettable trip. The only thing I didn’t get to do was any girly shopping, so I will definitely be going back.