This past Saturday, I used some free Amtrak tickets to take my family (yes, all 7 of us!) to New York City for the day. Because we are within 3 hours of the heart of New York City, I consider a trip to New York City a Staycation.
I have traveled to New York City for conferences and press junkets and movie premieres and had plenty of time walking the streets of New York. I wanted to finally share it with my kids, who had never been to the Big Apple.
I admit – most of the draw to New York City for my kids (ages 6-15) can be blamed on the movie ELF. They wanted to see and experience everything that Buddy the Elf did (I had to remind them several times that we could not walk through the Lincoln Tunnel).
The challenge that I faced before we set off to NYC was my budget. Sure the tickets to get there were free….but I knew from experience that not much else was free in the City. Amazingly, though, I was able to entertain my family of seven for under $150.
Tips for a cheap New York City day trip
- Advance research and planning pays off. There are plenty of free things to do in New York City, but many of them take some planning before heading to the city. For instance, the Sony Wonders Technology Lab at 56th Street and Madison Avenue has free admission, but reservations are recommended. You can get same day tickets if you arrive there early enough, but it’s much easier to call ahead to reserve your spot. Central Park also has free events year-round, but because the events are very time-specific it’s important to plan those into your day.
- Chose one thing that you are willing to pay for and budget that in. We decided to pay to ride the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close was important for my kids, so I set aside the $59 for my family to ride the ferry. (Just FYI – ferry tickets are only $5 for children 12 and under and $13 for adults. Most families would not be quite as expensive as mine).
- Take the Subway. You can get almost anywhere you need to go in New York City on the Subway. Each ride (to anywhere) is $2.25. A $10 pass can be used for up to four family members at once, and children under 44 inches ride free all the time. Not only is the Subway a relatively cheap way to get around town, it also provides a unique and authentic New York experience that should be part of every family’s tour of the city. Plan your destinations so that you know all of the activities in a particular vicinity and minimize your Subway rides. We spent about $30 total to get everywhere we wanted to go. Bonus: the NYC subway is FULL of entertainment!
- Pack food. While eating food from street vendors is another one of those unique New York experiences, I knew that eating two meals out was out of the question. Everyone packed their own lunch and I included a bunch of snacks for the day in my bag to tide them over. It’s hard to pass by those yummy smelling vendors, though. We budgeted in some cash for a few warm pretzels and some dinner. We spent about $35 on food for the day.
- Give the kids their own cameras for the day. All three of my daughters have their own digital cameras, and of course I’ve got my dSLR and my husband has his video camera. It’s amazing how entertaining picture-taking can be. And with digital, it’s a totally free activity. Don’t have digital cameras for everyone (or don’t want to entrust your camera to little hands)? Disposable cameras can be just as fun (though they will be a little more expensive in the short run).
- Let the kids earn some money for souvenirs before the trip. Grabbing up a trinket from a trip is so much fun – even I like to do it. I knew I didn’t want to get stuck in the trap of buying something for everyone (again, that darn budget!) so I encouraged the kids to bring some of their own money to spend if they wanted a souvenir. Not only do kids love to spend cash on their own (it’s one of those “grown-up” things) but they are much more picky about what they buy when they know that it’s their money that they are spending and that they have a very specific budget. if your kids don’t normally have opportunities to earn money at home, another option would be to allocate a certain amount per child ($5 or $10 cash) for them to spend as they wish.
- Remember – Sometimes the best entertainment is the unplanned, spontaneous things that happen along the route. Take advantage of the street or Subway performers or spend some extra time inside the Time Square Toys R Us if that’s what makes the kids happy.
At the end of the day, our trip was not perfect, but we had a lot of fun, saw a ton of sights, and spent less than $150 for a mini vacation. Can’t beat that!
Do you have any money-saving tips for family travel to New York City?
Note: I received an Amtrak ticket voucher for some work that I did last year, not on my blog. I love traveling on Amtrak!
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