New York is famous as one of the world’s most expensive cities, so paring down the budget for a family trip is often top of mind for parents. One popular approach is to book packaged attraction passes that cut down on sightseeing costs, rather than paying as you go. Although there are multiple passes on the market, CityPASS is among the best-known as well as one of the best values.
My son and I gave the New York CityPASS a whirl on a weeklong mother-son trip. Our booklets had six attraction vouchers: three standalone and three either/or choices, detailed below. Families can also choose the less expensive C3 Pass, with three choices independent of each other (no pre-set pairings). The classic CityPASS saves up to 40 percent off standard ticket prices and the C3 saves 25 percent — as long as you use them in the optimal way. Read on for tried and tested tips from our experience.
New York CityPASS Highlights for Families
For sheer Old New York impact, it’s hard to beat the Empire State Building’s gilt-tinged glory — the “top of the world” thrill of this iconic Art Deco landmark makes for the perfect introduction to the city. Kids will want to go up, and at $26 ($32 for adults), the costs mount quickly. CityPASS can be a real savings here.
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The other big benefit is bypassing the long ticket lines, though you will still need to go through security and wait in line for the elevators. The pass includes general admission entry to the 86th-floor main observation deck, as well as same-night return admission to see the city in its sparkling splendor. Guests who decide to visit the 102nd-floor top deck as well must upgrade at a cost of $20 per person (we saw little benefit to doing this — views from the 86th floor are impressive enough).
Is it redundant to visit two observation decks in a single New York trip? We didn’t think so. Top of the Rock was a very different experience and equally worthwhile. Although it’s shorter than the Empire State Building, its position near the foot of Central Park makes for a magnificent view of the city’s green lung. And the vista from the opposite side includes the ESB — a key part of the skyline that, of course, you miss when standing atop it.
Because Top of the Rock has timed entry, you’ll need to exchange the CityPASS voucher at the desk for the next available timed tickets, which could mean a bit of a wait. (Tip: Both here and at the ESB, crowds tend to be lightest in the morning and heaviest at sunset.) Children under 6 get in free, so consider that in doing the math to see whether CityPASS will pay off.
For families, it’s best to skip the Guggenheim unless even the youngest ones have a keen interest in art or very sophisticated taste. Most kids will enjoy Top of the Rock far more.
No family trip to New York is complete without a stop at the Museum of Natural History to see prehistoric mammals, giant meteorites, rare fossils and a world of other natural treasures. This will almost certainly be part of the sightseeing budget, and only kids under 2 get in free, so the CityPASS discount can be worth it. Plan for a full day here; even then, it’s best to prioritize, as the collection is too big and comprehensive to cover in a single visit. We lingered longest in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs and the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, but there’s plenty of variety to please kids of all ages and interests.
Besides admission to the museum and the Rose Center for Earth and Space, you get a choice of seeing a space show in the planetarium (our pick) or a big-screen film. Special exhibit tickets are offered at a reduced price. At the main entrance, there’s a special CityPASS line that will save time, but it’s best to arrive at opening time to beat the crowds.
Because we’d booked an early-hours EmptyMet tour of the flagship Metropolitan Museum, we opted to use our pass for one of its lesser-known branches: the Met Cloisters. Located on a hill overlooking the Hudson River at the northern end of Manhattan, this peaceful oasis feels worlds away from the city bustle. It’s a spectacular collection of medieval architecture and artifacts, from illuminated manuscripts to the famous Unicorn Tapestries (kids might recognize these from the Harry Potter movies).
If you use the Met voucher at the Cloisters, you can also use it for the Fifth Avenue branch and the contemporary Met Breuer — but the catch is that all three must be visited in one day, which is neither feasible nor advisable with kids. Admission for each museum is the same ($25 adults, kids under 12 free), so use the pass for the one you want to see most and budget for the others according to time and interest. Like the Guggenheim, the Breuer has limited appeal for most children. But older ones might love the antiquities at the Cloisters (mine did), and tiny tots will enjoy having room to run.
It’s a perennial New York question: What’s the best way to see the Statue of Liberty? If this is your family’s first trip to New York, I’d devote a day to visiting Liberty Island and Ellis Island — there’s simply nothing like seeing the size and scale of this beauty at close range, or walking in the footsteps of a long-ago immigrant family. But for those tight on time who want to pack a lot in, a Circle Line cruise, with itineraries that sail past the statue, the Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center and more, can be a satisfying option.
If you choose Liberty Island and Ellis Island, turn in your ticket vouchers at Battery Park in Manhattan or Liberty State Park in New Jersey to board the ferry. Lines get painfully long, so it’s crucial to come early in the morning, well before the first boat is scheduled to leave. Once on Liberty Island, you can take the free, kid-friendly audio tour around the base of the statue; an extra fee is required to tour the Pedestal Museum or climb the crown (children must be 48 inches tall for the latter). Catch the ferry over to Ellis Island to peruse the well-curated exhibits about the immigrant experience in America, and to search for ancestors who may have passed through the halls.
While we did make a stop at the reflecting pools of the 9/11 Memorial, I decided to save the wrenching 9/11 Museum for a future New York trip — it is not recommended for kids 10 and under. A better choice for us was the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Its centerpiece, the USS Intrepid, is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that served in World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Kids will be fascinated by the original propeller and ship’s bell, as well as touring the restored berths, dining areas, officers’ quarters and more on both the Intrepid and the adjacent submarine Growler.
CityPASS vouchers offer no skip-the-line privileges, but the crowds here tend to be manageable compared to other big-name attractions. The onsite Space Shuttle Pavilion, home to the shuttle Enterprise, requires a $15 upgrade; for an extra $20, you can tack on a guided tour of the supersonic Concorde. My son’s favorite, though, was simply exploring the impressive collection of fighter planes and other aircraft on the ship’s flight deck.
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The Bottom Line
The best way to determine if CityPASS makes sense for your family trip to New York is to crunch the numbers. The full six-voucher booklet is $116 per adult and $96 per youth (ages 6-17); the C3 Pass is $71 per adult and $51 per child (ages 4-12). Compare that against the rack rates for tickets at your attractions of choice, taking into account free or reduced admission for kids, to ensure that the savings are worthwhile. Most likely, they will be.
For the larger booklets to be cost-effective, you’ll need a fairly intensive touring schedule, though this is very doable with a week in town. These passes can be great value for first-time visitors who want a full taste of city highlights, provided you use each and every voucher. Calculate the break-even point if you aren’t sure you’ll make it to all the included attractions. For those planning a shorter stay, or who prefer maximum flexibility or lots of downtime and activities beyond the big sights, consider the C3 pass instead.
Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino received complimentary CityPASS booklets in order to facilitate our review. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.