Tips for Navigating New York City With Kids
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Despite the intimidating swarm of foot traffic (and regular traffic) across the streets of New York, this is one of the easiest cities to navigate in the nation — even with kids.
If your family getaway is entirely within New York City, do not rent a car. Not only is it extremely expensive, but you’ll also have to deal with tolls, traffic and outrageously-priced parking in most areas. And let’s not forget that driving within the city is a pretty stressful experience. Instead, I recommend sticking to a more “authentic” Big Apple experience: one enjoyed on foot, on the subway and in an iconic yellow cab or ride-sharing service vehicle.
Avoid making these 11 common mistakes and follow this guide to help your family navigate New York City like a pro.
Getting to New York City from three major airports
While traveling within the city is easy, unfortunately, there are some challenges you'll encounter when traveling to Manhattan from the three major airports that service the New York City-area. (As innovative as New Yorkers may be, we really haven't developed efficient infrastructure for trips between downtown and the trio of nearby airports.)
From John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK):
The AirTrain operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is by far the easiest and most affordable way to travel between JFK and Manhattan. For just $7.75 ($5 AirTrain fee plus $2.75 MTA subway fare), you can ride between Midtown in under an hour. Kids under 44” (up to 3 years old) travel for free with a paying adult. For a faster connection, you can travel via the AirTrain and LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) for $15 per person, which gets you into Penn Station in just about 35 minutes. The AirTrain is free within the airport for terminal transfers.
In my experience, no matter what time of day your flight is, traveling to JFK by car is almost always a nightmare. That said, if you’re traveling with kids and a lot of luggage, it might be preferable to take an Uber or Lyft: just allow plenty of extra time to reach your destination.
If you are working with a very, well, comfortable budget, the fastest way to get between Manhattan and JFK is undoubtably by helicopter, with BLADE seats available from $295 per person.
From LaGuardia Airport (LGA):
As you may have already noticed, LGA is currently undergoing major renovations, which are expected to be complete in 2020. Two years later, the airport plans to welcome a LaGuardia AirTrain, meaning there will finally be a connection between LaGuardia and the subway system. Until then, expect some slowdowns at LGA. Believe it or not, public transportation at LGA is still fairly easy. There are a number of options such as the Q70 bus, or you can take the M60 bus to Astoria Boulevard and then transfer to the subway line (the N or W to Times Square). You’ll pay only $2.75 per person and get to travel as locals do if you go that route. For first-time visitors, however, an Uber or Lyft is also a great option.
From Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR):
Some say LGA is the best airport for quick access to Manhattan, but depending on the time of day, I'd argue that EWR is the best of all three. Sure, the airport is actually in a different state (New Jersey), but it’s an easy gateway to downtown and midtown Manhattan. You can take an easy AirTrain between EWR and New York Penn Station in 45 minutes.
For traveling families who would prefer a ride, you can get from Newark to Times Square in just 40 minutes (and downtown in under 30 minutes) depending on the time of day. While many ride-share drivers shuttle travelers between EWR and the city all day long, it's hard to guarantee your ride will have a car seat. If you travel with your own car seat, you can install it for your child before the ride. If you're not, reserve one with a car service such as ABC Limo or Empire Limo.
Riding around on the subway
Riding the subway in New York City is an accessible and affordable option that will give your family a glimpse of what it's really like to live in the Big Apple. The fare is $2.75 each time you ride (transfers included), and for longer stays, you can opt for a seven-day MetroCard with unlimited rides for $32. (Put the MTA tickets on your Chase Sapphire Reserve for 3x points.)
The best part about traveling as a family on the subway is that children shorter than 44 inches can ride for free on all trains and local buses when accompanied by a paying adult. That alone can help make a New York City trip with a family very affordable.
The official rule is that strollers must be folded and stowed on subways and buses — but in practice, you'll see plenty of parents pushing small children in a stroller on the subway. To be safe, take a simple, compact umbrella stroller that’s easily collapsible. Young children are permitted to sit on the laps of adults, and it's wise to keep them seated at all times: though the kids might think the subway car is like a theme park ride, I’ve seen countless tumbles even from grown-ups.
Using ride-share apps and traditional taxis
According to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission website, the iconic yellow cabs are exempt from car seat rules. Of course, if you bring your own car seat (such as the Doona), the driver must allow you to install it. If you don’t have one, children under the age of seven are permitted to sit on an adult’s lap in the back seat of the cab.
Uber and Lyft are widely used in New York City, and if you're like me and prefer to haul less gear when traveling with kids, you can request a ride right from your app that has a car seat. UberFamily uses the IMMI GO car seats that are appropriate for children between 31” and 52,” and from 22 to 55 pounds.
In the same way New York City has an excess of bagel shops, the city also has a surplus of ride-sharing apps. If you're not a fan of Uber or Lyft, you can try Arro (which lets you hail a yellow cab and pay digitally); Juno, Groundlink, Via and Bellhop, which just debuted this summer.
Making use of the “Hop-On Hop-Off” buses
Yes, Hop-On Hop-Off buses are extremely touristy — but don’t totally dismiss the idea. These tours can be a great way to familiarize yourself with the city, and the kids will think the double decker is a treat.
Most companies offer a daily pass with unlimited stops, allowing you to explore the city at your own pace, and stop fretting about how you'll get from Point A to Point B, at least for a little while.
Cruising on the New York City Ferry
Kids love boats, and parents love not sitting in traffic. If you’re looking for an affordable, guaranteed traffic-free ride between boroughs, consider a trip on the NYC Ferry.
For just $2.75, you can cruise the East River and admire all the same skyline views you’d get from an expensive dinner cruise. Most of the ferries are newly renovated and offer both beer and wine on-board (for parents) while little ones enjoy a snack. The ferries sail directly under the famous Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
Though you can take a cruise simply to enjoy the ride (and the scenes of New York), families interested in exploring more than just Manhattan can use ferries to easily travel between all the boroughs, islands and city beaches, including Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx; Roosevelt Island; and Rockaway.
Walking around New York City with kids
New York City is truly one of the world’s greatest walking cities, it's my favorite way to explore the Big Apple (on a nice day, at least). During gridlock traffic and rush hour, where subway cars seem like sardine cans, it can even be quicker (and more comfortable) to simply walk from place to place.
For the most part, Manhattan is just a big grid, and the numerical streets increase as you go uptown, and decrease as you go downtown. It’s quite simple, and especially scenic in some areas — especially Fifth Avenue to admire the fancy window displays of all the luxury stores. During the holidays, you can stroll past Rockefeller Center and get a glimpse of the big Christmas tree.
If you're prone to getting, well, disoriented, know that downwtown was built well before the rise of city planning, so the streets in lower Manhattan are a maze of narrow, meandering stone paths.
And though it’s easy to feel mesmerized by all of the sights and sounds, be attentive and courteous, as New Yorkers tend to favor a faster pace than tourists, and absolutely always have somewhere to go (even when we don't).
In Manhattan, the sidewalks are well paved, flat and there are large crosswalks at every intersection. As long as you're paying attention, it is pretty safe and easy to push a stroller and take in the city. As with any new destination, hold hands, stay vigilant and keep the kiddos close at all times.
What are favorite ways to navigate New York City with your family? Chime in with your tips and tricks below!
Angelina Aucello covers family travel for TPG and blogs at Angelina Travels. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram.