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10 Tips for Visiting New York City with Kids at Christmastime

I envisioned this trip for years. Everyone talks about how magical NYC is at Christmastime. I have friends who go every year, and it’s a family tradition that they treasure. I have traveled many times to New York City, but I had never been with my family. The kids were intrigued with the idea of riding the train and seeing the tall buildings and jetting from place to place in a taxi cab. I promised them many times that I would take them one day.

One Day came last weekend. I love NYC this time of year so it seemed fitting that my first visit with my kids would be at Christmastime.

10 Tips for Visiting New York City with Kids at Christmastime

One of my priorities was getting my younger daughter to American Girl Place before she outgrew the novelty. My older daughter is already past the age and was never as enamored with her dolls anyway, but my younger plays with her AG dolls frequently, and I knew if I didn’t take her soon she’d be over it.

So we made our plans. I decided this should be a girls-only trip. We are a family of five, and traveling with five is difficult. Hotel rooms do not accommodate five people easily, nor do taxi cabs. Plus, my husband and son had no desire to make American Girl Place the focus of their weekend. So I left them here at home in Philly with Flyers tickets, and I invited my mom to come along with my two daughters and me to New York City.

We picked a weekend when we were all free, and I contacted the Hyatt. Happily, they were able to provide us with a media rate to stay at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan at the busiest time of the year.

When I called American Girl Place to make reservations for tea, there was no availability, so we settled for dinner reservations instead.

And what’s a trip to New York City at Christmastime without the Rockettes?? So we bought tickets to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

We decided to round out the trip with a Broadway show. Go big or go home, right??? So we got tickets to see Matilda at the Schubert Theater.

Finally, we plans to drive to Hamilton, New Jersey, and take a train to New York Penn Station with NJ Transit.

With our trip planned, all we could do was wait in eager anticipation. My torn tendon definitely put a damper on my excitement. I knew it was going to be a challenge to deal with, and it was, but I’m still glad I went. Without further ado, here are my 10 tips for visiting New York City with kids at Christmastime.

10 Tips for Visiting New York City with Kids at Christmastime

1. Don’t miss the Rockettes. 

Personally, this was the highlight of MY weekend, even though we were rushed and arrived a little bit late. Radio City Music Hall is absolutely gorgeous. It has all the glamour you would expect of this iconic New York City landmark. And the show! I have been wanting to see this for so many years, and I wasn’t disappointed. Everything from the choreography to the music to the costumes to the Nativity . . . if this doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, I don’t know what would.

Unfortunately, this is the only photo I got. Still, the memories will be with us forever.

at Radio City Music Hall
at Radio City Music Hall

2. Stay in a central location.

It will cost you, but it’s so worth it to be where the action is. As I mentioned above, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt New York in Midtown Manhattan. This is a prime location, and we loved it. It is right beside Grand Central Terminal, which I wish we had taken time to visit. Again, I just couldn’t do much walking this trip. It’s also within a mile of Times Square, the theater district, Radio City Music Hall, and Rockefeller Center.

We checked in at an impersonal kiosk, of which I’m not a huge fan, but the lines were long at the regular check-in desk, so we were happy to expedite that process. The concierge was lovely. She pointed us to what sounded like a fantastic restaurant for dinner (which we unfortunately didn’t get to enjoy, but I’ve made a note for when I’m in NYC again) and she set us up with tickets for a bus tour since walking wasn’t an option for us given my injury.

Rooms were modest, but clean. I felt very safe, and after a day on the busy streets of New York City in December, it was such a relief to walk through those revolving doors into that huge lobby and feel at home. Plus, this tree greeted us every time we entered.

Christmas Tree at Grand Hyatt New York
Christmas Tree in the Lobby at Grand Hyatt New York

We ate most of our meals at the hotel restaurant for convenience sake, and for the most part they were enjoyable. You know me, I fancy myself a bit of a food snob, and I was pleased with our dining experience there. We were always able to get a table, the food and service were above average, and you can’t beat the convenience. With my foot in a brace due to a torn tendon, we simply couldn’t afford the luxury of leaving the hotel for every meal and were thrilled to find that the food on site was quite satisfactory. Plus their cafe had a Starbucks so we were happy campers.

3. Consider the Big Bus Tours. 

We decided to take the Big Bus Tour as a quick way to see the city. Turns out, it was not quick, due to Santacon and the protests, but it was a great way to see the city. The nice thing is, you can get on and off throughout the day making this is a great way to not only see the city and get some background, but also to travel around the city. I took this selfie shot of my daughter and me from our vantage point atop the Big Bus.

Caroline and Mom atop the Big Bus
Caroline and Mom atop the Big Bus

We did the Downtown Tour and saw the Empire State Building, Ground Zero and the Freedom Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Soho and Chelsea Market.

Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, New York City
Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, New York City

I would love to go back sometime and see more of Soho and Chelsea. I’ve been in both of those neighborhoods before on business, but I’ve never had time to explore.

Our tour guide was excellent, and she even had the driver make a courtesy stop for us when my one child became desperate for a bathroom. She was entertaining and informative, and I learned a lot that I didn’t know about the city.

Tip: try to grab seats at the front of the upper level. We had a birds eye view of the city. It was fantastic. Behold… the crowded streets of Manhattan at Christmastime.

Front Seat in the Big Bus
Front Seats in the Big Bus

4. Avoid Santacon

I learned about Santacon from our Big Bus tour guide. Evidently it’s a pub crawl where everyone dresses up as Santa Claus. We saw Santas EVERYWHERE from our vantage point in the Big Bus. It was entertaining at first, but by the time we debarked around 5pm and started to walk home, I realized that about every other person we passed on the street was three sheets to the wind. It made for an interesting walk home. If I ever go to NYC at Christmastime again, I will make sure to avoid the weekend of Santacon. It made what is already a crazy time to be in the city even nuttier.

5. Sign up for Uber. 

We used Uber to get around. My mom had an account, and now I do too. It’s easy to grab a cab at your hotel, but when you get out of a Broadway play at 10PM with 3,000 other people, it’s nice to be able to call a car. Or if your kids decide they are fried and need to go home RIGHT. AWAY. So worth it.

If you use my invite code – j3mln – you will get your first trip for free up to $20. (I will also get a free trip up to $20 the first time you schedule a pickup. And you will get your own invite code to share.)

7. Allow LOTS of extra time. For everything.

Everything takes longer than you expect — hailing  cab, walking a block, getting a table for dinner . . . everything. We were late for the Rockettes and also for our reservations at American Girl Doll Place. Be prepared to be flexible and allow more time than you think you need to get from one place to the next.

8. Check the price on the Pedicabs before you hop in.

When we exited Radio City Music Hall with the masses, we were a bit shell-shocked. We hadn’t yet discovered Uber. We had walked all the way there on my bum foot, and I simply could NOT walk back. A pedicab appeared and motioned for us to hop in. I didn’t think twice. In we went. It is a GREAT way to see the city. You’re moving faster than the foot traffic but slow enough to see the sites. We thoroughly enjoyed our ride. But when we arrived at the hotel, he showed us a sign that said, “$4.99 Per Minute” and then he showed us his watch. It had been 12 minutes. You do the math. We did not ride a Pedicab again.

9. Opt for Amtrak rather than New Jersey Transit.

We debated how to get to New York, and I really wanted my girls to experience the train, which is how I usually travel. When brands pay my way, I usually take Amtrak, which is nice. You have a reserved seat, free WiFi, and storage for your bags. Plus the boarding process isn’t nearly as stressful as taking mass transit. However, when I travel on my own dime, I usually take NJ Transit because it is so much cheaper. But it can be a hair-raising experience, especially when you’re dragging kids and luggage.

On the way home, in Penn Station, I got separated from Becca for a split second. I could see her, but people kept getting between us, and I had to push my way through to get back to her. It was momentarily horrifying. I might have freaked out a bit. I definitely yelled at the people who kept plowing through. When I collapsed into a seat on the train with both my girls, I was shaking with relief. I have never wanted to go home so badly in my life. Next time, I will spring for Amtrak tickets. The peace of mind is well worth the extra bucks. Of course, the kids were none the worse for the wear.

First-Train-Ride

10. Be prepared for crowds and a bit of crazy. 

I know I should have been prepared for this. I know New York City, and I’ve been there at Christmastime. But I didn’t account for Santacon and the protests, and we were staying right in the busiest section of town. We had one hair-raising experience in Times Square where a huge SUV plowed through a busy intersection. Pedestrians scattered. We were right in the middle of it. It was truly intense. I know some thrive on the pace and the excitement, but it was a lot for this old lady to handle. Just consider yourselves warned.

In Conclusion . . .

You can never do it all. There are so many things I wanted to do and see that we didn’t get to. I am bummed that we never got to see the store windows at Lord & Taylor and Saks. We were nearby, but it was so crowded, and we were running late for a reservation, that we didn’t even stop to appreciate them. I wish I’d gotten more pictures. But we had a great time. As my mom said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not that we couldn’t do it again if we wanted to . . . but I think once was enough for us country mice.

Finally, my thoughts on American Girl Place. This didn’t seem to fit into the 10 Tips, but I wanted to share my thoughts. Our experience wasn’t nearly as lovely as we had anticipated. My mom went to the one in Chicago about 15 years ago with her niece and described it as an elegant experience. We found the dining room to be loud and over-crowded, the food wasn’t great, and we felt a bit like cattle being herded to market. I don’t know if it would have seemed more festive had we been there for tea, or if another time of year would have been less hectic, but we were less than impressed. Fortunately my daughter loved it and that’s what matters, right?

American Girl Place NYC

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11 thoughts on “10 Tips for Visiting New York City with Kids at Christmastime

  1. If you’re a Hyatt fan (we weren’t before, but we are now!), we stayed in the Hyatt Place Midtown South & it was perfect — we wish we would have stayed there the entire time. We spent the last two days in the Doubletree Suites times square, and although the room was three times the price of the Hyatt, we much preferred the Hyatt. I avoid TS any other time, but felt that with the holidays, it was a good location for the shows & such. I won’t make that mistake again. It was a WRECK. I kept telling Hubs I would hate to have kids in those crowds.

    And speaking of kids & crowds, when we were at NY Penn, at first we saw the NJ Transit crowds and were like, whaaaat?? And then we realized that wasn’t Amtrak. Amtrak was MUCH calmer. And we used the Redcap trick, so it was even better!

    I’m with you… glad I got to experience NY at Christmas – and we had an awesome time! – but will likely avoid it during that time from now on.

    1. What is the Redcap trick? Yes, Amtrak is SO much nicer. I’m not sure what I was thinking. It’s been a while since I’ve done this without a driver taking me up there. (Spoiled much? LOL!!!) I honestly wasn’t thinking about the return trip at all. Getting to NYC on NJ Transit isn’t nearly as stressful as coming back through Penn Station.

      1. Redcap trick isn’t really so much a trick per se, I suppose, as a tip that most people aren’t aware of. Redcaps work for tips only, so it’s not at all pricey, and I’m surprised most people aren’t aware of it. They aren’t available in all stations, but where they are, if you request their assistance, they’ll take you to your train ahead of time & get you settled in. This is especially important for people with lots of luggage and/or families traveling together, since Amtrak doesn’t do assigned seating, and it was SO nice to be already boarded by the time the stampede started. Oh yeah, and we were seated about half hour early, so never even had to find a seat in the waiting area.

          1. Depends on the number of bags — we gave him $20 this time since he got us on our train so early, but I think probably $5 would be fine for an individual or $10 for a couple, unless they just really went above & beyond.

  2. I still can’t believe we were there at the same time ! I would also add it’s important to load Uber ahead of time so you can have your credit card info loaded and ready to go. Familiarize yourself with the different levels of rides, know what a surge is, etc. Also..carry one of those portable phone chargers! Totally saved us more than a few times when we needed a charge on the go. I totally agree with the “allow plenty of time” comment too. We were rookies and had no idea how much time was needed to make our way through the crowds, up elevators, etc. My mom and I did make it to Chelsea Market and it was heaven for my mom the foodie. You gotta go back and spend a day!

  3. These are great tips. NYC is a spectacular city, especially at Christmas. Even with the hectic crowds, it feels energized and magical. I agree about the American Girl experience. My daughter has outgrown the AG craze now, but we spent many years visiting the store in Dallas each summer. The stores just don’t have the same feel that they used to and the prices have skyrocketed. I’m glad she is finished with them!

    We had a great trip to NYC last Christmas – it was a surprise trip for the kids. Here the first of 5 posts I did on our trip: http://txtanya.blogspot.com/2014/01/new-york-city-day-1.html

  4. I SO love NYC – have taken the kids, but never during the holidays. It is definitely on our list and I cannot wait. These are wonderful suggestions. I am thrilled you had this time together and know we will eventually have as much fun as you did. xoxo

  5. I absolutely loved this post! I’ve been to NYC many times myself, but have hesitated to take my kids. This may be my motivation to finally take the plunge. I’ve secretly been wanting to see the Rockettes myself (as a former Chicago Bulls cheerleader (Go Luvabulls!) I can appreciate a high kick or two!). Thanks for such an inspiring guide!

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