Knowing myself, knowing my kids, and taking 4 kids to NYC without losing my mind.

Last month Will and I took our four kids—ages 12, 10, 8, and 5—to New York City for six days, just for fun. It was my fourth time, Will’s second time, and the kids’ first time.

It was awesome. (The conversation at my house these days: I’m ready to go back. Me too.)

Since we got back, it’s been pointed out to me that NYC isn’t an obvious destination for a family of six. Friends have called our trip “brave” and “risky” and sometimes, “terrifying.” It never occurred to me to think of it that way. Will and I love the city, we know what our kids like, it seemed like a great fit. It wouldn’t be a great destination for every family, but it made perfect sense for us.

Our experience made me realize anew just how important personality is when planning a trip—it affects not just your destination, but what you do when you get there.

1. We chose a high affect city.
Our kids are very interested in NYC for a variety of reasons, and have been ever since we first checked this book out of the library almost ten years ago. They’re fascinated by the architecture, Central Park, the subway system, the Statue of Liberty. They’re obsessed with You’ve Got Mail. Will and I went in May, just the two of us, and when we got home we kept telling the kids how much we wished they could go for themselves (even though we had no idea we’d be going so soon). They were dying to go.

2. Will and I did a test run.
Like I said, Will and I were just there. That trip paved the way for a successful family trip. We’d told the kids all about our trip. We knew the layout of the city and the site we wanted to show them; crucially, we already had the hang of the public transportation system. Will we take an adults-only preview trip before every family vacation? Definitely not. But it sure helped this time.

3. We were very deliberate about where we stayed.
We have several young HSPs in our family, and they could very well have lost their minds if we’d stayed in Times Square, with the nonstop lights and sounds and crowds. But we didn’t: we spent the first night on a quiet residential street in the Village, and the rest of the week on a residential street on the Upper West Side. That wasn’t a coincidence: we knew it would be more our speed than Midtown.

4. We didn’t do much touristy stuff.
When we were planning the trip, I thought we might do traditional touristy stuff with the kids: the Empire State Building, the Top of the Rock, the Statue of Liberty. But on our first full day there we did a Statue of Liberty cruise (we didn’t plan far enough ahead to go to the statue itself), and while the kids loved it, Will and I were worn out by the hassle of it all. Securing the tickets was time-consuming, the lines were long, we were on our feet for ages—it just wasn’t worth it.

After that, we reconsidered the Big Attractions on our list. We didn’t worry about maximizing our time in the city or at the individual sites. We considered going to a half dozen museums, but we only went to two: the Museum of Modern Art, which the kids tolerated, and the American Museum of Natural History, which they adored. (We visited that one twice.)

5. We went at our kids’ pace.
We didn’t walk as far, or as fast, as we would have if this had been an adults-only trip. Not just because their legs are shorter, but because some of them need more time than we do to let new experiences sink in.

6. We ate, and ate, and ate.
When we rented our apartment (with a kitchen!), I was thrilled that it was three blocks from a Whole Foods: I expected that we’d eat in some, doing inexpensive lunches and maybe some dinners. I never went inside the grocery: our kids were way more enthusiastic about trying new things—including the food—than we’d anticipated. (Plus, we were on the go all day long.)

My kids loved tasting what we couldn’t get at home, and the special treats we got because we were in the city. They sampled Sardinian, Indian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Italian cuisines, and while they’re usually fairly adventurous eaters, I couldn’t believe how much they were willing to try. We had amazing babka and cannoli and cookies. And Will and I drank a lot of coffee, sampling old (Blue Bottle) and new (Birch Coffee).

7. We emphasized the fun of just being there.
We told them in advance the best part of NYC was just being there, walking around or chilling in the parks, experiencing the city. Somewhat to our surprise, they agreed.

A couple more important considerations: 

8. We didn’t have to change time zones.
We didn’t factor this in when we planned our trip, but it was fabulous to stay on the time zone. This always throws us for a loop when we take much shorter trips, like to Chicago, Nashville, or our annual beach trip.  

9. Our youngest kid is 5.
This would have been a totally different trip if we still had a two-year-old. I doubt we would have taken this trip if we still had a two-year-old. Silas is old enough to walk pretty far on his own, and young enough that we could carry him when he got tired. The older three were champs about the walking.

Was it a perfect trip? No way, these are real lives we’re living, and did I mention we have four kids? (Also, I tend to get very, very cranky when hungry. Ahem.) We had a meltdown from a thirsty child (not the child we expected) during a lovely walk in Riverside Park. Our youngest sulked (that might be putting it mildly) for a while when we left the Rockefeller Center Lego store without buying anything. Will and I were so excited about renting us all bikes in Central Park, and my girls hated it. On a beautiful Saturday morning, the bike paths were too crowded for their comfort—a problem we completely failed to anticipate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with personality and travel in comments. How does your personality—and those of your companions—influence where you choose to go, and what you choose to do when you get there?

P.S. Making a destination YOURS, the satisficer’s guide to NYC, and defining “good.

P.P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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  1. Glad the trip was fun! My husband has taken all 4 into NYC (and met my brother for help) and did the AMNH and Central Park Zoo. The kids loved those. I’m more wary of taking all 4 anywhere. When we lived in NYC, I never liked taking public transportation with the kids. First, I was worried a little child would dash onto the subway tracks. They need to be strapped into a stroller. Of course, during rush hours you can’t really maneuver a stroller well in the subway. And there are stairs — I know there are elevators places but often not convenient places. I think I’ll enjoy it more when they can all walk well on their own. And maybe eat more than pizza (so envious of you on that front!)

    • Anne says:

      I relate to this! It was my husband, not me, who was always the first to brave the grocery, the zoo, church, etc with all four at once.

      And yeah, the people with strollers in the subway did NOT look like they were having a good time.

      Something I noticed in NYC: over and over again, we heard from strangers, shop owners, and restaurant servers how unusual our family of six was in the city. I’ve never lived there—is it really that rare to have more than two kids in NYC?

      • It is rare to have more than two kids in a lot of places. Just last night I was reminiscing about how in my elementary school (middle-class company town in Oklahoma, 1980s) it seemed that at least half of kids had exactly one sibling who was 2-3 years older or younger, and three-child families were almost always those whose first two were the same sex so they tried once more. I recall very few large families and very few only children.

        I would think that NYC couples are more likely to limit their family size than those in other parts of the country because of the high cost of real estate. If you can afford only 1 or 2 bedrooms, you’ll be very crowded with 3 kids!

  2. Anjanette says:

    It sounds like an amazing trip for all- I appreciate the great tips as I contemplate a trip to NYC with my own family of six! I’ve been wondering, have your family members’ food intolerances subsided? Three of us have celiac, and managing to feed everyone on the go when far from home is my biggest travel challenge. If you have any tips (aside from renting the apartment with the kitchen, which is a fabulous idea) or restaurant recommendations, I’d love to hear them!

    • Anne says:

      Food intolerances aren’t nearly as big an issue as they once were. The doctor thinks our hard-core dietary plan (where we eliminated ALL foods causing ANY problems for several years) helped their little guts’ heal. Now we have to be careful, but we CAN eat pizza every once in a while.

      When we were dealing with serious soy, canola, and gluten intolerances (you know, the stuff that’s in EVERYTHING) I found that geographical location made all the difference. Small towns in the American South were usually a nightmare. Small town California was a breeze. I would expect NYC to be on the easier end of the spectrum. I noticed celiac options on several menus even though I wasn’t explicitly looking for that.

      • Anjanette says:

        Thanks Anne, and that is wonderful news about your kids’ food issues! Avoiding gluten is tough (although much less so than it used to be, thankfully), but the list of things you had to stay away from would be way more daunting!

  3. Janet says:

    We did London when our daughter was about 6. We were living in Europe so she was use to traveling, but this was her first big city. She loved it, but it wore her out. It still wears me out.

  4. Betsy says:

    Hi Anne–I’ve really enjoyed these posts about taking your family to NYC–in fact, it’s prompted me to consider planning a trip for my gang. Are you considering a more detailed post about where you took them and what you did every day? Having never been to New York, that information would be a huge help.
    Thanks for the great blog!

    • Anne says:

      I wrote about the details of what Will and I did back in June, but I wasn’t planning on writing more (at least right now) about what we did with the kids. We didn’t have much of a plan; we were pretty free-wheeling. Let me know if there’s anything specific you’d like to know and I’ll do my best. 🙂

  5. Tiffany says:

    I love hearing about the good (and not good) experiences. I commented before that we are taking our 8 and 5 year old there in December. My husband will be at a conference for 2 full days (I’ll be solo-parenting) and then his family is coming up from PA for the weekend. We haven’t seen his family in 2 years. It will add 3 more adults and 3 more kids (they are older at 8, 10, and 12, thank goodness). I feel like it could be an awesome trip with wonderful memories with the cousins, or it could be a huge disaster of navigating the kids and adults expectations. I like the idea of just experiencing the city and lots of eating (that makes everyone happy, right?). Definitely looking for that book at our library! Thank you!

    • Anne says:

      I’ve said this before, but didn’t mention it here: we met my cousin, her husband, and their 8-month-old baby that we were meeting for the first time there. It was a little tricky at times to navigate everyone’s expectations, like you said, but we figured it out. 🙂

      Good luck and have a great trip!

      • Courtney says:

        We took our 7 month to NYC when we lived near Boston. We took him in his carrier, no stroller. And it was actually really easy. But, he loved his carrier, and as long as he could see the lights and everything he was good. He loved seeing all the Christmas lights and Rockefeller Center (It was December). I never thought of it in your words, but it’s so true! We knew what he would like (carrier, lights) and accommodated that.
        We followed a similar idea when we took my young brother, and later my son, to Disneyland. We still did naps, we didn’t expect to do everything, and we fed people when they were hungry!
        I love the idea of paying attention to just being there – where ever there is. Those are some of my favorite vacations I’ve taken with my spouse – where we used public transit and just wandered around the city.

  6. Jessica says:

    We took our crew (ages 6,5 and 4) to Thailand this summer for a quick 11-day trip before school started. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who found that gutsy. It was tiring, yes. But gutsy, no.

    Like you, I think it’s all about the planning. We deliberately chose hotels with pools and kids’ playrooms, and we mixed and matched our schedule with (very) busy mornings and by-the-pool evenings.
    We also put a lot of emphasis on the food, saying yes to snacking and taking advantage of the fun street fare.

    As much work as traveling with little people can be, I think it’s easier now than it will be when everyone is older and has their own expectations of what vacation should include!

  7. Amy says:

    Love this post! We took our little boys, 4 and 14 months to Europe this summer for two weeks. It was amazing, and we had the help of my Mother-In-Law and brother-in-law. It’s a totally diffferent trip, but considering we wouldn’t leave them behind for 2 weeks yet, we were so happy to go and just be! And, that’s what we did! We just were happy to be in Europe, experiencing European sights, sounds and tastes:)

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I love New York too and hope to go again soon in the near future. Like you said here, a good place to stay is important for me. I love traveling, but as an introvert and one sensitive to noise, a space to recharge and rest is crucial to enjoying everything for me!

  9. beth says:

    Glad your trip went so well. I think it is key to know your kids and yourself. And relaize what works for another may not work for you at all. Even a little.
    I know that NYC (or any big city) with my toddler boys would have been awful. But now that they are a bit older it could be fun. I also defintiely have to respect my triggers as well. I, myself, do not deal well with child meltdowns in large crowded places. I have to respect that about myself. I also have to respect that my kids still need their normal eating times and bedtime- even on vacation. They (and by extension I) do not deal well with big shifts in eating and sleeping times. Some kids/families are much more go with the flow. We are not.
    I think we should all vacation (as we should live) in a way that works for our own family and not worry about what works for others.
    Happy traveling!

  10. Deborah says:

    Your points about time zones and age are so true for us. We just did Rome (a two hour time zone difference) with our four-year-old son and it was great. No jet lag issues and he was old enough to appreciate the big, crowded sites. The fact that he could touch everything was a bonus. We are having Baby #2 in March, and travel will be WAY different for us next year. Less of it, to more manageable locations, and in our time zone.

  11. I’m glad you had such a great trip! We went to NYC, public transit all the way, when our son was 6. We keep meaning to get back at a time when we can climb the Statue of Liberty (no tickets were available last time) but first it was closed for years, and now there’s high demand for tickets AND we have another baby, who’s too young for the climb…but we’re strategizing for a visit sometime in an off season when we can get tickets and have the great-aunt who lives in NYC babysit our little one! I climbed the Statue when I was 16 and have always wanted to get in there again–it’s very interesting on the inside–but on our last visit we enjoyed just getting near that huge statue and seeing the museum in the base.

    However, we won’t do another full-fledged week-long NYC visit until our daughter is walking well on her own for long periods. The huge amount of walking we did last time would have been less fun while hauling a toddler!

    I think your points #4 and #7 are very good ones. There’s a lot to see in NYC, so it’s easy to over-plan. I went there every summer during my childhood, visiting my grandparents in Queens, and although we got to almost all of the touristy things eventually, we didn’t do them all in the same year! The Museum of Natural History was the only one we visited annually. In a typical week (I often got to stay multiple weeks) we’d go to one major attraction and have one or two other days doing more low-key city things, and the other days would be spent at the beach or around the house.

    Did you go to High Line Park? That’s one place that we meant to see but didn’t. It didn’t exist when I was a kid!

    • Anne says:

      That sounds like so much fun. (I’m jealous of your WEEKS in the city!)

      We did check out the High Line. My train-obsessed kids thought it was pretty cool, and the adults enjoyed a lovely walk on a beautiful day. 🙂

  12. Rachel says:

    As an HSP, I’ve always found New York City to be completely overwhelming and exhausting. Even just walking down the streets and riding the subway make me super uncomfortable. Do you have any advice for that or specific places in NYC that you found particularly HSP friendly?

    • Nicole says:

      Rachel, I’m an HSP and I live in NYC! I recommend the west Village, Upper West Side close to Central Park, and (especially!) Brooklyn. In Brooklyn I suggest Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Greenpoint. Find an apartment on a pretty street.

      Wander around, go into old bookstores and coffee shops, eat eat eat, walk the Brooklyn Bridge, and splurge one round trip taxi into Manhattan to see a show. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      I think that depends a lot on your “flavor” of HSP. Generally speaking, I would recommend choosing residential neighborhoods (UWS, the Village) over Midtown, avoiding the super-trendy restaurants, and choosing attractions careful (e.g., Riverside Park, not Central Park). We stopped into a ton of churches and bookstores while we were there, which can be a respite from bustling city streets. For getting around, cabs are pricier than the subway, but they’re much quieter.

      Another big factor: while NYC is never exactly empty, it’s not nearly as crazy in October as it is in July. Museums aren’t nearly as crazy on weekdays as they are on Saturdays. We had several leisurely 2:00 lunches in nearly-empty restaurants.

  13. Caroline says:

    We are thinking about taking a family trip to NYC and have started looking for apartments for rent instead of a hotel. Can you share what site you used to rent through?

    • Anne says:

      We ended up renting through vrbo, but we also checked airbnb. The vrbo listing had the right combination of price, availability, and terrific reviews for the specific rental we chose. (We would absolutely stay there again—it was a great experience.)

  14. Cassy says:

    My family of six also just returned from a trip to NYC (my kids are 2, 5, 7, & 8) and they loved it. We took the Amtrak from RI and rode the subway around the city. With 3 boys, the train and subway were a huge attraction in themselves. The only thing we planned in advance was the Statue of Liberty since that was where my three oldest wanted to go the most (we bought tickets online so we did not need to stand in line but just went through security onto the boat). We spent a lot of time in Central Park, went to the American History Museum and ate at middle eastern and Ethiopian restaurants. I often take my 4 kids to Boston on my own and travel on the metro system there and have never had a problem but on this trip my usually easy going toddler was overwhelmed by NY and had several meltdowns. Next time we travel to NY I will have to plan better for him and for me. I had been to NY many times before I had kids but this trip it made me feel jittery. I am an introvert and I need alone time (as in no one needing my attention, trying to talk to me or pulling on me), it doesn’t matter if I am in a crowd I just need everyone to ignore for about 30 minutes a day and let me be in my head for me to function well. But traveling to NY with four young kids did not give me much alone time so my husband took the kids for about 45 minutes so I could go through part of the 9/11 memorial museum and he let me sit undisturbed a central park while he chased kids around the various playgrounds so I could regroup.

    I would like to know how you found an apartment to rent. We stayed in Brooklyn this time but I would like to find something in Manhattan next time we go.

    • Anne says:

      We found a place on vrbo. When we were looking we focused on the Upper West Side and the Village. (We considered Brooklyn but decided to pay a little more to be in Manhattan, since we knew we wanted to spend most of our time there and we wanted to make the transit as easy as possible.)

  15. Ellen says:

    Thank you! It’s lovely to hear about your trip (I ♡ NYC too!), but mostly I needed the reminder that someday traveling with my children will look radically different than it does now. With kiddos ages 8, 6, 4, and 1.5, we’ve managed a few adventures, but I’ve put most of my wanderlust on the back burner. Glad to know NYC is doable with kids, and maybe even in 4 short years!

  16. Leanne says:

    Traveling with children is becoming something very important to our family’s culture. We live in Canada and took our family (6-year-old twins) to Morocco last year to visit my brother and his wife. We were there for 3 weeks and it was absolutely fabulous. We did a lot of traveling and adventuring, and before we arrived, we were, admittedly, somewhat nervous about how our kids would respond to a new experience(s) daily. We did a lot of prep work at home before leaving, including reading lots of books and watching videos about where we were going to be. This helped them become a little familiar with the sights/sounds of the country. But I think my biggest take-away from the experience was that kids rise to the challenge and if given the opportunity and trust, they will embrace it wholeheartedly. Also, I am continually amazed at what they remember from the trip. There are critics who say that taking such young children on such epic adventures is futile because they won’t remember the experience. Not so here. Those memories are alive and well, and we as a family are richer for it. To those families considering adventuring together, DO IT! 🙂

    • Anne says:

      “But I think my biggest take-away from the experience was that kids rise to the challenge and if given the opportunity and trust, they will embrace it wholeheartedly.”

      Love this! (Your trip sounds amazing.)

  17. Amy says:

    What a fun trip! We visited NYC for the first time when our four were 11, 8, 4, and 6 months. We had no idea what we were doing but we love the travel and have great kids :). It is still one of our favorite trips and the kids that remember it ask to go back every vacation. We have realatives that have been many times and suggested we stay away from Times Square too. Best advice ever! We were a couple of blocks from Central Park which was perfect for little ones. I would say we did half touristy things and half “why would you want to do that” things. Just the way we like it! I was pleasantly surprised at how helpful and friendly people were. A couple of times we split up, me with the little ones and my husband with the older two. People were always helpful to me with the stroller, etc. And yes, we were for sure a novelty with four kids! Probably the only issue we had was finding restaurants with enough room for us. Thanks for sharing, now we really want to go back!

  18. We took our whole crew (kids aged 12, 10, & 5) to D.C. this spring on a two week cross-country road trip. It was wonderful. We planned ahead for plenty of pitstops at zoos and parks for our youngest kiddo. D.C. was a wonderful place for kids because they could run and walk in so many places and the museums were fun. It was perfect for our family.

  19. Brooke Pipes says:

    My family of six are just back from a week in Tokyo. We were quite a novelty; westerners with four fair-headed children in tow! We are from Australia, so it was quite the experience for all of us. Being crowded in a subway during peak hour and visiting Shibuya crossing at night was a sensory overload, but the experiences the kids gained from their time was invaluable. Having to allow more margin in our day was something I realised after day one! I agree; it’s a slower pace with kids (our youngest is 4), you can’t ‘do it all’, but it so much more fun sharing the experience with them!

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