If you’ve ever considered a trip to New York City, you have probably seen the New York Pass and wondered if it’s worth it. Will you really save money buying the pass instead of buying individual tickets to the sites you really want to see? The answer is yes…and possibly no.
Introducing the New York Pass
New York has a plethora of things to see and do, all with their own admission charges. They can add up fast, which could be the biggest reason the city has a reputation for being expensive. One way to tame that runaway budget is with a sightseeing discount pass, and one of the most popular is the New York Pass. It promises to save you as much as 55% off the price of separate admission tickets, so we put that to the test.
The Pass at a Glance
Briefly, the New York Pass is like a combination entry ticket for your choice of attractions, from a very large list of options. It is available in several “sizes,” as shown below, and each is good for one adult or child. It’s worth noting that there are sales on passes almost all the time. At the time of this writing, two-day and longer passes were offered at up to 30% off.
The passes are good for consecutive days, but the clock doesn’t start ticking until you use it for the first time by scanning your pass at one of the included attractions. This is a critical point: once you’ve activated your multi-day pass, you can’t skip a day. Also, a day is defined as a calendar day, not a 24-hour period.
Purchasing the New York Pass
“Options” is a key word with the New York Pass. You have lots of options in what attractions to see, options on how to use your pass (which we’ll talk about in a minute), and options on how to buy your pass.
- Option One: In Person Purchase
- You can buy the New York Pass in person at any of the four Big Bus locations in Manhattan, open seven days a week. At the time of purchase, you can also pick up your free New York Pass Guidebook, which has information about attractions, city and subway maps, travel tips, and more. Guidebooks are available in several languages, if needed.
- Option Two: Purchase On Line
- The advantage of purchasing online, of course, is that you can do it in advance and start your planning right away. Once you’ve purchased your pass(es), you have a few options: Delivery, pick-up, or electronic. If you like having paper passes in hand before you travel, they can be delivered globally via FedEx (charges vary). With your purchase, you’ll get a confirmation number via email, which you can use to pick them up in person for free. We opted to download the New York Mobile Pass (from Google Play or the App Store), and load our passes with the confirmation number. The app serves as both your ticket and guidebook, but has some useful features we’ll discuss later.
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Variety, the Spice of Life
When you visit the New York Pass website and click on Attractions, you’re confronted with a wall of options. One of the biggest advantages of the New York Pass is the sheer variety of attractions you can visit. If you were considering a one-day pass, you’ll be tempted to reconsider. There are enough options (More than 100!) to easily fill a week, maybe more.
At the same time, this is one of the big problems with any pass program. With so many options, you will be tempted to squeeze as many as possible into a day. That does help justify the price tag: If you can fit four or five attractions into a day, you can really save money with the New York Pass. We’re here to tell you: Don’t do that.
Know from the start that you are not going to tick off every item on your bucket list, or visit every attraction included with the pass. It’s just not going to happen. Even if it did, you would not enjoy the experience of running all over the city with just enough time to pop in and take a quick look around. If you’re going to go, make it worth your while.
Which leads to…
One-Day, Two-Day, or Longer Pass
There are three factors which will influence your decision:
- How long do you have?
- Obviously, no need for a three-day pass if you only have a weekend in the city. If you’re there for a week, you have some options.
- How much do you want to spend?
- You probably have a budget for sightseeing, and shouldn’t stretch that just to accommodate a pass. Remember, this is supposed to save money, not make you spend more.
- How many places do you want to visit?
- Yes, we said “all of them” too! Our own rule of thumb is two or three sites in a day. Sometimes we can stretch that with extra hours, or evening attractions. On the other hand, someplace like the American Museum of Natural History is so big, you can easily spend all day there.
Should you ever get a one-day pass?
At $124 dollars per adult, it’s difficult to realize savings with a one-day pass. That’s not to say it can’t be done, though! If you only have one full day in the city, and want to make the most of it, you can pack in four or five attractions and save with the New York Pass. We have some suggested one-day New York Pass itineraries below.
When should you get a longer pass?
You definitely save more with a longer pass. The difference between a one- and two-day adult pass, for example, is $55. That extra cost pays for itself with just one or two attractions. A three-day pass is even more of a bargain, if you have the time. Just remember, the pass is good for consecutive days starting from your first use.
Using the New York Pass
As complicated as it can be to figure out which of the hundred-plus attractions you want to see in New York, using the New York Pass couldn’t be easier. Show them your pass, and you’re in.
In many cases, your New York Pass pays for your tickets, but you still have to get those tickets. That means you need to factor in the time spent queuing for said tickets. As an example, at the Rockefeller Center, you can’t just show your New York Pass and waltz in like a Rockefeller ready for your tour; you have to physically get tickets. (The New York Pass website says you can skip the line; we found that was not the case.)
It’s important to remember that you need to use your multi-day passes on consecutive days. The pass doesn’t count a day as a 24-hour period, but as a calendar day. Whether you activate your pass at 9am or 9pm, that counts for the whole day. Best to start exploring the city, pass in hand, bright and early to make the most of it!
Although we’ve stressed figuring out which attractions you want to see using the pass, that’s just an exercise to ensure you get your money’s worth. Once activated, your pass is good at ALL of the included attractions and tours. If you decide at the last minute that you want to hop on a Circle Line sightseeing cruise, do it! Standing in Times Square with a little extra time on your hand? Use the New York Mobile Pass to find out what you can do nearby. You’ve paid for it, you might as well use it! (We hear the NFL Experience is awesome, by the way.)
How WE Used the New York Pass
well-geared, modern travelers gadget junkies that we are, we opted for the New York Mobile Pass. While we both downloaded the app to our smartphones, you actually only need one person in your party to do that. When you purchase two or more passes together, you get a single confirmation number. When you enter that number in the app, all of your group’s passes are loaded. Consider this if your group will be split up at any time; you may want to purchase everyone’s passes separately.
Before we detail how we used the New York pass, it might be better to start with…
How we didn’t use the New York Pass
It’s time for a confession: We are museum junkies. New York has more museums than any other city in the United States, but we didn’t use the New York Pass for that. Oh sure, we could have, but let’s look at the math: The Met, the Guggenheim, MoMA – three of the world’s premiere art museums – are all included. Together, admissions would cost $75, making a one-day pass a losing proposition. More importantly, we could easily spend most of a day in each museum, making them poor choices for a pass program for us. Your mileage may vary. If you’re interested in just seeing the Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Met, and then skipping out for something else, the New York Pass might work well.
The flexibility in the New York Pass is another great factor. We intended to start using our passes bright and early to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. When we saw the ticket line (yes, you still have to get in line for tickets), that plan went out the window. We made the mistake of visiting the day before Independence Day, and the lines were enormous. It seemed like everyone in Battery Park was queuing for tickets, and probably got there long before we did.
Thankfully, the New York Pass handles a change of plans pretty well. Since that would have been our first use, we just put off activating the passes until later in the week. As it turned out, we spent so much time in line to get to, and off of, Liberty Island, that we had to skip Ellis Island, and still filled most of the day. Poor planning on our part.
Our Day (and Night) with the New York Pass
Because we had plans for most of our visit to New York, we only had one day to really devote to sightseeing with the New York Pass. You can bet we made the most of it, starting early and ending late! Here’s how we used the New York Pass for our sightseeing, literally from morning to night:
Empire State Building – Admission: $39
Careful planning can really help you make the most of both New York City and the passes. For example, the last elevator to the top of the Empire State Building is at 1:15am. You can fit in a full day of sightseeing, and literally save the best for last! We took the opposite approach and started our day there, because crowds are lighter early in the day and the view is just as astounding. It’s worth noting that, should you want to end your day in grand New York style, you could have dinner at the State Grill using the discount in the New York Pass, and then head to the Observation Deck to see the city’s twinkling lights. New York doesn’t get much more romantic than that!
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum – Admission: $33
The Intrepid is a solid stop. Where else can you see a historic aircraft carrier, the space shuttle Enterprise, a submarine, a variety of aircraft, and a Concorde supersonic jet? That’s right: No place else! If you like things that go and/or military history, you will love this place. We sure did! You can also have lunch here, on the ship’s mess deck (not the mess hall used when it was in service), or under the wings of the Concorde; both have a view over the Hudson. Be sure to check out the exhibit behind the Concorde that tells of Intrepid’s role in the 9/11 attacks.
Rockefeller Center and Top of the Rock – Admission: $66 (for both)
Since we started our day with a view of New York City, we thought we’d end the same way, across town at Rockefeller Center. Instead of just shooting up to the Top of the Rock, we wanted to take the Rockefeller Center tour, also. We learned a lot about the sprawling campus, and got an amazing eyeful of what mid-century glamour looked like. The art work and Art Deco architectural details are stunning, inside and out. Our tour guide helped us understand the powerful impact the Rockefeller family had on the city, and the family dynamics that resulted in such rich art and architectural legacies. We capped off our day at the Top of the Rock with breathtaking views of New York City at night.
Big Bus Hop On/Hop Off Tour – Admission: $60
New York City is a very walkable city, except when it’s in the middle of a heatwave. Which, of course, is when we decided to visit. Conveniently, the New York Pass includes the Big Bus Hop On/Hop Off Tour. With stops all around the city, you can get from point A to point B in relative comfort, with some color commentary thrown in. Even more convenient, all of the attractions we wanted to see are close to bus stops. In fact, we’d recommend the HO/HO for any visit, both to get a tour of the city’s landmarks, and as a means of getting between those landmarks. At $60, it’s a major part of the value equation, too.
The New York Pass includes the Red and Blue routes (Explore Downtown, Explore Uptown) covering most of Manhattan. Both routes start in the Times Square area, but each has its own stops and schedules. (See routes.)
Two Bus Tours We Didn’t Take…But You Should!
There are two other bus tours you might consider, which we hear great things about:
- The Ride
- What’s the worst thing about taking a tour on a bus? All of the seats face forward, and only half the bus gets a good view. On The Ride, they’ve addressed the issue by turning the seats sideways! Every seat has a great view out huge glass windows for a narrated tour of Times Square and Midtown Manhattan. The Ride enhances the experience further with a unique, interactive tour. Along the way, actors, dancers, and musicians are part of the “moving theatre” to bring the city to life. Advanced reservations are required, and there are a limited number of seats available for New York Pass holders. Cost without the pass: $69.
- Downtown Experience Virtual Reality Bust Tour
- How do you make The Ride even better? Put on a VR headset. Yes, we’re suggesting you pay money to take a bus tour of New York, and then cover your eyes. Sounds strange, but this is genius. The Downtown Experience uses the same kind of touring bus as The Ride, so you’ve got a great view, but then puts you in a virtual reality world to experience elements of the city that you can’t see out those big windows. We didn’t go on this pass, despite it being on our Travel To Do list ever since our friend Anisa at Two Traveling Texans wrote about it. Again, advance reservations are required, and there are a limited number of seats available. Cost without the pass: $54.
Being among the most expensive attractions that the New York Pass covers, adding them to your itinerary gives a big boost to the value you get from the card.
Walking Tours Included
Because we had a somewhat limited time budget, we didn’t indulge in all of the walking tours that are included with the New York Pass, but we sure wanted to! They sound absolutely fabulous, and highlight some of the most iconic neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. There are also theme walks, like a Harlem Gospel tour, and a Brooklyn Street Art tour.
Our one day total would have been $198 if we purchased admissions along the way. Instead, the one day New York Pass was $124, saving $74 for each one of us. Even without the bus tour, we would have managed to save almost $30 for the two of us. To be sure, it was a full day but we can say we got full value and then some.
Sample One-Day Itineraries
Getting value out of the New York Pass is easier with longer passes, but we mentioned earlier that it can still be a good deal if you only have one day in the city. We did it, and so can you! There are a few itinerary ideas on the New York Pass website, but we put together a few one-day themed samples below. In each case, you can add even more value by squeezing in a bus or boat tour. We especially like boat tours, as they give you a great view of Manhattan from a new perspective; something we’re anxious to do on our next visit.
The New York Pass App
We opted to download our New York Passes directly to our smartphones using the free app. It’s simple to do: Download the app from the App or Play store, tap Download Your Mobile Pass and follow the prompts. (You will need your confirmation number.) To use your pass, go to the same area in the app, and it will show your Passes with a QR code to scan at attractions. If you purchased more than one, they will all appear in the same app (swipe left to see them), so be sure everyone in your party is together when entering attractions.
The New York Pass app has several more helpful features:
New York Pass Attractions
As the name implies, it’s a listing of all of the attractions you can visit using your New York Pass, conveniently grouped by type (Top 10, Museums, Walking Tours, etc.). This section is great for planning, as it has details about each attraction, and you can ‘favorite’ attractions you like. They’re saved under My Favorites for future reference, and to start building your own New York itinerary.
A second section, titled just Attractions, is similar with options to explore by areas of the city (Battery Park, Chinatown, DUMBO, etc.). The Ideas for Days Out section is one of our favorites because it groups attractions by themes, like Unusual Attractions, Historical Highlights, and Attractions for Kids. The Real New Yorker itinerary has most of the city’s iconic sights that you won’t want to miss.
Come back to these sections while you’re visiting New York to see your favorites. Each one has a link at the bottom to see a map to get you from where you are to the attraction. You can also route out all of your attractions, which can be really helpful in planning your day.
The Itinerary section of the app is a little funky. We expected to see a list of pre-built itineraries. It’s there, but you have to create your itinerary first. So tap on Add Another Daily Itinerary, and enter a name and date, and then click on the box for Suggested Itinerary to see a short drop down list of pre-built plans. Pick one, then tap Done to see the details. Congratulations, you’ve blindly set up your plans for the day. It’s really not so bad, but it’s a very poor user experience.
We found it’s far more helpful to create your own itinerary from your Favorites. You can also start with a blank itinerary and add attractions: click the name to get details, and click the + to add it to your plans. (You have to select a time to add it to your itinerary, but you can edit that – and your whole itinerary – later.) In our examples, we put together our own “Get to Know Manhattan” plan, and used the pre-built “Iconic New York” itinerary. If you like to plan, this is a handy tool once you get the hang of it, and it’s right in the New Pass app.
When we hear the words Exclusive Offers, we think “discount!” We are all for discounts, especially in a city considered to be very expensive. In fact, this is the first feature of the New York Pass that we used, booking an airport shuttle to our hotel. We booked it right in the app and saved 15% off published rates. While 15% sounds great, a shared shuttle is less than $45 for two passengers, so we added a little under seven dollars to our savings.
Another savings we could have used is on Broadway plays and musicals. Unfortunately, we had already purchased tickets to Wicked. Had we used the New York Pass, we could have saved another 15%, not just on our tickets, but for friends’ tickets, too. Cheap seats for Wicked are around $135, so this would have helped a lot.
Honestly, there are not a whole lot of discounts in the app. It would be great to see more restaurants included, and maybe discounts at the gift shops for some of the attractions. Until there are more, we wouldn’t say this section adds significant value to the New York Pass.
Tips for Using the New York Pass
- Even if you get paper passes, download the New York Mobile Pass to your smartphone. The interactive maps show where you can use your pass, along with local landmarks.
- Focus on one area of the city each day. You don’t want to spend precious time going all over the city! Instead, use the map in the app to find attractions you can easily walk between to make the most of your time.
- Take advantage of late hours: Many museums and attractions have extended hours on certain days. For example, the New Museum stays open until 9pm on Thursday, and the Met on Friday and Saturday. Plus, the Empire State Building is open until 2am, seven days a week!
- Even with the New York Pass, you will sometimes have to stand in line for tickets. Expect long lines if you’re visiting during heavy tourism days (summer and holidays), and factor that into your plans.
- Some attractions require you to book ahead. Pay special attention to these while planning what to see using your New York Pass, and be sure to follow the booking instructions once you’ve purchased your passes.
Although you have to plan smart to get a lot of value using the New York Pass for just one day, like we did, it can be done. Any savings is good, but you’ll definitely get more for your money with a longer pass; we’d recommend three days or more.
Ease of use is fantastic, but we didn’t realize much time-savings versus buying tickets on arrival. At every place we used the pass, we had to stand in the same lines as everyone else. That said, we do know there are places where you can skip lines and get tickets faster (The Met, for example) so your mileage may vary.
Would we do it again? You bet, but next time for more than just one day. There’s a lot to see in New York!
We’d love to hear about your experiences in New York or other cities with saving passes like the New York Pass. Share your story or tell us what you think in the Comments!
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Disclaimer: TravelLatte received complimentary New York Passes for the purposes of this review. This in no way influenced our use, opinions, or review of the New York Pass program. All experiences and opinions are strictly our own.