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New York has some fantastic attractions but getting the most out of them can take some planning, especially if you have less than a week to explore the Big Apple. On our Christmas/New Year visit our family used a New York CityPASS to cover all our sightseeing during the six days we were in town. This turned out to be a great idea but we discovered there are some tricks to using a New York CityPASS effectively, especially if you are visiting New York in peak season. Here are our tips for using a New York CityPASS in peak season.

What is a New York CityPASS?

A New York CityPASS is a sightseeing pass that can save you more than 40% on the cost of admission for six of the eight most popular attractions in New York. The New York CityPASS gives you access to the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or The Met as it’s also known) and the American Museum of Natural History, plus a choice of three other attractions out of six. You don’t need to choose which ones you are going to visit in advance. Just turn up and scan your CityPASS on the day, it’s easy!

New York CityPASS details
Statue of Liberty
See the sights with New York CityPASS

Your New York CityPASS is valid for nine days starting on the first day of use. Even if you buy the pass weeks in advance, the pass will only expire nine days after the first attraction is visited. After you purchase the pass, you receive an email containing a mobile ticket with a barcode that can be presented on a mobile device for entry into the attractions.

You can also opt to print the e-ticket to show at the participating attractions which is a good idea if you have multiple tickets for the family. We discovered it can take a while scrolling on a phone to get to the codes so the staff can scan all three tickets. Overall the best thing about buying the pass is that you get to go in the express pre-purchased queue for pass holders, and not the often very long line for ticket sales.

The Met in New York
Make sure you choose the right queue (ask if you’re not sure)

Here are our tips for getting the most of your New York CityPASS and avoiding queues and hassles when you’re using a New York CityPASS to see New York’s major tourist sites. We’ve also included some tips especially for peak season as we discovered this can add a few complications when it comes to sightseeing using a New York CityPASS.

1. Arrive at New York CityPASS attractions very early or very late

The biggest tip for getting the most out of your New York CityPASS, especially if you are visiting in peak season, is get to each attraction very early or very late. Arriving a half an hour or so before it is due to open is perfect if you don’t want to be swamped by the crowds or stand in a queue for hours. Many attractions are also open every evening, such as Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building. Others such as The Met, and The Guggenheim open late on selected nights during the week.

Top of The Rock queue
This is the queue for Top of the Rock at 8am

2. Stand in the correct New York CityPASS queue

There are separate queues at each attraction for pass holders and people buying regular tickets. Make sure you stand in the correct queue as the one for pass holders is usually much quicker. If in doubt make sure you ask someone as it can be hard to see where to go if an attraction is crowded. This is important at attractions such as the American Museum of Natural History which have several different queues. You also have to listen to the staff as sometimes they open a special queue for New York CityPASS holders. This won’t be signed but staff will keep calling out to direct CityPASS holder to go to a certain queue (which is usually much, much shorter!).

3. You can’t pre-book a time in advance with a New York CityPASS

At some attractions you can book an entry time at the same time you buy your ticket if you purchase online. However, things often work a little differently if you have a CityPASS. We were staying near the Liberty Cruises departure point and planned to reserve a time and then come back the following day to join the shorter Reservations Queue. However, we discovered that CityPASS holders need to queue up and take the next available boat. These run every 20 minutes or so but are packed during peak season. Waits of up to 3 hours aren’t uncommon so get there early if you’re visiting New York at a busy time of year.

Liberty Cruises queue
The much shorter queue is on the left, ours stretched around the park

Entry times for same day or night entry might be all gone if you arrive too late during peak season. We queued with our CityPASS for an entry time at Top of the Rock but had to return the following day as none of the times that were left suited our schedule. Fortunately, the procedure for Top of the Rock has changed since our visit and CityPASS customers can now reserve their Top of the Rock timed entry before arriving in New York which is great. Once you’ve chosen your time, you will receive a Top of the Rock ticket via email which you can present for admission at the reserved time. If you aren’t sure when you would like to go, you can still present your ticket at Top of the Rock and redeem it for the next available timed ticket.

4. Do the most popular New York CityPASS attractions first

Some New York CityPASS attractions are more popular than others, such as the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. If there are any attractions you don’t want to miss, plan on doing these early. This way, if something goes wrong such as bad weather closing a viewing platform or the queue being too long, you’ll have time to try again later in your stay.

Statue of Liberty
Popular attractions like the ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty can get busy

5. Plan your travel around New York

New York is big and always busy which means that moving between attractions can often take longer than you thought. Choose New York CityPASS attractions to see in the same day that are as close to each other as possible and not at opposite ends of the city. Travelling by subway can also present problems if you’re not familiar with the city, so get a subway map and plan your sightseeing in advance. Taxis and ride sharing services like Uber are also available, but the heavy traffic in the heart of NYC can mean expensive fares and long delays.

 6. Have a wet weather plan for your CityPASS

When we looked at our weather app, we discovered we were in for some very wet weather the following day. We adjusted our plans to visit the American Museum of Natural History early the next morning. Luckily the line for entry was only about 50 metres long at opening time but as the day went on the crowds became unbearable. It seemed everyone that was visiting NYC (and every local and their kids) had decided to see the museum on the same (wet) day. After seeing the majority of the attractions, we beat a hasty retreat and came across an entry queue that stretched around the block for hundreds of metres. Not good as the museum was already full to bursting with visitors.

Museum of Natural History
Exploring the Egyptian tomb at the Museum of Natural History

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Museum of Natural History
We arrived at the Museum of Natural History before it got busy
Museum of Natural History dinosaur
This is how crowded it was a few hours later … and it was getting worse

7. Bring appropriate clothing when you’re using a New York CityPASS

If you’re out and about and trying to see as many New York CityPASS attractions as possible, there is nothing more annoying than having to return to your hotel because you don’t have the right clothes. When we arrived at the Top of the Rock observation deck it started to snow. For us, this was magical as we had bought the right clothes with us, just in case. However, other travellers were left shivering and had to cut their visit short. The same goes for planning visits in summer as New York can get very hot. Bring hats, sunscreen and water so you can stay hydrated if you end up having to wait in a queue to enter an attraction.

New York snow
Snow on Top of the Rock

8. Be flexible when using your New York CityPASS

Sometimes things aren’t going to work out. We walked to the Empire State Building on our first day to discover there was a two-hour wait just to get into the foyer. As we had been up to the viewing deck on our previous tip to New York, we decided to skip going inside in favour of seeing another New York CityPASS attraction. We also visited the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum. However, we realised pretty quickly we wouldn’t have time to go inside the submarine in the time we had available due to the long, slow moving queue. Instead, we had a great time exploring the flight deck of the Intrepid aircraft carrier and seeing the Enterprise space shuttle.

Intrepid carrier in New York
Checking out the Intrepid from every angle
Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum
Exploring the Intrepid’s flight deck
Enterprise at Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum
The mighty Enterprise which is much, much bigger than it looks in this photo

Even if things don’t always go entirely to plan, a New York CityPASS is going to save you time, stress and – perhaps most importantly if you’re travelling on the weak Aussie dollar – plenty of cash!

Disclosure: The writers each received a New York CityPASS for review purposes and paid for their son’s Youth New York CityPASS.  This post contains affiliate links. If you found this review helpful and choose to purchase a New York CityPASS via The Travel Temple, we will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.

If you are heading to New York for the first time, you might also find our airport stopover tips, overseas safety advice, travel planning tips, and advice for avoiding scams helpful.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.