For as long as we can remember, we’ve always said that when the kids were big enough we’d do a trip to America and, when the kids hit teenage years, we knew that it was time. So we committed to a full three weeks on holiday, traveling to seven cities, taking eight different flights and throwing in a car trip down the west coast as well, but it was all worth it. We survived— and there may be war stories — but it may just be one of the best family holidays we’ve ever done! It’s probably not how I’d start most travel reviews, but I have to tell you that a trip to the States involves lots of planning… like loads of it if you want to have a good time and get to everything that you want to see. There is such a lot to see and take in, so make sure that you put time aside upfront to ensure that you know where you want to go and what’s on your travel bucket list. It may seem as if I’m stating the obvious, but you’ll quickly realize that it seems as if you’ll never have enough time to do everything during your trip to the USA. We spent hours and hours beforehand doing the research and figuring stuff out, like how to get to and from airports to hotels, which hotels to stay in, where to find quality, affordable meals on an SA budget and more, so we hope to share our story — and a few tips along the way —to entice you to visit the US and make it easier for you. In this first part of the series, I’ll cover New York, the city that never sleeps. It was our first stop when we arrived and it was a city that we were all keen to experience — but all for different reasons.

Let’s jump straight in… Departure day snuck up on us. We’d put in all the hard work to plan and prep and we got used to finding ourselves talking about the upcoming trip at breakfast or dinner or just sitting around, but all of a sudden it was time to fly. A quick stop in Dubai and onto the second leg of the flight and suddenly we were New York-bound. The excitement and inflight movies helped pass the time and before we knew it, we saw the iconic New York skyline…we were “there”. If it’s your first trip to the US, and more specifically New York, you’ll be a little overwhelmed by the number of people arriving and moving through passport control, but don’t stress because — as you’ll quickly figure out about America — it all just works and it works quickly. We got through all the controls and customs and grabbed our luggage in no time and were soon juggling the excitement of arriving America with the stress of getting the logistics sorted and feeling a little fatigued from the changes in time zones.

There is the option of grabbing a train ride right into New York, but if you’re not sure of where to go or what to do, you might opt for taking an Uber, which is what we did. Here’s my first tip! Remember to make sure that your phone is charged and remember that if you don’t have international roaming, booking an Uber can be a challenge. There are a few free WiFi spots right at Arrivals, but if your Uber driver tries to phone you to find out where you are, you’ve got a problem. Tip two! All Uber drivers and taxis pick up passengers at a demarcated spot at JFK, so remember your driver’s details and you should be able to flag him down. The drive to our hotel, the Hilton Midtown, took about an hour, which is about the standard time from the airport to the city. Again, if it’s your first trip you’ll be surprised by the travel time, so factor it in — it can take longer in rush hour. I must say that our drive was a little surreal as our minds tried to process it all — cars on the “wrong” side, the American-style cars, driving through the suburb of Jamaica and crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge into New York. We all had a giddy feeling and the high-rise buildings and skylines that we’d all seen in the movies flashing by all added to that surreal feeling created by eventually being in New York. We’d done loads of work to find the right place to stay. We’d scoured AirBnB and loads of other sites and apps, but we also wanted our first experience to be a good one, with high standards and a place that was centrally positioned. We found a gem in the Hilton Midtown. The hotel is part of the Hilton group, which guaranteed a quality experience during our time there and the team at the hotel are obviously familiar with international visitors and know how to make you feel relaxed and comfortable. We pulled up outside the hotel on 6th Avenue, which is a short walk to Central Park, Times Square, Broadway and the main transit line and bus routes. Porter services were quick to offer help and checking in was a breeze. Remember that you’ll need to tip the porters between $5 and $10 if they help you, or otherwise you can handle your own luggage. The hotel feels quintessentially New York, with its large lobby, vibey coffee shop, variety of restaurants and loads more. Upstairs we had adjoining rooms which offered all the services you could want and more, plus the views of the city and streets just cemented the feeling of being in New York. The Hilton also has something that we found really useful — USB charging ports in the rooms so that you don’t have to have universal adapters for your phone.

Not wanting to waste any time, we decided to head out, grab some food and take a stroll in Central Park. There is no shortage of places to eat and, depending on your budget, you’ll be able to find anything that you want. Our choice was to experience New York’s street food, which you’ll find on most of the main streets, and we tasted our first street meal literally across the road from the hotel! A quick, delicious street meal later, all for under $8 each, and we headed off to Central Park. Tip three: Google Maps is your friend. The detail of the city is fantastic and Google will help you to navigate the city. Although the park was only a quick three blocks away, Google Maps helped give a sense of direction, so don’t be afraid to use it. We watched the sun set in the park, grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and headed back to the hotel. Don’t worry about jet lag. Set your watches and clocks to local time and work to that. It takes a little adjustment, but it’s nothing to get too stressed about. We found that if we forced ourselves to push through and only sleep at night time, it helped us to adjust to changes in time zones a bit more quickly.

Our first real day in the city was jam-packed. We split up for breakfast as three of us did some work and headed to T Mobile to buy a local SIM card. $40 for 30 days and unlimited calls, texts and data! Well worth it. The other two did some scouting and found the perfect little breakfast spot, Fresh & Co, where you can grab a breakfast for $3.50. They’re all over the city, so keep an eye out for them. We figured out the Metro, bought Metro Cards and loaded credits on them to help us get around the city. The Metro is the fastest and most affordable way and it allows you to use the underground or jump on a bus. Use the subway for speed to get to places that you want to go to and grab a bus to sit back and take in the city and people doing real life.

Tip four: Watch out for the odd vagrant trying to sell you trips on used Metro Cards. It may appear cheaper, but it isn’t and you’ll need to pay for each trip that you take. Sadly, there aren’t any day passes for the trains. Our first stop was down on the bottom end of the island at the 9/11 memorial site, which is only a very short walk from the Westfield World Trade Center, where the train stops. I really recommend a visit to the memorial. Not only is the site iconic, but it gives you a real sense of just how patriotic Americans are. We then headed down towards the Staten Island Ferry through the financial district and past the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues…this is a definite photo stop! Just before we found the ferry, we stopped and tried a traditional New York hotdog. We’d heard mixed reviews, but I personally loved them, so I’d really recommend it! You will find different prices from different street vendors, so shop around a little. Tip five: The Staten Island Ferry is totally free and will give you amazing views of the city and the Brooklyn Bridge, plus it takes you right past the Statue of Liberty so there is no need to pay to visit the island unless you really want to —we found that the ferry pass-by worked perfectly. This was another great experience for us and we enjoyed the views from seats on the sides of the ferry. Once we got to Staten Island, we figured out that we needed to move quickly to grab the ferry heading back or we would have had to spend half an hour looking around before heading back. We hadn’t planned to spend time on Staten Island, but it may be something that you’d like to consider and then you wouldn’t have to rush as much. Places like Century 21 department store, H&M and Eataly stores are to be found in the southern district, so you can make a day of it and mix sightseeing and shopping. We also found a Target store (something like a cross between Checkers and Woolworths) and, while it wasn’t high street shopping, we were grateful to find a store where we could stock up on water and snacks at reasonable prices. It’s a smart idea and it’ll help fill the gaps during the day.

We took the afternoon to head back to the hotel on the bus from the financial district to the West Village. This is where you find those famous three- and four-storey townhouses with their typical brownstone steps and steel fire escapes. We walked around West Village, which is quaint and has a mixed student and young suburb feel, with open spaces, parks and street side coffee shops, before hopping on the train for a quick trip back to the hotel, popping up two short blocks away from the Hilton Midtown. Our first full day had been a bumper-day in the city, with so much to take in, so we took some time to get off our feet, scroll through Facebook on the hotel’s free hotel WiFi, and just absorb it all before we took a short evening stroll for a couple of blocks, during which we got to see the bright lights of Broadway and feel the energy of Times Square. Our last day was dedicated to Central Park and Times Square before we had to grab our bags and head to the airport for the next stage of our holiday.

The stop in Central Park on our first day had been just a tease. This park is truly amazing. We took the 59th Street entrance and worked our way through the park, passing the New York Zoo (we didn’t go in, but we did look out for Alex and Marty!). We were surprised at how much walking we ended up doing, but it was breathtaking. Walking down the Mall to see the broad pathway lined with trees was special and another photo opportunity. We then we headed off to the John Lennon Memorial in Strawberry Fields on the west side of the park.

Tip six: Whatever time you allocate to see the park, give yourself at least an hour more and take water with you. You’ll definitely get your 10,000 steps in for the day as well! After that, we trekked several blocks down to 7th Avenue, where there’s a great pizza place called Ray’s Pizza. It was the perfect pit stop and we simply devoured their 21-inch pizzas — this was a recommendation from one of the team at the Hilton and was spot-on! As we exited Ray’s and turned right, we found ourselves right there— in Times Square. It’s another great icon and we took some time to take it all in. The digital billboards are even more amazing than when you see them in the movies and the street shows, like the naked cowboy (he’s not really naked) just add to the theatre of it all. As we headed back to the hotel to grab our bags — they allowed us a late check-out, which was really helpful and just another confirmation that we’d made the right call on where to stay — we decided to take a chance and catch the Metro all the way to JFK. A great call! We only had to walk a block or two with our bags, which was really easy, and from there we jumped on the right line and headed all the way from midtown to the airport. It cost us $5.00 each on the day and we arrived right at the departure terminal. The Uber trip can cost between $70 and $90 for our family, so the train was a definite saving. New York is a special city and the family agrees that it was one of the highlights of our trip to the US. There is loads more that I could share about our short time in New York, but I think that you have to experience it for yourself! The tips that we’ve shared should help you if you visit, but you’ll find the people friendly and the city welcoming… embrace it and have fun. We did!

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