New York Pass: Best 1, 2, and 3-day itineraries for most value
As someone who lived in New York City for over 5 years, on and off, I feel a very special fondness for this amazing place. It honestly has many of the United States’ most famous and popular attractions all on one small island, but also most of the most expensive attractions. In other words, NYC is anything but cheap.
The New York Pass is an excellent tool for first-time visitors who want to see as many of the big sights as possible in a short time. It will save you money AND time, since it allows you to skip the ticket queues of many of the most popular attractions. Still, it’s hard to know where you should go because there are so many choices and newcomers won’t know which ones are best and which are also close together so they are easily visited in sequence.
Why I put together these suggested itineraries
Here at PriceofTravel.com we try to help travelers get the most for their funds, and our review of the New York Pass has been popular for many years now.
At the bottom of that article I get frequent questions from first-time visitors who want some guidance as to how to schedule 1 to 3 busy sightseeing days. After getting similar questions so many times, I decided to type out all of my best advice, so I can send people here for the answers and my best recommendations.
Best 1-day New York Pass itinerary for quality and value
If you’ve only got one full day in New York City, it’s a shame but you can still see an incredible amount if you plan ahead. I’m including the best New York Pass attractions for first-time visitors, which will give you a great look at the city and cover many of the most famous places that friends will ask you about when you get home.
Where to buy the New York Pass
Step 1: Hop-on, Hop-off Bus (US$50 value for 1-day, or US$60 for 2-day)
Take the Downtown Loop of the Hop-on, Hop-off (HOHO) bus as early as you can to get the most out of your day and beat the crowds. The first bus leaves Stop #1 in Times Square at 8am, and then another bus leaves every 15 minutes or so from then on. If you can make the first bus, do it because it’ll be easiest to get a good seat.
The full Downtown Loop takes 2.5 hours and it covers Fifth Avenue, Empire State Building, Flatiron District, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Wall Street, and most of the other famous neighborhoods in Manhattan. If you are on a tight schedule, don’t get off until the end of the loop because it’s not always easy to get a seat when you try to get back on, and the HOHO bus isn’t really an efficient way to get between sights compared to the subway and on foot.
If you’ve started by 8:30am or 9am, you’ll be back in Times Square well before noon.
Step 2: Discovery Times Square ($27) and/or Madame Tussauds ($37)
Both of these attractions are within a few short blocks of where you got off the HOHO bus, and both are at least worth a quick look since you are already there. If you were paying full price at the door you’d really want to spend at least 90 minutes in each of these places just to get your money’s worth. But since they are included with the New York Pass, you can pop in and leave after only 30 to 45 minutes to see just the things that most interest you.
Discovery Times Square (with fast-track entry)
This is a fairly new “pop culture” center with a variety of large and comprehensive exhibitions. A New York Pass allows entry into one of them, so each member of your group can see the thing that interests them most. As of writing there is:
- Star Wars and the Power of Costume Exhibition
- Body Worlds Pulse
- The Hunger Games: The Exhibition
The exhibitions do change, so check the website. Each is a touring exhibit that draws crowds on its own as it goes across the country, so each is very worthwhile on its own. It’s a shame you can’t see more than one, but you’ve got to keep moving.
Madame Tussauds New York (with fast-track entry)
Only a couple more blocks away in Times Square is Madame Tussauds wax museum. Why would anyone pay to see wax versions of celebrities? You might wonder that, until you visit once yourself. These places really are incredible to see in person, and many of the figures are so life like that you keep expecting them to come to life and tell you that you are being filmed.
But again, a great thing about the New York Pass is that you can skip the main ticket line and get in quickly, and then swiftly see only the things that interest you most. You can be back outside in less than 45 minutes, although you may stay longer just because it’s so impressive.
Step 3: A quick lunch
Depending on how early you started on the HOHO bus, and how hungry you are, you’ll want to get lunch now, or perhaps in between the above stops. Since you are in a hurry I recommend getting a couple slices of famous New York pizza at one of the many places you’ll pass, or maybe a sandwich or something else quick. You’ll have time for a nice, sit-down dinner, so don’t spend a lot of time on lunch.
Important: The timing can be tricky in the afternoons in off season
Obviously you’ll read through this whole day’s itinerary before you get to NYC, and depending on how early you start, how quickly you are moving, and the time of year, you may need to move things around. The highly recommended Circle Line Cruises have 6pm or 7pm departures all year round, but during the warmer months they also have departures at 4pm or 4:30pm, and those can be even better.
Check the hours of the Circle Line for when you are in NYC, and you’ll figure out the best departure for you.
Step 4: Empire State Building Observation Deck($32)
Even if you are only in NYC for one day, you absolutely have to go up the Empire State Building. From Times Square you can take a quick subway ride down to 34th Street/Penn Station or just walk all the way there in 15 minutes. The New York Pass includes the ride to the 86th Floor observation deck, and that will be ideal for those trying to see a lot in one day. You can pay a supplement to also go up to the 102nd Floor deck, but it’s probably not worth it.
The queues to get in can sometimes be long here, but sometimes they are actually very short, even during the middle of the day, so keep your fingers crossed. Once you get in the elevator it only takes a few minutes to get to the 86th Floor. Once up there, it’s breathtaking, but after 20 or 30 minutes you will have seen it all and you can come back down and keep moving.
Step 5: Circle Line Harbor Cruise ($37 to $42)
Even though you started the morning on the HOHO bus, this harbor tour by boat is actually the best way to see Manhattan as well as get the best views of the Statue of Liberty. From the Empire State Building, you should hop in a taxi or book an Uber to the Circle Line Pier 83 at far west 42nd Street. If traffic is heavy you can take a subway and get most of the way there, and then walk the final few blocks.
As mentioned a bit above, the Circle Line Cruise schedule is different in different seasons. They always offer an evening cruise at 6pm or 7pm, but in the warmer months they also have cruises leaving at 4pm or 4:30pm. During the warm months, you might have time to catch one of these cruises, which frees more of your evening up.
Seriously, these cruises are really wonderful, and quite relaxing after so much sightseeing during the day. Not only do you see much more of the Manhattan skyline than from any other vantage point, but every Circle Line Cruise also goes to the base of the Statue of Liberty and spends 5 to 10 minutes there allowing passengers to get the best photos possible (far better than from the island itself). I’ve done these cruises at least 5 times now because I take new NYC visitors on them whenever I have the chance.
Step 6: Dinner
Depending on how hungry you are and when you take the Circle Line Cruise, you’ll have time for a proper sit-down dinner and at least a bit of chill-out time in your hotel room. If you do the 7pm Harbor Lights Cruise you have the option of having dinner before, or if you do one of the 4pm or 4:30pm Landmark Cruises you’ll obviously have dinner afterward.
Step 7: Top of the Rock Observation Deck w/ fast-track entry ($32)
It’s late and you are definitely tired after your busy day, so this last stop is optional and maybe not a good idea if you have small children with you. In the heart of Rockefeller Center, which is a fairly easy walk from almost anywhere in or near Times Square, is the famous 30 Rockefeller Plaza building. With the New York Pass you even have a special fast-entry line to the elevator that will take you up to the 70th Floor open-air observation deck.
This attraction is open until midnight (last elevator up is 11pm), so you don’t even need to rush. In fact, the later you get there, the less crowded it is likely to be. Even though you’ve already been up the Empire State Building less than a mile south of here, this view is equally spectacular and quite different.
The best part of the view is to the north, where you can see most of Central Park and all of the gorgeous buildings that surround it. Going up one of these tall buildings during the day and the other one at night will give you all of the extraordinary views of this amazing city. You’ll be happy you did both, especially since they are both included in the New York Pass.
How much did we save on this very busy day?
- 1-Day New York Pass (adult): $109
- Cost of all of these worthwhile attractions: $220
- Savings: $111
Again, if you only have one full sightseeing day on your first visit to New York City, the above schedule will get you to most of the famous sights, two excellent tours, two famous observation decks, a couple of very interesting culture attractions, and a very good sense of New York City itself.
Best 2-Day New York Pass suggested itinerary
The very good news is that the cost of all of the suggested attractions on the busy Day 1 of this itinerary is actually more than the cost of a 2-Day New York Pass, so we are already ahead of the game with one full day to go.
One strategy: Do all of the above over 2 days, and add a few more things of your choice
On the busy 1-day itinerary above we visited 6 of the best attractions that New York City has to offer. If you get a 2-Day or 3-Day New York Pass, it’s probably worth saving at least 1 or 2 of those for future days, since we’ve already paid for at least the 2-Day pass.
With a 2-Day or 3-Day pass you might choose to do a morning Circle Line Cruise, or go to the Empire State Building in the morning to have even a better chance at a short queue.
Things to add on a 2-Day New York Pass
Hop-on, Hop-off Bus Tour: Uptown Route
The Big Bus HOHO tour actually has two routes, each of which takes about 2.5 hours for the loop. The Downtown Loop is recommended for Day 1, and the also-impressive Uptown Loop is a great way to start Day 2. It takes you around Central Park on both sides through the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, but also through historic Harlem on 125th Street past the famous Apollo Theater.
Again, it’s really better to get on at the first stop (near Times Square again) and stay on the whole time. If you are on a more relaxed schedule you can get off at one of the museums or attractions along the route, but it’s not always easy to get a good seat upstairs when you get back on.
9/11 Memorial & Museum ($24)
Personally as someone who lived near the World Trade Center in the 1990s, this attraction sounds too sad to be enjoyable. But it’s incredibly popular so obviously many visitors to NYC really want to include it.
The location way downtown is close to a few other included attractions, so you can do 2 or 3 things in half a day in this area pretty easily. Several subway lines stop right here, so it’s fast and easy to reach from anywhere in Manhattan.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Immigration Museum ($18)
The Statue of Liberty is reached on a special ferry that leaves from Battery Park on the south tip of Manhattan. The ferry drops passengers off at Liberty Island and then takes people to nearby Ellis Island. You don’t have to get off there, though most people do. The final stop is back at the dock in Battery Park.
Honestly, if you mainly just want to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and take some really good photos, it’s FAR better to do that on the Circle Line Cruises mentioned near the top of this page. The island itself is kind of dull, unless you’ve made a reservation long in advance to go up into the crown of the statue itself.
Ellis Island is fascinating for many people, but definitely not for children. It’s a well organized museum that shows the process that immigrants went through to get admitted into the United States from 1892 until 1954. If this sounds interesting to you then by all means go. But if you aren’t sure, this one might be worth a skip, especially if you are on a short visit.
The Ride ($74)
The most expensive attraction included with the New York Pass is one I’ve yet to try. It gets mostly good reviews, but evidently getting reservations isn’t so easy, which is why I’ve put it down the list like this.
The Ride is sort of a bus tour of New York City on a bus with special stadium seats so passengers are all looking out the same window. There are hosts and other performers who interact with the passengers as the Ride goes on. Based on the reviews I’m not sure I’d be willing to pay full price for it, but if I could get a seat included with my NY Pass, I’d give it a try.
Museums to consider included with the New York Pass
The New York Pass includes many museums, but several of them are remote or somewhat obscure. By all means you should check the list to see which ones interest you most. For most people, however, these are the 4 best and easiest to reach museums to consider.
Metropolitan Museum of Art ($25)
“The Met” as it’s locally known, is on everyone’s list of the best and most important museums in the world. It’s also huge, and the building itself (located in Central Park on the Upper East Side) is also part of the attraction. It would take weeks to see it all, but you can actually see a lot in even an hour or so.
It should be noted that $25 is the “suggested donation” and you can pay as little as you want to enter. If you are bold enough to offer only a tiny sum, you can come to the Met on a non-New York Pass day. But honestly, almost no one does this, and when you are in the ticket queue you’ll feel like a real cheapo if you offer less than the suggested amount. Still, I’ve done it a couple times myself for $5, so go for it if you have the balls.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum ($25)
Only 6 blocks north of the Met, so it’s an easy walk, you come to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The Frank Lloyd Wright building itself is extremely famous, and inside you’ll find some of the best examples of 20th Century art.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ($25)
In the heart of Midtown Manhattan, only a short walk from Rockefeller Center and Times Square, you find the country’s most famous modern art museum. Personally, I love this stuff, but not everyone does. However, with a New York Pass you can always just pop and and if you don’t care for what you see, you can walk out 10 minutes later without feeling bad at having spent big money for a full-price admission.
Whitney Museum of American Art ($22)
Since 2014 the famous Whitney Museum of American Art has relocated to the Meat Packing District in the West Village. This is a very popular museum dedicated to 20th and 21st Century American art, with frequent special exhibitions that can sometimes really fill the place up with visitors. It’s not very close to any other attractions, but it’s a really interesting and fun neighborhood, so it’s a good place as a final stop of the day where you can get dinner or drinks.
3-Day New York Pass itinerary
After getting that first busy day out of the way, and then choosing a few more things to see on Day 2, you obviously have much more flexibility if you opt for a 3-Day New York Pass. Often there are discounts so it’s only a bit more expensive than the 2-Day version, so it’s a bargain if you have a 3rd day and can buy it on a promotion.
Where to buy the New York Pass
What to do on Day 3
This itinerary suggestion includes a busy first day with all of the best included attractions. After that, the attractions are listed more or less in order of popularity and importance. Without knowing exactly what your tastes are, it’s hard for me to confidently type out a specific 3-Day itinerary. So what I recommend is to do ALL of the things at the top of this list, and then choose the ones that interest you most as you get down the page.
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum ($24)
Located directly next to the Circle Line Cruise dock, the Intrepid is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that houses a large museum. There is also a the space shuttle Enterprise, the world’s fastest jets, and a guided missile submarine. It’s worth a look since you’ll be right next door anyway, and especially if anyone in your group is a big fan of this military and space stuff.
Clipper City Tall Ship Cruises Manhattan By Sail ($39)
Located on the same dock as the Circle Line Downtown tours (also included) are these 90-minute Clipper Ship harbor cruises. They go twice per day in the afternoon, and during summer there is an Evening Lights sailing at 9pm a few days a week.
Walking tours and specialty tours that are included
If you have a 2-Day or 3-Day New York Pass, you’ve probably got all of your days full from the list above. But if you are going for a 5-Day or longer New York Pass, you’ll have plenty of time to do ALL of the above and also take in a couple of these specialty tours.
- Carnegie Hall Tours ($15)
- Central Park Sightseeing Walking Tour ($24)
- Fashion Windows Walking Tour ($35)
- Food on Foot Tours ($49)
- Greenwich Village Walking Tour ($35)
- High Line-Chelsea-Meatpacking Tour ($35)
- Inside Broadway Tours ($35)
- NYC Gospel Walking Tour ($45)
- On Location Tours Central Park TV & Movie Sites Walking Tour ($25)
- On Location Tours When Harry Met Seinfeld Bus Tour ($39)
- Radio City Music Hall Stage Door Tour ($27)
- Rockefeller Center Tour ($17)
- Slavery and Underground Railroad Tour ($35)
- SoHo-Little Italy-Chinatown Walking Tour ($35)
- The Brooklyn Bridge and DUMBO Neighborhood Tour ($35)
- The Highlights of Midtown Tour($35)
- Wall Street Walks ($35)
- Yankee Stadium Tours ($25)
Just between you and me, the walking tours on the list above (the ones priced at $35) are probably not worth the “regular” price. They are basically run for New York Pass holders, so the regular price is almost meaningless.
I’ve done a few of them and I’m very glad I did. I also recommend ANY of these tours to anyone who likes the sound of them. It’s just that if you paid $35 for one of the walking tours, you might feel a bit overcharged. Since they are all included with the New York Pass, you might as well do as many of them as you have time for.