Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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New York for the not so rich (or famous)

Start spreading the news: a family can hit this town on a budget

Family vacations in the Big Apple are always an adventure. Tackling a hectic metropolis like New York City can be a challenge for even the most organized household. In my family’s case, the combination of complex logistics and genetic flaws has led to some memorable holidays in the Five Boroughs. Just recently, we upped the ante— planning a visit to Manhattan that included two growing sons and their 83-year-old grandfather.

As there were five of us, we decided against the expensive convenience of the hour-long plane ride from Eastern Canada (around $2000 for five return-tickets). (All prices in US dollars.) We were also too impatient to cool our heels on one of the VIA/Amtrak trains that run from Montreal and Toronto daily (a single return is $138 and $208 respectively; at least an 11-hour trip).

Instead, we opted to take Manhattan the old-fashioned way, loading up the family station wagon and leaving at dawn for the American border and the seven-plus hour jaunt south. Despite a few false starts (remember your passports), the drive went surprisingly smoothly for a long car trip, something I completely attribute to 21st-century innovations (good coffee on the road and childhoods entirely devoted to mobile technology). The only noise was the occasional beeping device in the backseat, and my wife and I were able to bicker until the skyscrapers rose in the distance, growing ever larger until New York had swallowed us up.

Despite being known as the place that never sleeps, finding a good spot to do just that has to be the top priority of any visitor. While the metropolis’ 80,000-odd hotel rooms certainly offer variety, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be both pricey (singles in budget hotels start at $200 per night), and snug (size of a smallish bank vault). In today’s interconnected world, accommodation also tends to be reserved weeks in advance by tourists from around the globe offer. Outlying boroughs like Queens or Brooklyn contain many of the more reasonably priced hotels, but staying there inevitably means a constant commute to the main attractions on the island of Manhattan.

In any event, our party of five (always an awkward number in hotels) had already identified the necessities (Wi-Fi for the kids; no street noise for Grandpa). What was wanted was the effortless comfort of a fine hotel in the heart of the action, an idea verbalized non-stop by the youngest in the car (age nine going on 30). Given an estimated price tag of around $800 per night, this might have been worrying if we hadn’t found a nifty solution prior our departure: a remedy that arrived — as everything does these days — via the Internet.

Stay home — sort of

Vacation Rental By Owner, or VRBO (, is just one of many similar websites that match vacationers with short-term rental apartments in the destination of their choice. The accommodations available are private residences, not time-shares or apartment hotels. Reputable websites offering this type of service all conform to local law and provide copious details and photos to help narrow down the selection to the number of bedrooms, location, amenities and price you’re looking for.

A certain amount of communication (phone calls, emails) is required to seal the deal, along with definite paperwork ahead of time (we had to send copied photo IDs and sign an official New York state lease for the four nights we were staying, as well as make a deposit equal to the first two nights).

As forbidding as that might sound, our new landlady, an ex-Montrealer, was extremely friendly and professional, and shepherded us painlessly through the whole process. Once in Manhattan, we merely had to present ourselves at the elaborate wrought-iron gate of our Midtown pad (a few blocks from the iconic Chrysler Building) and let us ourselves in with our new keys.

For the price of an average hotel room ($400 per night), we found ourselves in an elegant, fully outfitted three-bedroom apartment that slept five (four single beds and a king) and contained a living room, dining room, full kitchen and laundry, along with two baths, three TVs, Wi-Fi, and a large outdoor deck. There was ample space for the grandfather to stay put, and for the kids to spread out hardware and souvenirs. In short, there was no downside whatsoever — so long as you’re ready for the dense ambience of a Manhattan patio (try the sound of a million air-conditioners at once).

Central Parking

We also managed to park our car in an indoor lot just down the block, having decided we’d rather use the subway and bus system, as well as Manhattan’s myriad yellow cabs (expect to argue and pay extra if you try to circumvent local bylaws and fit in more than four passengers). As it was, a little advance planning cut the parking bill for our car by 25 percent, as we’d already located the garage via NYC Central Parking (, a website offering discount coupons. As a result, the daily price at our garage dropped from $40 to $30: the one coupon gives you a discount for the duration of your stay.

Our unpacking finished, now came the hard part: fine-tuning our itinerary to get the most out of the city while satisfying everyone’s aspirations. Grandpa, for example, expected to spend his time either in the world-famous reading room of the New York Public Library (1000 Fifth Avenue;, or on a bench anywhere in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (5th Avenue & 82nd Street; I, on the other hand, wanted to see the Central Park Zoo ( and eat lunch in the real-life diner featured on the classic TV show, Seinfeld — Tom’s Diner (2880 Broadway).

Pass it on The two juveniles (who seemed to intimately know New York’s street grid due to video games), were divided: the nine-year-old son wanted to ride the full-size working Ferris wheel in the lobby of the Toys 'R Us (1514 Broadway; flagship store at Times Square, while his 13-year-old brother was ready to blast off to the spectacular Hayden Planetarium, the newest part of the venerable American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street; Luckily, their mother (who’d given up on male decision-making and had gone window shopping on Park Avenue) arrived back to suggest utilizing another one of New York’s tailor-made solutions.

Obtainable through the mail ahead of time, the New York Pass ( is a plastic swipe card that gives visitors access to over 55 citywide attractions without line ups, waits or on-the-spot admission fees. Covering all the city’s museums, zoos and public gardens, it also offers discounts on sightseeing tours (bus and boat), as well as at restaurants, theatres, sports venues, department stores and other retailers.

The price of the pass depends on the length of time you want to use it for: we bought the-day passes on sale at $125 (regularly $150); a pass for a child under 10 was $105 (regularly $130). Passes come with booklets explaining their use and can be a great way to economize. Museum entries are, on average, $20 apiece for adults; after three hours touring the King Tut Exhibition at Discovery Times Square Exposition (226 West 44th Street; — which is visiting until January 2, 2011, when it returns to Egypt for good — we figured out the door price for the five of us would have come to almost $200 dollars alone.

The drawback to a short-term pass is the frenetic energy you have to put into getting your money’s worth as you try to visit as many attractions as you can fit in (start early in the morning). Passes cover only a single visit to each attraction, but also save you time as you get fast-tracked past line-ups and ticket booths.

Rocket, ship or shop

We used the pass on excursions as varied as a suppertime visit to Mars 2112 (1633 Broadway;, a mind-blowingly bizarre sci-fi-themed restaurant and dinner show, and the relaxing Manhattan By Sail (, a cruise on a 1920s schooner that takes in the Statue of Liberty until the end of October.

The pass covered such august cultural institutions as Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue; on the Upper West Side (Grandpa’s choice); the Malcolm X Memorial, Educational and Cultural Center (3940 Broadway; in Harlem (my pick), and, further south, the Staten Island’s Children’s Museum (1000 Richmond Terrace;

It even gained Mom a free gift at Macy’s (151 West 34th Street;, the world’s biggest department store, as well as a steep discount at the other end of the shopping spectrum: a visit to Caravan (, the world’s only chic shopping boutique on wheels (look for the unmistakably mod truck-trailer in its usual parking spot downtown on Jane Street).

Is that a ski gondola?

Apart from must-see destinations, we enjoyed the experience of simply wandering as a family, whether taking in the Roosevelt Bridge Aerial Tramway ( which is like a ski-resort gondola running above the struts of the bridge.

We stopped to sample the extremely popular Smoothy Shack in the East Village’s Union Square, or stumbling on the Moroccan delicacies of the Bistro Truck (Fifth Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets)*, a street vendor that is a 2010 finalist in the Vendy Awards, the annual competition for the title of Best Street Food in New York.

The boys (and their grandfather) also adored the extravagant toy store, FAO Schwarz (767 Fifth Avenue;, with its $1000, life-size, plush-toy polar bears and cavorting dancers tapping out tunes with their feet on a floor-sized keyboard. A trip to The Strand (828 Broadway & 12th Street;, the world’s “funnest” block-long bookstore, was also a treat as the grandsons negotiated endless jumbled piles of new and remaindered books, climbing ladders to the tops of overladen, ceiling-high shelves as they tried to locate another tome central to their grandfather’s peculiar interests.

As our trip came to an end, we said a sad adieu to our temporary abode, pointed our vehicle northwards, and rumbled back to Canada, entirely sated. Interestingly enough, we all agreed that the trip’s high point was being able to come back to a real home-away-from-home in the evenings, a place where we could simply hang out and relax as a family, happily cosseted before once again heading out to brave New York.

The only grudging voice in the car was the grandfather’s, still dissatisfied at being unable to fulfil a boyhood ambition — camping out overnight on the 86th floor Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. Then again, he didn’t climb the 1,576 stairs this time either, and went home a little poorer after losing his bet with his grandsons.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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