New York City is a place of dreams. I’m not talking about those clichéd dreams of Broadway stardom or Wall Street riches. No, it is a place of family travel dreams – the Statue of Liberty. The top of the Empire State Building. The Zodiac ceiling in Grand Central Terminal. The Central Park Zoo. The crowds in Times Square. The $800-a-night hotel room.
(Note that I didn’t say all the dreams were good ones.)
What’s more, New York City, is, well, New York City – brash, big, unfeeling at moments, loud, stuffed with tall buildings, full of the contradictions that make up the human species.
My oldest child, now 12, has always felt this acutely. Although Tommy has traveled extensively to many cities from London to Los Angeles over the course of his life, New York is the one that seems to cow him a bit, to leave him feeling overwhelmed and insecure. He likes the city’s museums and restaurants and parks as much as the next person, but always complains about the noise, the pace, the walking, the atmosphere. “It’s so busy here,” he grumbles, scowling, “and dirty!” he adds, like a junior Liz Lemon in training.
I actually like New York’s energy, especially since I don’t have to live with it every day. But I’ll admit that one thing that frustrates me is the cost of hotel rooms, especially during its peak travel season, which it seems always to be except maybe for a few hours on January 3. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay as a guest of some pretty swanky hotels, but have always sought a media discount or complimentary room (I’ll admit, there can be advantages to being a travel writer, but that’s a topic for another post.) When we visited in the fall of 2013 I wanted to try something that I knew more families could afford.
Enter Westchester, more specifically the SpringHill Suites in Tarrytown.
Yes, this is a chain hotel, and yes, it’s not luxurious per se (although if size matters, the rooms are very spacious), and yes again, it is about 40 minutes by train into the city. However, it has many pluses that made our stay there a very successful experiment and one I would happily repeat.
Before I share them with you, full disclosure: The Spring Hill Suites gave us one free night and the remaining three nights at a discounted rate. However, the cost of staying there is reasonable – certainly a fraction of what most New York hotels cost – and parking is free, not a feature you’re likely to find in the city.
In a New York State of mind
The train station in Tarrytown sits, as the rest of the town does, on the edge of the Hudson River under the graceful shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge. The hotel is less than ten minutes from the station and has a free jitney that runs on demand to and from. Trains depart regularly throughout the day.
On our first foray into the city, I felt some trepidation about the ride. Because we saved money by riding during off-peak hours, we didn’t leave until later in the morning, which meant a healthy delay to the start of our day. I was concerned that the kids would quickly lose interest and that we would begin our adventures with cranky, bickering boys.
I needn’t have worried. From the minute the train left the station, they were utterly content to watch the river from the window, read books, sort Pokemon cards, and just relax.
They also loved that we arrived in Grand Central Terminal. And who doesn’t? I’m convinced that anyone who doesn’t feel like a 1940s movie star every time they walk under that blue ceiling is either cynical or kidding themselves.
In fact, we found this to be a great place to start and end our day no matter what we were doing – the word “central” after all is in the name for a reason. And Tommy fell in love with the Financier pastry shop in the 42nd Street Passage, demonstrating his devotion by sharing photos of his morning decaf mocha in his Instagram stream.
The ride home at the end of the day also provided something I didn’t expect to enjoy – quiet time to talk about what we had seen and experienced or just to rest our feet. On our last day we headed back a little bit early and the boys leaned on my shoulders as I read Little Women aloud to them, an older woman in the next row of seats beaming at us all the while. It was a small, sweet moment and a highlight of the trip.
SpringHill Suites Tarrytown for the win
On the surface, the hotel itself is not unusual or special – it looks like any number of other SpringHill Suites that you might see anywhere else across the United States.
But even in a chain hotel, you can tell when the staff goes the extra mile to make guests feel comfortable and welcome. That was certainly the case for us. When the jitney got stuck in traffic on our first morning and we were going to miss our train with a half-hour wait before the next one, the front-desk manager piled us into her car and drove us to the station. (And this wasn’t special treatment because I was a member of the media, as she had no idea who I was; she had not been there when we arrived the night before and I didn’t tell her my name.)
On another day, we came home from our city adventures to find my eight-year-old son Teddy’s stuffed animals set up in a careful array on the sofa in our room, much to his delight.
Other bonus family-friendly features of the hotel that are things you don’t always find in the city: Free hot breakfasts, wifi, and local telephone calls; a small refrigerator and microwave in each room; and an indoor pool. The rooms and public spaces were also immaculate and I liked that the lobby had a gas fireplace, since it we visited in November.
Would I have chosen to stay in Westchester when my children were little? Probably not. It wouldn’t have worked in our schedule because they ate dinner and went to bed early and because the train rides would have made them impatient.
But I would certainly stay there again now that they are older and more flexible about meal and bedtimes. We spent two and a half very full days exploring New York and never once did Tommy complain. When we arrived back in our hotel room at the end of our first day, he turned to me and said happily, “I really like how quiet it is here. This is so much better than sleeping in the city.” And he was right. It was as peaceful and spacious as could be.
Apparently my suburban children were born to be commuters. And I’m OK with that.
- If you’re thinking that the train is an added expense that should be included in your travel budget, you are correct. But I found that traveling off-peak on Metro North leads to savings for families. The Family Fare option, which is good for children aged 5 to 11, allowed us to buy tickets for the boys for $1 each. Buying our tickets from a machine on the platform before we got on the train also saved us money. The cost for train rides for the family was about $40 a day, easily as much as it would cost to park a car in the city were we staying at a hotel there.
- There’s plenty of great, family-friendly dining in Tarrytown as well. When we arrived in town, we ate at The Tapp, a small gastropub that had a little something to please everyone including killer mac ‘n cheese made with beer. We also had dinner at Santa Fe (excellent homemade salsa) and lunch at the locavore Sweet Grass Grill (carrot ginger soup and polenta fries were standouts).
- The area around Tarrytown offers its own share of attractions and fun things to do. Kids who have read about Rip Van Winkle or Ichabod Crane will enjoy the tour of Washington Irving’s home, Sunnyside. We also took a tour of the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, which I highly recommend for anyone visiting in the fall.
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Be sure to visit my New York City with kids page for more great tips and stories. And if you’re looking for tips on how to flawlessly plan and execute family trips (including tips on how to choose a great hotel), The Family Traveler’s Handbook will inspire you and give you the tools you need to get out the door.
Many thanks to Westchester County Tourism for helping to coordinate our visit and to the Springhill Suites Tarrytown for the discounted hotel room. You can always count on me to tell you when I have been given a free or discounted rate and to share my honest opinions.