We had visitors (my mother-in-law and aunt-in-law) during Thanksgiving week and decided, in the midst of the debate about whether or not to try to attend the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving, that it might be better to go into Manhattan on Wednesday and see what there was to see. Restaurant reservations were accordingly made for an early lunch at said aunt's favorite restaurant (over a month in advance, I might add). So I got off work at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning and began the rounds to pick everyone up. I picked up my husband at home - check. I picked up our stroller from the patio - check. I picked up my mother-in-law and my children from the hotel - check. Coats to combat the cold, windy day - not checked.
Then we headed to the Crestwood train station, naively thinking that there would be some solution for parking a car there the whole day while a person traipsed into the city. Should I have known better? Probably. I'm know I've heard people talk about going to certain stations to park all day, but the information didn't stick with me until I experienced myself that nowhere at or even on a side street near the train station is there a spot where a person can pay to park for more than four hours at a time. No problem - surely there's a paid garage, right? Let's ask the GPS unit to find us a parking garage. We did, and it led us to a very nice house (which was definitely not a parking garage) right near seminary. So we went with plan D, which was to park at the seminary and walk back to the train station. This caused us to arrive at the station after all the closer-together morning trains had already departed, so we had to wait 45 minutes for the next train. Still, once it came, we got on and rode into Grand Central Terminal with no problem.
Thank God that, once we arrived at Grand Central, my mother-in-law had the brilliant idea to feed the children something before we launched out to find the restaurant, which, according to my printed schedule, should only take us about 15-20 minutes to get to. Our first mistake after that was to not ask anyone which way to go while we were still inside the Terminal. If we had, they likely would have directed us to (a) BUY A METRO CARD DAY PASS, which gets you access to buses and subways for the entire day and is the only way you can pay to ride these and (b) not go outside and wander around like idiots for an hour when we could take a shuttle and a subway and be there in a few minutes.
As it was, we exited Grand Central on the wrong side of the building, had to march around it in the freezing wind with no coats on, wait for our bus, which we then could not ride because we did not have MetroCards, wait in the freezing wind some more for my husband to go buy said cards, get on the bus and ride for 15 minutes in what turned out to be the wrong direction, get off (because it was at the end of the line), and wait for the exact same bus and driver to pick us up and take us the other direction. We got off the bus and started trying to figure out how to make our next connection. We must have had dazed, lost looks on our faces, because a kind New Yorker asked if we needed help and then helped us figure out that our connection was to a subway train and how to get into the station. We rode that subway to the closest spot we could find to our destination, and then had to run (you guessed it, in the freezing wind again) a few blocks to try to make it to the restaurant before they closed between lunch and supper. All told it had taken us from 9 a.m., when I picked up the hotel-dwellers until after 1:30 p.m. to get to the restaurant, which is less than a 30-minute drive from where we started.
You might think that by then we would have been humble enough to just ask how to get where we were going next, but I really did try to be self-sufficient one more time, as I spent about 5 minute studying the subway map in my travel guide before giving up and asking the coat-check attendant how to get to Times Square. It's a good thing that I did, because I was totally off.
After that, it was smooth sailing (because we asked people how to get where we wanted to go!) The only other hitch is that we almost missed our train home (and would have had to wait another half hour) because we assumed that we had to conver the off-peak tickets we bought earlier to peak tickets before we could get on the train. As it turns out, you can pay the ticket-taker on the train for this difference in fares (which we would have known if we had asked someone!)
So, if you're planning a trip to Manhattan, especially if you plan to use public transportation (which you should probably do, since parking is atrocious - been there, done that) these are the lessons you should take away from our experience: 1. Buy a Metro Card for each person over age 5 that you're traveling with. It's your key to an amazing world of "free" transportation; 2. Bring a coat, even if you think you won't need one; and, most importantly, 3. If you don't know where you're going or how to get there, or even if you think you do (because you have a map, guidebook, or pre-printed directions from the MTA website) - JUST ASK!