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A trip to New York in December is almost a rite of passage for many American families, as well as international travelers from every possible corner of the globe. And, I have to admit it, I don’t blame people for falling in love with the idea of visiting New York City at the height of the holiday season.
The city turns into a brilliant spectacle of lights, Christmas performances, and high fashion sales.
Not to mention, everyone’s seen Home Alone 2: Lost in New York at least once in their lives. At least I hope so! I mean, the Plaza Hotel and Central Park? Be still my beating heart.
However, is it good to visit New York in December? After all, the holiday season, running from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, is the most popular time to go to New York City.
And as with all with popular times, high season problems, such as crowds and expensive hotels, come to town. Yikes.
This post will help you figure out if a Christmas trip to New York City is right for you and your travel companions.
Is It Good to Visit New York in December?
Yes and no.
Gasp, I know. A lukewarm answer from me regarding New York City? One of my favorite places in the world? For frequent readers, I don’t blame you for feeling surprised at this answer.
Let me explain.
New York in December is good for a certain mindset.
For instance, I think if you truly love the Christmas spirit and adore big bustling cities (and their crowds), then taking a trip to New York in December would fit both your personality and travel needs. You’re less likely to feel bothered by the jammed streets, and more likely to let little annoyances roll off your shoulders.
“Going with the flow” is an essential attitude for this type of trip, no questions asked.
Furthermore, if you’ve extra money simmering in your bank account and want to shop at all the best boutiques, then New York’s shopping scene, especially this time of year, is brilliant. The window displays are able to entice the most fiscally-minded person.
However, for travelers seeking a more laidback experience, then December in New York isn’t for you. Nor should you come to New York over the holidays if you’re on a strict budget for your travels.
I wouldn’t even recommend New York in December to anxious travelers considering the chaos on the subway and train stations. Instead you’ll want to come to New York in the strict “off season months” such as late January and March.
Know what type of traveler you are to avoid any deep disappointments.
Read More: Solo Travel in New York Guide
1. The Pros of Travel to New York in December
Okay, with all that lecturing out of the way, let’s talk about the good news first.
New York City’s abundant holiday decorations and events are truly magical in December. The euphoric Christmas spirit literally seeps under your skin. Ebenezer Scrooge would even feel impressed.
Need more specifics? Okay, so for example, I personally love watching the ice skaters zip around Bryant Park. Not to mention, the window shopping in New York City is simply delightful. Even if you don’t buy anything, you’ll feel happy and upbeat about the thought of presents under the tree.
To tell you the truth, I’m actually pretty shy when it comes to holiday family gatherings, but New York’s delightful atmosphere even makes me excited for the coziness of the Christmas season.
2. The Cons of Travel to New York in December
Ugh, prices and crowds. Prices. And. Crowds.
They make me wanna scream.
Honestly, the crowds are the worst part about taking a trip to New York in December. Do you want my true unfiltered opinion on the tourist hordes that come to New York every holiday season? Buckle in, skipper.
When the crowds come together, all common decency goes out the window. The groups are pushy and rude in the sense that they will stop in the middle of the sidewalks, block doorways, and crash into you.
I hate to sound mean, but, man, tourists are all around pain in the asses.
I hope you don’t think I’m being too negative. Now I’m not saying every person you’ll encounter will behave terribly.
However, the mob mentality of “me first” constantly rears its ugly head, especially when getting that perfect family photo at the Rockefeller tree. Being jostled 24/7 makes the kindest person turn … well, crazy.
In short, pack a lot of patience. New York’s decorations are worth the aggravation, but you need to take deep breathes and accept that not everyone will be on their best behavior.
Final Pro Tip to Tourists: Don’t shout “excuse me” over and over at me when I’m waiting in line for food and speaking with the cashier, because you and your girlfriends want a picture together. Ask someone who isn’t distracted and ask politely (not shouting). No one cares about your Instagram, believe me. /rant
Tips for a Trip to New York in December
Okay, if you’re already prepared to take a trip to New York in December, then it’s time for practical suggestions for your upcoming holiday trip to the biggest city in the United States.
You’ll have a wonderful time, I promise.
Though, honestly, planning ahead is essential for enjoying yourself at Christmas in the Big Apple. Following these suggestions will put you ahead of all the other tourists.
Read More: What’s the Best Time to Visit New York?
1. The Crowds in NYC in December Are Terrifying
Honestly, my biggest qualm when I travel to New York in December is that the crowds scare the crap outta me.
Seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center, for example, was one of the few times I actually wanted to leave New York City, because the massive amounts of people gave me anxiety.
Knowing ahead of time that New York City is crowded will help you pack a heavy dose of patience. Don’t lose your temper if someone bumps into you or cuts you off for that iconic photograph in front of the tree.
Take a deep breath and know that the mobs will pack the streets to the gills. By being patient, smiling, and having a good time anyway, you’ll be much more equipped to have a great time on your New York City Holiday Adventure.
Read More: Pack Your Lonely Planet Guide to New York
2. Make All Dinner Reservations Well in Advance
Unsurprisingly, the influx of tourist crowds and day trippers causes jam packed restaurants. Don’t expect to just walk into the trendiest spot.
New York City has a great food scene with tons of options. You’ll always find some place to eat. However, if you have specific tastes or your hopes pinned on certain particular restaurants, then you need to make reservations far in advance.
Do reservations cut down on spontaneity? Sure. But the risk of eating at a lousy restaurant isn’t worth flexible evening plans.
Lastly, as some personal advice, I’d avoid any restaurants near Times Square. I promise I’m not hating on Times Square to be cool. However, the food in that area isn’t that great and overpriced, and you’ll have to deal with way too many tourists.
Instead I’d make dinner reservations in “downtown” neighborhoods such as East Village, the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and other nearby areas.
3. Prepare for Unpredictable Weather
New York in December is usually cold, but honestly, weather is very unpredictable in the northeastern United States and global warming have made matters even worse. For example, I remember a few years ago, it was rainy and 70 degrees (that’s ~21 degrees celsius) on Christmas Eve in nearby New Jersey. Crazy, huh?
I even mention in my NYC Winter Packing Guide that winter weather is a frustrating beast.
My personal opinion is to check the temperatures about a week ahead of time and then get to packing for your trip. Don’t expect a certain temperature and then over or underpack. Wait til your vacation is close to make your clothing decisions.
4. Explore Other Areas Besides Midtown
Without a doubt, Midtown is where the most iconic Christmas events are located. Winter Village in Bryant Park, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the Rockefeller Tree, and much more.
I’m not saying to avoid Midtown like the plague. Let’s face: Midtown’s attractions are probably why you’re planning a trip to New York in December.
However, you won’t want to limit your visit entirely to Midtown, especially if you want some time away from the crowds.
Furthermore, New York City is so much more than the borough of Manhattan. For instance, Astoria in Queens has many things to do and won’t be nearly as crowded as 5th Avenue and Times Square. Branch out.
5. Accept that You’ll Spend Money
Perhaps you have more self-control than I do, but a December New York trip isn’t the time to pinch pennies. Sorry, budget-minded folks, but, in my opinion, you’re gonna frequently break out the credit cards.
The good news? Many of New York’s holiday events are completely free.
For example, seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center doesn’t cost a dime. The New York City Public Library is also free and open to the public. Inside is wonderfully decorated for Christmas. If you’re able to resist temptations, window displays in New York’s most popular department stores (think Macys and Saks).
However, if you’re planning on buying gifts for family and friends, then come to terms with New York costing a pretty penny. The shopping is out of this world, certainly, but it’s not cheap. Not cheap at all.
My advice? Make sacrifices and then deal with the credit card bill later (see why I’m not a budget blogger? haha).
6. Stay Mid-Week for Cheaper Rates on Hotels
Keep in mind that hotel rates are through the roof in December. It’s one of New York’s busiest months for tourism.
And prices are even worse on Friday and Saturday nights. If you’re absolutely locked into weekends, then use a hotel finder tool to discover the cheapest prices. Not an easy feat in December, but doable for patient travelers.
If your schedule is flexible, then I’d suggest coming to New York in the middle of the week to bring down accommodation costs. Are there business travelers? Sure, but I honestly think you’d net more savings by coming to New York on a Tuesday rather than a Friday.
Take advantage of mid-week bookings should your work schedule allow it.
Are you going to take a trip to New York in December? What do you plan on seeing and doing? How to you plan to handle the crowds? Enjoy the holiday season, wayfarers.