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Sightseeing costs in New York City do add up, but they can be alleviated, somewhat, through the judicious use of passes. Of the three major options available, I can highly recommend two ... and will discuss the problems with the third.
Let's start with CityPass (tel. 208/737-4800; www.citypass.com) the most selective of the passes, allowing entry to just six attractions (The Museum of Modern Art, The Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise, The Observatory Deck of the Empire State Building, The Guggenheim Museum, The American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum). That being said, all six attractions are superb and more than worthy of your time.
The cost of the CityPass is $56 for adults, $49 for kids between the ages of 6 and 17, which may sound like a lot, but if you visit only the first four attractions on the list above, you'll save about $20. Visit all six and the discount will come to about $130. Travelers have 9 days in which to use all their passes, which is a generous amount of time. Additional bonus: the passes work as tickets, so you'll be able to breeze right into the attraction, standing only in the security inspection line at the Empire State Building.
The Explorer Pass (tel. 800/887-9103; www.explorerpass.com) works a bit differently. Of a long list of options, which include tours along with museums, you pick five. You then have a full 30 days to use the pass. Explorer Pass costs $109 for adults, $69 for kids 3-12, but, depending on how you pick, you could be looking at savings of between $20 and $40. That being said, I think that some of the pickable attractions aren't worth your time; and only some of them seem to include a "skip the line" option. I'd still rate City Pass, higher, but if you really want to do a bus tour, then this is the pass for you.
My least favorite, the New York Pass (tel. 888/714-1999; www.newyorkpass.com), grants admission to a full 55 sites and tours but (and this is a big but) it doesn't really give the bearer enough time to see these sights. So, you may end up spending more on the pass than you save. Its one-day pass is a whopping $69 for adults ($49 for kids) and you'd have to move at action hero speed to get your money's worth. Buy a 2-day pass and the tab goes to $99, with 3 days at $125 and 7 at a whopping $165. Though the New York Pass does give you "line skipping" rights, as the CityPass does, you'll need to go to the admissions window and exchange your voucher for a ticket -- a real time-waster (especially at the Empire State Building).
Still, the New York Pass does cover many important sites that the others don't, including the Bronx Zoo, and the United Nations Tour. My advice? Create an itinerary and then crunch the numbers to see which option will work best for you.