New York City is a notoriously expensive city. I visited last year at the end of my around-the-world trip with hardly a penny to my name, mostly down to poor budgeting. As a result I felt like I missed out on experiencing NYC to its fullest…but had I done some research, I could have really benefited from some tips to ensure my time there was an enjoyable one. NYC is after all the city that never sleeps and has so much to offer!
I met a lot of other backpackers who had done a similar RTW route to me and were in the same position. That’s why I’ve invited Chau Mui (the lovely lady on the right!) to give some tips on how you can still enjoy the city without breaking the bank.
Chau is a fellow travel blogger and photographer born and raised in NYC. One of the original stoop kids, she lived in Brooklyn before it was cool to live in Brooklyn. She’ll tell you that, “the city” only refers to Manhattan, Houston is pronounced “Howston” and that she can beat you speedwalking through a crowded NYC street faster than you can ask “where’s the best pizza in town?”
Getting around NYC
The absolute cheapest way to get around town is with your own two feet. NYC is a completely walkable city, and it’s quite common for locals to walk several blocks to get to where they need to go. To put it into perspective 20 city blocks is equivalent to one mile.
Taxis and traffic are awful during rush hour so taking the train will get you to where you need to be efficiently and cheaply. You can get a Metrocard for the subway – each ride costs $2.75 and comes with one free transfer to a bus. One ride will take you across all five boroughs. I’d recommend getting a 7 Day Unlimited Pass for $31 since you will most definitely be hopping around. Trains run around every seven minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes during slower times. They get you anywhere you need to go and run for 24 hours.
You can also rent Citibikes, located every few blocks. I rarely ride them because of the traffic in NYC, but if you get on a bike path on the West Side Highway during the spring or summer, it’s a dream. If you rent by the day they cost $9.95 but you need to dock it every 30 minutes.
Things to do in NYC
There are a ton of free things to do in NYC. Sightseeing is best done by foot. I’ve walked from the Central Park to Columbus Circle (59th st) and hit Times Square (42nd St), Herald Square (34th St), the Flatiron Building (23rd st), Union Square (14th st), SoHo’s Broadway, and finally ending up in Chinatown’s Grand Street right before the Manhattan Bridge. It’s a long walk but you’ll be stopping here and there, taking pictures along the way – it makes a great day trip.
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is also another fun activity. Going during sunset on a summer’s day is great, but going during sunrise is even more special and you’ll beat the crowds. Just DON’T try to ride a bike here, you might get cursed out by a speeding NYer on his workout ride.
Summertime offers plenty of fun activities in the parks like Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn! They offer free concerts and performances all throughout the summer. A lot of movies play for free as well.
Visiting Coney Island is also a must. This is the beach I went to a lot as a kid and I remember when it was run down. Nowadays it’s safe and as “Disney-fied” as imaginable…but a really fun place to visit.
There are workarounds to many of the main tourist sites. Most museums (like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History) have suggested retail prices. This means that you can pay whatever you want to. If you are on a budget, you can pay $10, $5 or even $1 and get in just fine. For the Metropolitan Museum of National History, skip the main entrance and beat the line. There’s a second entrance around the block by the Planetarium that rarely has a line.
For Broadway tickets you can line up early at the TKTS booths in South Street Seaport, Times Square and downtown Brooklyn to get reduced price tickets for that day.
You can also get a coupon called the CityPass, which can give you entrance to a number of the main tourist attractions (like the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty to name but a few), but personally I think this is expensive and quite frankly I think you are better off going to places individually. You can always look at Time Out Magazine for discounts, deals and free or cheap activities.
Local Tip: Skip any tour bus. You don’t get a proper feel for NYC that way, and most of the time you’ll be stuck in traffic. You can get around better via foot or train.
Eating out in NYC
Skip the tourist spots. For just as many expensive restaurants there are in NYC, you can find many low cost options. Stand food is great. You can get delicious halal food, rice and gyros, falafel sandwiches from many of the stands for less than $8. If you see people lining up for them around lunchtime it’s a popular go-to. The most famous halal stand is at 53rd and 6th street, right by Radio City Hall. They are so popular that they have taken over all four of the street corners. You can always visit the one on 14th street if you don’t want to go all the way uptown.
A lot of great Mexican food trucks are around too like Tacos Morelos. If you’re around during lunch time, you’ll see a lot of amazing food trucks by office buildings. Pizza is ALWAYS another great option and will never cost you more than $3 for a plain slice.
Asian food is usually a lot cheaper. Thai restaurants and anything in Chinatown will be delicious and only cost you a few bucks. If you see Asian families eating inside then it is authentic and a green light! If you see just a lot of other tourists, it’s probably catering to tourists so it might not be as authentic.
Local Tip: Use Yelp to find cheap alternatives – there really is so much good food all around NYC that can match any budget.
Nightlife in NYC
If you are staying in a hotel or Airbnb make sure to visit your local liquor store or have your alcohol delivered. Many shops now do it, so just Google liquor delivery nearby where you are staying. You can pre-drink at your accommodation OR you can do happy hours in the city. Almost every bar has great happy hour specials.
For reasonably priced bars go to the hipper neighbourhoods like the Lower East Side (LES) where there are the staples like Fat Baby, No Fun, Pianos, Hair of the Dog. Also a local NYC hangout spot I love is Reservoir Bar. If you like live salsa music go to Gonzalez y Gonzalez.
A really unique and fun option is to go out in Koreatown. This one block has restaurants on the floor but head upstairs in most buildings and there are clubs and karaoke bars. Just look for the lights in the windows and head up!
Where to rest your head
If I were coming to visit NYC for the first time, I would not stay in Times Square, as everything there is crazy expensive.
Airbnb is a great affordable alternative to staying in hotels. You can also use apps like Hotel Tonight to find deals. My personal favourite hotels are in Soho (The Mondrian, Crosby St.) Soho offers wonderful boutique hotels, great shopping and is a really quaint neighbourhood that is within walking distance to everything. You can also hop on the L Train right across the water to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. This is a hipster’s dream and prices here can be slightly cheaper.
Chau’s favourite budget thing to do in NYC…
Watching a stand up show at the Comedy Cellar on Macdougal Street. Famous comedians roll up all the time and you might end up with abs from laughing so hard. Afterwards you can head upstairs to Olive Tree Cafe for cheap eats, where you’ll usually see a comedian or two practising. Or you can head to Mahmouns for a cheap falafel or Saigon Shack for one of their delicious Banh Mi sandwiches.
Have you got any money-saving tips for enjoying NYC on a budget? I’d love to hear your tips below!
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