A Local’s Guide to New York City on a Budget

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!

A Local's Guide to NYC on a BudgetI 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?”

You can follow her adventures around the world and in NYC on her blog Chau for Now or on Twitter @ciaochaumui. But first, here’s her ultimate guide to enjoying NYC on a budget.

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.

A Local's Guide to NYC on a Budget

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.

A Local's Guide To...NYC on a Budget

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.

A Local's Guide To...NYC on a Budget

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.

A Local's Guide to NYC on a 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!

A Local's Guide to NYC on a Budget

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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  • Reply
    Nicole Louise
    February 25, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    I would love to visit New York one day but always think it would be difficult on a budget, these are great tips! ????

  • Reply
    February 25, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Aaah my beloved New York! I’m totally not a big city girl but you can’t just not love NY, right 🙂 Not easy to do on a budget indeed, but there are some ways to save money and this guide pretty much sums them all up perfectly! Great read!!

  • Reply
    February 25, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Good to know, thanks! I loved Chinatown when I was there, but will have to remember Koreatown for next time – karaoke is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine (after a few alcoholic beverages, naturally). Great money saving tips all round, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Reply
      February 25, 2016 at 7:32 pm

      Thanks Joe. I wish I had these tips before I went. Really felt like I missed out on so much! Who doesn’t love karaoke haha!

  • Reply
    February 25, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    I love to read posts on how to visit places on a budget! We travel on a very tiny one too but it’s amazing how much you can do without hurting your wallet! This will come in handy when we’ll reach NY!!
    The best people to show you a place/ city are indeed the locals! Like your way of traveling!

    • Reply
      February 25, 2016 at 7:36 pm

      couldn’t agree more! I wish I’d had Chau with me as my personal guide! She had loads more tips too but I have to cut it down a bit!

  • Reply
    Jey Jetter
    February 25, 2016 at 7:59 pm

    Yeah, great article, so helpful as NYC is really a pain when it comes to spending money…!!

  • Reply
    Rob Taylor
    February 26, 2016 at 2:38 am

    Yes, do the Metrocard!! And that is such a great tip about the museums. While it’s great to be able to contribute the suggestion, any donation is good. 🙂

  • Reply
    Tarah Vongbouthdy
    February 26, 2016 at 4:08 am

    Great round-up of new york. Its nice to see the budget side of things to do, as we didn’t really do things cheap when we went! Plenty to see and do though!

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    Great post! We have yet to make it to NYC – but one day for sure.

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks a tonne!!Very useful indeed

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Super handy! Hopefully will finally get there this year and this is super handy as I plan on blowing way too much money on awesome restaurants 🙂 Thanks!

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    Great post! I really need to read more of these budget posts…I’m the worst for budget traveling!

  • Reply
    Amanda Williams
    February 26, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Really great insight – thanks for sharing this guide to NYC from an insider’s perspective.

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Great tips. Visiting all the incredible Street Art is another free/cheap thing to do in NYC.

  • Reply
    February 26, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    Great article and so interesting for us to share budget tips for visiting this pretty expensive city. NY is a city I really want to visit, but I guess the price is what was holding me back to go. So thanks for this article 🙂

  • Reply
    Hung Thai
    February 26, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    I’m actually planning on going to New York later this year; thanks for the tips, now where’s my NOODLES?!

  • Reply
    Tom Kowal
    February 27, 2016 at 3:40 am

    Thanks for this post. NYC on a budget would be a challenge.

  • Reply
    Kirsty Marrns
    February 27, 2016 at 8:26 am

    This is a great post and always good to have a local’s perspective. Will definitely try some of these tips next time I am in NYC.

  • Reply
    Renne Simpson
    February 29, 2016 at 4:52 am

    Nice tips. I completely agree with hitting up LES for cheap bars. I stayed there recently and there were soooo many little dive bars to duck into around the area, all with good prices and awesome vibes.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    I almost always have a free day on each trip to the city. And I always feel like I break the bank on that one day. Going to do some of these!

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