Have you always wanted to go to New York City but felt it would be too expensive? Well think again. As Jan Fox finds, with a range of free attractions, special discounts and insider’s knowledge, a trip to the Big Apple needn’t take a big bite out of your bank account.
New York City: enticing, eclectic, exciting, eccentric – and expensive! Or so I thought. When a friend moved to Manhattan with her job and invited me to visit, that solved the pricey accommodation problem, but wasn’t there still about to be a serious dent in the plastic? Well, no. Amazingly, I spent less in a week than I’ve laid out on some Greek Island holidays.
Getting around New York City
The best investment for a New York City trip is a pair of comfy shoes, as it’s such a walkable city and there’s something to see on almost every street corner.
But if you want to rest your weary feet, forget driving (a nightmare on clogged roads) and taxis (though they are good for late night travel), and make your first purchase a Metrocard from any subway station. They are great value and valid on the subway and the bus system, both of which are excellent and easy to use. And you can reload at any station when you start running low on your credit.
For a completely free ride, hop on a Staten Island Ferry. These bright orange boats ply back and forth all day between Manhattan (corner of South and Whitehall Streets) and Staten Island. The 25-minute ride affords superb views of the Statue of Liberty amid a classic city backdrop.
New York sightseeing on a budget
Some of New York City’s major sights are totally free, and among the best is Central Park. Walk, jog, cycle, take a horse-drawn carriage ride, enjoy free concerts, or go for a romantic row on the lake in this long, skinny oasis.
Grand Central Terminal (87 East 42nd Street at Park Avenue), one of the world’s most famous rail stations, is another free and iconic sight. The cappuccinos in the food court here are excellent, and you can sip away as the shoeshine guys work their magic on busy commuters around you. Just around the corner, the fabulous art deco lobby of the Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Avenue at East 42nd Street) awaits, a perfect photo opportunity.
A short stroll down the street is the New York Public Library (5th Avenue at West 42nd Street), which has a box for suggested donations. Head upstairs to the historic and elegant reading room, and check out regular exhibitions downstairs. During my visit, the display featured the original Winnie the Pooh and his friends Tigger and Eeyore, donated to the library by author AA Milne’s widow.
Take a moment to pause for reflection at the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center (corner of Albany and Greenwich Streets). It’s free, but reserve tickets online before you go. The twin reflecting pool and bronze plaques provide a moving tribute to the fallen and it’s well worth a visit. The lines for security checks are long, but once you’re inside you can stay as long as you wish.
A little further south, hop on the ferry from Battery Park to Liberty and Ellis Islands, where you can easily spend all day for the very modest price of the ferry ticket. You can pay extra for the audio tour, but it’s not wholly necessary, especially on Ellis Island where the museum exhibits are excellently labelled and there’s also an informative documentary.
Many museums have free entry days or the option to pay what you wish, so check their websites before you go. The popular Museum of Modern Art, (MOMA) (11 West 53rd Street), for example, has free Friday night admission. The gargantuan Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue) has a suggested donation of US$25, but my offer to pay the student rate (half the suggested fee) was accepted, despite not being a student.
It pays to check online for money-off coupons and discounts. I booked a half-price, two-hour guided walking tour of Central Park through Living Social, while other websites, such as Club Free Time offer a range of discounts. It’s also worth considering a Citypass if you plan to see all the sights.
Bargain shopping in New York City
In such a photogenic city, the best New York City souvenirs may well be your own photos; or buy large, mounted and arty versions very cheaply from street vendors in Central Park and at Times Square. Alternatively, peruse the labyrinthine Strand Bookstore (828 Broadway at 12th Street) near Union Square for its cool and inexpensive tote bags, which make useful gifts. The 9/11 Memorial museum’s shop sells New York police and fire department souvenirs with proceeds helping to fund the memorial – and who wouldn’t want an NYPD emblazoned coffee mug for the office?
For stylish clothing, check out Century 21 (22 Cortlandt Street, between Church Street and Broadway) and Nordstrom Rack (60 East 14th Street among other branches), which have big markdowns on designer duds. Macy’s (citywide) offers international visitors a 10% discount when they download a visitor’s pass. I also spent some time hunting down vintage bargains at thrift stores (charity shops) like Housing Works in Chelsea (143 West 17th Street among other branches), which is great fun, and you never know what you’ll find.
Eating out in New York City on a budget
When eating out, do as the locals do and fill up on breakfast at established neighbourhood diners. Gracie’s Corner on the Upper East Side (352 East 86th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues) is a good option with a cosy old-fashioned feel.
Pizza is a New York City staple and is among the best you’ll taste anywhere. Can’t manage a whole one? 99 Cent Pizza (151 East 43rd Street at 3rd Avenue), a super-busy hole-in-the-wall eatery, serves a limited range of no-frills pizza by the slice, but it’s hot, fresh and tasty, and you can’t beat it for value.
Sit-down meals need not be expensive either. On my way to the opera at the Lincoln Center, I stopped off at Café Blossom (466 Columbus Avenue) on the Upper West Side. It offers organic vegan fare in a candlelit and sleek oasis for upscale veggies (though omnivores love it too!). The grilled seitan steak with port wine sauce and herbed mash was to die for, and most main courses here are under US$20.
Later on in the day, take advantage of ‘happy hours’ and filling snacks at local bars and restaurants. The margaritas are killer and the guacamole is as fresh as can be at Dos Caminos (825 3rd Avenue at 50th Street) – part of a chain, it’s bustling with office workers at the end of the day.
If you’re lucky with your timing, check out NYC Restaurant Week each January and February and again in the summer months – a 20-day event with great value, three-course prix fixe meals at more than 300 restaurants.
Cheap accommodation in New York City
The biggest outlay for your New York City visit (apart from a flight) is likely to be accommodation; so network with friends, consider a house or apartment swap, or scope out trendy Brooklyn for cheaper options, including the Hotel Le Jolie (235 Meeker Avenue) in Williamsburg. If you want to be in Manhattan, opt for a no-frills place to lay your head, such as The Pod Hotel (230 East 51st Street). After all, New York City has so much to keep you busy; you’ll barely have time to sleep!