New York, New York: The Big Apple, the Empire state, and centre of the universe for some, this city has ranked high on your destinations lists for quite some time.
You could spend months uncovering all the hidden gems this city has to offer, and would gladly do so if life were as glamorous as those living in the Upper East Side.
So when you’re short for time, and especially cash, how can you ensure you’re making the most of your vacation?
You want to admire exquisite art at the Met, sing along to Broadway show tunes and sip on Manhattans in Manhattan. Such luxuries are a fundamental part of New York, making it difficult for you to put a price on all of these necessary experiences.
But make no mistake: you can soak up the best of New York for little to no money at all – as long as you know where to look.
Whoever designed the city layout is an unmistakable friend to travellers as the streets in the heart of Manhattan are laid out as a grid, making it practically impossible to get lost.
You’ll be able to walk to most of the places stacking up your hit list: Times Square, Grand Central, 5th Avenue, the Empire State Building. Spending years at the mall during boxing day sales, dodging stressed-out shoppers with money to burn, will have undoubtedly given you the skills to conquer this island on foot.
But there are places you’ll definitely need a set of wheels to get to, including Central Park, Chinatown, Soho, and Staten Island, and the best ways to get there are by bus or subway; taxis are much too expensive, so fight the nostalgia and stick to these methods.
If you have a good sense of direction and are confident in your navigational skills, I’d recommend buying a 7-day Unlimited Pass via Metropolitan transit ($31). This gives you unlimited bus and subway rides until midnight and, if you’re not staying directly in the city, will definitely be worth your while even if you’re only here for the weekend.
But if you’d like to take out the guesswork and are willing to spend a bit more, a Hop-on-Hop-off Bus Pass is just the ticket. These buses hit the major tourist attractions throughout the city and offer many different options such as a 2-day pass for $64 (haggling is a benefit, so hone your negotiating skills). Just be sure to pass on any “special offers” they may be trying to sell you, especially to attractions that are free or offer suggested pricing.
Helpful Tip: Use an offline map of New York City by downloading it on your Google Maps app. Simply sign in to your Google Maps, type in your destination, click on the name or address at the bottom of the screen and hit download. This will help you find your way around more easily.
Free and Dirt-Cheap Attractions
Things like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and World Trade Centre will only cost you if you go inside – appreciating their beauty is priceless. Just the views themselves are staggering (plus you’ll be avoiding lines, thus saving time).
So if you don’t want to break the bank, but still want a true Manhattan experience, here are a few must-sees you can safely add to your list:
Central Park – Believe it or not, it’s free to walk around in New York. If you don’t want to see the entire park, be sure to drop in at Sheep Meadow and marvel at its wonder.
Times Square – Unless you’re here to shop or eat, you can tour around this part of town and see some of the famous buildings that house MTV, Good Morning America and the New Years’ Eve ball (dropped until Dec. 31).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/The Museum of Modern Art – While the Met promotes a suggested price of $25, you can get in for as little as $1; it’s only a suggestion after all. To hinder the guilt, you can always check out the MoMA instead, which is absolutely free.
Grand Central Station – You’ll only need to fork out cash if you’re planning on riding the rails – a peek inside or a quick tour costs nothing at all.
Rockefeller Centre – Again, no cost to look around. If you’re visiting around Christmas, you’ll see the famous Christmas tree and skating rink that are constructed here each year, but beware: you’ll be shoveling out roughly $20-$50 to strap on some skates yourself.
New York Public Library – An absolute jaw-dropper, this library is free to visit, offering numerous exhibits including a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Ground Zero: 9/11 Memorial – The plots where the twin towers stood before the most significant catastrophe of our time have been commemorated with two large, beautiful fountains. This eye-opening experience is easily at the top of my list for New York and, of course, is absolutely free.
Brooklyn Bridge – A great view and a lovely walk on a New York staple, the Brooklyn Bridge will put both yourself and your wallet at ease, because it’s free.
Staten Island Ferry – Take a half-hour journey on the ferry and cruise by the Statue of Liberty. Going inside the statue or taking a tour boat will cost you, but you’ll have a great view of the lady of the land and Manhattan without dropping a dime.
High Line Park – This is the coolest place to be with a great view of the city as you walk along the park from Gansevoort St to 30th. And if romance happens to strike you during your stay, it’s also the ideal location for a first date.
Bang for your Buck
You’re no fool – you’ve most likely had a mile-long list of things to do and see in the city that are so famous and quintessential, it doesn’t really matter what alternatives I spew at you; you’re going to do them no matter the cost.
But in order to help you avoid post-vacation financial woes, I’m going to let you in on a few secrets that will allow you to achieve your dreams at a more reasonable price.
View of the City
You won’t believe how many options you’ll have for a sky-high view of the city, and you certainly won’t believe how much money they can drain from your wallet.
The Revolving Restaurant at the Times Square Marriott is extremely overpriced, the Empire State Building will have you dropping $42-$100, and taking a Helicopter tour is even too much for me to begin to type.
If you absolutely cannot be deterred from taking a skyscraper to the top, then let me suggest going to the Top of the Rock at Rockefellar Centre. It is easily the cheapest of its kind starting at $26, but you’ll still end up standing in line for the long-haul regardless.
Alternative: While these options may not seem as glamorous, you can still get a great view for free when you visit the High line, Brooklyn Bridge, Gantry Plaza State Park, Battery Park and Belvedere Castle.
No one really comes to New York to shop – that is unless you’re Beyonce Knowles. But we are tourists after all ! And with tourism comes tons of souvenirs.
Buying anything in the heart of Times Square will be revoltingly expensive, from shopping to food and the like. This area is filled with nothing but tourists, and the principles of supply and demand definitely tip the scales in favour of the 1%.
More often than not, you can find exactly what’s being sold in this area throughout the rest of city – especially when it comes to souvenirs. The further you move away from Times Square and into places like Chelsea, Tribeca and East Village where the real New Yorkers frolic, the more reasonable prices become.
If you stop in at Little Italy and Chinatown, you will find cart vendors and Ma and Pop shops that’ll fall better into your price range. You also have the advantage to haggle prices and ensure that you’re really getting a good deal on a quality product.
Regardless, you should save your cash for any outlet malls you may pass driving to and from New York. But it’s always fun to window shop at Macy’s, Saks, Bloomingdales and Tiffany’s.
Helpful Tip: You will surely see people in Times Square trying to sell you stuff on the street, luring you in with compliments and a request for a couple bucks for their CD (half of which are blank anyway). These people can get very aggressive and will harass you for upwards of $10, so it’s best to avoid them. It’s great to support hard-working locals, but there are plenty of other ways to do so.
Food and Drink
The rules for shopping are generally applied to that of food and drink: the closer to Times Square you find yourself, the more money you’ll end up doling out. And because we all need to eat, you can be sure you’ll pay more in the city than anywhere else for some grub.
Hell’s Kitchen offers a great peek into the gritty history of New York, with tons of options close to Times Square if you don’t want to stray too far. This area is known for its slew of international cuisine offered at a more reasonable price and is definitely worth the look.
Drinks can also get very pricey, but if you’re really craving that Manhattan, make sure you hit the bars during Happy Hour, which typically run from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (varying from bar to bar). Only select drinks will be on special, but I guarantee you won’t have to look far to find a cheap cocktail during these hours.
Helpful Hint: Wherever you find yourself, make sure to check out the menu displayed outside and note the health-inspection rating listed in the window. A is best, and anything rated C or under means you’ll be dining Ratatouille style (i.e. WITH RATS!) If you can’t find a rating in the window (which all establishments are legally required to post), avoid it altogether.
I’ve no doubt you’ll be inspired to see a Broadway show during your stay, but if you buy your tickets too far in advance, you’ll be paying hundreds of dollars when you could have gotten the same seats for $50.
If you don’t have a particular show in mind, hit the box office on the day you’re looking to go and take what you can at the best price. If you go to any show 2-3 hours in advance, you can get incredibly cheap seats at a discounted price (depending on availability).
While some suggest waiting at the TKTS box office for last-minute, you-can’t-believe-these-prices tickets, this isn’t an ideal method if staying for a few short days. People can wait hours for tickets, with no promise of a show – your time is too valuable for any of this hullabaloo.
If this spur-of-the-moment purchasing isn’t your jam, and you’re not willing to drop the cash even at these low prices, grabbing tickets for an off-Broadway show is probably your safest and cheapest bet.
Helpful Tip: You can also download the TodayTix app, which gives you the best deals for all shows, off-Broadway and on, available each week. This gives you the option to keep an eye on discounted prices, while also opting into the lottery that gives away hot seats at even lower prices.
Alternative: Hit Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway and 51st Street where you’ll find aspiring-stars who will serve you your meal and put on a show. Be aware that this diner is always busy, and the food isn’t exactly worth your money – but the experience is. Instead of stopping in for dinner, go for a quick dessert or milkshake, taking in the experience without having to pay $18 for a mediocre lunch.
Still need a few ideas on where to go and fast? Check out this vacation map of Manhattan below.
Note: All prices are in US dollars. Note any conversion rates.
Travel blogger for thehereandwow.com and member of the Travel Media Association of Canada. Follow her adventures on twitter (@ginaalward), Facebook (The Here and Wow) and Instagram (@thehereandwow).
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