New York doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a cheap city to take a trip to. And, even once you’ve factored in the cost of flights and hotels, just getting around, eating and seeing the sights while you’re there can really add up. You could easily shell out hundreds of dollars a day just to hit up typical tourist hotspots like the Empire State building ($32 just to go to the 86th floor, $52 for the top floor), the Statue of Liberty (around $18 to take a boat out to Liberty Island or $21 if you want access to the statue too) or $30 to go up to the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center. Add to that the cost of cabs, dinner at overpriced restaurants and expensive drinks, you’ll blow your budget in days.
However, the good news is that you definitely CAN do NYC on the cheap. I went with the intention of having a good time, but I did stick to a budget of around $50 a day, excluding the hotel. So, here are my tips on fun and cheap ways to enjoy a few days in the Big Apple!
1 – Affordable eats
New York is renowned as a foodie city with its famous pizzas and hot dogs, international cuisine and countless street food kiosks. And there is food to suit any budget. If you’re on a low budget, there are plenty of options.
– Skip the central tourist areas and famous restaurants. Sure you might choose to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe once, but don’t make a habit of eating around Times Square or in fancy/tourist-trap restaurants. Try to eat somewhere that isn’t too close to Times Square, the Rockefeller Center or another tourist-laden area.
– Eat at delis! This was the best discovery we made in terms of affordable food. You can get breakfast, lunch or dinner at any of NYC’s hundreds of great delis – many of which have seating inside and make a great midpoint between cheap fast food and a nice restaurant. You can either take away a sandwich, burger or salad, or sit in and enjoy anything from a classic breakfast bagel to a pot of udon noodles to a hot dish of chicken cutlet, eggs or pizza. Mostly you can easily find dinner for under $10 this way or take out lunch for around $5.
– Take your own. It’s always cheaper to grab food from a deli, convenience store or kiosk than it is to sit in at a restaurant. You can easily pick up a sandwich or other picnic style food and take it to eat in Central Park rather than sticking to eating inside in expensive restaurants. You can grab slices of pizza for 99c at loads of places across the city for a snack or quick lunch.
– Bring some water. If you don’t mind carrying your own water bottle you can refill it at several places in the city such as the water fountains in Central Park.
– Leftovers are your friend. One night we ate in Little Italy and the portions were huge. So we took half our eggplant parmigiana away in a takeout box and ate it for a free lunch the next day.
– Locate the budget restaurants. On our last night we had dinner in a restaurant in Chinatown and I had a huge plate of rice, tofu and fried fish for just $5.50. Try asking locals or searching online to find other budget restaurants.
2 – Alternatives to the expensive tourist sights
Of course you want to see the sights while you’re in NY. But there are plenty of things to do and see for free or cheap.
– Skip the paid tours to Liberty Island and take the Staten Island ferry for absolutely free! The touts will try to strongly dissuade you from taking the free ferry and will try to push you towards the boats directly to the Statue of Liberty. However, you can get a really nice boat trip and still see the Statue (albeit from a distance) from the ferry for absolutely nothing. The ferry runs about every half an hour and you just show up and hop on. Once you’re in Staten Island there isn’t much to do though. We had lunch at quite a nice Mexican place where the waitress chatted to us in Spanish, but you might want to just take the return ferry as Staten Island isn’t the most exciting place to be.
– Central Park. Obviously this is a must-see and it’s also a great free way to spend an afternoon. It’s absolutely huge so you can spend ages walking around and seeing the various attractions in there such as the turtle pond and Belvedere Castle. Or you can sunbathe and chill out (depending on the weather of course!). Just learn to say a very firm ‘no thanks’ to people trying to sell you maps and horse and cart rides. There are maps posted around here and there anyway, and you can easily walk the whole park on your own.
– I’ve heard that it’s a good idea to go up the Rockefeller Center instead of the Empire State as this gives you an equally great view for slightly less. Well, the Top of the Rock will only set you back $30 instead of $52, but it’s still pretty expensive in my book so I gave it a miss. You can get nice views of the city from other places.
– Museums. Unfortunately the museums in NYC are not free as we’re used to in London, but the Natural History Museum has a great ‘pay what you want’ policy. The suggested donation is $22 per person, but if you go to the cash desk you can state your own entry fee. We paid $10 each but you could even pay less if you really want. Other museums like the MOMA have a free or cheap day (it’s Friday for the MOMA).
– There are loads of places to go and see without paying, like Times Square, Greenwich Village, the Brooklyn Bridge and Chinatown/Little Italy, so base your trip mainly around those and prioritise a couple of sights that you are willing to pay for.
3 – Getting around
Of course cabs are very convenient and we did take one to get back from a night out in the West Village which cost around $11/12, but you can get around more or less everywhere by subway for much cheaper. One journey is $2.75 regardless of how far you go and how many lines you take. Pick up a MetroCard at almost any machine and recharge it when needed. You can also walk to a lot of places within Manhattan so if you plan well you’ll only need to make a few subway journeys and can keep travel costs pretty low.
To get to the city from the airport (and vice versa) you can take the Sky Train for $5 and then the subway from Jamaica station for much, much less than taking a cab.
4 – Drinking and going out
My impression was that drinks in New York were pretty expensive. Perhaps I didn’t discover the right watering holes as most places seemed to have beer at about $7 for a pint which is steep even for a Londoner! We tried to go out in the Meatpacking District which websites keep mentioning as a great place to go out. Well maybe it is, but probably only if you’re looking to go to fancy bars where celebs hang out and tables cost a month’s salary. We found more affordable bars around the West Village and I hear Greenwich Village is nice to go out in too.
5 – Wifi: if you’re sneaky you can grab free wifi at various spots around the city. Of course all major coffeehouses and diners etc have wifi, so if you’re getting a coffee anyway, take advantage while you’re there. Otherwise, there is free wifi at most subway stations. Or you can use our favourite trick and stand outside McDonalds or Starbucks and steal their network. They’re tax-evaders anyway so in my book they deserve it.
Obviously you shouldn’t make your trip all about saving money – you’re there to enjoy yourself after all. So try to set a reasonable budget at the start of the trip and try to stick to it. But if you particularly want to try a certain restaurant, go shopping on fifth or splash out on a major tourist attraction or show then definitely go for it! Just make sure to prioritise where you’re splashing the cash and save in other areas. Please comment below with other tips, recommendations and advice!