By Sarah Schlichter
The Big Apple has a reputation as one of the most expensive cities in the world, and that’s not entirely undeserved — the average price of a New York City hotel room is a whopping $242 a night — second only to Geneva and Monte Carlo.
But pricey hotels aside, New York is actually a surprisingly attractive destination for budget travelers, especially if you’re willing to do a little advance planning. Read on to learn how to dine on the cheap, get discount tickets to Broadway shows, save on public transportation, and find the city’s best free attractions and events.
1. Get out the map. Group the sights that you want to see by neighborhood so that you visit one area of the city each day (i.e., visit the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street one day, and Central Park and Times Square another day). This will make the most of your time and save you money on subways and taxis.
2. Expand your reach. Spend at least part of your trip exploring residential neighborhoods like NoHo, Tribeca and Greenwich Village rather than the tourist traps. You’ll get to see the real New York without paying out the wazoo.
3. Save on your day trip. Want to get out of town? You can take Greyhound’s Lucky Streak bus service from New York to Atlantic City, N.J., where the major casinos will offer gambling credits or slot machine coins that often nearly match the cost of your bus fare. If you are visiting New York in the winter, consider a ski trip to the Catskills. Several local sports stores (such as Outdoor Bound) offer a great price on bus trips to Hunter Mountain, including lift ticket and equipment rentals.
4. Look for reduced admission. Check the Web sites of museums you plan to visit and see whether they offer any free or reduced-price admission days. For example, the Museum of Modern Art is free every Friday between 4 and 8 p.m. Some museums also offer coupons or discounts on their Web sites.
5. Take advantage of freebies. Some attractions are free all the time — including Central Park, where there are almost always street performers and musicians roaming around, and the High Line, a new public park recently created from an old elevated rail line. The Downtown Boathouse offers free public kayaking programs.
6. Stock up on coupons. For discounts on food, shopping, spas and attraction admission, try Groupon. You register for free, and every day, the site sends you an e-mail with a discount offer for a business in the city you’ve chosen. (Recent deals included $50 worth of meals at the Il Tetto restaurant in Park Slope for a cost of only $20, and four two-hour walking tours of New York for $20 — a $40 value.) The catch is that you only have 24 hours to purchase each deal (but you do have more than 24 hours to use it). People who know they’ll be traveling to New York City can stock up on said deals (for which they’ll receive printable e-mail confirmation/coupons/verification of purchase) prior to visiting.
7. Take the ferry. Skip the touristy (and pricey) harbor cruises and take the Staten Island Ferry instead for fantastic views of New York Harbor — it’s free!
Shows and entertainment
8. Find low-cost events. There are free or inexpensive concerts, readings, art exhibits and other events happening all over the city on any given day; the only challenge is finding them. Check out New York Magazine, which offers an online event search feature that lets you filter results by cost (try “$10 & Under” or “Free”).
9. Save on Broadway tickets. The popular TKTS booths are a great place to check for discounted Broadway tickets, but they’re not your only option. There are often even better deals to be had on discount ticket Web sites like BroadwayBox.com.
10. Go to the source. Theaters will often sell leftover tickets (for as little as $20) a couple of hours before shows at their respective box offices — but sometimes it’s standing room only, or seats may not be together if you’ve got a group. Some theaters may give discounts to seniors or students with ID; it never hurts to ask.
11. Get a subscription. Theater lovers who visit New York regularly or are planning a lengthy trip should consider an Audience Extras membership. For a yearly fee, you get access to last-minute tickets for local shows and concerts that have empty seats to fill. Tickets are free other than a $3.50 reservation charge. The membership pays for itself after just a few shows.
12. Buy a subway pass. It’s often cost-efficient to buy subway passes that give you unlimited rides for a day or a week (depending, obviously, on how long you’ll be in town). This is especially true if you don’t know where you’re going because if you make a mistake and have to redirect, it may involve swiping your card several times more than you anticipated. (To help with navigating New York’s public transit system, check out HopStop.com.)
13. Consider driving. If you’re coming into the city with a group of people, it might actually be cheaper to take a car (though also more annoying). Say you pay $40 for parking, $8 for tolls and $10 for gas — it’s still less than $20 x 4 for train tickets into the city. But be sure to weigh that against the convenience of taking the train.
14. Plan your parking. If you do decide to drive into the city, print out coupons or a parking pass ahead of time that will allow you to park all day for a flat rate, rather than paying horrendous hourly fees. We like ICON Parking, which is well known throughout the city and has several locations. At the top of the site, under “hourly/daily rates,” you can enter the dates and times of your arrival and departure — give yourself a buffer of a couple of hours each way, in case you arrive early or get tied up and leave late — and choose your parking garage location using the map. It’ll then give you a printable confirmation that guarantees your flat rate for that time frame. You don’t pay until you return to the garage to pick up your vehicle, so you don’t even have to use a credit card to reserve online.
15. Use your feet. Manhattan is very walkable and you see a lot more on foot than you would by public transport or taxi. Plus, it’s free.
16. Hop on a bike. Biking is a fun and inexpensive way to get around the city (just be sure to wear a helmet and stick to bike lanes for safety). There are some wonderful cycle routes around Manhattan, especially along the Hudson and East Rivers. See NYC.gov/bikes for tips and maps.
17. Follow the young folks. If upscale lounges and fancy restaurants aren’t your thing, skip the touristy Times Square area and eat where the students eat. Neighborhoods with colleges and universities — such as the East Village near New York University — often have unique local eats at fantastic prices.
18. Hit the streets. In a city renowned for its street food, you’re missing out if you eat all your meals in restaurants. From familiar hot dog carts to trucks bearing every kind of ethnic fare you can imagine, you can eat your way around the globe without ever leaving the Big Apple — or paying more than a few bucks at a time. NewYorkStreetFood.com highlights some of the best options.
19. Explore ethnic neighborhoods. Areas like Chinatown, Little Italy and Little India are a great bet for authentic meals at affordable prices. One of our favorite dining experiences is to get up early on a Sunday and head to Chinatown for dim sum. Locals far outnumber tourists in the busy restaurants here, which offer small tapas-style plates for just a few dollars each.
20. Don’t worry, be happy. If you want to save money at the bar, go out early and take advantage of happy hour prices and less crowded venues.
21. Think outside Manhattan. Thanks to New York’s comprehensive public transportation system, there’s no need to pay through the nose for a Midtown hotel when you can stay in one of the other boroughs — or in New Jersey — and take the train wherever you want to go. Even after factoring in the cost of extra transportation, the savings can be significant.
22. Consider alternatives. Unfortunately for budget travelers, the New York governor recently banned short-term apartment rentals. However, you can still consider other alternative accommodations such as home exchange, couch surfing or hostels (many have private rooms in addition to dorms).
23. Share a bath. If you’re willing to sacrifice a little comfort for a better location, consider staying in a hotel or inn with a shared bath — it’s often one of the best ways to find a truly budget rate in the most popular Manhattan neighborhoods.
24. Hit the flea markets. Spend your Saturday or Sunday shopping (and haggling) at one of the city’s flea markets, where you’ll always find something unique.
25. Shop in the right spot. If you’re looking for great deals on purses or jewelry, skip the street corner vendors and head to Canal Street, where you’ll find bargain basement prices.