Staying cheap in New York City

My first week in New York City was a learning process of what and what not to do. Here’s the short list of what I found out.

Don’t

1. Don’t pay for one of the pricey bus tours around the city. They cost anywhere from $50-$70 for the least expensive ones and they are not worth it. Although reluctant to spend that much for a tour, my sister talked me into it by saying that we would get a better feel for the layout of the city if we were chauffeured around on a bus for one of our first days there. First of all, this is not true. You don’t really get a sense of the layout when you’re whizzing by on a bus, with barely a few seconds between attractions to snap a couple generic pics before the light turns green again. Secondly, even though we bought our tickets ahead of time online, we still had to go in person to the office and wait in a line that was winding out the door for a couple hours to pick them up. After that ordeal, we had to wait in another 45 minute line at the pickup spot to actually get on the bus . Once on the bus, it was hard to hear the tour guide, especially since his mic kept going in and out. Overall, it was overpriced and time consuming to say the least.

The view of the UN building from the downtown loop of a Gray Line bus tour

2. Don’t wait in line at the Empire State Building. Maybe it’s a lot different when it’s not the holidays, but this was the most torturous part of my trip to New York. They’ll ask you multiple times throughout your doldrums of waiting in line if you want to buy the express pass. I am telling you now, buy the express pass. It sucks shelling out more money than you already have to in order to get to the top, but if I had known how many different lines there were going to be and just how long it was going to take to get to the lookout, I would’ve bought it instantly. The wait for the Empire State Building is a tricky one. There were probably seven different lines I stood in, and you can’t see the next one from where you’re waiting, so you think you’re almost to the front until they lead you to another room with hundreds of more tired and listless people who are just as annoyed and angry as you. The total wait time to get to the top without an express pass, over 3 hours.

The beginning of a very long wait to the top

3. Don’t pay full price for Broadway tickets. If you’re a student, take advantage of your status. If you go directly to the box office of where the show is playing and show your student ID, you will not only get tickets for around $20, but also 4th row seats. Broadway is very big on making sure young intellectuals have the opportunity to enjoy Broadway as much as anyone else, so they always set aside a percentage of tickets just for this purpose. Go early in the day and see what they have left for the show you wish to see. If you’re not a student, use the TKTS tickets booths and get discounts for the day of, or for a matinee the next day. My sister and I had been told that most of the decent Broadway shows sell out quickly during the holidays, so we chose to buy our tickets ahead of time, paying full price for nose bleed seats. Apparently, they always say that tickets are sold out or are about to sell out, but more often then not they still have some the day of. The one exception is for the extremely popular ones, this year those were The Lion King and Book of Morman. Broadway was still such an amazing experience, but I’ll definitely know the right way to buy tickets next time.

Do

1. Use the local metro. The NYC metro system is actually very easy to use and will take you anywhere you need to go for super cheap. There is even an iphone app for it! And as a bonus, it runs 24/7 so you can even take it home once the bars close up at 4am or anytime before. Not even in Paris does the metro run all night. The New York Metro system is truly a blessing for being so accessible.

2. Take advantage of the Free Tours by Foot. The Greenwich and Holiday Lights walking tours were some of my favorite memories from the trip. Both tour guides I had were witty, funny, and extremely knowledgable about the city. They not only made the historical facts behind the monuments and famous sights interesting, but gave you additional tips on the best places to go, things to do, and how to truly stay cheap in the city. I’m sure the tours are even better when it’s not winter, below freezing and when you can actually feel your feet and hands. If there is one thing I regret about this trip, it was not doing more of the tours offered by this company. The wealth of information you attain is well worth the amount of exercise you put in by going on one of these tours.

The Greenwich free walking tour, view of the Friends apartment

Holiday Lights free walking tour

3. Use airbnb for accommodations. Hotels in the city are one of the biggest drains on your wallet..and the hostels are a little more on the sketch side than most cities. To find a happy medium check out the airbnb site. Recommended by a friend, it is similar to an upscale couch surfing site. Somehow my sister and I were able to find affordable accommodations a few weeks before our trip during the holidays in New York City. One of my favorite aspects of where we stayed in Brooklyn was the fact that there were no hotels around us, it was all local coffee shops, pizza places, and within walking distance to downtown Williamsburg.

Near our apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

What are some of your favorite tips for staying cheap in NYC?

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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