All posts by Mimi McFadden

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.

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.


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.


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?

Domestic airlines: the good and the bad

To celebrate making my Australia move official and buying a plane ticket to Melbourne a few days ago, I’ve decided to review some of the airlines I took over my vacation to Santa Cruz, New York and Portland.


Pros: My go-to airline while I was in college to fly home cheap for the holidays. The difference with Southwest is that you don’t give up the quality of the airline when you decide to buy a cheaper flight. One of my favorite aspects about this airline is that I almost always see the crew’s sense of humor come out over the intercom. On this particular flight to Santa Cruz, the flight attendant started her review of safety measures by stating that she was happy to welcome a valued patron, Martha Stewart, on board. Everyone turned to the front and some people even stood up to get a look. Having accomplished her goal, the flights attendant continued with, “now that I have your attention, let’s go over what to do in case of an emergency…” Priceless.

Cons: Lack of free snacks, they usually only offer peanuts. Don’t get me wrong, airline peanuts are delicious, but when I’m a budget traveler and live on snacks provided to me from the airline, this is a con. Luckily, the flight back home is only an hour and a half.



One of my favorite airlines for flying across the country. I think I’ve mostly taken their red eye flights, and that is exactly what I took to get to New York City for cheap the day after Christmas.

Pros: JetBlue is actually the only airline I’ve experienced red eye flights with, so I’m not sure how to compare it to other airlines. However, I love how they provide a sleep mask, earplugs and blanket for red eyes. I still have my sleep mask since coming home to San Diego, and use it from time to time. They are also one of the only airlines to offer TVs on the back of the seat in front of you. This makes a huge difference when you’re bored after a few hours into your flights, and nothing holds your attention anymore. Call it generation Y syndrome, but I’ll admit as an early 20-something that I’m constantly in need of different stimuli when confined to a small space for hours on end.

Cons: There was a moment on my red eye when I had few precious moments of sleep (which is quite the feat for me because I almost never fall asleep on flights); however, the plane was particularly hot and stuffy that evening and I fell asleep with layers of clothing on, a sleep mask, and noise-cancelling headphones. I also had the bad judgement of not giving myself enough time to eat dinner before my flight, and dozing off before they came through with snacks. When I woke up, I was sweating and well on my way to a panic attack with most of my senses cut off, and feeling myself flying but not yet remembering that I was on a plane. On top of this, I was severely dehydrated and had hardly any food in my stomach. I felt myself blacking out and moments away from passing out when I reached up to call the flight attendant. When I explained what was happening he seemed to be more panicked than I was, which was hardly reassuring. Eventually, they gave me a pack of ice and all the snacks that they had in the back, and I didn’t pass out, but the initial reaction by the flight attendant made me question what would happen in a real emergency. Also, I know JetBlue is always trying to be young and cutting edge, but their caramel tortilla chips were probably the most disgusting airline food I have ever tasted. Do not eat them.

Alaska Airlines

Pros: They have extra padding on all the seat head rests, which goes a long way in added comfort. As I’ve said previously, the snacks offered in flight are important. Alaska had the best snacks, the greatest variety and the most delicious. I especially enjoyed their honey mustard nut medley. Another unique aspect about Alaska is they have started playing music while passengers are boarding. This was a nice adage, especially since we were slightly delayed because they had to change a tire; I was able to just sit back, relax and enjoy the music. Overall, I see Alaska as a solid airline that is very efficient and easy to use.

Cons $20 baggage fee for one checked bag.


Pros: A lot of options for free snacks (I had three altogether), and surprisingly decent coffee to help with my jet lag back to the West Coast.

Cons: After JetBlue, squinting to see the tiny TV four seats ahead of me was disappointing. I ended up giving up on the movie halfway through because it was giving me a headache having to look at something so tiny and far away. Also, the tray tables didn’t extend, this was a bummer for me when I wanted to write. The $25 baggage fee for the first checked bag is always disappointing. The thing I don’t like so much about Delta is that it’s simply a generic airline. There’s nothing that I’ve seen the many times that I’ve flown with them that separates them from other airlines, and they don’t always have the lowest prices to make up for it.


The friendliest airport was definitely Portland, hands down. The woman at the check-in counter stepped over the luggage scale to help an elderly woman in front of me with her bags, and even offered to walk her over to security to help with her carry ons. I love seeing those little acts of kindness, it put me in a better mood just witnessing it.

The most confusing airport would have to be LaGuardia. Not only because of my difficulties in learning how to correctly say the New York pronunciation of the name LaGuardia (my friend from Brooklyn tried his best to teach me, to no avail, I’m sad to say), but also the fact that there were two different terminals just for Delta airlines. I went through security in the wrong one, so I had to walk a mile through the airport, but at least I got some good exercise before indulging in hours of sloth behavior on a plane.

What is your favorite airline to travel with? What is your worst airline story?

La Bella Vita

From the time I was very little, I can remember looking up at the sky every time a plane would fly over me on my daily walk to school. I would imagine where the people in it were going, what adventures lay ahead for them. Every time I would see an airplane in the clear blue California sky, I would make a promise to myself that someday it would soon be me on my own adventures. It became a promise that structured my whole life around when I could travel next. It began with a two week backpacking trip through Costa Rica as a graduation present to myself the summer after high school. When choosing a University to attend, the study abroad programs had a significant impact on my decision. My dream was to study abroad in college, the only problem was deciding where exactly I was going to go; I wanted to go everywhere. When it came down to it, I chose go to culinary school in Florence, Italy to learn the ways of Italian cooking, and to ultimately learn about Italian culture as a whole through their love of food.



Living in Italy, I tasted some of the best food of my life, but there was more to it than that. The food is their culture. The family is centered around meals, bringing people together in a way that I’ve never seen in any other culture. It is completely contrary to the American way of life of constantly eating on the go; many modern families don’t even have the time to eat together anymore. A dinner in Italy is multi-course, including hours upon hours of talking, drinking wine, and eating fresh homemade food. Moreover, it’s not just in the immediate family where food brings people together. Each time I would walk into an eating establishment, I was welcomed in an affectionate manner, almost as if I was being welcomed into their home as a house guest. To be honest, that connection was not far from the truth, as I tried to eat mainly at family owned trattorias.

Florentines pride themselves on their food and the history behind it as much as their culture, because in many ways they are one and the same. My teacher at culinary school was one of the most passionate people about food that I have ever met. After every meal we would cook in our three hour span of class time, we would sit down and discuss the importance of that dish to the region from which it originated, and describe how every region in Italy is respectively proud of their food specialities. We can see why cuisine is so tied to Italian culture through how long it took for Italy to be reunited as one country. As a loose collection of regions, the food and dialect were the aspects that made one region unique from another. In this way, food gives a sense of regional and national pride in a united country that is known for its food.


One of my favorite moments involving the culture of food in Italy was my first night in Florence, eating in view of the campanile. I had the most exquisite gorgonzola gnocchi. My meal, combined with the chilled pinot grigio and good company, gave me pause to reflect; so this is the epitome of Italian culture, taking pleasure in the simple things of life. The mentality that surrounds you in Italy is that the little pleasures in life are just as important (if not more so) than the practicalities one has to think about on a daily basis. I basked in that Tuscan night, hot but pleasant, taking it all in with my new roommates, who were just as enamored with the city as I was. That night is one of my favorite memories; I had never felt so at home in a new place as I did that evening, I knew everything was going to be alright.




My Tuscan summer will forever be ingrained in my memory. You can read about these places all you want, but I now realize that you don’t fully know a thing about it until you can actually feel the city, hear the faint sound of the accordion player down the street every morning on my way to my favorite bar for a standing cappuccino, look at the colorful gelaterias on every block, hear the Italian like rapid fire being yelled by a mother scolding her son, or seductively spoken by the amorous couple sitting next to you in the piazza. You can feel the presence of the city everywhere: it’s so alive; it makes me happy to be so young, so malleable and open minded to the experience. I can still smell the pizza around the corner of my little apartment, and see the welcoming smiles of the Italian family as I walk in the door to my favorite restaurant. That is what Italian culture means to me. That is what makes me nostalgic and convinced that one day I will come back to a summer in Tuscany to experience it all over again.