There we all were: My wife (Carolyn) and I, plus our daughter's family of seven, standing at the ticket counter in New York's American Museum of Natural History.
"$150," read the register screen.
Whew. At prices like that, I'd be picked cleaner than the dinosaur skeleton in the museum's entrance hall.
"How about $50?" I asked the nice woman behind the counter. And you know what? She smiled and punched a few keys, and a moment later we were off, tickets in hand, ready to tackle all four floors of the monumental museum on Central Park West. It's the magic of the "pay-what-you-wish" option, one of New York's greatest budget-vacation secrets.
I love to travel, and I love New York, but I hate to overspend on travel. So lucky me: Despite the city's reputation as impossibly expensive, I've found it's possible to have a first-class Big Apple vacation on a budget.
Take that "pay-what-you-wish" policy, for example: Besides the Museum of Natural History, you can name your admission price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, the Bronx Zoo (Wednesday), the New York Aquarium (Friday after 3 p.m.) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Saturday from 5:45 to 7:45 p.m.). At nyc-arts.org you'll find a complete list of always free/sometimes free/pay-what-you-wish New York attractions. But be a good citizen: Pay something, OK?
New York has 90,000 hotel rooms, and not all of them go for $500 a night. For reasonable rates, we like to think outside the Midtown box. Long Island City in Queens, the first subway stop out of Manhattan (and a quicker ride to Times Square than from many other spots in town), has several affordable hotels; the Holiday Inn and Z New York are two. The hotels in Queens — to say nothing of those in Jersey City and Weehawken, both quick ferry rides away — are not only cheaper, they offer something no Manhattan hotel can: a romantic, sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline itself. Determined to stay in town? Two clean, comfy, affordable Manhattan hotels are run by religious groups: the Leo House on West 23rd Street, operated by the Sisters of St. Agnes, has nightly rates as low as $105; the Salisbury Hotel, owned by Calvary Baptist Church and ideally situated opposite Carnegie Hall, offers a lowest rate of $139 a night. Some rooms in the latter are surprisingly large, thus perfect for family travel.
We usually take the train to New York — it's cheaper from East Coast cities and drops you off right in the middle of town. But when we must fly in, we don't even think about hailing that yellow vacuum of green known as a taxi. Instead, from LaGuardia Airport we take the Q70 Limited (LTD) bus, which departs every 12 minutes and even has luggage racks. For $2.50 it takes you to the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway station for a free transfer into Manhattan. Total time downtown: 35 minutes, which is quicker than taking a cab. If you must taxi, ask the driver to take the Queensboro Bridge — the only Manhattan span with no toll in either direction — to Midtown.
For concentrated free fun, it's hard to beat Lower Manhattan, easily reached via just about any north-south subway line. Here the rigid Midtown grid gives way to narrow, winding streets that date to Colonial times, and you're never far from either the Hudson or East rivers. Better yet: Though money talks down around Wall Street, so does the word "freebie." Register online for a free tour of the Federal Reserve Bank (newyorkfed.org). Whether I'm traveling with my grandkids or grownups, everybody's impressed with that glimpse of the legendary gold vault. At Federal Hall, you can swear each other in on the spot where George Washington took the oath of office as president. The Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu), in the old U.S. Custom House, has exhibits of Native American art, plus one of New York's most impressive rooms: the domed rotunda. The long-awaited 9/11 Memorial Museum is slated to open in May. The 9/11 Memorial, with its solemn waterfalls outlining the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers, is already open; because of all the construction in the area, however, access is limited to those with (free) tickets, available online at 911memorial.org.
"Papa, I'm hungry!" cried 8-year-old Olivia — but it wasn't foie gras at the Four Seasons she had in mind. The fact is, eating in New York is like a budget round-the-world tour. Chinatown wasn't named for its place settings (for better value, wander south of touristy Canal Street). Head down to Little Italy for an authentic dinner worthy of a night in Tuscany. And for cheap Greek food, go where cheap Greeks eat: over in Astoria, Queens, said to have the highest Greek population anywhere beyond the Mediterranean. You can't beat a New York sidewalk hot dog, and roasted chestnuts are worth buying, if only for their scent. Consider making lunch your biggest meal of the day — you'll save on dinner costs. Sardi's, the classic Broadway eatery festooned with drawings of its past celebrity patrons, even has a kids' menu. If you must have a New York steak, and it must be in Manhattan's theater district, go ahead and step into Tad's Steaks: It's been serving up amazingly cheap, surprisingly tasty (if thin and recently thawed) steaks since my dad took me there when I was a kid.
Then, take a stroll. Or rent some wheels for just $9.95 a day at one of Gotham's hundreds of new Citi Bike stands (citibikenyc.com). Carolyn and I love to ride Central Park's outside loop. The West Side Waterfront Greenway trail takes you all the way to the Battery, the Hudson River breeze in your face.
There's truth to the old song "The Sidewalks of New York": If you're with kids, there's a never-ending kaleidoscope of attractions; if you're with that special someone, the city's manic whirl fades to a dull blur, leaving you alone together among the passing crowd. And if you're traveling smartly, you're not spending as much as those other folks.