Is New York City outrageously expensive? Yes. Is it amazingly affordable? That, too. It just depends on which New York you choose. The pricey version features Michelin three-star restaurants (good luck getting a reservation), taxis “whisking” you around in 5 mph traffic and a suite at a plush hotel in personality-free midtown. Or so I’ve heard.
The affordable New York I know and love is all about free museum nights, neighborhood explorations and great pizza slices. You can fill your days with no- or low-cost activities, including some obvious ones — walking the beloved elevated rail turned urban park known as the High Line, taking in the glorious views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry and, of course, wandering through Central Park.
If you don’t mind a chill in the air, one of the least expensive times to visit is in January and February, when the city holds NYC Restaurant Week, which is actually four weeks (usually from mid-January to mid-February), and more than 400 top spots offer prix fixe meals for $29, $39 or $59 on weekdays — not exactly bargain prices, but if you’re a foodie it may be worth it to try, say, the Parisian-style Bar Boulud by renowned chef Daniel Boulud at a steep discount. It also runs in July and August.
More tips for planning an affordable trip:
Let’s start with your biggest challenge: where to stay. You can use a short-term-rental site such as Airbnb to easily find a place in Manhattan for under $100 a night, if you’re willing to stay under the same roof as the owners. If that’s not your style, you could pay more to rent an entire apartment, or consider a hotel room in Long Island City, Queens, a short subway ride from Manhattan. It won’t be a luxe experience, but if you avoid high season and reserve in advance, you can get a room at, say, the Red Lion Inn & Suites on Crescent Street for a little over $100 a night. It’s a block from the 7 train and just a few stops from Grand Central. If you’d prefer to stay in Manhattan, consider the “blind” offers on Hotwire. You choose the star level and neighborhood; the site chooses the hotel. I’ve found hotel rooms available in good areas of Manhattan for about $125 to $150 a night with tax.
This is the easiest part of planning a budget trip to New York. Take the subway all day, every day (it’s open 24 hours and goes everywhere). Just purchase a $33 seven-day pass. Most major stations have elevators, and the elevators are usually functioning, but you can check at mta.info/accessibility. There are also buses, which — unlike the subway — don’t require you to navigate long, crowded stairways and can always accommodate wheelchairs.
Things to do
Now you just need to decide where to go. If you haven’t been to New York since before the pandemic, your top choice should be the overhauled Museum of Modern Art ($25 for adults; $18 for those 65 and older), which has expanded by 47,000 square feet and shuffled its displays to juxtapose iconic works with recent pieces by a diverse group of artists.
If you’ve never been to NYC, you’ll want to slap down $87 for a CityPass C3 ticket, which gets you into three top attractions. (You get to choose from 11.) It’s a toss-up between the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock Observation Deck. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is another obvious choice.
I also strongly recommend that you take the ferry from Battery Park, perhaps skipping the first stop (the Statue of Liberty — you’ll get a great view from the boat), and spend your time at the marvelous Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration (with round-trip ferry, $24 for adults; $18 for those 62 and older). You’ll leave feeling more patriotic than when you went in.
The heart of the city, though, is in its neighborhoods and public spaces. You could kill a day just in Central Park, especially if you get picnic supplies at Zabar’s (2245 Broadway), the smoked-salmon emporium, or bring takeout from the reasonably priced eateries at Turnstyle Underground Market, connected to the Columbus Circle subway stop at the park’s southwest corner. For true charm, stroll the West Village, filled with gorgeous town houses and delicious restaurants, many with sidewalk seating.
And remember that many TV shows film in New York City with live audiences, including The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The View, and tickets to tapings are free. Though the experience is never quite what you expect — it’s a bit of a rigmarole to get tickets, there’s a lot of waiting involved, and you might find your view blocked by a camera — I think it’s totally worth it. Plus, many shows make sure their audiences have a great time with preshow entertainment — after all, they can’t have you be grumpy when it’s showtime. Go to the city’s official tourism site for a guide listing which shows are taping and how to get tickets (some live tapings were paused when the pandemic hit).
Other budget fun
View great art. If you’re planning a weekend visit, consider heading down to 14th Street and the Rubin Museum of Art, which offers free admission from 6 to 10 on Friday nights. The Rubin is devoted to art of the Himalayas, India and Tibet, so you’ll likely not recognize the artists there. But it’s a fascinating chance to explore those cultures. (The Rubin normally costs $19 for most adults and $14 for those 65 and older. Reserve free — or buy, if you aren’t visiting on a Friday evening — timed tickets online.)
See beautiful architecture. You probably don’t want to miss the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($25 for adults; $17 for those 65 and older), but also consider visiting two iconic New York City spots for free: the New York Public Library flagship building and stunning Grand Central.
Try bowling (yes, bowling). At Bowlero in Times Square (yes, Times Square) on Sunday nights, shoes rent for $8 and games are $7.
Tour a neighborhood with a local. Request a history tour of the Lower East Side — or your neighborhood of choice — through Big Apple Greeter, offering free tours with no tipping allowed. They are often led by longtime residents who just love to show off their city. There is a small catch, which is that you need to put in a request a month or so in advance. You name the dates you’re available (they suggest it be your first or second full day in the city) and the neighborhoods you’re interested in seeing. It’s a great chance to get out of midtown and downtown, or a great chance to see midtown and downtown in a different way — through the eyes of a New Yorker.
Browse the Strand. Buy a used book for a few bucks or just enjoy wandering around the Strand (828 Broadway), a huge independent bookstore and New York institution boasting “18 miles of books,” plus fun souvenirs.
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It’s expensive to have every meal at a sit-down restaurant. I suggest buying lunch fixings and eating low-cost breakfasts and dinners out. For under $5 you can get a bagel and cream cheese from one of many first-rate bagel spots (I like Murray’s Bagels and Ess-a-Bagel). One night, try my go-to pizza place, one of Joe’s Pizza’s four Manhattan locations, for crisp, almost always fresh-out-of-the-oven slices ($4 to $5 each).
And try different areas of the city. A 20-minute ride away from midtown offers a diverse and delicious array of immigrant-owned and -run restaurants in Jackson Heights, Queens. Get off the subway at the Roosevelt Avenue-Jackson Heights station and walk up 73rd Street and back down 74th for Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi choices; up Roosevelt and 37th Avenue for Mexican, Colombian and Brazilian; and all around for Thai, Nepali and Tibetan. You can easily eat for under $10, and it’s hard to spend more than $15. Among the best choices: Laliguras for Nepalese, Ayada for Thai, Pio Pio for Peruvian (now with locations in Manhattan), and Aroma Brazil for delicious pay-by-weight salads and meats.
Seth Kugel is the former Frugal Travel writer for The New York Times and author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious.