New York City is famous for fashion, business, theatre, food, art, museums, and pretty much everything else under the sun. After six visits to the Big Apple, I still haven’t touched the surface. The possibilities are endless in the city that never sleeps. Uncovering everything here requires a lifetime devoted to this one task. I haven’t devoted my life to NYC, but here’s my experience visiting NYC on a budget after six visits.
When to go
NYC experiences all four seasons. Summer guarantees plenty of free outdoor activities, such as concerts or movies at one of the many city parks. The heat reflects off the pavement and alleyways trap humidity, making summer visits almost unbearable for some tourists. Winter in the city offers a magical experience filled with snow, holiday decorations, ice skating, and more. NYC is also extremely crowded during the holidays. You may feel like a sardine in a can! Spring and fall have more bearable temperatures and a variety of nature’s colors, but less iconic experiences that visiting in summer or winter would offer. There’s still plenty to do!
The best hotel or hostel deals are found outside of Manhattan. I enjoyed a stay at Morris Guest House, located in the Bronx, but there are plenty of budget options if you search through booking.com. Book early for more budget options. Rooms during the week usually have slightly cheaper rates compared to the weekends.
Note: Yes, I felt safe in the Bronx. The rooms at Morris Guest House share a bathroom, which was occasionally inconvenient but helps keep the cost down. The website said AC is available, but my room did not have it. I believe you have to request a room with AC.
Couchsurfing and hostels are also available in NYC.
There are lots of options to get to NYC on a budget–planes, trains, and automobiles…and even ferries, buses, and bicycles.
I usually travel by bus from DC to NYC. Wanderu is a great platform for comparing bus and train prices, like Kayak or Skyscanner. My last roundtrip bus ticket only cost $35 and the bus included free Wi-Fi, plush seating, and a bathroom.
Buses are awesome because the drop-off and pick-up locations are centrally located in Manhattan and you only have to arrive 30 minutes before departure. Although buses may have longer travel times, they are overall less of a hassle and cheaper than planes.
Bonus tips about how to make a bus ride easier!
- If you can sleep on buses, grab an early-morning bus and then spend the afternoon in the city.
- Print out your bus tickets before the trip or download the app ahead of time for a mobile boarding pass.
- Write down the drop-off and pick-up location address, plus a general description of the area and directions, on a piece of paper and in your phone’s notes before traveling, just in case.
- Sit several rows away from the bathroom.
- Bring a small pillow and blanket in case the bus is chilly.
You can find street vendors and pizza slices for $5 nearly everywhere. Healthy options are hard to find on a budget, but TripAdvisor is always a good search tool. Many cafes and ethnic restaurants offer meals for around $10. You could also buy food from a local farmer’s market or grocery store and cook in your hostel/hotel/house.
Navigating NYC is overwhelming the first time you visit…or every single time you return, if you’re like me. After a day, you’ll get the hang of it.
The easiest option is taxis, but they are also the most expensive.
Walking is a viable option if you plan on exploring a different borough each day. Plan a general route to make your route as efficient as possible.
Tip: Manhattan is organized in a grid layout. Avenues run north-south and streets run east-west.
Metros are fairly inexpensive. A 7-day transit pass costs $30, plus a $1 MTA charge. Since the standard subway fare is $2.50, no matter the time or distance traveled, the transit pass could be the cheapest option, even if you’re staying for less than one week. If you plan on riding the metro at least 13 times, definitely get the transit pass.
Be sure to download the MTA app for a map of subway stations on your phone.
Activities for visiting NYC on a Budget
Just because you’re visiting NYC on a budget doesn’t mean you have to compensate on experiences. Here are a few of my favorite free or budget-friendly NYC activities.
- Free walking tours. Although these tours are free, you should tip your tour guide out of courtesy.
- Free museums or free-entry days. Many also offer student/military/senior discounts. Free museums ask for donations, recommending around $20. To be honest, I only donated to the 9/11 Memorial.
- Staten Island Ferry offers a free 20-minute ride across the harbor with views of the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline.
- The Downtown Boathouse, located at Pier 96, offers free kayaking on the Hudson.
- Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge takes a while, but offers beautiful free views across the city and a free way to visit another NYC borough.
- Central Park and the many other NYC parks usually offer free concerts, markets, theatre productions, and more in the summer months
- TKTS offers Broadway show tickets for 40-50% off select shows. They are located in Times Square, South Street Seaport, and Brooklyn. In my experience, the line is shorter at the other two locations. Arriving about 20-60 minutes before opening gets you a wider selection.
- Groupon offers lots of discounted last-minute deals. I bought a 2-hour harbor cruise for $20pp and heavily discounted weekend parking (for those crazy people wanting to drive into the city).
What are your tips for visiting NYC on a budget? I’d love to hear them in the comments!
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