The Statue of Liberty beckons, evoking thoughts of Broadway, The Met, Fifth Avenue, Chinatown, Little Italy and a slew of other destinations within the 5 boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. NYC can be one of the most expensive cities, leaving you destitute, or one that you long to go back to for more. First, however, is getting there.
Finding Flights And Rides
If you're coming from Boston, Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia, you might want to consider round-trip fares on Amtrak or its high-speed Acela:
- From Boston, a value fare on the Acela was $230. Flexible fares were $396, and premiums ran $404. The high-demand 7:20 a.m. value fare was $308.
- In Philadelphia, Acela tickets were $198 for value fares and about $360 for flexible and premium fares; however, the Northeast Regional only took 14 minutes longer and more than made up for it with prices like $78 for saver, $110 for value, $214 for flexible and $140 for premium.
- From D.C., Acela tickets ran $322 for value, $556 for flexible and $568 for premium; however, the Northeast Regional took only 20 minutes more, with the saver fare $98, value $176, flexible $346 and premium a bargain $188.
In comparison, the cheapest round-trip nonstop flights started at $130 for Boston, around $250 for Philadelphia and about $170 for D.C.
When looking for flights into New York, you have 3 airport choices: JFK International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International. The first 2 are on Long Island while the last is in New Jersey. Sometimes, bargain fare combinations use different airports for departure and return, and ground transportation can also prove challenging. For instance, on Go Airlink Shuttle, round-trip service from JFK International to a hotel by Rockefeller Center cost about $22 per person, $100 for a sedan, $155 for an SUV and $185 for a private van.
For flights, we checked on round-trip fares out of San Francisco International about 6 weeks in advance, intending to spend about a week in NYC. Using date flexibility, our cheapest fare was a Delta redeye landing in Newark on a Wednesday and returning 10 days later on a Saturday-night American flight totaling $339; with 1 layover, flight times were about 7 and 9 hours, respectively.
To fly nonstop, we needed to avoid Friday or Saturday departures and Sunday returns, as those raised baseline prices from $450 to $500. United had fares using Mondays for $359; time changes meant our afternoon departure landed in Newark at 1 a.m., and this was a common theme flying from the West Coast. When we checked United's website, a coach economy seat with pleasant takeoff times was more likely to cost $500 to $600, and both flexible coach and first class fares averaged around $2,000.
You can get acquainted with the basics of getting cheaper airfares in our guide to finding cheap flights.
Space is tight in the city, so don't be surprised when budget prices feature rooms the size of a walk-in-closet, fitted with a single bed and pillow. Prices vary widely, from $121 a night for a single or double bed, in-room Wi-Fi and shared bathroom at Hotel 17 by Union Square, to $758 a night for a "double room deluxe" (room only) at the Park Hyatt on prime West 57th Street.
Count on 3- or 4-star hotels starting at $300 a night; in fact, some 4-stars were less expensive than many threes! Some 2-stars were guilty of overbooking, and weak in-room Wi-Fi often forces guests into public areas for better connections.
When we started looking toward Manhattan's southern tip, near Chinatown and New York University, however, prices became a bit more affordable and guests seemed much happier, too. The Holiday Inn Express, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn, Best Western Plus and Howard Johnson all had rooms around $200 or so, most with 1 king bed or 2 queens. You also got your own bathroom, free breakfast and free in-room Internet.
If you have a car to consider, parking in Manhattan is not only pricey but also requires advance reservations. If you're willing to stay on the New Jersey side, the Hampton Inn at Ridgefield Park, for example, had 2-queen beds for $154 a night, including free breakfast, in-room Wi-Fi, parking, pool and all the other amenities. It was also convenient for arrivals and departures at Newark's Liberty International, which had our lowest fares.
Don't forget that the Staten Island Ferry is free and runs at all hours. You can stay on Staten Island and cross into the city just like the working folks do. It has a Ramada, Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn, and most rooms started around $100 a night. We found bed and breakfasts as well as quite a few Airbnb listings there and all over the city. Just weigh your options carefully, and read those reviews to be sure the amenities fit your lifestyle.
Applying for a hotel credit card a few months ahead of your visit might be your key to a free and comfortable stay, thanks to the fantastic welcome offers you get nowadays and the points you earn when you spend.
Airbnb or couchsurfing are also options for the more adventurous. Check out our GET.com guide to getting cheap hotel stays for more ideas on getting comfortable accommodation for less.
The Big Apple is full of trendy restaurants that appear and disappear daily. Some remain iconic – and pricey: Delmonico's, Keens, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and the 21 Club, for example. Others are more affordable: Katz's Delicatessen, Ferdinando's Focacceria, Patsy's Pizza and Nathan's Famous. Wherever you are in the city, affordable comfort foods are everywhere.
We've listed a few to get you started, so slide a restaurant credit card into your wallet (to earn up to 5% cash back) and get ready to explore the culinary life of one of Americas most interesting dining destinations:
- Pizza: Try Prince Street Pizza on Prince Street in NoLita, Louie's Pizzeria on Baxter Avenue in Elmhurst, or Luigi's Pizza on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. For Italian, try Gaia Italian Café on East Houston Street on the Lower East Side or Johnny Panini's Scarpetta on 9th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen.
- Bagels: Try The Bagel Store on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn's East Williamsburg, Ess-a-Bagel on 3rd Avenue in Midtown East, Best Bagel & Coffee on West 35th Street in Midtown West or Heaven's Hot Bagel on East Houston Street on the Lower East Side.
- Delis and sandwiches: Try Harry & Ida's Meat and Supply Co. on Avenue A or Sunny & Annie's Gourmet Deli on Avenue B in the East Village, Cheeky Sandwiches on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, Xe May Sandwich Shop at St. Marks Place in the East Village, Rex on 10th Avenue in Midtown West or the Parisi Bakery Delicatessen on Mott Street in NoLita.
- Diners and ethnic cuisine: Try Cup & Saucer on Canal Street on the Lower East Side, Mamoun's Falafel on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village or at St. Mark's Place in the East Village, Taim at Waverly Place in the West Village, Los Tacos No. 1 on 9th Avenue in Chelsea Market or Breakroom Burgers & Tacos on Baxter Street in Chinatown.
Multiple Attractions Passes
If you like city passes, you have a number of options in New York. Check your options and prices carefully between websites:
- The New York Pass is available for up to 10 consecutive calendar days of sightseeing admissions for over 80 attractions.
- New York CityPASS provides admission to 6 selected participating attractions for $116 per adult and $92 per child.
- The New York City Explorer Pass lets you choose 3, 5, 7 or 10 participating attractions at discounted prices.
Free Things To Do
One of the first things to know (and appreciate) is that the Staten Island Ferry is free, transporting passengers every day between Manhattan and Staten Island and providing passengers premium views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the city skyline. To tour the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, however, you'll need to reserve tickets well in advance through the National Park Service's website. In the meantime, the city has some other amazing outdoor spaces:
- Central Park. Download the app to learn about events and to map over 200 park points of interest, from the Loch to the Chess & Checkers House.
- High Line Park. The former West Side Line elevated railroad spur in Manhattan's West Side is now an amazing "green roof" trestle garden with tours, volunteer programs and stargazing Tuesdays from dusk at West 14th Street.
- Brooklyn Bridge. Walk it, or bicycle across, but check the website for daily maintenance. In fact, you could do a NYC walking bridge tour; the Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are but the start.
- National September 11 Memorial. The 9/11 Memorial is open to the public daily. The museum requires a ticket, but you might be able to snag a first-come "Free Admission Tuesday" one.
- Pelham Bay Park. NYC's largest single park lies in The Bronx and has miles of hiking and bridle trails, Orchard Beach, the Bartow-Pell Mansion, 2 nature centers, playgrounds, athletic fields and even a bocce court.
- Staten Island Greenbelt. Trails and wildlife refuge areas cover 2,800 acres of forests, woodlands, wetlands and meadows. High Rock Park has recreation and nature centers while Willowbrook Park has the Carousel for All Children.
- Governor's Island. The 172-acre island in New York Harbor will reopen at the end of May 2016 with its new addition of The Hills – lookouts, slides and more. The ferry is free on Saturdays and Sundays; otherwise, cost is an affordable $2 per adult and $1 per child.
As for indoor spaces, you won't want to miss:
- St. Patrick's Cathedral. Take a free guided tour, or download the app. If you're lucky, you might get to enjoy a guest choir filling the heavenly space.
- Grand Central Terminal. While guided tours cost $25 per adult, you can download the app for $5 or just enjoy the striking interior spaces; the architectural landmark has "68 shops and 35 places to eat" set amid hustle and glitz.
- Museums. FreeMuseumDay.org maintains a list of NYC museums and attractions that offer free, pay-as-you-wish or discounted days. Some are always free; direct links let you check locations and times.
- Rockefeller Center and Plaza. Enjoy the Channel Gardens, iconic sculptures and atmosphere, but remember that the concourse is full of shops and places to eat, so keep a tight hold on your wallet. Counter-purchased tickets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art are pay-as-you-wish, but the recommended contribution is $25. Tours and access to the Top of the Rock are pricey, too.
- Bronx Zoo. The zoo offers pay-as-you-wish Wednesdays, but if you can't handle intense stroller-wielding crowds, you might want to pass on this one.
You can get into almost a dozen museums for free on the first full weekend of every month, just by showing your Bank of America credit card and some ID at the counter (Bank of America debit cards work too).
New York City locations which participate in the Museums on Us® program include: 3 locations of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Museum of the City of New York, Queens Museum, Staten Island Zoological Society and
The Jewish Museum.
So if you're a Bank of America customer and a museum geek, it may be worth planning your visit to include the first full weekend of the month.
Our pet peeve is paying for views and then having to fight crowds to enjoy them. For Top of the Rock Observation Deck tickets, riding the elevator starts at $32 for adults and $26 for children. Opting for the Sun & Stars 2-visit package costs $47 per adult and $36 per child. At least you can download the Top of the Rock app for free.
To reach the Empire State Building's 86th floor, you'll pay $32 per adult and $26 per child; if you don't want to wait, make that $65 each. To reach the 102nd floor is $52 per adult and $46 per child, but $85 per person eliminates that wait. Add a 90-minute guided tour and commemorative photo, and you'll pay $175 apiece.
For that price, you could purchase Les Miserables mezzanine tickets for a Saturday evening performance. Book a matinée instead, and you'll have lunch covered, too.