Here’s my guide to seeing one of the most visited cities in the world, on the cheap, without sacrificing much in terms of quality.
This page will be updated as I think of more information!
AIRPORTS: ARRIVING AND LEAVING
I strongly suggest you fly into La Guardia (LGA). I know Newark (NJ) is cheaper, but it goes through a few tolls and has no access to the MTA subway which will bring you right into Manhattan.
Update Apr 5 2013: Linda in the comments has pointed out that she has found a way to take the NJ train from Newark Airport right into Manhattan’s Penn Station.
Pick up the NJ Transit train by taking the Skytrain that connects all the terminals at EWR to the correct stop. You never have to wait outside for long, which is great when the weather is wet/hot/cold.
It’s a short ride into Manhattan to Penn Station, where you can pick up the red line subway.
Oh and don’t forget to pack lightly, like a carryon and a small backpack.
Don’t go crazy with 8 suitcases, or else you won’t be able to pull off the cheap suggestions I have below.
METROCARDS AT THE AIRPORT
You can buy metrocards at the airport itself. Ask around.
WHY TAKE THE SUBWAY TO LAGUARDIA?
If you’re cheap and a light packer like I am, you will take the subway just because it only costs $2.50 (or so) for the trip there.
In contrast, a cab is about $40 with tip included, a private limo is $50 with tip included, and the NYC airporter (private shuttle service) is just under $15.
As someone who has taken all 4 modes of transportation listed above, I STILL highly recommend the subway, because it’s FASTER (yes I timed it), there is NO TRAFFIC, less hassle and frankly, a more comfortable ride, believe it or not.
Taxicabs in NYC are utter crap, not to mention being annoyingly small, and they may not pick you up if they see you are toting luggage (they loathe driving to airports unless they’re in dire need of business).
Private limos are the same, although they are more comfortable.
The NYC airporter is okay, but the bus is small, shaky, and it stops at least twice to pick up passengers which adds to your travel time.
GOING FROM LGA TO MANHATTAN
From LGA, you can take the MTA subway by taking the MTA bus M60 located outside of the terminals (ask around, they sometimes hide them so that you take the NYC airporter or a cab instead).
Then you ride the bus to just after the bridge, and in front of a basketball court at Astoria Boulevard station, you can take the yellow N or Q line to Manhattan.
(The Q train is faster, as it’s an express train)
GOING FROM MANHATTAN TO LGA
Directions in reverse!
Take the yellow N or Q line to Astoria Boulevard station, and then exit the station, where you will see a bus stop for MTA bus M60 which is located just outside.
Do not worry about having to pay twice, transfers are automatically recorded on your Metrocard even if you paid for 2 people (it records 2 transfers).
Sure, you can take cabs in NYC, but why bother?
If you’re made out of money, just send the cheque to this address……
As mentioned above, they’re crap.
NYC cab drivers are horrible drivers, their cars squeak like crazy because they’re too cheap to change the brake pads, and the seats are small and uncomfortable.
The traffic is also unlike any other you’ve experienced in any city, except perhaps Tokyo or Los Angeles. It is horrific during rush hour, and most times of the day.
In contrast, the subway stinks, but it’s obviously good enough for New Yorkers in suits, and is a fairly comfortable ride with decent air conditioning most of the time.
SUBWAY MAP IS EASY
It’s a hot mess, but it’s easy to learn once you get used to it.
You can also learn the NYC subway map pretty quickly once you learn a few things aout it
- There are two directions in NYC: Uptown or Downtown. Uptown takes you towards CENTRAL park, and Downtown takes you towards Chinatown/Battery Park. Be careful, because some stations don’t let you switch from Uptown to Downtown sides without paying your fare AGAIN.
- All streets going horizontal in Manhattan are numbered and named STREETS.
- The higher the STREET number, the more NORTH you are. So 57th street is uptown and 8th street is downtown. So if you are on 42nd street and you want to go to 20th street, you will take the subway downtown.
- Not all streets going vertical in Manhattan are numbered, and are normally named AVENUES. This is a dumb move on their part, but sometimes they’ll give two names to a road. 6th AVENUE for instance, is also called Avenue of the Americas.
- The higher the AVENUE number, the more WEST you are. The lower the AVENUE number, the more EAST you are. So 10th Avenue is on the west of the island of Manhattan, and 2nd Avenue is on the east of the island of Manhattan. Keep in mind as well that you have other avenues called Lexington, Madison or Park, and you’ll just have to memorize those in order, or bring a map.
- Most subway lines have an express train and a regular train. Express trains skip many stops (e.g. the Yellow Line Q train), and regular trains stop everywhere (e.g. Yellow Line N and R trains). The trains also split off at different points, so be careful that you check the stop you are going to to make sure your train stops/goes there.
I strongly suggest you carry a paper map of the subway with you wherever you go, or download the MTA On-The-Go apps for your phone that gives you an e-map to use on your iPad or phone.
MONTHLY/WEEKLY PASSES vs. PAY-AS-YOU-GO
You can buy 2 different types of passes: Monthly/Weekly passes or Pay-As-You-Go cards
If you are planning on using the subway a lot (at least twice a day), buy the passes.
The passes start on the day you buy them, and go for 7 days. It is not set to start on any prescribed days like Sunday to next Monday, which is what the Canadian TTC Toronto weekly passes are like.
Otherwise, if you are centrally located and plan on walking everywhere, buy the Pay-As-You-Go cards, which let you keep an amount on them which you can top up at any station.
The passes are good for the trains, the buses and even the cute little Roosevelt Island aerial tram located at 60th and 2nd avenue.
COST OF THE SUBWAY
As I said, if you use the subway twice a day, everyday, it’s the break even point for weekly or monthly passes.
Otherwise, if you want to use the subway LESS, then buy the pay-as-you-go passes, and put in about $20 each time (they give you a bonus amount with the more money you put in).
It costs about $5 for each round trip. So each time you take the train and come back, BAM! — $5.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to spend an hour going to see something and an hour coming back. This is why I stayed on the island of Manhattan rather than somewhere cheap like in Queens or Brooklyn. It’s really walkable in Manhattan and you don’t need to spend a lot of time commuting to begin or end your day if you are doing some hardcore touring.
The best hotels are located near the subway line. Hands down, it makes it easier to get anywhere in NYC if you are near a line.
And not just any subway line, the YELLOW or the RED are the best in my opinion.
The yellow is the main subway line that runs through the heart of NYC right down the middle, so you can walk either East or West without much trouble.
The red is a little more west, but it follows the same trajectory and will get you to major attractions without much hassle.
The other lines — Green, Orange and Blue lines are still okay, but the Green is on the expensive side of Manhattan (near Park, Madison and Lexington), and the Orange line does a weird halfway cutoff to go into Brooklyn, while the Blue line seems to be on the noisier end of Manhattan in my opinion.
You can also stay in a hotel in Queens near the yellow subway line in Astoria, and probably save $50 – $100 a night.
If you want to be able to cook lightly, I suggest the Marriott Residence Inn or the Staybridge Suites, but it’s really expensive.
Alternatively, you can rent an apartment hotels in NYC for 2-3 weeks, and have full amenities.
It will run you about $100 – $150/night, but it’s a lot more spacious than the Residence Inn or Staybridge Suite, by far.
To give you an idea of how far apart the blocks are, it takes about half an hour to 45 minutes depending on the trains to go from Columbus Circle (57th street near Central Park, home to one of the better Whole Foods locations in NYC), to Chinatown (located at the Canal street station).
That’s covering a good chunk of the island in the touristy areas.
You can certainly walk, but it takes about 1.5 hours walking briskly to go from Chinatown to 57th street (we’ve done it a couple of times).
It’s all expensive in NYC.
Super expensive and you’re going to pay through the nose either eating in restaurant 3 times a day, or going to a grocery store.
I tripled my food budget being in NYC, mostly because I refuse to eat junk food, but if you are okay with McDonalds once in a while and other cheap eats, by all means!
If you are a picky foodie like I am, I lived off these stores/areas:
- Whole Foods – surprisingly priced quite competitively in Manhattan versus other grocery stores*
- Westerly Natural Market — Expensive, but has a hot food bar located at the far back
- Dean and Deluca – the most luxurious grocery store in NYC; higher prices
- Katagiri — Japanese grocery store
- Dainobu — Another Japanese grocery store
- Le Pain Quotidien – It’s not Parisian quality, but it’s not bad
- Chinatown — Some of it is good, some of it is crap; use your own judgement
- Mochi and Macarons
- Eataly — It looked like it had really good Italian food, although overpriced I bet
- Update Apr 5 2013: Linda in the comments, suggests going to local delis where the locals eat.
*By being “priced reasonably”, I mean that if you buy produce in cheap grocery stores like Gristedes, you THINK you are getting a better price, when in fact it is cheaper at Whole Foods. No kidding!
If you don’t want to do that, you can always find some street food to eat: NYC Street Food.
The trucks move constantly, so you have to find out on Twitter where they are located, although I will say that I see a lot of them at Union Square (14th street and Broadway), and on 50th and Lexington.
They seem to be around office buildings and open market areas.
I strongly suggest avoiding those super sketchy hotdog/pretzel or even those shawarma/kebab vendors who don’t seem to have a kitchen sink or any kind of cleaning method for their hands after they sneeze, scratch their ass or cough.
There are NO BATHROOMS NEARBY these carts that are within a short walking distance. FYI.
(Yeah you’re not going to eat there now, are you?)
Otherwise, most restaurants are pretty much the same in NYC. You can always go to Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives site to find some special places to eat in NYC, but otherwise.. meh.
Out of all the sights I went to, I can remember these places in no particular order:
- 9/11 Memorial – Everyone should visit at least once to understand the magnitude of what happened; YOU NEED to reserve tickets in advance with a date and time online here, before going to see it. You have to pick up the tickets at 120 Liberty Street, and then you have to walk a few blocks to actually enter the 9/11 memorial at 1 Albany Street at your prescribed date and time.
- Times Square — Obviously you need to go to 42nd Street and Broadway Avenue. Go in the daytime and at night.
- Top of the Rock — Some of the best views of NYC
- Circle Line Cruise – I did it in the daytime and at night, both are nice cruises to take
- Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram — Only the cost of a subway ride, and you can get a fast view of NYC and the view of the other side of the skyline
- Irish Hunger Memorial — It made me think of Lord of the Rings. I was expecting to see hobbits pop out. It’s a small memorial, but it’s free and looks cool
- Central Park — Going past about 70th street, and the views turn boring. It’s really just the lower half of Central Park that’s interesting
- Manhattan’s Chinatown — If you’re used to Vancouver or Toronto, NYC is a lot larger, but it’s much more touristy to be honest. If you want an authentic Chinatown, although it is only a quarter of the size of Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens (last stop on the subway line) is less touristy
- Wall Street — You have to right? At least see the raging bull sculpture and people in suits acting all important
- Battery Park — It’s nice walking along the pier and taking in the sight of New Jersey’s up and coming business district
- Bronx Botanical Gardens — Pretty!
- New York Public Library — This is near Bryant Park, and if you go down the street in front of the Library, there’s a Library Walk with QUOTES on the ground!
- Bryant Park — 42nd Street and 6th Avenue — A nice place to sit out and relax, read a book, or just people-watch
- Herald Square/Flatiron district — 34th street which is near the Flatiron district which has a distinctive flatiron style building (we have one in Toronto too!); there’s a nice place there called Eataly that looked like it had good Italian food
- Update Apr 5 2013: Linda in the comments suggested Tenement Museum, which tells about the story of immigrant families. I’ll have to go there when I visit!
SoHo is a nice place to go.
It’s located starting at 8th street and Broadway, and goes all the way downtown to Chinatown.
5th Avenue is overrated, and Rockefeller center only has Anthropologie, J. Crew, Free People and Longchamp to take note of.
Honestly, I am not a fan of shopping in mainstream retail stores, so I really liked SoHo the best for “shopping”.
It it AllSaints Spitalfields, all the independent designers, and other great boutiques like Tory Burch where I went in there and touched everything but bought nothing.