Budget Travel, Guest Post, Saving Money, Tips

NYC on a Budget: A Guide for Visitors from a New Yorker

NYC on a BudgetThis week we have our second guest post on Cash for Kat! Our first post was Zero to Full-Time Income by Kathrin from A Chat With Kat Blog.

This week our guest is Ben Greenback from Your NYC Dollar! Ben is giving us his insider tips on everything you need to know about visiting New York City on a budget.

Take it away, Ben!

Timing Isn’t Everything, But It’s Something

When thinking about what you’ll be spending when visiting New York City (NYC), timing can have an impact. There is some seasonality regarding the expense of visiting the city you should be mindful of.

These seasonal costs can influence the price of your airfare as well as hotels if you choose to stay in one. The least expensive time to visit is January – February, followed by May – June, and September – November.

The least expensive time to visit NYC is January – February, during the winter months, and after New Years’ celebrations.

Hotel rooms may average around $300 per night throughout the year, but visiting during an off-peak period like this, a tourist may be able to grab one for closer to $175-200.

Additionally, airfares over this period are typically a bit cheaper too. The low-priced times to fly into the city are often December, January, February, and March.

Why is it less expensive to travel during this time?

It is the middle of winter, and the city is usually cold, averaging just a little above freezing (>0°C) during January – February. There’s also a good chance of snow that will make exploring a bit more challenging but manageable.

Honestly, snow in NYC from my experience tends not to be too terrible in recent years. But walking around is still less enjoyable relative to warmer months.

If you’re looking for more agreeable weather, then consider visiting during May – June or September – November.

Hitting NYC during the May – June (early June) period still avoids the peak tourist season, and the expense should be lower than average.

The weather is more agreeable outside during the spring months (15-20°C), which makes exploring the city a bit more fun and avoids the summer heat and humidity.

You can enjoy the wonderful city parks and other outdoor locations that become a bit more lively as the weather improves. Yet another alternative period that is favorable and less expensive is during the autumn months.

Visiting NYC from September – November, just after the summer vacation, and into the autumn is an excellent period to visit too.

During these months, the summer heat has passed with temperatures (7-15°C) decent for walking extensively around the city without getting too warm. Parks and other outdoor locations will still be somewhat busy with people and accessible.

Avoid the peak travel season in NYC, if possible. Everything will be a bit more expensive, including airfares and hotels.

Over the summer, late June – August tends to be a high tourist season, and again, around the holidays in November – December.

As a visitor, you’ll have to contend with many other tourists visiting the city. This means longer queues when waiting to enter museums and other popular attractions.

The summer weather over July – August is warm (20-28°C), and humidity can be high, turning your walks around the city into a sweat induced experience.

Moreover, NYC has a tendency to smell bad during warm months due to trash collected on the streets. On a positive note, parks and other outdoor activities will be in full swing, packed full of locals and tourists alike.

A visitor can enjoy a unique experience at Coney Island or Rockaway Beach that they otherwise wouldn’t be able during other months.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Visitors have numerous options for transportation into NYC, including planes, trains, buses, ships, and merely driving here in a car.

Automobiles in New York

Planes

For air travel, NYC is serviced by three major airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), typical for international flights, located in the borough of Queens.

There is also Newark Liberty International Airport located in the city of Newark, New Jersey, also facilitating many international flights.

And lastly, there is LaGuardia Airport, also located in Queens, with mostly domestic flights, but also some international. I would utilize something like Google Flights to screen for the most economical options based on your selected travel dates.

Trains

Traveling to NYC by train is another option if you are coming from another city in the United States (US) or Canada.

Amtrak provides nearly all passenger train service in the US. This quasi-public corporation provides medium to long-distance service across much of the US and nine cities within Canada. If you’re coming from the Euro-style train systems, Amtrak is going to be a step back for you.

Service is not the quickest with no true high-speed trains available, and some of the passenger cars are dated. Nevertheless, it can still provide an okay alternative to air travel, that is easier to navigate versus the security at airports.

Prices for train travel are not always the least expensive nor quickest for tourists but offers a more leisurely pace. Traveling by train offers the added bonus of often arriving at NYC’s Grand Central Station, which is worth a visit from travelers anyhow.

Trips from closer cities like Washington, DC, or Boston, and other coastal eastern towns are relatively pain-free and only take part of the day.

Longer trips from the Midwest, for example, may mean more dedication on your part as they can seem painfully long. I know because I’ve done it several times!

Automobiles

Buses offer a less luxurious way to get into NYC, but it is often one of the cheapest! Checking Greyhound bus service from Pittsburgh, PA, to New York City, NY, in mid-June offers an economy ticket for just $47.

While Greyhound provides comprehensive inter-city service across the US, other more local and regional bus options include Peter Pan Bus, New Jersey Transit, and Boltbus, among many others.

Enjoy the open waters? How about arriving to NYC via cruise ship?

There are three cruise terminals, Manhattan Cruise Terminal, located on the westside around Hells Kitchen, plus Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, located near Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. There’s also a third option, Cape Liberty Cruise Port in New Jersey.

These terminals often provide service from various cruise lines from Bermuda, Canada, New England, Caribbean as well as others globally. A cruise ship arrival to NYC may not be the most economical option, but for those planning a voyage anyhow, it might make for an exciting stop.

Lastly, someone visiting the city could simply drive here in their vehicle or rental car.

Since living here, I have only once driven in the city, and it wasn’t terribly enjoyable. In fact, it was filled with stress, given the aggressive nature of New York drivers and all the attitude that comes with it. That said, it is possible.

My advice would be to drive to an area close to NYC in New Jersey, like Metropark, use the parking garage, then take New Jersey Transit into the city.

Your car will be in a safe location, and the expense to leave it there will be much lower than a parking garage in the city. The average price to park in NYC is around $50 per day, ranging from $25-125 depending on location and day.

Alternatively, Metropark runs about $9 daily. There are free parking spaces throughout NYC, but the competition to get a spot is high, and you’ll have to be knowledgable about alternative-side parking rules to avoid tickets.

Getting Around The City

Learn the subways if you’re planning to visit NYC and save a few dollars. If you have a smartphone with internet access, there isn’t much learning involved with apps today. At the cost of $2.75 per ride as of this writing, there is no cheaper way to get around.

You have two subway MetroCard options that make the most sense for a tourist (if you’re an everyday New Yorker, check out my EasyPayXpress MetroCard Saves Time & Money article for the best option).

NYC Subway

First, you can use a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard at the cost of $2.75 per ride. These cards can be purchased at vending machines within the subway stations at values of $5.50-80.00, with a $1.00 fee assessed for new cards issued (i.e., ones that you are not refilling).

Second, if you are staying longer in the city or utilizing the subway multiple times daily, then you may want to consider the 7-Day Unlimited Metrocard.

This MetroCard may be the most economical option for frequent riders given you can use it as many times as you’d like over the 7-day period. Note, you can also use both these cards for most city bus service as well.

When you first arrive, if you’re coming from one of the major airports within NYC, including JFK and LaGuardia, the easiest option to get to your location is likely a taxi, but these are expensive.

From JFK to Manhattan, there is a fixed $52 rate, excluding peak surcharges of $4.50, taxes, tolls, and tips. All-in the cost can easily be $75-90 for this trip.

On the plus side, if you have several passengers to share the expense, like five people riding in a mini-van taxi, then it might make more sense, and it is admittedly the most convenient. From LaGuardia into Manhattan is not fixed, but metered, and likely costs around $25-50 depending on where you’re going.

Unfortunately, the NYC subway service does not extend directly to the city airports.

When coming from JFK, you can use the AirTrain for $7.75 that can take you to Jamaica Queens and Howard Beach train stations. Most likely, you’ll be going to Jamaica, and from there, you can take the subway for $2.75 directly into Manhattan or other areas of the city easily.

Unlike JFK, LaGuardia does not have any train service. The best economical option would be to take the M60 bus from all terminals to 125th Street in Manhattan that will allow you a free subway transfer on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, C, and D lines.

If you take the Q bus from LaGuardia to Queens, that allows for easy transfer to N, Q, R, E, and F subway lines. Again, this is likely the cheapest option with bus fares typically $2.75 unless it’s express.

Coming from the airport or merely visiting areas of NYC, guests can also most conveniently use a taxi or car services like Uber or Lyft. Remember, these are not cheap options and will have various taxes and other fees often on top of the fare plus a tip.

You should always provide some tips for these services if you’re using them. Also, when hailing a cab in NYC, remember, the cab number on top must have the light on, or this means it is not available.

Helpful Apps for Navigating NYC

Several smartphone apps are worth installing if you’re visiting NYC and will have internet access. Google Maps does a nice job navigating the city, providing options for walking, driving, subways, trains, and buses.

Citymapper is a great third party option for both Android and iPhones. This app covers all the aspects that Google Maps will as well as ride-hailing, Citi Bike, NYC Ferry plus Cars2Go. In many ways, this is likely the most comprehensive option, and it’s free!

As an aside, if you’re looking to bike around NYC, consider the Citi Bike program rather than renting bikes. Easy access and plenty of locations to drop your bike at.

I’d also suggest adding a few ride-hailing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Curb for taxis. Again, these car services will be the most expensive generally, but you may find it helpful to have when visiting select locations.

Lastly, when visiting many tourist-heavy areas around the city, notice the LinkNYC terminal kiosks (2.9m tall) scattered around the streets.

These offer free WiFi as well as phone charging and maps-directions. These can be helpful when you’re out and about during the day. They are meant to be a replacement for the old payphones that used to be located throughout the city.

Cheap Accommodations, AirBnB Might Be Your Best Bet

Hotels across NYC are plentiful, but likely the most costly option. Post the first week of January, you’ll typically see hotel prices become seasonally cheaper across the city over the next couple of months.

You may be able to score something as cheap as $150 in Manhattan if you’re lucky!

Similarly, if you’re planning the hotel route, I’d suggest you consider some options in Brooklyn around the downtown area. It offers easy access to Manhattan via the subways, plus likely better prices and potentially more space. Manhattan hotel rooms can be rather small and stuffy.

In comparison, Aloft in Brooklyn was spacious, had a swimming pool and rooftop bar and restaurant. I’ve stayed there myself once.

One of the best options, and most unique, might be an Airbnb rental. A visitor will have numerous options across all five boroughs of the city.

Do your research regarding the different areas of town and consider something outside of Manhattan to save a bit more money. Read the prior reviews of people that stayed there and ensure there is a long history at that specific Airbnb rental.

The city government and hotel lobby in NYC are very tough on Airbnb rentals and aggressive about shutting illicit operations down. You don’t want to be put out upon your arrival!

Lastly, a more adventurous and younger traveler may want to consider one of the various hostels. I’d suggest simply checking out the NYC section of HostelWorld.com. One can often find an inexpensive place to sleep for around $30-75 per night, depending on the location and time of year.

Hostels can offer the advantage of interacting and meeting other travels more easily during your stay in the city. Frankly, I’ve come across some unique ones outside Manhattan when browsing that I’ve considered for a staycation.

Best Activities in NYC

NYC Broadway Shows

Broadway Shows on the Cheap

My best advice for checking out a Broadway show on the cheap, take a look at TKTS Discount Booths. There are three locations you can visit in person, Times Square, South Street Seaport, and Lincoln Center. Often you can purchase last-minute tickets to popular Broadway shows at up to 20-50% off.

The way it works is, you visit the booth, check what show tickets are available, then purchase them for the show later that evening, or the next day in the case of a matinee. My advice is, arrive early to see what’s available or download the app.

Walking is Free & Great Tourist Activity

There is more than enough to see while you visit NYC. My advice is to walk around as much as possible.

It’s a slower pace, allowing you to really see everything around you and great exercise. There are wonderful parks, like Central Park, but many others beyond this worth exploring like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as one of the many botanical gardens throughout the boroughs.

Throughout Manhattan and other boroughs, each neighborhood usually has at least one community park, if not more, that can be a great place to visit and sit with a cup of coffee and people watch. There’s one piece of advice I need to offer when it comes to walking.

It tends to make New Yorkers angry when tourists walk slowly and in large groups spanning the width of the sidewalk. Most of us are very busy, heading to our jobs or meetings, and walking about twice the speed of tourists.

If you’re walking more slowly, keep off to the right side of the walk and DO NOT STOP to simply stare at things. If you have to stop for photos or to look more closely at something, step aside near the curb (don’t get hit by a car!) then take your picture or look around.

New Yorkers can be helpful, so it’s fine to ask for directions and things like that, but understand most people living here are in a hurry.

Dining is Expensive, but You Have Options

Fine dining in NYC can be an excellent experience but also very costly. Also, getting a table at a hot restaurant can be challenging if you’re only in town for a few days. There are many cheaper alternatives for food if you’re trying to keep your costs down.

Across most busy areas of the city, you can find street food vendors offering everything from bagels to Hala food to hotdogs, as well as more unique and tasty food truck options.

Remember, when dealing with street food vendors, they are legally required to provide a price list of their offerings if you ask to see it. At times these vendors can rip off tourists and charge exorbitant prices if you don’t inquire, and they suspect you’re only visiting the city.

Many neighborhood corner stores, Bodegas, also offer salad bars, hot plates of various foods, and this can be a decent economical alternative. Be mindful, they usually charge by the weight of the food on your plate, so if you aren’t careful, this can add up quickly.

Personally, for cheap as well as tasty food, I’d suggest checking out Smorgasburg.

It’s the largest open-air food market in the US. Usually available on weekends in several places in Brooklyn and Manhattan, it offers a wide variety of foods at around 100 vendors.

The quality, in my opinion, is often much better than you’d get with most street food vendors walking around the city. That said, many of these vendors operate food trucks you can frequent on weekdays around the city.

Lastly, consider heading to a local grocery store, buying a handful of items, and heading to Central Park for a picnic. It’s a cheap and fun activity if you’re here during the warmer months. You’ll find plenty of locals doing the same on weekends.

CityPASS Lets You Hit the Hotspots at a Discount

If you’re like most tourists, then there are probably a number of iconic attractions on your list to visit.

I’d suggest you consider the CityPASS that can save you around 40%, is valid for 30 days, and covers many of the major tourist attractions. The cost as of this writing is $136 for an adult and $112 for children. This pass covers several places with a few different options.

The CityPass includes Empire State Building, American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock Observation Deck or Guggenheim, Ferry to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises and 9/11 Memorial & Museum or Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

As a side note, you can also take the Staten Island Ferry for free, and this passes by the Statue of Liberty but does not stop at the island.

If you hit up all these things, you’ll have done more than I have while living here for over ten years!

Final Tips from a New Yorker

Blend in With the NYC Locals

If you’re looking to blend in with the locals while visiting NYC, I’d suggest reviewing weekly activities through Time Out New York. The website provides all the information for free, no need to buy the magazine that’s offered.

Here you can find listings for many free things to do all around the city, including parades, festivals, markets, concerts, shows, food events, and many other things!

Looking for something to read and plan your activities on the way here? Check out the Not For Tourists Guide to New York City. This book (& free website at notfortourists.com)is another good resource for less common tourist activities.

In my experience, when traveling, I’ve also found reviews for activities via TripAdvisor.com as well as restaurant and bar reviews helpful. These activities will be more typical for tourists as opposed to the other two resources mentioned.

Some Words of Caution while in NYC

Remember…

1) Don’t accept rides from random people at the airport.

2) Walk fast or move to the side.

3) Don’t buy tickets from people standing on the street.

4) Ask for food vendors’ price lists to not get overcharged.

5) Keep your wallets in a front pocket or buttoned one.

6) Don’t count money in public.

7) Leave expensive jewelry at home, don’t make it noticeable in the subway.  

8) Avoid pedicabs, bike rickshaws, many times they will overcharge tourists. 

You’re welcome to ask us New Yorkers questions or directions on the street but be prepared for quick responses because chances are we’re in a rush.

Well, potential visitors, I hope you’ve found this helpful in preparation for your NYC trip!

Enjoy your travels!

Tell us about your experience: Have you ever been to NYC? Did anything on this list surprise you?

Ben Greenback, from Your NYC Dollar, wrote this article as a guest. Your NYC Dollar, personal finance for Gotham! The site touches income, investing, and saving as well as economics, organization, optimization, and life in NYC.

5 thoughts on “NYC on a Budget: A Guide for Visitors from a New Yorker

  1. This is such an informative post for anyone who wants to visit NYC! I live here and wouldn’t necessarily recommend traveling here now due to the pandemic, but this should serve as a really helpful guide for anyone with plans to come here once everything’s over 🙂

    1. Yes! Ben did an excellent job on this post and it should come in handy once the pandemic is over. In the meantime, it certainly is great to dream about visiting since I’ve yet to visit! Thanks for stopping by!

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