Photos By Bill Newcott
It’s official: New York is the most expensive city in America. But only if you live there—not if you’re a smart traveler.
Too many people think of New York as their impossible dream vacation. That’s a delusion fed by too many movies and TV shows that portray the Big Apple as an exclusive playground for the rich and famous.
Here are your top money reasons for not visiting New York, and how I’ve gotten around each of them:
1) The hotels alone will bankrupt you. Well, yeah, if Donald Trump is your role model. But think outside the Midtown Manhattan box. I like to stay in Long Island City in Queens, the first subway stop out of Manhattan (and a quicker ride to Times Square than from lots of spots in town). The hotels in Queens—and across the Hudson in Jersey City and Weehawken, a quick ferry ride away—are not only cheaper, they offer something no Manhattan hotel can: A sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline. Determined to stay in town? Two clean, comfy, and amazingly affordable Manhattan hotels are run by religious groups: The Leo House on West 23rd Street (As low as $105 a night, operated by the Sisters of St. Agnes) and The Salisbury Hotel, across from Carnegie Hall (As low as $139 a night, owned by Calvary Baptist Church).
2) I’ll blow a fortune just taxing to Manhattan from the airport. Fuhgettabout the taxi. If you’re flying to New York, go into LaGuardia Airport and take the Q70-LTD bus, running every 12 minutes. For $2.50 it’ll take you to the subway for a free transfer into town. Total time downtown: 35 minutes, quicker than that yellow money vacuum will get you there. If for some reason you find yourself driving into Manhattan, be sure to take the Queensboro Bridge. It’s the only Manhattan bridge with no toll in either direction.
3) So, what am I suppose to do on a budget? Wander the sidewalks? That’s actually not a bad option: The greatest show in New York is the street. I’ve spent many satisfying days just wandering the neighborhoods of Manhattan. But you can see lots of top attractions without spending a dime: Lower Manhattan is my favorite part of town. The Midtown street grid gives way to winding, narrow roads that date to Colonial times, and you’re never far from the Hudson or East Rivers. Better yet, although money talks around Wall Street, so does the word “Freebie.” Register online for a free tour of the Federal Reserve Bank (newyorkfed.org), which includes a glimpse of the legendary Gold Vault. At Federal Hall, you can stand on the spot where George Washington was sworn in as President. The Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu), in the old U.S. Custom House, has exhibits of Native American art, plus one of New York’s most impressive rooms: The domed rotunda. Most importantly, the long-awaited 9/11 Museum is finally open. The 9/11 Memorial, with its solemn waterfalls outlining the footprints of the fallen Twin Towers, is already open, but because of all the local construction work access is limited to those with free tickets, available online at 911memorial.org.
4) Look, I’m not that cheap. I’m willing to pay something during my visit. That’s great, because New York City is the home of some of the country’s best pay-what-you-wish programs. Last year I visited the American Museum of Natural History with my wife, my daughter, her husband and their five kids. Suggested Retail Price of all those tickets: $150. But that’s a lot for a quick breeze through the dinosaur halls. I slapped 50 bucks on the counter and we were in without so much as a dirty look (but please, be a good citizen and pay something!). Other pay-what-you-wish destinations include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, Bronx Zoo (Wednesdays), The New York Aquarium (Fridays after 3 p.m.) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (5:45-7:45 p.m. Saturdays). There’s a complete list of Always Free/Sometimes Free/Pay-What-You-Wish New York attractions at nyc-arts.org.
5) I’m not willing to mortgage my house for dinner. You think I am? Eating in New York is like a budget round-the-world tour. Chinatown didn’t get its name for the place settings (but wander south of touristy Canal Street for better value). Head down to Little Italy for an authentic dinner worthy of a night in Tuscany. And for cheap Greek food, go where cheap Greeks eat: Over in Astoria, Queens, where there are more Greek people than anywhere else beyond the Mediterranean. You can’t beat a New York sidewalk hot dog, and the roasted chestnuts are worth buying if only for the scent. Consider having your big meal at lunchtime—you’ll save on dinner prices. If you must have a New York steak, and it must be in Manhattan’s Theater District, go ahead and step into Tad’s Steaks, which has been serving up amazingly cheap, surprisingly tasty (if thin and recently frozen) steaks since I was a kid.
6) Those concrete canyons will kill me. I need air! For nearly two centuries, New Yorkers have been breathing the fresh sea air aboard the Staten Island Ferry, a 5-mile cruise from lower Manhattan. It’s exhilarating, it offers the best views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan…and it’s free. One of the best biking experiences of my life was following the outside loop of Central Park. The terrain is surprisingly varied, especially up near Harlem, where a long, winding hill will give you a pleasant workout. Hotels around the park offer bikes for reasonable rates, and now New York’s Citibike program, with bike racks around the city, puts your mettle to the pedals for just $9.95 a day (citibikenyc.com). The most refreshing ride in the city: Pick up your bike at a West Side location and glide on down to the Battery, with the Hudson River breeze in your face the whole way.