Oh New York, New York. The most idilic of cities, scenario of movies and shows and a bucket list destination for every human in this world. There’s just a tiny small problem: it’s an expensive city. That’s why I’m about to show you how to save some money in New York. Start spreading the news, this is New York City on a budget!
Expensive cities are a struggle for everyone who travels on a budget.
Like when I visited Stockholm on a tight budget, I almost cried when I was charged 9 euros for a basic beer. Now it was time to test budget-saving skills in New York City.
Contrarily to other articles I’ve seen out there, I don’t have any advertising for expensive tours and city cards disguised as useful tips.
I’ve only compiled my own detailed tips to survive an 100% independent trip to the greatest city in the world. For reference, I visited in May 2018. Here’s what I will cover:
Getting to New York City 🛫
Start by saving some money before you put your feet in New York.
My main tips to find cheap flights also apply to NYC. Timing is important – try to book as soon as possible and look into low-cost airlines.
Low-cost airlines such as Norwegian and WOW started flying recently from several european cities to New York. Careful they add extra fees to select your seat or take extra luggage, but can still be a great deal.
By visiting New York in the low season you are almost guaranteed to find cheaper flights from anywhere. Especially if you’re visiting from January to March. Expect cold weather and the occasional snow blizzard that cause chaos in airports though.
3 main airports in New York City ✈️
- JFK | John F. Kennedy Airport. The main hub of Delta. About 1-hour from Manhattan with rail/subway (take the Airtrain and then switch to subway). Passport and immigration lines can be daunting.
- EWR | Newark Liberty International Airport. The main hub of United. About 1-hour from Manhattan, from rail/subway.
- LGA | LaGuardia Airport. The smaller of the three and the quickest option to get to Manhattan, but only by bus. Mostly domestic flights. Also bad reputation for flight delays and cancellations.
If you’re staying in Manhattan, the differences in getting to your accommodation are marginal. I’d suggest you to choose the flight that is more convenient in terms of price and time and care about the logistics of getting to the center later.
However if you decide to stay in Queens, stick with LGA or JFK; if you’re staying in New Jersey, EWR might be more convenient.
Transportation in New York City 🚇
Starting with the obvious: driving in NYC is an awful idea. Traffic is horrendous and parking is a true nightmare. Don’t ever do this.
Also hailing one of the iconic yellow cabs is probably a scenario you’ve seen in movies and wish to replicate, but reality check: it’s not the most affordable way to get around either.
Getting around NYC
Take advantage of the good system of the cheaper public transportation: bus, subway and even ferries. It’s unlikely the place you want to go is not covered by a nearby station. Citymapper was a lifesaver for me.
Apps like Uber or Lyft are cheaper alternatives to normal taxis, especially if you’re willing to share your ride with strangers.
And of course: walk. Walk a lot. It’s the best way to explore any city and in NYC there’s something to wonder about at every turn.
1 week getting around NYC
If you’re staying for a week in New York City, your best option is the subway. I mean, the 27 subway lines are sure to take you anywhere in Manhattan!
For this, I suggest the 7-day Unlimited Metrocard ($32) + $1 card itself. It gives you unlimited rides on the subway and city buses (excluding special express buses). There aren’t any zone limits either, so it’s a fantastic deal that saves you time and money. FREEDOM!
MTA says it’s worth if you ride the subway more than 13 times/week. It seems like a lot, but in a week, trust me, you WILL easily surpass this number.
Tips for riding the subway in New York City
- Make sure you enter the correct entrance. Frequently subway entrances lead to one single platform going into one directon (Uptown or Downtown). Always check the panels and see if it’s a station heading Uptown, Downtown or both.
- Be aware of express subways. Sometimes you can board an express train that skips some stations.
- Download Citymapper. Not only gives you the best way to get from point A to point B, this app also tells you where to board the subway for more efficient use. I was so impressed I added it to my resources page and topped my list of 12 apps to download in NYC.
- There are rats. No tips, just to let you know.
Accommodation in New York City 🏨
You know what’s coming. Yes, hotels in New York City are freakin’ expensive. There’s no way around it: accommodation will take the biggest chunk on your budget and the value-for-money ratio is frequently a disaster.
To give you a better grasp or prices, a bargain probably still means $100 a night for an apartment on Airbnb or double room in a hotel. Anything less than $900 for a week is considered a “cheap” deal.
My best tip for accommodation in New York City is to monitor the prices constantly. I mean, everyday. When I was researching places to stay on Booking I’ve noticed prices fluctuate tremendously and discounts appear quite often. Keep in mind many hotels add taxes and fees on top of the nightly rate.
On a tight budget, my best suggestions are Couchsurfing and Airbnb (get a discount voucher!). Apart from the lower prices, you have the possibility of doing some meals at home.
Last but not least, there are Priceline bargains to be found, if you’re willing to bid on a room.
Hotels vs Airbnb
First of all I gotta to say I’m usually not a big fan of Airbnb. I much rather stay in a hotel where check-in is seamless, cleaning standards are higher and doesn’t contribute to inflated house pricing for locals.
However, where prices of hotels are as high as the skyscrapers, Airbnb can prove to be a blessing and a money-saver. I opted to stay in an Airbnb apartment in Lower Manhattan this time – the price was about 35% lower (!) than the hotel I’d booked before.
I ended up having a decent experience, but I still recommend you start with a standard hotel search and look for good deals as soon as possible before your trip.
Areas to stay in New York
The world revolves around Times Square, to the closer you are to this epicenter, the more you can expect to pay for your accommodation. Avoid areas right next to 42nd Street/Broadway and Midtown West where $150-$200 per night is standard.
But I’d advise not to go too far. After all, Manhattan is the place to be and you don’t want to spend most of your time commuting. My personal favorite areas in Manhattan turned out to be Chelsea, SoHo and the Meatpacking District, but unfortunately these don’t translate into affordable hotels and hostels.
Also avoid areas like Bronx and Harlem due to safety, even though these have some of the most interesting restaurants and shops of New York.
Best budget-friendly areas to stay in NYC
- Brooklyn: I admit I had a bit of prejudice against Brooklyn before my trip, but I found Williamsburg and the area next to Brooklyn Bridge Park more hipster than gangster. Also very well-connected.
- The Financial District: Say whaat? Yes, it’s crazy busy during the day, and almost empty at night. Could be a good option to stay during weekends.
- The Village: far from touristy stops, it gives you a more authentic perspective on what is the life of a true New Yorker.
- Lower East Side: a nightlife hotspot, filled with more affordable restaurants and vintage-clothing shops. Probably the cheapest place to stay in the whole Manhattan.
- SoHo: one my personal favorites. Hip and trendy, but also harder to find a “bargain”.
Have no idea what these names mean? Here’s a map.
I’ve done the research for you. Here’s some cheap hotels to stay in Manhattan.
Like I mentioned, I booked an Airbnb this time. I still had a couple hotels in mind for my stay in New York. Here are my favorites: they both have excellent locations and 7+ rating.
Eating out in New York City 😋
Food In New York City
Right from the get go, I’ll say eating out in New York didn’t feel as expensive as I was expecting. While many popular restaurants have affordable lunch specials, fast-food chains like Five Guys and Shake Shack are indeed the cheapest option. But you don’t want to do that to your body for a full week, do you?
As I’ve mentioned millions of times, avoid eating in the most touristy areas. Instead, head to Lower East Side, Chinatown or The Village to find some affordable spots to fill your belly.
Cheap places to eat in New York City
Fortunately, New York City is a melting pot with every single type of restaurant you can think of. Overall, I found the cheapest restaurants to be the ones serving Thai, Vietnamese, Greek and Mexican food.
For the ultra budget people out there, fear not. Groupon has hundreds of deals for all sorts of restaurants. Also there are hundreds of food trucks and street food stalls serving everything from hot-dogs to chicken biryani, all under $10. A slice of pizza can be as low as $1. Not the healthiest of meals, but still better than going to a bland McDonalds if you ask me.
Here’s my Foursquare list of places to eat in New York. Please suggest more places so I can add them to this list! My personal favorites:
- Los Tacos No 1. Hands down, the best tacos and quesadillas I’ve had in my life. Love everything about this place, including the price (each item around $4-$5).
- Souvlaki GR. With a very convincing decoration that made me go back to the Greek Islands again, the food here is very good value.
- Fresh Co. After eating pizza, pasta and tacos, my body didn’t know what healthy food was anymore. Until we found this place. Delicious salads and juices without ruining your budget. Try the avocado chimichurri sauce!
Tipping in New York City 💲
As an european, I only tip when I feel the service exceeded my expectations, so this “hidden pressure” to tip in restaurants and bars feels completely alien to me. Couldn’t help to find a bit ridiculous to see a “suggested tipping of 22%” (!) printed on the bottom of the receipt.
Nevertheless, my point is tipping can make your meal significantly more expensive. The price you see rarely is the price you’ll pay in the end for the meal. Technically you can leave without tipping, but the myth says all the staff will send you bad karma for the rest of your trip. JK. But leave at least 10% just in case.
The Main Sights in New York City On A Budget 🗽
When people go to New York, they go nuts. Everyone will see a show on Broadway, splurge on a helicopter sunset ride, go to a Yankees match or see some live TV show they have never even seen in real life. The city is addictive and appeals to consumerism like crazy.
I get it, you want to experience the city to the fullest, but man, these things can easily ruin your budget. Worse, most of them come from FOMO. Deep down, you may not even want to do them; it’s just your mind recycling what you’ve seen on media and internet. With social networks like Instagram and Facebook, I think this is a ever-growing issue.
On a budget, you need to make some choices and be selective about what you really want to experience. Everyone is different. Just try to avoid FOMO thoughts at all costs and find something that speaks to you.
Btw, I didn’t do any of the above: I’m not a fan of musicals, baseball doesn’t spark my interest at all and my idea of traveling is not being stuck in a studio for 4+ hours. Here are some tips that worked for me on some main sights that might work for you too.
MoMa (Museum of Modern Art)
Temporary exhibits range from the mildly interesting to the absolutely captivating, it really depends what’s on at the moment. On the other hand, permanent pieces include Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans and my personal favorite Rousseau’s The Dream. A true wonder.
Standard admission fee is $25 for adults, but FREE on Friday evenings, 4-8 p.m. Expect heavy queues though, unless you arrive after 6 pm.
New York City‘s lung. I found not only the size of park to be impressive, but especially the amount of diversity it holds inside. Bridges, meadows, street food stalls, lakes and a wide range of animals and plants right in the middle of the urban jungle.
Many choose to walk around – absolutely 🆓 – but be aware you’ll probably won’t have time to cover the entire park in a week-long stay. The cheapest way to cover more ground is to hire a bike.
Rental bikes are available in some shops nearby the SW corner of the park, next to Columbus Circle. We managed to get a deal in Groupon for a 4-hour bike rental for $12 per person, but I’m pretty sure you can get it for even less!
Museum of Arts & Design
Can be a hit or miss. Some of the exhibits were super interesting, but honestly some others were a complete bore.
Admission is PAYW (pay-as-you-wish) on Thursdays after 6pm. It’s a great way to end your day with some cultural after a day exploring the nearby Central Park.
Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building vs One World Observatory
Do you really need to have 3 different views from tall buildings in your life? Tickets to these attractions are pricey, so pick one!
I only did Top of the Rock. It was my personal decision and was then validated by everyone I spoke to, including locals! Why? Well, One World is all covered in glass, so the experience is not quite the same as the others. The Empire State Bulding lacks itself on the city view, which on my opinion is a key feature on the Manhattan’s skyline.
If you wish to go to a Broadway’s musical, head to a TKTS discount booth in New York (there’s one right in Times Square).
Same-day theatre tickets can be up to 50% off, even though it might be hard to find entrances for super popular shows like Lion King or Wicked.
What I missed
No, I didn’t attend a musical on Broadway. I also didn’t go to Metropolitan Museum of Art nor took a fancy helicopter ride. Personally, none of these things interest me enough to pay big amounts of money. Sue me.
On the other hand, I ate pizza while watching the sun go down on Manhattan‘s cityscape, rode a cable car and went on a little off-the-beaten-track getaway to Governor’s island.
These are my personal choices, and I feel great about them. There’s no right or wrong. For you on a budget, the important is trying to be smart as to where your money goes and feel good about them too!
Absolutely FREE things to do in New York City 🆓
Find below some ideas of experiences and things you can do in New York that doesn’t cost anything at all. Nada. Niente.
Cross the Brooklyn Bridge
Built in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most popular landmarks of the city and is entirely free – trust NO ONE who tells you need a tour for this.
The walk takes about an hour and is filled with Instagram-worthy moments and captivating views of Manhattan’s skyline. The bridge is also exposed to pick a day with pleasant weather to do the walk. Snow or strong winds can be a huge problem when you’re crossing a bridge as there’s nowhere to find shelter.
Tip: the pathway is shared between pedestrians and bikes, so make sure you stay on the pedestrian lane at all times. Also there are no bathrooms or food on the bridge, so come prepared (in hotter days there are people selling water though).
If you cross from Manhattan to Brooklyn, walk down the Dumbo district and relax on Brooklyn Bridge Park afterwards.
Hop on the Staten Island Ferry
Absolutely FREE since 1997, the Staten Island ferry is a great way to have a whole new perspective of Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Also look into the IKEA ferry that runs from Wall St. to the Swedish furniture store in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s $5 on weekdays, but free at weekends.
Visit Grand Central Terminal
The vibe of this place is something quite unique and exactly as you’d expect after seeing it in TV shows and movies.
There’s also many easter eggs and curiosities to explore so it felt like playing a charade. Don’t miss the whispering chamber, where you can whisper to people on opposite sides of a gallery through the roof archs, just like an embedded walkie-talkie!
Visit the 9/11 memorial
The 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan was built to honour the nearly 3,000 people who dies in the September 11, 2011 attacks in the World Trade Center. Conspiracy theories aside, it’s still a must-go visit to a first-time visit to New York.
While the museum has a heavy $24 admission (except on Tuesdays from 5pm), the memorial itself is outdoors, consisting of 2 giant fountains pouring water in the exact place where the Twin Towers foundations once where. Such a simple architecture project but that sends such a powerful message of absence and emptiness.
Dazzle at Times Square
Locals and some hardcore anti-capitalists might despise this place but undeniably it’s a landmark in New York. Yes, it’s packed with tourists and wacky characters, but dazzling at all the lights, absorbing the incredible atmosphere and doing a fair share of people-watching is FREE.
Being here is such a movie-like moment I came back here twice in different moments of the day (morning, evening and late at night). Don’t miss it.
Walk the High Line
This place quickly turned into one of my favorites. The effort put into turning this ugly elevated freight train line into a beautiful “park in the sky” should be a classic example of great architecture working in favor of the city.
Escape the chaos and take a stroll amongst an almost surreal combination of skyscrapers but also meadows plants and trees, while watching the traffic and bustle of the city below.
I’ve done the research for you. Here’s some cheap hotels to stay in Manhattan.
Budget for 1 Week in New York City 💸
This is a breakdown of my personal budget in New York (May 2018).
Looking back, we did a pretty mediocre job of saving money in eating out and the consumerist side in me couldn’t resist to buy some pieces of clothing and shoes.
Cost breakdown of a week in New York City
- DURATION OF THE STAY: 7 DAYS
- TOTAL DISTANCE COVERED ON FOOT: 91 km (!!)
- ACCOMMODATION: $356
- METROCARD: $33. $32 + $1 card itself
- JFK AIRPORT AIRTRAIN: $12,50 (1 combined metro + Airtrain ticket, 1 single ticket on return)
- FOOD&DRINK: $559. Average of $79 per day, including breakfast and snacks.
- ENTRY FEES: $74 (MoMA $25, Top of the Rock $39, MAD $10)
- RANDOM SHOPPING: $166. Couldn’t control myself on sales. 🤦
- TOTAL COST ($): $1200/pax
These are the exact numbers per person on my trip. We were 2 people in total so if you want to estimate the trip total, multiply these values by 2.
Summary: New York on a budget
Let’s be real. New York City is NOT an affordable city by any means and can take a chunk out of your yearly travel budget.
The hardest part was definitely to sort out a decently-priced accommodation. Everything is SO expensive and quite frankly, most hotels are severely overpriced for the value they offer.
Once this is arranged though, you’re good.
While non-inclusive tax and tipping add a whole new level of complexity to your budget calculations, I was pleased to find many decent options to eat out in New York. Sadly, most of it doesn’t fit the healthy category but you’ll survive for a week.
And as for the rest, use Groupon – full of gems – and common sense. Don’t let FOMO decide what you should do or not, but also don’t restrict yourself too much because of money. If you’re really up for it, do it. After all, exploring New York City is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many and it’s a shame to come back with the feeling of “damn, should’ve done X!”. Balance is key here.
Hey, and it’s New York. If you can make a budget trip here, you can make it anywhere, it’s up to yoouuu!
Do you have more tips to travel to New York City on a budget? How do you save money in expensive destinations? If this article was helpful to you, share your experience below!