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Visiting New York City on a Budget


New York City is notoriously expensive both to live in and to visit, but don’t let that image of the Big Apple keep you away from the City That Never Sleeps. It is entirely possible to have both a tight budget and a great time in NYC. In a city this large there are plenty of things to do that are either free or low cost. Whether traveling solo or with a family, here’s a generous sampling of ideas to get you started on your bargain vacation.

First, you’ll need a place to lay your head at night. This is likely to be the most expensive part of your trip but it doesn’t have to break the bank. A couple hostels are included although NYC doesn’t have a lot of them due to laws limiting the number of beds in a room. Nevertheless, some were grandfathered in and others have created cozier spaces that some people prefer.




ACCOMMODATIONS

  • Pod 39 Hotel: The rooms are called pods because of their compact size but all rooms are en suite (with bathroom adjoining.) It’s an elegant brick building in Manhattan’s Murray Hill. Enjoy the famous rooftop bar with stunning views and free passes to some walking tours!
  • HI New York City Hostel: Best for young travelers accustomed to bunkbed dorms. Located in a Victorian style building about 8 minutes from Central Park. Breakfast and Wifi are free, and it IS kid-friendly if you’re a youthful traveler with children.
  • American Dream Hostel: Located in Gramercy Park with free breakfast and wifi. Free snacks throughout the day help the budget as well as a game room and a kitchen for cooking.
  • The New Yorker, a Wyndham Hotel: Art Deco style built in the height of the Jazz Era. Located in Midtown Manhattan near Madison Square Garden. You might find the onsite lounge and restaurants a bit pricey, but Starbucks and McDonalds are across the street.
  • Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel: Located in Long Island City, which is at the extreme western edge of Queens. It’s a five-minute drive from Manhattan, or you can walk 3 minutes to a subway station. Free hot buffet breakfast and free wifi.
  • EVEN Hotel, Brooklyn: Located in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, a place with good shopping. Convenient to public transportation and has free wifi. A restaurant is onsite and Starbucks is a 3-minute walk.
  • Days Inn by Wyndham Brooklyn Borough Park: Free Wifi and breakfast, and one child stays free. Coffee and tea in the common area and a fitness center. Battery Park is a 9-minute drive and Brooklyn Bridge is 11 minutes.



TRANSPORTATION

Unless you plan on using your own two feet to get everywhere you will need to budget some money for transportation. There will be no freebies here! But there are ways to limit your expenditures. Here we go!

  • Buy a FreeStyle Pass for a 72-hour All Around Town Hop-on Hop-off Bus: The double decker bus tour includes Downtown, Uptown, and Brooklyn loops and you can hop off at any time and get back on later. This is a great way to get tours, information, transportation, and bird’s eye views of all the iconic sights. Plus, you can choose among passes that include 3, 5 or 7 attractions. And that’s not all. The hop-on hop-off ferry is included as well!
  • Rent a Bike: The Fancy Apple Bike Rental will even deliver a bike to your hotel and pick it up too. An alternative is to use the Citi Bike, New York’s bike sharing system. Bike paths on the streets are plentiful and hot spots for bicycling include Central, Riverside and Prospect Parks as well as along the rivers. In addition, you can cross many of the bridges with a bike. You can get a NYC bike map and guide here: https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bicyclists/bikemaps.shtml.
  • Purchase a MetroCard to get around on the city’s buses, subways and ferries. You can do this at any of the subway stations. Or just stand at a bus stop and wave down the bus.
  • Of course, walking IS a great way to get around, especially in Manhattan where sights and activities tend to bunch up together. You can walk from one to another with ease.

PARKS

Parks are always free to walk into, and NYC is packed with plenty of cherished green space in a concrete jungle. Most parks offer playgrounds and all offer walking and free play space. This compilation includes just a few of the many.

  • Central Park: The most visited urban park in the U.S. is located between the Upper West Side and Upper Ease Side of Manhattan. Areas of the park have distinct topographic features and even names such as The Ramble, North Woods, Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, Hallett Nature Sanctuary, and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. You can also rent a bike right in Central Park to cover the 38 acres.
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park: An 85-acre waterfront expanse offers walking paths, fields, playgrounds, a carousel, and an Environmental Education Center for kids which is free, but you’ll need to check their website for days/hours.
  • Bryant Park: This one’s right behind the (also free) New York Public Library. Free entertainment in the summer includes Monday night outdoor movies and in the winter there’s an ice skating rink. This park also boasts free public wifi.
  • Flushing Meadows – Corona Park: The city’s second biggest park is located in Queens and features the famous Unisphere, a mammoth steel globe created for the 1964 World’s Fair. Rolling green fields, historic walks, scenic trails, kayaking, biking, skate parks, and a model aircraft field keep everyone busy.
  • Prospect Park: Many of the playgrounds here offer water features to help the kids stay cool, there is an Audubon Center and bird watching, a carousel, Lefferts Historic House ($3 suggested donation,) and yoga.
  • Governors Island: This one’s different, and open only from May 1 through October 31. Take a low-cost ferry from Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building. You’ll find miles of biking and walking paths, an urban farm, art installations, festivals, and outstanding views. There is also an Adventure Zone for ziplining, rock climbing, and mazes. Bring your own picnic lunch or buy from the many vendors.
  • Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village: This is your people-watching destination, with less green space but more musicians and street artists. You’ll still feel that famous hippie vibe of the 60’s and 70’s and you can find cheap eats, record stores, and Molly’s Cupcakes, where you can linger to play board games with friends and family.
  • The High Line: This piece of an old elevated railroad track has been transformed into a flourishing garden and walkway with sculptures, shallow pools, a food court and a view of the Hudson River. With overlooks, lawns and balconies, this 1.75 stretch runs from Gansevoort Street to 24th Street on Manhattan’s West Side.



MUSEUMS

You’d like to include some culture on your trip but are dreading the cost of admission at the major museums? Cheer up! You can get your fill of cultural experiences for low or no cost as well. These suggestions are a mere sampling, as some of the larger museums do have certain days or hours when admission is free or reduced.

  • American Folk Art Museum: Admission is FREE and it’s open every day of the week except Monday. Devoted to the appreciation of self-taught artists across the years, there are two locations, 2 Lincoln Square in Manhattan and its Collection and Education Center in Queens. You’ll be amazed at the talent out there in the world that sometimes goes unnoticed. Folk art often bears witness to history and the four sections of the American Perspectives Exhibit include Founders, Travelers, Philosophers and Seekers.
  • National Museum of the American Indian: This museum is a component of the Smithsonian. Admission is FREE and it’s open daily. It houses one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of its kind. Ongoing exhibits include Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting, Ancestral Connections, Infinity of Nations and Patriot Nations.
  • Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art: Home to LGBTQI art and community, here you’ll find exhibits that rotate through the months. A current exhibit is called Other Points of View and looks at the mid-twentieth century artistic scene in America. The exhibit Uncanny Effects displays the work of photographer Robert Giard. Located on Wooster Street between Grand and Canal Streets, it has afternoon hours Wednesday through Sundays and suggested admission is $10.
  • Brooklyn Children’s Museum: While admission is usually $13, you can get in free on Thurdays from 2 – 6 PM and on Sundays from 4 – 7 PM. This is actually a “pay as you wish” opportunity, so some patrons will pay something and others will not. Kids of all ages will love the sensory play in the Nature Neighborhood, World of Brooklyn, and Science Inquiry Center.
  • Socrates Sculpture Park: Here’s one that is both a park and a museum. It is FREE and open every day from 9AM to sundown. The vast majority of artworks exhibited have been commissioned and built on-site in the outdoor artist studio space. Visitors have the unique opportunity to see artists in the process of creating.
  • Bronx Museum of the Arts: Amazingly, this entire museum is FREE and open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 AM to 6 PM. Exhibits change, with the current one featuring Henry Chalfant, documentarian of street art. Future exhibits include Jose Parla and Sanford Biggers.

MORE!

  • Load up on popcorn and go to Movie Nights for FREE at many of the city parks during the summer, at dusk. Check Bryant Park, Columbus Park, Riverside Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park for starters.
  • Music can be heard free of charge. SummerStage is New York’s outdoor performing festival taking place from June – October in Central Park and 17 other neighborhood parks.
  • Walk across the bridges. Manhattan is connected to the world via an abundance of bridges.
    • Brooklyn Bridge: Spans just over a mile, from Brooklyn Bridge Park to East River Waterfront Esplanade. On the Brooklyn side, find numerous terrific playgrounds.
    • Manhattan Bridge: Bike and pedestrian pathways span the mile. Lots of bicyclists use this bridge so walk on the southern passageway and bike on the northern. While in Brooklyn, explore DUMBO.
    • Williamsburg Bridge: Suspension bridge with urban jungle views at each end, with the Empire State Building at one end and the iconic Domino Sugar building on the east.
    • Edward Koch Queensboro Bridge: The longest span of the East River at 1.7 miles, it’s supported by two elegant cantilevers and runs parallel to the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway.
    • Robert F. Kennedy Triboro Bridge: The full walk takes you across two spans linked by ramps about a quarter of a mile apart. This one may be difficult with children.
    • George Washington Bridge: This is the only bridge over the Hudson River and is billed as one of the busiest on the planet. At 1.5 miles, it is increasingly a draw for pedestrians and bicyclists eager to enjoy the majestic views.
  • Staten Island Ferry: This free ride provided by the city runs 24 hours/day, 7 days/week between the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island and the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan. The ferry is packed during rush hours but otherwise you can take a more leisurely cruise across to see the views, hop off, and return whenever you wish. It’s a 25-minute voyage with vistas of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline.
  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral: The neo-gothic church is a NYC landmark and an attraction for those interested in architecture, religion, or just beautiful buildings. Its twin spires jut 330 feet into the sky, the block-long building is entirely overlaid in marble, and there are stained glass windows and bronze doors. You can pay for a tour or attend any of the daily masses for free.
  • Grand Central Terminal: Although it’s a transportation hub, many people go here for other reasons. The cathedral-like building is a cultural destination with dining and shopping, a celestial ceiling, and a huge Tiffany glass clock.
  • Syndicated: Take your friends or loved one to this fabulous combination bar, movie theater, restaurant. The dine-in cinema costs just $7, select drafts can be had for $4, classic cocktails for $9, and you can buy sandwiches or snacks to eat while you watch the show.
  • Dangerfield’s: Need a good laugh? A good bet for a good night is the longest running Comedy Club in the world, Dangerfield’s. With 50 years of rave views and a cast of characters who have appeared on national TV shows such as Jimmy Kimmel, Late Night, Conan and Comedy Central, your $20 ticket is worth the slight extravagance.
  • Watch the U.S. Open (Tennis): Well, you can watch the qualifying tournament for free! What better way to see the greats compete? Fan Week happens in mid to late August and costs nothing to attend. Watch open practices as well and enjoy the evening concert series.
  • As you can see, it’s entirely possible to both stay within a budget and enjoy NYC wholeheartedly. Use this guide as a springboard for your own explorations.