Your Next Big Trip

How to travel cheaply in New York – an essential guide to NYC on a budget

There’s more to NYC than big city lights!

Ah, New York City – the city that never sleeps, the Big Apple, so good they named it twice. New York City is a must see, even once. This bustling hub is a true melting pot, where cultures collide, fuse and become their own. To truly experience everything New York has to offer could well be a life time’s work, and money! That being said, it is possible to travel cheaply in New York, and still have an amazing time.

How NOT to do New York

The first time I visited New York, I stayed at Times Square, took the open-top bus tour, only visited the tourist sites, and came away thinking it was alright but not somewhere I wanted to return to. I also spent a LOT of money, mainly because I had been told it was impossible to travel cheaply in New York.

Fast forward four years later and I found myself being sent to New York for a work training. Sounds like a dream come true, right? Except in choosing an expensive training I blew through the office training budget and found myself in New York City with just $500 to get me through each week. I knew I needed the training opportunity. I also knew that with my travel skills I could make it work, without resorting to eating $1 pizza every day! So I said “challenge accepted” and started planning my most challenging solo trip yet.

Where to stay cheaply in New York:

The biggest challenge to travel cheaply in New York City is the cost of accommodation. High city taxes mean that cheap accommodation is almost impossible to come by. However, there are deals to be had, if you know where to look.

Remember, Manhattan is only one area of New York. Great deals can be had in areas like Brooklyn, and in the outer parts of Manhattan like the Upper East Side. Food is generally cheaper too and you might get the added bonus of sampling another country’s cuisine. My time in Washington Heights gave me the chance to try the best Dominican food and Harlem was a southern soul food paradise.

Image of apartment lobby
The lobby of my beautiful Airbnb – true New York living!

Option 1: Airbnb – (Approach with caution)

I stayed in an Airbnb on my last trip to New York. It was a beautiful room in a shared apartment in Washington Heights. The host was friendly and it gave me a real feel for what it is like to actually live in New York.

However, Airbnb is only allowed in New York City if the host is present during your stay. If you see a listing for a full apartment, this is an illegal listing. While you might be tempted to chance it, there is nothing to stop the authorities from shutting it down either before or during your stay. Only accept listings where the host actually lives there and will be there while you stay.

Option 2: Hostel

If you are travelling solo, there are many decent hostels in New York City. Hostelling International is always a good option, especially if you have membership. If you are more than one person though, it is worth checking the price of a hotel room. Often when you pool your budget, hostels become pretty bad value. Lots of double rooms in New York are actually two double beds, so if you split the cost between four people you can get a nice hotel room for the price of those dorm beds!

Option 3: Hotel

Obviously a hotel is the most expensive option, but that doesn’t mean it’s always out of budget. If you are part of a hotel rewards programme, now is the time to cash in those points.

Comparison sights like Booking.com, Hotels.com and Trivago can also bring up some good deals. It’s also worth calling the hotel to book direct, particularly if it’s last minute. In 2015, we managed to upgrade from a hostel dorm room to a double room at the Wyndam New Yorker by calling the hotel and securing a cancellation room. We also took advantage of those double beds and so three of us shared a room comfortably.

What activities to do cheaply in New York:

Take advantage of the many free activities:

The calendar of free activities in New York will change with the time of year you visit but rest assured, you will always find something free to do in New York City. The key to travelling cheaply in New York is to keep yourself entertained with mainly free activities, so that the odd splurge doesn’t hurt your pocket.

people watching a dance show at Bryant park
Free dance shows + good weather = a perfect evening in Bryant Park

Events guides such as Time Out and the New Yorker will keep you up to date on a daily basis. If you visit in June, check out the Musuem Mile Festival to get free access to many of the museums, including the Met. The Central Park Summerstage runs free concerts from June to August every year.

Bryant Park is also a hub for free cultural events, art and fitness classes. If getting up early is your thing, you can attend a live filming of the Today Show. To see the Statue of Libery for free, ride the Staten Island Ferry. Also don’t forget that New York is as much about soaking up the atmosphere as it is checking off tourist sites. Walking is free and because the city never sleeps, you can do it late into the night!

See a Broadway show for half the price:

There’s no way around this one – to see a Broadway show you will need to spend a significant amount of money. To me this will always be worth it, but it’s worth doing some research to get the most for your money.

Option 1: Ticket Lottery

If you are on a tight budget, take shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen off your list. Unless you can be successful in the lottery that is! Many of the big name shows do lotteries for discounted tickets. You should enter every day to be in with the best chance.

Option 2: Discounted ticket booth or app

If you are not fussy about which show you see, head to one of the TKTS booths to choose from the half price tickets on offer. These booths offer discounted tickets for shows on the same day. The most popular sell out in the morning. I found the Lincoln Centre booth to be much less crowded than the others and it has the added bonus of being indoors which is a huge advantage in bad weather. I also found the TodayTix app had good deals and you can book in advance which is a plus.

Option 3: Go to the theatre in person

This is my favourite option. It allows you to view the full seat map, chat with the staff about their favourite option, avoid service charges and sometimes secure top price tickets for a fraction of the price. A little known fact is that theatres are often left with lots of single seats before the show. If you and your friends are willing to sit separately, or if you are alone, this often means that you can get a top price ticket at a discounted price.

If you want some recommendations other than the usual Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, I can totally recommend Waitress for something sweet and heartwarming, Aladdin for big dance numbers and The Play that Went Wrong for something simple and funny.

Visit museums on their free days

If you miss out on the Museum Mile Festival, worry not. Most museums also have regular, weekly free days or hours. They vary between each museum but you can get a comprehensive guide to them all here.

Museum Mile Festival

How to eat cheaply in New York:

99c pizza is everywhere. So are $1 bagels and hot dog food trucks. While these are good options to keep hunger at bay, they are not the healthiest option. For healthier food, try supermarket deli counters such as Whole Foods. Another option is to eat your main meal at lunch. Many restaurants have lunch specials. The portions are usually big enough that you won’t feel hungry for the rest of the day.

Ramen is everywhere and mostly affordable

Airbnb and hostel kitchens are also a great way to save money. While cooking may not be your idea of a holiday, it gives you the option to heat up leftovers, make small meals like breakfast and lunch and store plenty of snacks to keep you going.

If you want to eat at a restaurant, check the menu online to get an idea of the price range. Bear in mind that portion sizes are large. Consider sharing dishes and don’t be afraid to ask for the leftovers – it’s totally acceptable!

Asian food is a great option – filling and affordable!

Also, remember that you must tip your server. 20% is usually the minimum for a decent job so factor this in before you order your meal. Most waiters are paid little to nothing per hour so rely on tips for their income. Yes, the system sucks, but now you know it so there’s no excuse not to tip. Your poor budgeting isn’t an excuse and you shouldn’t eat out unless you can afford to tip.

How to shop cheaply in New York:

This might seem like a bit of a contradiction. I know some people might view shopping as an unnecessary expense. However, if you plan to shop and travel cheaply in New York there are ways to get the most out of your money.

Don’t shop in Times Square! It’s exciting to look around but you’ll pay higher prices than in less touristy areas
  • Macy’s offer a 15% discount card for tourists. It has a lot of excluded items. Cosmetics and perfume are not part of the offer. If you are buying some big ticket items it can provide a significant saving. The tourist centre is located up a small stairs on the left when you enter.
  • Shop the sales – Sales in the U.S.A offer great discounts, particularly when you buy in bulk. Often the discount increases with the number of items you buy. Plan in advance what you need and buy it all at once.
  • Leave the city. Sales tax in New York is around 7 per cent, while New Jersey’s is only 4 per cent. While this might seem like a small difference, if you plan on buying a lot of high priced items, it adds up. Jersey Gardens Outlet Centre offers many discounts on top brands and can be easily reached by bus from Manhattan.
  • Only buy what you need. This might seem obvious but I’ve seen so many people get caught up in the moment. New York can make you buy things you never wanted just because they are on sale. Make a list before you go of things that are actually cheaper there. Do not deviate, no matter how much your heart is telling you otherwise!

Have you been to New York? How can others see New York on a budget? Let us know in the comments 🙂

4 thoughts on “How to travel cheaply in New York – an essential guide to NYC on a budget

  1. Rachel

    This is a great guide, I’m going to NYC next month and whilst we aren’t on a tight budget, it’s always good to know ways to save money! xo

  2. Erica

    Great post! The first time I went to NYC I made all the same mistakes you did (although I was 16 and didn’t do any of the planning, so I can’t really take the blame haha). I had no idea that there were regulations around the host having to be at the Airbnb with you. That’s very interesting and not something I would have guessed or known when looking to rent via Airbnb. All your tips are so useful, and I’m def. saving this post for next time I’m in NYC!