New York: the Big Apple on a Small Budget

Is money the only thing stopping you from checking out America’s most iconic city?

Contrary to popular perception, New York City is the perfect destination if you want to travel, find inspiration, experience new cultures, and not break the bank. So many things in the city are free or cheap. When you’re flush with cash, it’s easy to fall into all of the typical tourist traps: expensive admission prices, bus tours, staying in midtown, shopping in Times Square. But let’s face it—what makes New York the city people love to love is not any of those things. It’s the magic of millions of people crowded together on a couple of small islands with some of humanity’s greatest architectural, intellectual, and cultural achievements. You don’t need to be rich to experience that. All you need is an open mind, a sense of adventure, and these five tips.

Don’t stay in Manhattan

Pick an Airbnb that’s in a cheaper borough but close to good train lines. Anywhere off the 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, A, C, L, J, M, Z, Q, or F train will work. All of those lines offer quick access to Manhattan, so even if most of what you want to do is there, you can save a lot of money and still be close by. It’s worth paying a few extra bucks a night to be within a block or two of a subway station so that after a long day, you won’t have to hoof it very far to get to your bed. No matter where you stay, you’ll doubtlessly find little gems in the surrounding area that will help you fall in love with New York.

Eat cheap

The quality to affordability ratio in New York is insane. Yes, you can easily spend a lot of money. You could go to Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square or some tourist trap in midtown and blow $40 on what amounts to, basically, airport food. But eating cheap in New York is the way to go: noodles, dumplings, doubles, pizza (even the $1 slices are good), bagels, falafel. Even the mighty bodega sandwich, in its seemingly endless iterations, fills the belly for about $5. With only a little effort, you can eat incredible food and keep each of your meals under $10. If your budget is a little more flexible, but you want to get the most bang for your buck, the city is full of world-class restaurants that are shockingly reasonable.

If part of having fun on vacation involves drinking alcohol, don’t despair. Can you spend $16 on a cocktail in NYC? Absolutely. But must you? Definitely not. There are plenty of bars with cheap options. If you really want that pre-dinner drink but don’t want to spend money, go to one of the hundreds of readings or gallery openings that happen throughout the city on any given night. More often than not, in addition to an enriching cultural experience, you’ll get a glass of wine or two.

Pro tip: Carry cash. A lot of bars and restaurants in New York are cash only, so avoid constant ATM fees by taking out plenty of cash ahead of time.

Walking through New York is the best way to see the city.

Do free stuff

Just because you’re experiencing NYC on the cheap doesn’t mean your trip can’t include some of the city’s most famous attractions. Want to see the Statue of Liberty? Avoid the lines and the expense by taking the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, and in addition to a gorgeous view of the city, you’ll pass The Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island, and Ellis Island. With a nice breeze coming off the water, a cold beer in your hand (that’s right, they sell beer on the ferry), and some exceptional views, you’ll feel like you bought an expensive river cruise ticket.

Central Park is one of the few places in America where the richest of the rich hang out alongside the poorest of the poor. It’s a utopia where everyone gets to enjoy the epic lawns, beautiful gardens, winding paths, and scenic lakes. Other parks worth a visit include Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, and Prospect Park.

If you’re in midtown, the main branch of the New York Public Library is a truly worth a stop. Get started on your novel at a table in the Rose Reading Room, or just gaze in wonder at the incredible Beaux-Arts details and soak in ambient light from the room’s large windows and chandeliers. While The Met is no longer pay what you wish, many museums offer free or discounted admission on certain days of the week. Hangout on the city’s piers—it’s a lot more exciting than it sounds. They offer an abundance of outdoor activities, as well as incredible skyline views, for free. There are constantly free or discounted events happening throughout the city, and it’s worth signing up for an email newsletter before your trip so that you can plan accordingly. My favorite is The Skint.

Walk and take the subway

Walking through New York is the best way to see the city. Will there be puddles of unidentified sludge? The occasional crack in the sidewalk? Sudden outcroppings of scaffolding and piles of garbage? Of course. But embracing it makes you a part of something greater. You might have nothing in common otherwise with the thousands of people walking with you, but you share the struggle and the beauty of an ordinary day in New York. That’s an incredible thing, a sort of collective empathy that most of us don’t get in our hometowns, where we tend to isolate in big houses and yards and cars and surround ourselves with people who are most like us. Also, walking gives you time to really take in your surroundings. New York is full of incredible parks, buildings, and art that you might miss if you’re catching a ride from one destination to another.

There’s nothing quite like having a hilarious and intense moment with a car full of people that you’ll almost definitely never see again.

That said, sometimes you’ll want to cover ground in a shorter amount of time. Subway rides are a flat fee no matter how far you go, so for $2.50 you can get all the way from Coney Island to the Bronx. But even if you aren’t trekking miles and crossing rivers, the subway is an affordable and remarkably efficient way to get around. Taking the subway can be stressful, but the most subtle and tender acts of humanity I’ve ever witnessed have taken place there. Complete strangers helping with strollers and wheelchairs and luggage, speaking up for people who can’t speak up for themselves, falling asleep on each other’s shoulders, and sharing a sense of mutual responsibility for an experience that, by necessity, involves being pressed into awkward proximity with all manner of people. You also never know when you’ll have a fun New York experience like being stuck on a car with a rat, everyone screaming and standing on the seats as it darts back and forth in blind panic. There’s nothing quite like having a hilarious and intense moment with a car full of people that you’ll almost definitely never see again, but it’s these types of fleeting moments that make New York such a thrilling place to be. Once you develop a taste for them, the comforts of home will pale in comparison.

Pick your splurge

There are, of course, a zillion things worth spending money on in New York, and depending on your budget, it’s worth trying to squeeze in one or two experiences that might be a bit of a splurge. If food and beverage are your passion, you’d be remiss to not check out some of the most exciting restaurants and bars in America. If you love theater, opera, or music, a Broadway show or a visit to Lincoln Center is worth the ticket price. Tired of online shopping? Walk through SoHo and pick up a couple of special things. Pay to see art that you can’t see anywhere else. Just walking the hallowed halls of The Met is a deeply satisfying experience that any art lover should have. On that note, MOMA and The Met have second locations (PS1 and The Cloisters, respectively), and if you go on the same day, your admission will cover you for both.

Ultimately, you have to work with your budget and your travel priorities. By saving money where you can, you’ll be able to afford to spend it on the things that matter most to you.

Learn about Boston’s Freedom Trail.