New York is probably the most visited city in the United States. Famous for fashion, nightlife, art, food, and theater, New York is the heart of the world. Every culture is represented here, and there’s always something to do. You can spend a lifetime exploring and never really see it all. NYC is one of the most amazing places in the world (it’s why I call it home), but as a backpacker it can take a big bite out of your budget. However, a city this big is bound to have some great deals, and there are plenty of things to do that won’t cost you a few months of your savings. I’ve lived in NYC for over three years and can tell you: deals can be found.
Hostel prices – Dorms from $30-50 USD and privates double rooms from $100 USD per night. There aren’t many hostels in Manhattan and, if you want the best deals, it’s better to stay in Brooklyn or Queens. My favorite hostel are Jazz Hostels or the YHA.
Budget hotel prices – In NYC, even budget hotels are expensive. Expect to pay between $100-150 USD per night for something on the low end, and then go up from there. That will get you a decent, clean room with a private bathroom. Manhattan is incredibly expensive so if you want more value for your money consider staying in Brooklyn or Jersey City. Here is a good resource for cheap hotels in New York.
Average cost of food – New York has food at every price range. You can eat a mid-range sit down restaurant for $15-25 USD per main course. Dinner for two with drinks usually averages around $50-70 USD. Prices just go straight up from there as NYC has some really fancy and expensive restaurants. Pizza slices can be found as little as a dollar, though typically cost about $3 USD. Sandwich shops, kebabs, salad shops, and cafe meals generally are less than $10 USD. There are plenty of street vendors with meals around $5-8 USD. If you plan to cook, expect to spend $50-70 USD per week on groceries. Here are my favorite places to eat in New York City to give you an idea as to where to eat.
Public transportation cost – The fare for a subway or local bus ride is $2.50 USD. The fare for an express bus ride is $6 USD. You can also buy a 7-day transit pass for $30 USD. Most cabs around the city will cost around $15 USD. The MTA charges a $1 USD fee on each metro or bus pass.
Money Saving Tips
Take a free tour – New York is a great place to walk around. However, only seeing New York from the outside is half the story. Take some of the free tours to see the other half. On Wednesday, there is a free tour of Grand Central Terminal offered by the Municipal Art Society (they offer a lot of other tours around the city too). Trinity Church offers free daily tours when there are no services. The Brooklyn Brewery offers free tours on Saturday. Finally, Big Apple Greeters will pair you with a local New Yorker to show you around for a day with advance notice.
Get cheap theater tickets – Tickets though can run hundreds of dollars, especially for the new and popular shows. Luckily, there’s a way to get discount tickets. The TKTS stand in Times Square offers 40-50% off select shows. You need to arrive at the counter the same day to see what they have but its usually a widespread and good selection. Be prepared to wait in line for about an hour. TKTS also have offices at the South Street Seaport and in Brooklyn.
Visit the museums for free – NYC is littered with some of the best museums in the world from the Met to the MoMA to the Guggenheim. Many museums offer free entry certain days of the week. The Whitney Museum of American Art is free on Friday, the Solomon R. Guggenheim has “suggested” donations after 5pm on Fridays, the Museum of American Folk Art is free, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design is free on Tuesday evenings free, the Steuben Galler is free, the MET is free (suggested donation is $20 USD) and the Museum of Modern Art is free after 4pm on Friday.
Get a MetroCard – You’ll be taking the train a lot and fares can add up. Get one of the Unlimited MetroCards and save yourself a bundle during your trip.
Eat on the cheap – Between the food carts, dollar slice shops, kebab places, and ethnic eateries (Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai are some of the cheapest places in the city) you can eat really cheap in NYC. Avoid the expensive restaurants (OK, maybe one) and you’ll never bust your budget on food. Yelp!, Google Maps, and Foursquare are three good places to find cheap eats.
$1 happy hours – Love oysters? Eat them during the $1 happy hours that happen each night all over the city. The best deals are the John Dory Oyster House and Jeffery’s Grocery, which offers all their oysters for $1.
Couchsurf – Accommodation is expensive in NYC and, with few hostels, there aren’t many option for a budget traveler. Use a hospitality website like Couchsurfing and stay with locals for free. There is a huge network in the city with tons and tons of hosts. In order to increase the chance of success, request as far in advance as possible!
Top Things to See and Do in NYC
Take the Staten Island Ferry – That two hour long line to see the Statue of Liberty not appealing? Well, walk a few blocks to the Staten Island ferry. The free ferry will take you across the harbor and give you a good view of both the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline. The ride takes about 20 minutes.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge – Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to experience an interesting view of the New York skyline and harbor. It’s a long walk but good food and drinks (like the brewery) await you on the other side.
Meander through Central Park – A great way to relax in the city and leave behind the crowds is to spend the day in Central Park. It’s free, there are lots of little paths to walk, and, since it covers over 40 blocks, it’s easy to spend hours upon hours wandering around. During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions in the park too.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – From the early 20th century portraits and sculptures to the steel mastery of Frank Stella, the Met is one of the foremost collections of fine art in the world. The museum is so expansive and visual, that you should plan on spending an entire day here.
Museum hop – While the MET is a category of its own, New York City has dozens of museums worth visiting. The Natural History Museum, the MoMA, and Guggenheim are just three of the big ones. There’s 11 museums on the museum mile near central park that would take days to really see. Pick the ones you want to see the most and visit those unless you have weeks in the New York to see them all.
Visit Radio City Music Hall – Is there a more American theater than Radio City Music Hall? This timeless testament to entertainment has captivated visitors since the 1930s.
Take in the theater – You can’t come to NYC and not see a Broadway show. There are many great shows here from musicals to Shakespeare to offbeat shows. There’s nothing better than witnessing NYC theater, and it’s such an integral part of life here you should check it out. Visit the TKTS booth in Times Square to get half price tickets.
See the Empire State Building – Get a bird’s eye view of the city from atop one of the tallest buildings in the world. It’s open late now so you can even see the city all lit up at night.
Walk the High Line – Made from a converted train track, the highline a new urban park on the west side of NYC. The area covers eight blocks and is extremely popular. Day or night, the park is filled with people hanging out, running, eating, walking and relaxing. It’s right near where I live and I’m there all the time.
Check out the Lower East Side Tenement Museum – Accessible only by guided tour, this fascinating museum offers visitors the opportunity to visit former tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. You can see how the arrivals from around the world lived during the 1900s as they tried to make it in the big apple.
Visit Trinity Church – A colonial era church, this is where many of the founding fathers of America worshiped. It’s free to enter and the surrounding graveyard has many of the original leaders of the county, including Alexander Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the treasury.
Head to Top of the Rock – Right in Rockefeller center, you can head to the top of the building to see panoramic views of the city. It gives you a different angle than the Empire State Building. It just recently opened after being closed for over 18 years.
Just wander – Walk from the east side to the west side and marvel at the beautiful New York City architecture such as Grand Central Station, Union Square, the New York Times building, the Chrysler building, and much more. There are so many historic buildings in New York City, that just wandering around and looking at them is a good afternoon activity.
Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to New York City!
For more in-depth information and tips on NYC, check out my 100+ page guidebook written for budget travelers like yourself! It cuts out the fluff found in other guides and gets straight to the practical information you need to travel and save money the city that never sleeps. You’ll find suggested itineraries, budgets, ways to save money, on and off the beaten path things to see and do, non-touristy restaurants, markets, and bars, and much more!! Click here to learn more and get started.