Travel is what you make it, and in New York City it’s easy to make it expensive. On the other hand with a little effort, you can enjoy city life on a very tight budget. Here is our guide to NYC on a budget.
Budget Transportation in NYC
When you fly into NYC you are not on Manhattan, you are in a surrounding borough. Laguardia and JFK are both in Queens. A cab ride from either will run you about $40-$50 to get to the Times Square area. Here is a perfect opportunity to make friends in the cab line and split a cab if you are going anywhere near each other. Another option is a van service (Super Shuttle or other) which is somewhat cheaper at about $13-$20 per person. The van option may be better if traveling solo, but when in a group, cabs are a better bet. With the vans, you also wait for them to fill before you can leave, plus you may not be the first to get dropped off. If all this sounds too expensive there is a free way to get in that’s not too difficult.
How to get from the Airport to Time Square on a Budget
When I say free I mean that you will likely be buying a metro card to ride the subway anyway. In baggage claim and a few other spots in the airport, you can buy a MetroCard. If you have trouble ask someone that works there, they are very helpful. If you are in the city for a long weekend the best buy is a 7-day card ($29). You may not use it all days but it beats the other options (give it to a homeless guy on your way out of town). The unlimited MetroCard gets you on the buses, trains, but not the AirTrain. The trip on the AirTrain is not included on an unlimited MetroCard and is a $5 one way charge purchased separately (Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards can be used on AirTrain). The directions below are to get you to 42nd St/Port Authority Station specifically if your route varies consult a subway map, MTA agent, or Google search on your route to catch the best trains.
- On the way out of the airport follow the signs for the buses/ground transport. You will be looking for the Q33 or Q47 buses, both will get you to Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave. (There are luggage racks on board)
- Hop on the E train (Blue Line) bound for Manhattan. The last stop heading the way you want to go is Chambers St./WTC.
- Exit the E train at the 42nd St/Port Authority, there are other combinations but this one gets you closest to Times Square.
- You can modify your route if heading elsewhere, at the Port Authority Station you can get you most of the city’s train directly or Via a connector like the 7.
- Reverse these directions when leaving. Just one heads up when boarding the bus after taking the train, ask the driver to make sure the bus will go to the airport because not all Q33’s & Q47’s do.
- Follow this signs to ground transport/Baggage claim
- Follow signs to AirTrain, they will take you out and around, still following signs leading you to the elevator entrance of the Air Train.
- Catch the AirTrain (Green line) headed to the Howard Beach Station.
- Transfer to The A train bound for Manhattan (last stop is Inwood/207th st.)
- Exit the train at 42nd St/Port Authority Station, here you can transfer just about any line in the city directly or via a connector like the 7.
- Reverse the directions heading back to the airport, make sure to take the A train marked Far Rockaway or Rockaway Park, NOT Ozone Park/Lefferts Blvd. (Doesn’t connect to AirTrain)
- Alternative: Take AirTrain to Jamaica Station, to E train, to 42nd St./Port Authority Station – Some prefer this method it can be faster, but ultimately depends on your final destination in Manhattan. Also, Howard Beach (Option 1 – A Train) is a bit more luggage friendly as you don’t have as much of a walk.
The above-mentioned Subways system is the only way to get around the city in my opinion. Sure you can take taxis everywhere but, I don’t have that kind of cash and I am guessing you don’t either since you clicked on this article. So save your money for something more fun. Most times, especially during rush hour, the subway is faster than a taxi anyway. So do yourself a favor before you leave and find two good subway maps. One that is zoomed in on lower Manhattan, this is where you will likely spend most of your time. The second a bigger overall map including the end of the line Queens stops, you will use this from the airport. There are a ton of them on the web, just do a Google search for images. Print them on a decent color printer (hint: Your work probably has a nice one) and if you have access to a lamination machine go nuts. In the past we have bought maps, StreetWise puts out a nice one. The problem is things change, so the web will have the most current.
Cheap Accommodation in NYC
Hotel Point Cash-in and discounts in NYC
We have found that cashing in reward travel in New York pays big dividends, especially on hotels. To get yourself a bed on the island of Manhattan will set you back minimally $225. We have found your hotel loyalty points make some of the biggest bang for the buck here. One in particular that really stands out is Holiday Inn’s Priority Club. They have several properties that have real value when cashing in points. Another thing that is nice about the Holiday Inn points is that you have some redeeming options. You can either get the room for about 20,000 per night and owe nothing, or the other cool option is you can put up 5,000 points and then pay just $70 per night.
We always cash in at the Candlewood Suites on 39th st between 8th & 9th ave (basically Times Square), nice size room with mini kitchen (fridge, microwave, coffee). By splitting between paying with points and cash is a great way to stretch your points. I end up traveling a lot for work so that’s how I earn a bulk of my points. The other way to get points is through credit card offers. Holiday inn regularly runs deals where you get 80,000 points just for signing up for a card. That’s four nights in the city!
If you don’t have enough points another way to save money on accommodation is rent a cheap apartment with HouseTrip. Having an apartment will also help you save money on food, making breakfast at your apartment will save at least $5 a person.
Couch Surfing in NYC
And I am not talking about the Hudson, the only people surfing in the river have cement shoes. The surfing I’m talking about is the couch variety, there are currently over 1000 people willing to host you on a couch within city limits. With the cost of a hostel exceeding $80 per night, this may be the only option for the shoestring traveler.
Airbnb in New York City
The popular booking platform Airbnb is actually illegal in NYC. There may be some rooms or places to book, but it’s technically illegal to rent rooms like this in the city. Which is actually a good thing, because if it weren’t there would be no apartments left to rent for people who lived here.
How to Score Discounted Broadway Tickets
If a show is a must for you, then you must get yourself in line for the cash lottery. The venue of nearly every play wants to sell it out every show. So before every show, there is a ticket lottery. Typically you can go to the box office and ask around what times the lotteries are (1-3 hours before the show is common). Simply write your name down and then hang out until the drawing or come back (but you must be present to win). If you are chosen you must pay immediately and in cash. Tips for a more successful lottery experience: Try at some of the less popular or off-Broadway shows. For example on our last trip to NYC, we tried for “Wicked”, one of the most popular shows and about 150 people entered for the 16 available tickets. Make sure everyone in your group signs up, the more entries you have the better your odds.
Finding Great Food in NYC on a Budget
Groupon-ing while traveling
You know all those services that send you your daily deals every morning? They exist outside your city too, and its really easy to start getting alerts for any city in the world. We will usually start looking through deals about a month before we plan to travel, usually having a few things bought before we go. Every time we Groupon we have been more than pleased with it. Another thing it does is it takes you to a place that you likely never would have found on your own (especially in NYC). Some of the deals that we find traveling have lead to our now favorite places. In some cases its good enough to visit every time you’re in NYC. Groupon also has a Groupon-Now feature, which are deals that are available for that day and that day only.
Good food can be found all over the city right on the streets. As with most street food worldwide, it is quick, cheap, and good! Throughout the Mid-town area, you can find lots to eat including, hot dog/pretzel vendors, Halal food, along with many other ethnic vendors. The Halal trucks are some of the most popular. Their most popular dish is the chicken over rice ($6 Large serving). Make sure to get the white sauce with your chicken its good but spicy. If you find yourself on or around Canal street you are sure to find some of Chinese favorites. Egg rolls can be found for $1.25 for 3, along with a variety of other carry-able foods. For larger portions of Asian dishes, you need to get off the street and into the nearby restaurants.
Affordable Alternatives to Street Food:
- China town most places make a very good lunch for under $8 and its a ton of food a couple could easily split.
- $1 pizza slice available all over the mid-town area at Two Bro’s walk-up shops
- Papaya Dog $2.50 for two hot dogs and a drink
- $2 for 10 amazing dumplings – try Prosperity Dumplings, 46 Eldridge St (between Canal St & Hester St)
- This is just a few, there are tons of places offering meal deals with a drink for under $3
Free things to do in New York
- Walk the Brooklyn Bridge – Great city views and photos of the iconic bridge. The weekends can get crowded up here, so if you have a weekday in the city try it then.
- Central Park – Find your favorite place in the park while taking a step out of the craziness. Try the Sheep Meadow for a nice grassy area or find yourself a place on the large rocks looking toward the city (middle of the park at 63rd).
- Free sights and smells of Chinatown – No trip to New York is complete without strolling through the busy and vibrant streets in Chinatown. (Great place for exotic fruits you can’t get at home)
- Battery Park – In the shadow of the WTC, Battery Park gives views of the Statue of Liberty. This is where you catch the boat out to see her up close, but personally, I would skip the expensive boat ride. Once you are out on the island it is hard to get a good pic anyway.