When I decided to dedicate some serious time to long term travel, I knew that I had to find a way to travel on the cheap to keep me going for as long as possible. I’m by no means a fancy traveller so I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too hard to stick to a budget in Central and South America. But the USA? Let alone, New York, one of the most expensive cities on the planet? I’d visited NYC a fair few times before and knew it was the kind of city that could literally suck money out of your pocket.
However ya girl loves a challenge and so I set myself a pretty hefty one – survive 4 days in New York City on a strict budget, as close to £50 per person per day (excluding flights) as possible, whilst still having an awesome time and not scrimping too hard on much of anything.
We didn’t quite manage £50 per person per day, because it turns out I love vegan food and beer almost as much as I love a challenge. But we managed to hit NYC pretty hard and spend a shade under £650 for two people for 4 days and nights. That works out at a little over £80 per person per day. Not bad eh? Here’s how I did it.
It’s incredibly easy to spend £200 on a mid range hotel room in New York. Heck, even a bed in a hostel dorm will set you back £40 a night, and much more in peak season. So for our most recent trip we decided to book a private room through AirBnB.
There are a huge number of rooms available across the city, and the bonus of staying with NYC residents is that they are really keen to show you the best of their city so you can pick their brains for all the best sights and top tips for the local neighbourhood and beyond.
We stayed in a lovely little flat on the edge of Greenpoint in Brooklyn. Our fantastic hosts, Sarah and Jack, were incredibly friendly and welcoming. We had a big double room, with access to a garden and a shared bathroom, kitchen and lounge. However as we were out most of the day and Sarah and Jack were both working, our schedules never really overlapped so we felt most of the time like we had the place to ourselves.
Our room cost a smidge over £40 a night, which is a tremendous bargain, and whilst it was around 10 mins walk to the nearest subway station and around 40 mins total to downtown Manhattan we got to experience a completely new part of the city.
It’s very easy to get around all of the five boroughs pretty cheaply using the subway system. A single ride will cost you $3, however if you’re going to be in the city for 4 days or more then it’s absolutely worth splashing out on a 7 day Unlimited Ride ticket for $34 which includes a $1 fee for the card itself. The card is valid on the entire MTA subway and bus network which includes links to the major airports.
There’s also an excellent public ferry system across the East River which connects piers on the east side of Manhattan right up to the Bronx to Brooklyn and Queens. A single ride costs $2.75 and this is a great way to not only get around but also to have a bargain basement sightseeing boat tour of the city.
The most scenic routes leave from Wall Street Pier 11, either heading south to Red Hook for distant views of the Statue of Liberty or north to head under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges. In my view this is a much better way to see the city from the river than the free Staten Island Ferry which can take up to 90 mins for a round trip.
New York is one of the most exciting and vibrant cities on the planet, so it blows my mind that anyone would spend money on tourist attractions when the best stuff is literally taking place on the city streets. So the best way to explore the city and spend zero money doing so is to strap on your comfiest shoes and get walking.
There are a few free organised tours that you can go on (usually there’s an assumption that you’ll tip your guide so not completely free) and you can usually find some free self guided walks online but my favourite way to explore the city is just to walk. My favourite areas for strolling are:
- East Village around St Mark’s Place and Tompkins Square Park
- Broadway between Times Square, Herald Square and Madison Square Park
- Williamsburg along Bedford Avenue
- The High Line
- Central Park
- Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village (we used this excellent self guided tour)
- Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge
- Chinatown and Little Italy
- Coney Island
There are also a few really good attractions in the city that are completely free. My top tip would be to visit the Stephen A Schwarzman Building of the NY Public Library on 5th Avenue right by Bryant Park. Yes, it was in Ghostbusters, which should be reason enough to visit, but it’s also a pretty spectacular building. There are good exhibitions that draw from the library’s archives and you can visit one of the two main reading rooms.
Several museums in the city also offer free entry at specified times, usually Friday evenings. The world famous MoMA in Midtown Manhattan does just this, with free entry on Fridays from 4pm to 8pm. Queues can get a bit manic here so best to aim to arrive around 6pm, though be warned that it does get crazy busy, but in my mind the bustle is absolutely worth it to avoid the c$25 entrance fee.
For a slightly less hectic free Friday night, head instead to the new Whitney Museum of American Art building in Chelsea, right by the High Line, between 7 and 9:30pm. Brooklyn Botanical Gardens also offers free tickets on Friday morning.
Amazingly, for a city where everything is very expensive all the time, there are a few great permanently free attractions. Socrates Sculpture Park, in the Long Island City neighbourhood of Queens, is a fantastic spot with views across the East River to Roosevelt Island and Manhattan. The park is dotted with mostly modern sculptures and the exhibition programme changes regularly. There are also regular workshops, yoga & tai chi classes, and movie nights in the summer.
Pioneer Works in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn is also an excellent, free (donations suggested), place to spend a couple of hours. Housed in a former machine factory, the building has been sensitively restored to retain its industrial aesthetic and there’s an exciting programme of contemporary art exhibitions. The organisation also supports artists residences and there’s an excellent events programme and a lovely garden.
The easiest trick for spending less money on food is to cook your own meals. And we fully intended to do so, at least for breakfast, by staying in an AirBnB with a kitchen. But it didn’t last long, because we were a bit too tempted by all of the aforementioned amazing vegan food. I’ve written a separate post about all the amazing vegan food in New York which you can take a look at, but to keep to a budget I’d recommend sticking to casual, fast food type places rather than sit down restaurants, where you can easily get a quick meal for close to $10.
My faves are Superiority Burger, Orchard Grocer, Brooklyn Whiskers, and Screamers, where we managed to eat well and have a drink for less than $25 for the two of us. Also be sure to check out corner delis and bagel shops right across the city. These places will happily put together a sandwich for you for around $10, usually with hummus though you may get lucky and find vegan cream cheese (Tompkins Square Bagels is particularly good for this!).
If you want something a little more substantial then be prepared to splash out a little more. A meal at Hartbreakers, Champs, JaJaJa and other places of that ilk will set you back around $15 -$20 per person without drinks, or for Modern Love Brooklyn be prepared to easily eat your way through $40 each.
My top tip for eating cheap is to be prepared to make full use of the exceptional American tradition of the “to go” box. Any restaurant, cafe etc will happily give you a carton for your leftovers and as portion sizes are pretty hefty here, it’s something you need to embrace wholeheartedly. So make sure you have a bag with you everywhere you go, so that you can fill it up with your breakfast or lunch leftovers for use as a later snack, or just to take home with you at the end of the day and have tomorrow.
I’ll happily admit that we completely underestimated how much money we’d spend on beer in New York. And with so many excellent micro breweries and world class bars and tap rooms it’s pretty easy to do. However we also learnt some pretty nifty tricks to drink on a budget that don’t just mean drinking some sad tinnies in your room every evening.
The vast majority of bars, pubs and dive bars in New York have happy hours. It’s imperative that you learn when these are so that you can find deals ranging from $1 off draft beers to half price cocktails. If you’re staying in an AirBnB then ask your host for their best tips, otherwise here’s what we discovered:
- Pianos Rock Club – happy hour 2-8pm daily for $5 drinks including frozen margaritas
- The Library – happy hour Monday to Friday 5-8pm, all drinks 2 for 1
- Doc Holliday’s – cheap drinks and 2 for 1 happy hour specials most days
- Drop Off Service – happy hour to 8pm daily, $3 draft beers
- Lucky Dog – happy hour Monday to Friday 12-7pm, $1 off draft beers & $3 spirits
- The Levee – happy hour 5-8pm daily, $1 off all drinks
- Rocka Rolla – happy hour Monday to Friday 12-7pm, $1 off draft beers & $3 spirits
- Barcade – happy hour Monday to Friday, 12-7pm, $1 off drinks.
- Sycamore – happy hour Monday to Friday 3-7pm and Saturday & Sunday 1-4pm, $3 spirits and $1 off beer and wine
Setting Your Priorities
New York is a city of infinite possibilities, and whilst my preferred way to see the city is to eat a whole heap of vegan food and then walk it off, I fully appreciate that that might not be everyone’s cup of tea. We spent around half our budget on eating out every day, which is quite a bit when you break it down, and it’s therefore pretty easy to see that if you squeeze that spend a little you can easily save some money to spend on some different priorities, if that’s your thing.
However what I’ve hopefully demonstrated is that travelling to places like NYC can be affordable and you don’t need to break the bank to have the trip of a lifetime!