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Affordable New York: How to do the notoriously expensive city on a budget

The Big Apple doesn’t come cheap, but there are ways to cut costs while still experiencing the trip of a lifetime. Nicola Brady shares her top tips

Tuesday 11 April 2023 13:28 BST
<p>Get your kicks for free in Brooklyn Bridge Park</p>

Get your kicks for free in Brooklyn Bridge Park

New York is one of those cities that’s on many a bucket list. And with good reason – this is a place where there’s always something happening, whether it’s a hot restaurant opening or a brand new island appearing on the Hudson River (seriously).

While New York is known for having oodles of buzz, character and charm, it’s not exactly considered budget-friendly. However, alongside the restaurants with prices as high as the skyscrapers and swish hotels that cost a small fortune, there are plenty of places to go, things to do and experiences to have that won’t break the bank. After all, you can go kayaking, hop on a ferry or head out for a concert in the park, all without spending a dime.

If you want to see New York on a budget, here are some tips to get you started, from timing a trip to coincide with NYC Restaurant Week, to making the most of happy hour.

Where to stay

Accommodation can easily eat up a big chunk of your budget before you’ve even set down your bags, but there are decent options at a lower price point. If you’re happy to sacrifice a bit of space, The Jane Hotel is a great shout. This historic spot on the edge of West Village was originally built for sailors, so the rooms are designed to feel like a ship’s cabin – as such, they basically fit a single bed (or bunk) and not much else. If you want a bit more space, they have two larger rooms available.

Moxy Lower East Side offers affordable lodgings

For something a bit more modern, the Moxy hotels offer great value for money and complimentary activities for guests. The new location in the Lower East Side has complimentary coffee and fitness classes on the roof, and there are often free events for guests like comedy nights and live DJs.

In the Williamsburg Moxy branch there are Peloton bikes in the gym and free neighbourhood and food walking tours.

Read more of our best affordable New York hotel reviews

Where to eat

Despite the fact that almost every New Yorker does it constantly (blame the tiny apartment kitchens) the cost of eating out can really add up. There are ways to save cash, though. As with most activities, things are generally cheaper outside of Manhattan – you can get amazing tacos in Queens, pizza in Staten Island and empanadas in the Bronx, all at a good price. Don’t discount the old-school casual food, either – a slice of pizza or a bodega breakfast sandwich can really hit the spot.

Read more on New York travel:

In the East Village, you can get a brick-sized tuna melt in the kosher deli B&H Dairy, which will fill you up for hours. In the summer, head to Smorgasburg, the outdoor food market held at the World Trade Centre, Williamsburg and Prospect Park from April to October. The views are best in Williamsburg, where you can tuck into poutine, lobster rolls or a grilled cheese while gazing at the Manhattan skyline.

Cheap eats: head to Smorgasburg outdoor food market

NYC Restaurant Week is held twice a year, once in winter (January/February) and once in summer (July/August), with discounted prix-fixe menus starting at $30 (£24) in a variety of restaurants all around the city. And don’t be fooled by the name – it usually lasts around a month.

Where to drink

Any New Yorker will tell you that the East Village isn’t what it used to be, but there are still plenty of great bars in the neighbourhood. The Hard Swallow has beers from $5 and a happy hour that runs from noon to 6pm every day, and Sophie’s (507 E 5th St) is a proper old-school dive bar. The Scratcher has drinks specials on almost every day and there’s live music on Sunday nights, too.

Happy hours are a great way to drink on a budget, and there are a surprising amount of them in the city, particularly in midtown bars that are trying to lure in the professionals for post-work drinks. Over in Brooklyn, The Clover Club has a happy hour that runs from 4-6pm Monday to Friday, with $8 cocktails, $5 beer and half-price bottles of wine, alongside half-price oysters. At Clinton Hall in Williamsburg, there’s a rooftop beer garden with foosball, outdoor games and $7 margaritas and wines from Monday to Friday, 3-7pm.

How to travel

One of the best things about New York is how easy it is to get around. Get yourself an OMNY card as soon as you arrive (Metrocards are being phased out) and then travel around the city by subway or bus as much as possible – tickets are $2.75 each way, but there’s a price cap of $33 for weekly travel.

New York is also a very walkable city. So pack your comfiest shoes and get ready to pound the pavements, because it’s the best way to see the sights, particularly if you follow your nose and get distracted along the way. Yellow cabs and Uber are there for those longer, trickier or late-night journeys.

Swap taxis for the subway to save

Free things to do

Sure, New York can be expensive. But there are loads of things to do that won’t cost you a cent. A walk over the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most scenic strolls you could ask for – take the subway to High Street Brooklyn Bridge and walk back to Manhattan for views of the skyline. Or reverse the journey and explore Brooklyn Bridge Park, where you can take kayaks out for free during the summer (Wed, Thur and Sat). Incidentally, summer is a great time for freebies – there are outdoor movies shown in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Randall’s Island Park and Bryant Park, where there are also free concerts.

Museums can be pricey, but the National Museum of the American Indian is free, as is The American Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Street Art at the citizenM New York Bowery. You can also take a free tour of the New York Public Library. While there’s an entrance fee for the Guggenheim, they offer Pay-What-You-Wish hours on Saturdays from 6-8pm. The Whitney Museum of American Art has the same deal every Friday from 7-10pm, and Floor One is always free to enter. The Morgan Library and Museum has free Fridays between 5-7pm every week.

Brooklyn Bridge Park offers stellar views of Manhattan

Little Island is a cool park built on stilts over the Hudson River, which opened in 2021. There are gardens and trails to explore, as well as gigs and concerts held in the amphitheatre.

If all that’s feeling a little too cultural, you can head to the Brooklyn Brewery on Sundays for a free tour and a sneaky taste of the goods. The Staten Island Ferry is completely free, and you get great views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty on the way.

The Staten Island Ferry is free to use

How to get there

Numerous airlines fly to New York from various UK airports, which means that you can often snag cheap fares. The key is to be flexible – often, the cheapest fares involve flying out of one airport and into another. Use a site like Skyscanner to find the best deal. Generally, the best fares can be found in January, February or August.

The budget airlines Play, JetBlue and Norse all fly to New York, but don’t assume they offer the best deal. Play flies via Reykjavik, adding time and a transfer to the journey, and you’ll land in New York Stewart International airport, a 90-minute bus ride to Manhattan. You’ll also have to pay to check luggage and for on-board meals. You can occasionally find bargain rates, but always compare with alternative airlines and weigh up the inconveniences and additional costs.

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