The Frugal Family Hits New York City

new york city
My in Times Square

New York City is probably the last city in the U.S. that I’d call frugal.  Hotel prices are among the highest in the country, dining out, seeing a Broadway play — all those typical New York experiences are very expensive.  Still, after many trips there myself and bringing the kids for the first time last weekend, I do have some tips to help you to explore Manhattan for less.

At the Airport

We saved a quick $50 right off the bat before we even set foot on our plane by using our Delta SkyMiles American Express Card to check our two pieces of luggage (each checked bag typically costs $25) for free.  Now I don’t generally recommend signing up for a credit card just for the rewards, there are sometimes exceptions.  For us, this card makes sense.  It allows each passenger in your party one checked bag, and gives us extra points towards free flights.  We pay our bills in full each month and do a lot of traveling.  Even with the $95 per year membership fee, we will end up saving quite a bit in luggage fees by having it.

Cheap Eats

Recession Special at Papaya Dog NYC
Recession Special at Papaya Dog

If you’re not careful about doing your research, it’s pretty easy to end up overpaying for food in New York City.  However, there are plenty of great cheap eateries if you know where to look.

My husband and I heavily rely on our Smartphones to locate the best affordable restaurants while in Manhattan.  The Yelp application has lead us to some of our favorite places during our travels.  Yelp allows you to locate nearby restaurants by GPS and then sort them by rating and price.  Want a 4-star restaurant at a budget price?  No problem!  Yelp will find it for you.  In New York, look for restaurants that have at least 50+ ratings to ensure accuracy.

Eat like a local by exploring street food and cheap eats.  Grab a ‘Recession Special’ at Papaya Dog, kabob from a street vendor, an egg sandwich at the local deli, or a slice of New York Pizza for a quick snack.  They’re quick, satisfying, relatively frugal and will give you a taste of local culture for much less.

The rules for saving money at any restaurant apply in New York City as well:  Share a meal, order water instead of a soda, eating two big meals instead of three, and so on.  Sticking to these rules while in Manhattan will really help you save.

While it’s pretty easy to find good affordable restaurants in , I have yet to find a secret to cheap drinks.  A tap beer runs around $7 — which, if you like to have more than one, can add up quickly.  Mixed drinks?  Fuh-gedda-boud-dit!  Those start at about $8 on up.  The best way to save is to forgo the drinks altogether, which for some is vacation blasphemy.

Getting Around in NYC

When it comes to getting around, do what the locals do – use the subway.  Not only is it much cheaper than hopping in a taxi, it’s faster.  No waiting in traffic, no sitting at red lights.  The subway system in Manhattan is easy to navigate and gets you within a few blocks of just about anywhere you want to go – all for just $2.50 per ticket.  I highly recommend it.

new york city subway
NYC Subway = Fast, Easy, Cheap!

Sightseeing for Less

The good news for frugal travelers is that many of the quintessential New York sites are absolutely free (or nearly free) to view.  Among the things I’d recommend:

  • Ride the Staten Island Ferry for a great view of the Statue of Liberty
  • Visit St. Paul’s Chapel when you’re near Ground Zero.  It’s an emotional experience and leaves you feeling like the good in this world outweighs the bad.
  • Walk by Rockefeller Plaza in the morning while The Today Show is taping.  Great for celebrity sightings!  We saw Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, and Morgan Freeman.
  • Walk through Central Park – my kids loved playing on the big rocks!
  • Visit FAO Schwartz and take a picture with the guard outside
  • Visit Times Square at night
  • Instead of paying to visit the observatories at The Top of the Rock or The Empire State Building, you’ll also get a great view of the New York City skyline when you have a drink at The View – the Marriott Marquis’ revolving restaurant.  When you visit the lounge before 8:00 p.m., the only cost to you is your drink purchase.  Get there when it opens to avoid waiting in line and paying a cover charge.
  • Walk the High Line between the Meatpacking District and Chelsea.  It’s a converted elevated railway turned park – great for a leisurely stroll (I’d recommend this more for couples than families; kids may get bored).

Broadway on a Budget

new york broadway tkts
South Street Seaport TKTS Office

While most of the things on our NYC agenda were pretty frugal, seeing a Broadway show was not.  However, it was something that was high up on my daughter’s list of priorities, and it was really our only splurge.

What I’ve learned is that when it comes to seeing a Broadway show on a budget, be flexible.  Your first choice of shows may not be available at a discount, so it’s good to have a second, third, or even fourth choice picked out.  Before you go, research shows on so you know what appeals to you.    You can purchase discount Broadway tickets online at (they have coupon codes to use).  Or, you can purchase tickets at up to 50% off the day of the show at the TKTS offices in Times Square or by South Street Seaport.  The lines in Times Square are outrageous – so I’d recommend waiting in the South Street Seaport queue.   Our saw The Addams and paid only $63 per ticket — plus, we had great seats (not bad, considering some Broadways shows can cost $200 or more).

If you’ve got tips of your own for exploring NYC for less, please share them with us by replying below.


  1. Brandy says

    The kids are getting so big Kim! Wow they had a recession special it would be funny if it wasn’t so true right now! Great tips I would love to visit sometime my husband has ZERO interest so I’ll have to get one of my friends to go!

  2. Ruby says

    When I lived in Northern New Jersey (late 80’s- early 90’s), My friends and I used to give “$.50 tours” to family and friends of NYC. We would go to South Street Seaport, do the Staten Island Ferry, FAO Schwartz, Central Park. We even did a few of the Museums. The Natural History museum (Night at the Museum) and the MMA(Metropolitian Museum of Art) were the least expensive (Think Nanny budgets). If you check out Websites (did not have then) for sightseeing in Manhattan on $50.00 a day.
    As to food, we found Chinatown to be the least expensive and around Times Square the most expensive. Delis are also least expensive.

    If in Manhattan on the 4th of July, check out the Macy’s Parade of barges with the fireworks at dusk.

  3. says

    Two great resources are —

    NYC Free and Frugal, an app (iTunes store) loaded with cheap eats, frugal family activities, stores where you’ll never pay retail,free picture postcard views, free museums and theater, etc. Also, the NYC on the Cheap website.

    Avoid the Highline on summer weekends, when it’s a victim of its own success. Ditto the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

    Another resource for cheap theater tickets is TheaterMania.

    Some of the best free family activities are kayaking in the Hudson River — free kayaks on loan at several piers. And the free tech wizardry exhibits at the Sony Center.

    In the app. On the website.

    Evelyn Kanter

  4. Debbie says

    Check out for discount codes. You can walk up to the box office and purchase with the code. Also, if you are a student or traveling with a student, has the price and guidelines for each of the shows’ “student rush” tickets. I believe my daughter and her friends saw Addams Family over spring break for $37.50 each ($127 tickets) by going to the box office 2 hours before the show and buying their tickets then. Some theaters do a lottery. It is always cash only and some theaters let you buy 2 tickets per student while others only allow one ticket per student.

  5. Sue Scott says

    For a great meal and experience, go to Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway…. the food is good and reasonable and every member of the waitstaff is also an auditioning musical actor/actress and they sing while they serve! It’s such a fun thing to do, especially if you’re going to a Broadway show…but even if you’re not, you get Broadway scale singing with the price of your meal! During one visit there, they announced that at the moment, every musical on Broadway included a cast member who was an Ellen’s server!

    For those of you with younger kids, a visit to Toys R Us at Times Square is also great fun. It is huge, even includes a full size Ferris Wheel inside the building (expensive to ride, so just “appreciate” it!) ….but the Toys R Us prices are the same as anywhere else in the country….so the kids can pick out a “souvenir” for no more than you’d spend at home!

  6. Keri says

    If you’re in the city for several days with multiple family members but the 7 day unlimited Metrocard and each rider can use the same card to enter the subway!

    Steer clear of touristy food joints-they’re pricey!! Pick up fresh fruit and yogurt from the drug store or grocer and keep on ice in your hotel room for a cheap easy breakfast!!

    Take a bus tour when you FIRST arrive so you can see A LOT & decide where you really want to go after seeing it “all” on the tour! Your guide will also give you tons of info and tips to help make the trip better!!

    Learn about the cab system!! Yellow and green = GOOD! Anything else = gypsy cab and you WILL get screwed!!!

    Just went for my 1st time-these are a few things I learned-some the hard way!!! Cost us over $45 for a gypsy cab to take us about 6-8 blocks!! 🙁


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