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.
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 NYC, 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-
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.
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
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 Broadway.com so you know what appeals to you. You can purchase discount Broadway tickets online at broadwaybox.com (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 family saw The Addams Family 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.