How to See New York City on a Backpacker Budget
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
New York City is an incredible city with seemingly endless iconic buildings, famous eateries and recognisable landmarks to explore - but, as a backpacker it is a notoriously expensive city to visit (and the AUD to USD exchange rate also doesn't do us Aussies any favours!). I recently visited New York and found that you don't have to spend a lot of money to experience everything the Big Apple has to offer.
SIGHTS TO SEE
The great thing about New York is that many of its famous sights are free to experience. NYC is easy to get around using the subway system and if the weather's good, it's a great city to walk or cycle around.
The Brooklyn Bridge
Grand Central Station
The Brooklyn Bridge
Free Walking Tours
On my first day in New York I booked a free walking tour through this company. There are many different companies offering basically the same thing around different areas of New York. I did the tour of Lower Manhattan which was really great. My guide had lived in the city his whole life and he had lots of interesting information about different landmarks which I wouldn't have known walking around on my own. It's up to you to tip the guide at the end (the suggested amount is $20). I found it a really good way to get a local introduction to the city.
Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island Ferry is a free ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island and is essentially a free way to see the Statue of Liberty. The ferry leaves from the Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan and to get there I took the number 1 subway to South Ferry. During the 25 minute journey you get a fantastic view of the Manhattan skyline and a good look at the Statue of Liberty. Once you get to Staten Island you can then hop right on the next ferry back to Manhattan (the ferry leaves every 30mins).
View of Manhattan from the back of the Staten Island Ferry
The Statue of Liberty
No visit to NYC should be without a visit to Central Park. Central Park is a beautiful oasis in the middle of a crazy bustling city with many grassy wide open spaces perfect for picnics in the summer and pathways perfect to explore on foot or by bike. Apart from Central park, Bryant Park, Union Square Park and Washington Square were a couple of parks I really enjoyed visiting.
Cycling through Central Park
The Highline is perhaps NYC's most unique park - built on an abandoned elevated railroad it stretches for around 2.5km along that has been transformed into a public park.
Depending on what time of year you're visiting NYC, a great way to immerse yourself in American culture is to go to a sporting game. Throughout the year it's possible to get relatively cheap tickets to baseball, basketball, ice hockey or NFL games in NYC (if it's not the playoffs and if you're happy to compromise on seating). I went to a New York Yankees vs Toronto Blue Jays baseball game at Yankees stadium and it was great fun!
Yankee Stadium, The Bronx
New York City is home to countless galleries and museums, many with admission fees that exceed a backpacker's budget. It is however possible to visit some of New York's most notable museums for free or inexpensively. For example, the 9/11 museum offers free entry on Tuesday nights from 5pm and the American Museum of Natural History has a suggested entry of $23 but visitors are able to choose to 'pay what they feel' so the museum remains accessible to everybody.
Rooftop bars are a great way to get a great view of the city for free or for the price of a drink or two - especially when entry to observation decks can be expensive (entry to the Top of the Rock cost me $50 AUD). The Rainbow Room is a bar a few storeys lower that the Top of the Rock with a similarly fantastic view (and it's free to enter!). 230-fifth, Pod-39 rooftop, Cantina rooftop and Mr Purple are other rooftop bars with great views that were recommended to me.
The perfect way to spend an evening in NYC is to see a Broadway show or play. Whilst tickets to Broadway shows can be expensive, it is possible to get discounted tickets if you are flexible with your choice of shows and willing to wait in line on the day of the show at the Theatre Development Fund's TKTS Booth under the red steps in Duffy Square.
Mean Girls on Broadway!
I'm a really big fan of stand-up comedy and on my last night in NYC I went to a gig at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. Tickets are only $12USD per person (although they do require you purchase 2 items off the menu as well) and rumour has it that comedians like Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld sometimes pop in to practice their new material on the crowd.
Getting around NYC doesn't have to be expensive - I have a couple of tips on how to navigate the city on a budget.
Riding the Subway
When I arrived in New York I bought a weekly subway ticket for $33 USD which gave me unlimited rides on the city's subway system and busses for 7 days. I definitely got value for my money as a single trip costs $2.75 USD and I would use my pass multiple times per day during the week I was there.
Hiring a Bike
New York has a bike share system called Citibikes. The bays of blue Citibikes are scattered in convenient positions all around the city and I would often pick one up to ride when I got tired of walking. Many streets have bike lanes which make it easy and safe to explore the city on two wheels. I paid for a 3-day bike hire which was $24 USD (or 1 day for $12 USD) which includes the first 30minutes free of each ride.
Cycling through NYC
If the weather's good, NYC is a great city to experience on foot - or why not try a walking tour?
If you're not up for riding the subway, hiring a bike or walking, Uber is available in NYC and most likely cheaper than taxis.
Eating out in NYC can turn out to be expensive - especially when coming from Australia as it's easy not to account for the additional cost of tipping or state taxes added onto the bill at the end of the meal. I have a couple suggestions that will save you money on eating out, but not compromise an authentic NYC experience.
Street carts - in NYC street carts sell everything from hot dogs, to bagels or tacos. They are a cheap and convenient way to grab a meal or a snack on the go.
Bagels - Bagels are sold at many delis and street carts and are usually inexpensive and make a great quick snack (but with the amount of cream cheese they put on their bagels, I find a bagel to be a pretty filling meal in itself).
Wholefoods - I personally LOVED Wholefoods. Their huge salad bar was my go-to for lunches on the go. They have a huge range of healthy snacks and takeaway options which are super delicious.
Pizza slices - many pizza shops scattered around the city offer cheap or even $1 pizza slices. These pizza slices are 'NYC-sized' which are around 3x bigger than those at home and are pretty much a meal in themselves!
Chinatown - it's possible to find inexpensive, delicious food at one of the many restaurants in Chinatown.
WHERE TO STAY
During my time in New York I stayed in midtown Manhattan in this hostel (the cheapest/best location I could find at the time) as I wanted to stay close to the centre of everything. However, staying in areas slightly further out of the city (like Brooklyn) can save you money. As long as you are nearby to a subway station, you're never too far from the city.
I absolutely love Airbnb (see my post on my favourite Airbnbs here). There are many unique lofts, apartments or spare rooms listed on Airbnb in NYC and if you are travelling in a large group, splitting the cost of an Airbnb may work out to be better value than staying in a hotel/hostel.