‘Tis the season to be jolly and surely New York City is among the jolliest. I love this time of year and its Christmas spirit and crisp air and bright lights. Through a series of mishaps I ended up here with a small stash of cash (emphasis on small) and a credit card that wouldn’t deliver. I had no choice but to try to find out whether there was such a thing as a ‘cheap New York’.
I briefly considered feeling sorry for myself but remembered my friend Gigi who a few years ago managed to see Paris on $15 a day so why not try something similar? I couldn’t manage on $15 but surely I could avoid burning a hole in my wallet and still have a good time.
Did I succeed? I think so.
Major expenses usually center around food and lodging. I’m fortunate to have friends in New York so I had a place a stay.
Even if you don’t, you can still manage to sleep for free by using one of the many hospitality services that have made their mark, like Couchsurfing or Hospitality Club.
Cheap New York – or what can you do for free, or almost?
1. You can walk
Even in the rain New York City is a joy for walkers. My greatest danger was bumping into people or poles as my neck craned up to take it all in. The city is mostly built as a grid, with streets and avenues crossing one another with amazing regularity. Walking a block between streets take a minute and between avenues three minutes. I easily walked 30 blocks at a time and would have lost plenty of weight if I hadn’t stopped so often to eat.
2. You can ride the bus
One of the first things I like to do in a new town (or even an old one) is to ride the bus and get my bearings. I bought a Metrocard from a subway station machine, loaded it with money, and swiped it back and forth as I rode around town on the bus, or the clanky and cantankerous subway, if I had to. Total cost for the week: $40.
3. You can go to the park
Always desperate for greenery, I made it to Central Park, where you can rent a bike for three hours (a not cheap $25) or ride a carriage (even more expensive at $50-$150). A cheaper bet would be the zoo at $12 if you like such things, and if you’re visiting in winter, go watch the ice skaters ($5) at Wollman Rink; in summer, have a picnic, or simply sit on a bench and people-gaze, one of my favorite sports. Your best bet? One of the free walking tours offered by the Central Park Conservancy. I just walked myself silly.
At the other end of town, I made my first visit to the High Line, a new (2009) elevated park built on an abandoned rail line that used to ferry goods to the nearby Meatpacking District and only closed down in 1980. It narrowly escaped destruction and is funded through donations. Walking its length (two segments are open and a third is still being renovated) puts you above the city by several stories and gives you a completely different view of the neighborhood than walking along its streets. If you love street art this will be a feast.
4. You can become a culture vulture
The Rolling Stones were playing this weekend, with tickets ranging from just under $500 to over $1600. I passed. I also passed on the musicals ($150) and several plays ($75). What I did do was discover Julliard School of Music, which I knew as a school but not as a center for the performing arts.
They host everything from dance to opera to chamber music, nearly every day, and most of it absolutely free. I went to see a modern dance performance in four segments, each one corresponding to a student graduation year. I was every bit as fulfilled as I’d been last year, when I paid top prices for top performances. Time Out will list what’s on, or drop by the box office at 155 W 65th Street to get tickets, which you’ll need for all admissions.
It’s no secret you can visit plenty of museums for free and if you’re not in a museum mood, there are plenty of other free things to do in NYC. You’ll be spoiled, and your wallet will remain intact. Free museums include such classics as the American Folk Art Museum or the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but if you want to visit the ‘biggies’ they often have free days or evenings: MoMA on Fridays (but you’ll need tickets), Whitney Museum (Friday evenings) and many more listed on Free Museum Days.
Finally, living in rural France means I rarely get to see new English-language films so I splurged for three – $15.50 each time – to watch Skyfall (loved it), Argo (about the Iran hostage-taking and the six who escaped) and Lincoln (this one requires a better grasp of US history than mine; I’m afraid I fell asleep.)
5. You can attend a lecture
New York is such a culturally diverse and rich place you can learn about anything, anywhere, almost anytime, as you’ll see from a quick look through any list of talks and lectures. I attended an interesting evening talk on travel writing with my great fellow bloggers Larry Closs of TrekWorld and Jeff Dobbins of Adventure in Culture. Not only did I learn something, but meeting farflung friends is one of the most enjoyable perks of travel.
6. Yes, you can eat
New York is so much about food. Street vendors entice you with fresh pretzels and steamy hotdogs but their best bargain is breakfast: you can’t beat a bagel and coffee for $2. If you’d rather sit down Time Out has a list of the latest budget restaurants to try, as does the Village Voice. And if you want to go budget upmarket, have a look at what New York’s top chefs recommend as their own favorite cheap eats.
Lunch at Land, a tiny Thai at 450 Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, sets you back $9 for a starter and a main dish. Further uptown, at 620, the Saigon Grill charged two of us $25 for a truly delicious Vietnamese soup, marinated chicken sate, luscious baked eggplant, a crunchy side salad and as much tea as you could drink. Sunday brunch at the Harlem Food Bar (on Frederick Douglass between 113th-114th Streets) will cost about $20 and if you really want good deals make Harlem your base, as I did. You’ll get a lot more for your money here. Vegetarian? Head for any of the city’s thousands of delis and try the salad bar for fresh food at low prices.
Saving all that money on eating allowed me one big splurge ($45): a Lower East Side food tour. It wasn’t so much to taste the food – I could do that on my own – but for the amazing history behind this immigrant part of New York City.
7. Christmas presents!
I didn’t buy anything opulent but NYC is definitely a place you can shop cheaply. Picking up unusual souvenirs at bargain prices is easy: my gendarme friend is bound to appreciate his NYPD T-shirt ($15) and those funny-shaped bottle-openers will definitely find a home. Other gift ideas? The classic I Love NY mugs ($6 each) and retro pencil and makeup cases ($6 each), picked up at museum shops which, by the way, are a great source of original and inexpensive trinkets.
Hanging out with Santa
The last thing I expected on a sunny December Saturday was to collide with a bunch of tipsy Santas but yes, apparently it’s true: an event called SantaCon encourages everyone to dress up as Santa Claus and they do, from full regalia to scraggly white beard, and everything in-between.
As the day passed, the Santas seemed increasingly joyful, most likely the result of the many liquid stops they made along the way.
Everywhere I went, they appeared, singing Christmas carols with a bounce in their bright red step…
After all, ’tis the season to be jolly!
And yes, there is such a thing as cheap New York.