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Cheap New York – When You’re Close to Broke

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‘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’.

cheap New York - fog in the city

My visit began in the gloom… but the sun soon appeared.

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.

Cheap New York - Street art

cheap New York - the High Line

Cheap New York - the High Line

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

Santas NYC

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.



  1. Jeff Dobbins on December 19, 2012 at 11:46 pm

    This is great information! The links you’ve provided are terrific resources. And I look forward to reading about your Lower East Side Culinary Tour.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 20, 2012 at 8:45 am

      Thanks Jeff – nice when someone who actually lives there thinks you got it right! 🙂

  2. Tina Boomerina on December 22, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Hey Leyla and others,

    I used to write for someone else on a “content farm” and I loved it. Now, I’m learning how to do my own site… and it’s a lot more work…. However, one of the GOOD things about going out on my own is that I DISCOVER NEW STUFF ONLINE…. like your cool website.

    I just found WOMEN ON THE ROAD through Pinterest. And, even though I am remarried and do all my travels with Dear Husband, I wish I had found your site when I was single. Back then, I was just too scared to go to Europe on my own. I went to a few places in the states alone, but now that I have more experience traveling… I think of all those years when I could have been hanging out in the Louvre or the V&A or the Vatican museums with no one to tell me he’s bored. I could have been seeing great paintings without Dear Husband getting fidgety… he’s colorblind… haha.

    Anyway, love your site and will help with pins and repins whenever I find the time. Nice site. Now that the world didn’t blow up according to the Mayan-end-of-the-world prediction, I will browse your site for new travel ideas! (Didn’t really think the world would end… but somehow I feel like I’ve been given extra bonus time to travel and see new stuff on our wonderfully fun planet.)
    Tina Boomerina

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 22, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Thanks for the lovely words, Tina! Even with Dear H. tagging along, I hope you can still find some use for the information on my site and yes, now that the world hasn’t ended, we need to get out and see it – you never know! 😉

  3. Talon on December 23, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    Great tips! Thanks so much! NYC is still on my list of places to go, and when we do it will definitely be on a tight budget.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 24, 2012 at 12:13 am

      Thank you – and mother is the necessity of invention so when I ended up in NYC with a lot less in my wallet than I’d expected I had to get creative, fast – and was shocked at what you can actually do on very little. You’ll have a great time when you go, even on a budget.

  4. Anna Edwards on February 18, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    I am always searching for deals. For NYC I use the guide book 365 Guide New York City. It lists restaurant deals and bar specials. http://www.365guidenyc.com Saves me a ton of cash.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 18, 2014 at 9:27 pm

      Thanks Anna, great resource! Will use it next time I visit.

  5. Marielle on March 19, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks for all the tips Leyla.
    If you don’t have any friends in NYC, how and where can I find an affordable, clean and safe place to stay? Preferably in Manhattan, but I’m open to other suggestions. I’ll be going to NYC in September of October on my own and I’m just a bit apprehensive about it, but also feeling very excited.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on March 19, 2014 at 10:25 pm

      The first thing I’d try is couchsurfing.com – and try to find another woman to stay with. If that fails, I think airbnb.com operates in NYC – so check there. For both, of course make sure you follow all the safety precautions – email back and forth first, make sure you stay with people who have good references etc. And finally, certain religious groups often have places to stay, like the YWCA or similar. I’d write to them and if they don’t have anything I’m sure they can recommend. I hope that helps, Marielle – and have a great trip!

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