New York is a shining enigma for travellers around the world. From the luxury shops on 5th Avenue to the $2 hotdogs in Times Square and funky restaurants and vibe of Brooklyn, the concrete jungle has something to offer everyone. It truly is the city that never sleeps, and that energy alone vibrates off the streets as you step off the plane and begin your time in the Big Apple.
As a first-timer to New York, it can be overwhelming knowing where to spend your money. It is, of course, a monolithic tourist destination, so the prospect of being caught in a ‘tourist trap’ or rip off is always in the back of your mind. When this is combined with the sensory overload of Times Square billboards, busy sidewalks, honking cabs and unique smells coming from the subway vents, people either throw caution to the wind and forget their travel budget completely, or tighten the hatches and skimp out on everything.
The key to enjoying your time in New York is to, of course, find a happy medium between the two extremes. To make your life easier, we’ve done the hard work for you and figured out where you should splurge and save during your time in NYC. We’ve tried to cover the major attractions frequented by tourists on their first visit.
First things first, though, what’s the money situation in New York? You’ll need plenty of USD, and we recommend splitting it so that 60% is on a prepaid travel money card like the Travel Money Oz Currency Pass and the rest is cash. Around 90% of the time, places will accept card, however, there are a few smaller cafes and bars that are cash only, plus it’s good to have small notes on hand for tips.
We’re not going to sugar coat it: New York is an expensive travel destination, especially when you consider the USD to AUD exchange rate. Lessen the load on your wallet by knowing where to splurge and save on different attractions.
Splurge: 9/11 Museum and memorial
The events of 9/11 changed life as we know it, and the museum and memorial do an excellent job of outlining the facts and remembering those that were killed. While the memorial is free to see, the museum charges $26USD for admission. Put aside a few hours and visit the museum, it’s worth the cost. You can also pay for tours; however, if you download the app on your phone, you can listen to free commentary at different sections for more insight.
Splurge: The MET
The Metropolitan Arts Museum has three locations across New York and boasts over 5000 years worth of art. If you love art, this is a splurge-worthy experience. Adult tickets cost $25 and cover you for all three museums.
Save: American Museum of Natural History
This museum is epic, providing hours of entertainment and knowledge for everyone. It certainly isn’t classed as a save option because we want you to avoid it, quite the opposite. We want you to dedicate a few hours to this museum, and you can do so at any price you wish because they allow you to pay what you wish for entry. If you buy online you have to pay $23; however, if you arrive at the museum and wait in line (can take up to 30 mins depending on how busy it is), you can opt to pay whatever you wish. Bargain.
Splurge: 5th Avenue
If, like me, you wanted to buy a little something-something to remember your first trip to New York and are willing to splurge a bit, why not hit up the shops on the iconic 5th Avenue? With plenty of shops and products ranging from $5 to $500,000 (probably more, let’s be real), you are bound to find a treasure to take home. I, for example, decided to buy my first little blue box from Tiffany & Co. Even though I only purchased one of their smaller bracelets, the service I received and overall experience was outstanding. Better yet, if you’re there over the festive season, you will be able to witness the area’s stunning light shows and decorations.
Save: Second-hand shops in fancy neighbourhoods
Keen to do some shopping on a tight budget? Hit up the second-hand shops and retro boutiques of the wealthier suburbs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. You’re bound to bag a bargain.
Save: Souvenir shops
They are tacky, mass-produced plastic momentos that take up space in your suitcase and are a waste of money. Trust us, you don’t need three ‘I <3 NY’ t-shirts, and your family doesn’t care for the little version of the Statue of Liberty. There are way cooler things to spend your money on.
Splurge: Sports games
American sports games, whether it's basketball, baseball or ice hockey, have a vibe like no other. It’s incredible to see people from varying backgrounds and beliefs come together to cheer on their favourite teams in enormous stadiums, all with a hot dog and soda in hand, of course. Quite often tickets to games will sell out, so if you’re keen on attending one (which you should), you will need to bite the bullet and purchase tickets in advance. Some apps offer resale tickets at a discount; however, be wary of scalpers. If you want to see a game, save yourself the stress and buy in advance.
Splurge: Ice skating
If you’re in New York during the winter, you must give ice skating a try at any of their iconic rinks. The Rockefeller rink is the most popular (and insanely crowded) option, however other places like Bryant Park and the Wollman Rink are also perfect options. Bryant Park, in particular, offers free skating, you just have to pay around $33 for skate hire. Don’t stress about your skill level either; you’ll quickly learn that many people are fumbling around the ice just like you. Don’t forget to top of the experience with mulled wine, hot apple cider or hot chocolate for $5-$9 from one of the local vendors too!
Splurge: Bike hire or tour
If you don’t have a lot of time bike hire is a great option to see more of New York. There are plenty of companies that offer bike tours (often with good discounts on Groupon); otherwise, you can hire a bike for less than $50 for the day to explore as you wish. This option is very popular in Central Park during the warmer months. New York City also has rideshare bikes sponsored by Citibank that you can use for a small fee. While they are the cheaper option, you have to dock the bike every 30 mins to avoid excess charges.
Save: Broadway shows
Once again, we don’t want you to miss out on a Broadway show. They are incredible and deserve to be apart of your New York itinerary. Rather, we don’t want you to spend a ridiculous amount on tickets because there are ways around it. If you don’t mind what show you see, when you arrive head to a few different box offices and ask them if they have any cheap tickets for that day or the next few days and if they offer a lottery. Most of the big shows do. Then, attend a few lotteries until you win some tickets! While it is the luck of the draw, if you give yourself a few chances, you are bound to win one. Then, if all else fails, hit up the TKTS booth or app and snag one of their cheaper tickets. To put it into perspective, I did the Wicked lottery and won $170 seats for $30 (cash only too).
Save: Statue of Liberty
If you’re not too keen on joining a tour to see Lady Liberty, there are a few ways to glimpse her grandeur without paying anything. First of all, if you walk along the coastline of the lower west side near the financial district, you will get a pretty good glimpse, likewise if you are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. If you want something a bit closer to the action, catch the Staten Island Ferry across and bank for uninterrupted views of the Statue.
Save: Brooklyn Bridge
It’s a neat bridge you can walk across for free. Read about it on Google - you don’t need a tour guide.
Save: Rooftop bars
No trip to New York is complete without some form of skyline view. Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building are popular choices for tourists; however, their lines and price tag aren’t that nice. Instead, there are heaps of rooftop bars that offer epic views, and instead of paying for a ticket you’re paying for a drink. 230 5th is a fantastic rooftop bar with a direct view of the Empire State Building. Better yet, every Friday between 4 pm and 6 pm they offer happy hour prices on drinks, so you can buy four beers for the price of one trip up to Top of the Rock. I’ll cheers to that.
Before we dive into food, it’s important to remember that you’ll need to tip at any restaurant or bar you go to. 15-20% is the current going rate; however, there is always suggested amounts at the bottom of your receipt that you can easily add on to the final bill. If you are paying with your Currency Pass or any card for that matter, the server will take it alongside the initial bill to authorise payment. After that, they will return the card with the receipt where you then choose the tip amount for them to process after. If you are paying with cash, you can simply leave a tip on the table.
There are a lot of places that offer $1 or $2 slices of pizza, and they are great for a slice on the go. However, at least once, you need to spurge (and by splurge I mean pay around $30) for a full pizza from a well known joint.
Splurge: Carlos Bake Shop
They don’t call him Cake Boss for no reason. While this bakery is grossly overpriced and super busy, you can’t help but dig in and enjoy a delicious slice of cake or sweet treat. I paid $15 for a bit of NY Cheesecake. Was it expensive? Yes. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. No tip is required at the bakeshop.
Save: Street food
Vendors are dishing out hot dogs, kebabs, Indian and Turkish meals, burgers and fries on almost every street vendor. Hot dogs and fries go for as little as $2, with bigger meals setting you back just under $10. They might not be the fanciest option, but they are cheap, delicious and definitely fill the hole. Word of warning, though, the closer you get to bigger attractions like Times Square, the more expensive food will become. Don’t pay any more than $2 for a hot dog. No tip is required for street vendors.
The perfect breakfast on the go, a good bagel with cream cheese will set you back between $4 and $9 depending on where you buy it. The bagels are deliciously fresh, and there are often over ten different cream cheese filling options. You can get cheaper bagels at Starbucks and Pret-a-Manger cafes, but they definitely don’t taste as good.
Save: Happy hours
Find them, abuse them, be on your merry way. No one has time for $20 beers unless they are half price at happy hour. There is also a place called Rudy’s that serves a free hot dog with every brew.
The subway is by far the cheapest and most efficient way to get around New York, with plenty of lines and stations traversing the city. A one-way fare is $2.75, and the metro card itself costs $1 to purchase initially. You can buy tickets, but they are a hassle if you are riding the subway a few times a day. The trains run often and mostly on time, and being underground means you avoid lengthy delays caused by New York traffic.
If it’s a beautiful day, the best way to see the city is by strapping on your comfiest boots and going for a walk. If you’re not clocking up over 15,000 steps per day in New York, then you are doing something wrong. A mix of walking and the subway will not only allow you to see as much of the city as possible, but it will save you a lot of cash that can otherwise be spent on more food.
New York is a city vibrating with an energy that will stay with you long after you leave. While you first time visiting can be daunting, a little bit of research will ensure you make the most of your time and money while exploring.
If you have more questions on how to make your money go the distance in the Big Apple, or are ready to purchase your USD and load up a Currency Pass, be sure to visit the team at your local Travel Money Oz.
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