A guide to visiting the Big Apple without breaking the bank.
For decades, in response to my frequent trips up the New Jersey Turnpike to New York City, people would tell me, “I wish I could visit NYC,” before quickly adding, “but I can’t afford it, the city is SO expensive!”
New York City being an expensive city for travelers is a myth that resides solely in the overpriced neighborhoods of Midtown Manhattan and Times Square. Are there $1,000 a night and dinners that will set you back $300? Absolutely, but spending time in the Big Apple does not have to break the bank.
From Broadway tickets for a song to free music in the parks; from cheap eats all day long to ways to travel from the red pandas of the Bronx Zoo to the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island for just $2.75, here’s all the proof you need that NYC is not too expensive to visit.
Finding Affordable Broadway Tickets
You’ll hear people swear by the TKTS booth in Times Square, but hardcore theater fans on a budget know that the best way to score cheap tickets to the coolest shows on-and-off Broadway is through the rush ticket program offered by most theaters in the city (the others, like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton, use an online lottery system instead).
Recommended Fodor’s Video
For rush and standing room tickets, line up outside the box office for the show you’re interested in attending. The key is to get there before the box office opens (around 10 a.m. or noon, usually). Soon you’ll have seats to Jagged Little Pill, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Chicago, or whatever play or musical you’d like to see later that night, all for around $40 a ticket. Bookmark the continuously updated page outlining the rush, digital lottery, and standing room ticket schemes for all of the productions on-and-off Broadway, and consult it before you make your way into NYC. After the show, it costs nothing but an extra bit of time to hang out by the stage door for the chance to meet the actors and have your Playbill signed.
Three Ways to Save on Meals in New York
I’ve often found that dinner in a suburban chain restaurant is far pricier than some of the most incredible meals I’ve ever enjoyed in NYC. Here are three different ways in which New York City proves to be an affordable foodie destination.
One of the best ways to make dining out in New York City affordable is to splurge on a big lunch at one of the many restaurants and cafes offering up a tempting menu of lunch specials. For example, at Kati on 14th Street, you can have a big bowl of delicious shrimp pad Thai and a pair of crispy spring rolls for just $11. Meanwhile, in Chinatown at the original Buddha Bodai, you’ll be served a pot of tea, soup, or a spring roll, plus any one of over a dozen vegetarian and vegan entrees (like the divine BBQ “meat” and cabbage) for just $7.50. The best part? These lunch specials typically can be had from 11 am to 4 p.m., so if you plan well, you could enjoy two of them in one day, as a brunch and early dinner.
Almost every bar in America has some kind of happy hour special, but in NYC, it’s restaurants with the best 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. offerings. Take Ama in the East Village, for example, where you can get $5 lychee martinis and $1 oysters, in addition to their regular dinner menu. If you miss taking advantage of a lunch special as an early dinner, head to happy hour for more cheap eats in a city that’s not nearly as expensive as you think it is. You’ll soon realize that your bill at your local Olive Garden is more than what you’ll pay for an incredible dinner at one of the many independent restaurants in New York City.
You can and should start your day in NYC with a delectable $4 pumpkin caramel scone with clotted cream at either of the two Alice’s Tea Cup locations flanking Central Park. That’s your big city breakfast sorted for less than a fiver! Then make a plan to finish off your day with the best dessert deal in NYC (or any city for that matter): the $5 square slice of tres leches cake with fresh strawberries at El Camion Cantina at the corner of 12th Street and Avenue A. It is so good you’ll want to order two, and even then, your dessert will be cheaper than many high-priced sweets found elsewhere.
Enjoy NYC’s Best Museums for Free
There are dozens of museums in New York City that are either 100% free or always have a pay-what-you-wish structure that lets you set the price of admission based on your budget. Others, like the Whitney, 9/11 Memorial Museum, New Museum, and the New York Botanical Garden, have entire days of the week (or specific windows of time) when admission is entirely free. You could save upwards of $25 per person by making a few targeted Google searches and still see all the Van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, and Georgia O’Keeffe paintings that your heart desires.
Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge
Much of what makes NYC a surprisingly affordable travel destination is the amount of unique to the Big Apple. The Brooklyn Bridge is iconic, and walking across it doesn’t cost a penny. It’s a tremendous exercise to up your step count and affords you some of the best views and photo ops in the entire city. Start or finish off your stroll across the bridge with a walk or a run along the East River Greenway. This beautifully constructed pathway boasts swings, benches, picnic tables, exercise equipment, and athletic fields where you can watch New Yorkers play a wide variety of sports.
Little Island, The Vessel, and The Highline
On the other side of Manhattan are three epic outdoor spaces to spend time without spending a single penny. Book yourself free timed entry tickets to these three sights, then start at the brand-new Little Island, a stunning park seemingly made from concrete tulips that look like wine glasses jutting out over the Hudson River. There are free concerts in the stunning wooden amphitheater (sometimes featuring famous names like Sara Bareilles), kids’ activities, and other events happening almost every day on Little Island. After your visit, saunter north on the High Line, a glorious elevated train line transformed into a public park. End your day at The Vessel, a newly designed honeycomb-shaped piece of art that you can climb up for great views and photos. This could be an entire day of fun in the city, and you won’t need to use your credit card once.
Free Outdoor Entertainment
Whether you’re in or a single night, you’ll find free music being performed in parks like Tompkins Square, where on any given day or evening you might encounter multiple five-piece jazz bands or a guitar and drums rock duo thrashing out some tunes. If you’re lucky, you will catch a set from an exquisite busker like Robert Leslie performing Velvet Underground and Dylan covers, along with originals off his stellar Masks & Mirrors album, the vinyl LP of which you can (and should) buy from him. It’s a small price to pay for having enjoyed the free hour+ intimate outdoor concert beneath the famed Hare Krishna tree in this legendary East Village park.
Don’t Skip the Psychic Readings
Your immediate past has been filled with cheap eats, free outdoor concerts, and incredible experiences that didn’t dent your bank account at all, but in NYC, you can also discover what lies ahead in your future. Many $10 psychic readings are available day and night, taking place in glamorously decorated shop windows or on the sidewalk. Even if you don’t believe in tarot cards or psychics, partaking in a reading in NYC is good, cheap fun that will cost you less than a movie ticket.
Free Kayaking on the East River
Kayaking is often an activity that will cost you some serious cash on just about any other body of water in America, but in NYC is 100% free. Head to the Brooklyn Bridge Boathouse on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesday and Thursday evenings between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., for the chance to take one of 25 kayaks out onto the East River for a 20-minute scenic workout. Life jackets are provided and two-person kayaks are available to take your partner or child out onto the water, too. The views are amazing, and you’ll have your Instagram friends jealous of your adventures.
Free Public Art
It’s not just the much-ballyhooed Vessel in Hudson Yards, there is public art scattered all over the city—and all of it is free to enjoy. Take a picture with the powerful Frederick Douglass statue rising on the northwest corner of Central Park before exploring Harlem. Hang out with a statue of Gertrude Stein while listening to live music in Bryant Park, then check out the steady stream of temporary art installations all over the five boroughs. Currently, some of those art pieces include Zaq Landsberg’s Reclining Liberty on display in Morningside Park through April 2022, Maya Lin’s marvelous Ghost Forest in Madison Square Park until November 1, and Guadalupe Maravilla’s Planeta Abuelx in Queens through Labor Day 2021.
Affordable Ways to Pamper Yourself
Practicing self-care with the help of the cosmetology and massage industries can be cost-prohibitive, but in New York City, you can get your eyebrows expertly waxed or threaded for as little as $6, an hour of intense bodywork for $60 or less, and have your nails done up on the regular for pennies on the dollar. My wife always told me that while some things, like movie tickets, are pricey in NYC, spa services are consistently inexpensive compared to what they cost everywhere else.
$2 Used Books at The Strand
At The Strand, there are great deals on used books to be found on the shelves of this famous bookstore. The most iconic stretch of The Strand’s 18 miles of books is its sidewalk on 12th and Broadway. Here, you can find thousands of used books priced from $2 to $7. My daughter recently snagged a stunning dictionary from 1936 for just $7, while I bought Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir I am, I am, I am for $2, and a collection of Alice Munro short stories for just $6. You won’t find the same breadth of literature at those prices anywhere else but in NYC.
Two Affordable Ways to Get Around the City
Even getting around the city is less expensive than you probably think. While seeing NYC on foot is the best, sometimes you need to go far and fast. There are two fantastic options for doing so without spending a fortune.
MTA Subway and Buses
Some New Yorkers might balk at the price, but for out-of-towners, being able to travel from the Bronx Zoo to Coney Island for $2.75 is a phenomenal value. Trying to make that 30-mile trek in a rideshare will set you back over $100. Using a combination of clean, air-conditioned, and on-time city buses and subway lines, you can and should crisscross the island of Manhattan and the other boroughs affordably on public transit. It is one of the many ways you can experience the real NYC without spending a fortune.
If you’d prefer to feel the wind in your hair as you move about the city, hop on one of the thousands of Citi Bikes available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at hundreds of stations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Jersey City. There have been over 100 million rides since the program launched in 2013. At just $3.50 for each trip (or $15 for a day pass), the ease of using the Lyft app to rent one, and a wealth of dedicated bike lanes all across New York City, it’s easy to see why locals and tourists alike love to experience the city on the back of a bicycle.