Everything in New York City seems larger than life—including the sticker shock on skyscraper-high hotel prices, with average hotel rates running close to $300/night. For those who think outside the box-y hotel room, however, there are plenty of alternative, more-affordable lodging options (including some of the nontraditional variety) with much more palatable pricing. Here are eight great options that can save you money so you can empty your pockets on the city's other pricey pleasures instead. Trust us, with those $15 martinis and $100-a-pop Broadway shows, you'll need it.
Nabbing a New York City apartment as home base ensures more space than a hotel room, kitchen access (to minimize eating-out expenses), and a living-in-the-big-city experience. However, New York State's 2010-instated “illegal hotel laws” make it illegal for apartments to be rented out for less than 30 days, unless it's a room in a tenant-occupied apartment, or via the owner of a single- or two-family home. Because of the regulations, legal, non-hosted, short-term apartment stays, offering total privacy, are somewhat rare, though hosted apartment rentals—where you'll share the apartment and its amenities (like the bathroom or kitchen) with a resident New Yorker (often happy to share conversation and local tips)—are more common.
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Major short-term apartment rental agencies with affordable listings (from well under $200/night) include Airbnb.com (with more than 32,000 listings in the city); HomeAway.com; Vacation Rentals By Owner (a.k.a. VRBO); VacationRentals.com; 9Flats.com; FlipKey (owned by TripAdvisor); and newcomer BeMate.com, which combines rentals with hotel services like an on-call concierge. For NYC-specialized agencies, try Manhattan Getaways or browse artists' lofts at City Sonnet.
Considering that most New Yorkers themselves don't live in Manhattan, take that as a cue to follow suit. The outer boroughs offer fast-developing, temptingly affordable hotel alternatives. In Queens, Long Island City hotels average about $150/night less than Manhattan, which is just one subway stop away. Try the Z NYC Hotel, where all 100 rooms face the Manhattan skyline (from $175/night), or the 128-room Wyndham Garden LIC/Manhattan View, with even more killer views from $149/night. Hit up Brooklyn at The Condor Hotel in hipster epicenter Williamsburg (from $139/night), or try the 70-unit, music-themed Hotel BPM in Sunset Park (from $109/night). North of Manhattan, the Bronx Opera House Hotel (from $129/night) is set within a hundred-year-old opera house.
If you don't mind loaning out your digs, and prefer the comforts of home even while on the road, a home exchange might be just the ticket. The premise is this: You'll swap homes with another traveler, usually for a week-long period, for free. All you need to do is sign up with an established home-exchange organization to help make the match, which typically charge an annual or monthly membership fee. Some to consider with NYC listings are HomeExchange.com ($120/annual membership), HomeLink (from $39/year), and Love Home Swap (from $240/year).
Sure, you may not have bunked in a hostel since your college days of backpacking across Europe, but for budget crunchers, you can't beat a no-frills hostel stay. The dorm-style accommodations offer shared or private rooms, often with shared baths and communal kitchen spaces. Browse sites like Hostels.com or HostelWorld.com for reviews and recommendations.
Try all-ages options like members-only HI New York Hostel, run by Hostelling International USA in a landmark Victorian Gothic building on the Upper West Side (from $49 per person, per night; daily membership from $3/day). Other strong contenders include the family-run American Dream Hostel, near Gramercy Park (from $94/night for a single private room), or NYC's self-proclaimed “first boutique hostel,” the Broadway Hotel & Hostel on the Upper West (from $32 per person, per night).
Typically smaller, family-run affairs, cozy bed-and-breakfasts can offer quaintness and affordability, so long as you're willing to use the bathroom down the hall and perhaps live without a flat-screen TV. Browse through B&B-specialist sites with NYC listings like BedandBreakfast.com; Bed-and-Breakfast Network; City Lights Bed-and-Breakfast; and New York Habitat. TripAdvisor also keeps a good list, while Airbnb maintains some dedicated B&B listings, too.
Some solid bets within Manhattan include the 10-room East Village Bed and Coffee (single rooms from $125/night), or Harlem's 7-room Sugar Hill Harlem Inn (from $80/night). Brooklyn is another hotbed for tempting B&Bs, especially within the early-20th-century Victorian homes-cum-B&Bs in the Ditmas Park/Flatbush neighborhoods; check out the two-suite The Loralei B&B (from $145/night) and Rugby Gardens (from $150/night).
Good things come in small packages, especially for hotel-deal hunters. Recent years have seen the import of the “capsule” or “pod” hotels that were first invented in Japan. Touting smart design in snug quarters, some of the best of this newish breed of “micro-hotels” include The Pod 51 in Midtown, where each pod/bed (averaging 100 square feet) gets its own flat-screen TV and guests have access to a rooftop deck and free scheduled walking tours (bathrooms are shared; bunk pods from $89/night for singles).
The Jane Hotel in the West Village, a former boarding house for sailors, offers cabin-inspired rooms from 50 square feet with flat-screens and iPod docks (from $99/night with shared baths). (They also tout the hip Jane Ballroom lounge downstairs, free guest bike rentals, and a new rooftop bar). Rooms at the tech-friendly YOTEL New York, near Times Square, are a bit roomier, averaging 170 square feet, and come with convertible beds, work desks, iPod hookups, flat-screens, private baths with rain showers, complimentary breakfast, and, yes, the worlds' first robotic luggage concierge (from $149/night).
Homestays and Couchsurfing
While tenant-hosted apartment stays (like those on Airbnb) sometimes fall into this category, homestays typically involve a more immersive experience, where guests, given a spare bedroom in a family home, can expect cultural engagement with the host. Browse homestay options in the city on sites like Homestay.com (their NYC rates average $49/night) or Homestay Booking (with rates as low as $30/night). Far from catering just to young people, Homestay.com notes that more than half of their clients are aged 30 or over.
Another option, if you're willing to opt in for either a spare room or a simple couch in somebody's home, is the free (though a gift or paid meal for the host is customary) CouchSurfing.com, with a staggering 9 million members (there is a one-time membership fee of $25). You'll be able to search hosts by criteria like gender and age, and can also check their reviews on the community-driven site, without any requirement to reciprocate hosting yourself.
Hotel Bidding and “Mystery Stays”
For those intent on bedding down in a traditional hotel, and who aren't too specific with their demands, bidding on hotel rooms or locking in bargain rates for a “mystery stay” is a great-value option. Look to Priceline.com's “Name Your Own Price” tool, touting room rates discounted at up to 60 percent off: You simply specify your preference of neighborhood and hotel star rankings, along with the rate that you want to pay, and Priceline.com will make the match on your bid if there are any hotel takers. The catch? You won't know the name of the actual hotel until the match is made, and by then, you'll be locked into the deal.
Priceline.com offers another similar product, too, called “Express Deals,” wherein the hotel specifics (short of some selected parameters) remain anonymous, but the price is listed upfront and guaranteed on the spot. Hotwire offers this deal type, too, via their “Secret Hot Rate Hotels” (we saw a NYC hotel room in January priced at a whopping 69 percent off). Tip: The very best savings on both sites are usually nabbed for last-minute bookings.
Elissa Garay is a contributor to Fodor's, Yahoo, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, About.com, and more. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she has traveled to and reported on some 55 countries and 20 cruise lines around the globe, and has resided in Argentina, France, England, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Follow her @TravelSpiritNYC.