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Money and Costs in New York City

Walk the Brooklyn Bridge to start your tour
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge to start your tour | © Mike Sinko / Flickr
True or false? New York City is crazy expensive. New York City is super cheap. If you guessed “true” for both, you win. That’s because New York gives travelers in every price range the chance to have an unforgettable experience. So, if you have a specific budget in mind, as most travelers do, it pays to plan your spending in advance.

Accommodations

Would your trip to New York seem pointless without wraparound views of Central Park from your hotel room terrace? If that’s a yes, the city can deliver, for a hefty price, of course. If you’re willing to unpack your bags in an Airbnb studio apartment in Brooklyn or Queens instead and save your money for food exploits and other adventures, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Better yet, do you have NYC-based friends or family who will let you crash at their place? If you’re traveling on a small budget and willing to give up a little privacy for a free couch, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Budget: $50–80 per night for a room

Finding a clean and cheap place to stay in New York City is easier than it used to be thanks to Airbnb and the like, although what passes for “budget accommodations” in NYC tends to cost a little more than in other cities. Whether you’re willing to take a small private room in a shared apartment, or you want an entire studio apartment for yourself, you can find what you need—even if it means staying in a place deep in Brooklyn or Queens (or even New Jersey), and walking a mile to public transportation. Yes, you can find hostels and shady super-low-budget hotels too, but since security and hygiene can be an issue in a city like New York, you’re usually better off skipping those. Did we mention trying to crash for free in a friend’s apartment?

Mid-range: $100–200 per night for a room

The cost of mid-range accommodations in New York City would be considered a luxury expense in other places. If you have more than $100 to spend per night, you can usually find a small private apartment that sleeps more than one, or a moderately priced room at a reputable hotel. While it won’t be posh or most likely won’t be in the middle of the action, it should be clean and accessible to public transportation, and it will usually offer a few amenities too.

Luxury: $250+ per night for a room

The luxury hotel category is where panoramic views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline come in, but that’s if you’re willing to spend in the high three-figure dollar range (and up!) per night. If you’re looking in the $250-plus zone, you can score a plush room in a design-conscious hotel in a happening neighborhood. The more amenities you’re looking for—and the closer you get to the height of the summer or holiday season—the more that nightly rate will climb and climb.

Hôtel Americano, Manhattan © Hôtel Americano / Hotels.com

Food

“What’s the world’s best food city?” is a question that sparks endless arguments, but New York City has earned an eternal spot on the short list. The city offers just about every cuisine and every food trend on the planet, served up in every imaginable format—from food trucks to cafés to fancy-silverware restaurants—at all price ranges. The only questions to ask yourself are “What are you craving?” “How adventurous are you feeling?” and “What’s your budget?”

Budget: $10 per meal (including drinks)

One of the smartest budget-eating strategies in NYC is to hit the food carts, not to be confused with food trucks. What’s the difference? Food carts tend to be scrappy looking and decorated with garish photos of food, and you can usually pick up their smoky, spicy smells a block away. One popular version is the ubiquitous halal cart, dishing out overflowing plates of flavorful Middle Eastern or South Asian grilled meats served with a side of rice and a creamy, tangy white sauce. As a lunch or dinner bargain, you can’t beat it.

Another NYC classic is the coffee-and-carbs cart, which doles out your caffeine fix in paper cups printed with the iconic “We Are Happy to Serve You” in blue Greek-style letters. The same carts will also sell you enormous and cheap muffins and bagels oozing with too much cream cheese—but who’s complaining?

The food truck, meanwhile, is a hipsterized version of the cart, with better graphic design and more on-trend food items. Often it’s an offshoot of a brick-and-mortar restaurant elsewhere in the city. Food trucks can be a fun way to eat in NYC, but don’t be surprised if they blow your budget.

Mid-range: $20–30 per meal (including drinks)

Make sure to check out a pizzeria at least once during your visit—a real pizzeria, not just a slice joint. New York is full of them, and few cities in the world do pizza like NYC does. The pizza options in New York City vary from Neapolitan to the more classic local version, with a medium-thick, crunchy crust and a bigger pie size than the Neapolitan. Pizzerias are a hit-the-spot destination for lunch, dinner, and even brunch. Order a pie or two for the table, plus a salad or antipasti and a bottle of wine or espresso shots, and you’ll be well-fed for less than $30 per person. And once you try one of the city’s famous old or new pizza spots, you’ll find yourself wanting to hit as many as possible to decide which one has the absolute best pies. That debate will rage on forever, and you might as well weigh in on it.

Luxury: $50+ per meal (including drinks)

Dining in NYC isn’t always about the food. Since this is one of the cities that sits at the cultural epicenter of the universe, it’s packed with super-buzzy restaurants and celebrity chefs. That’s not to say those restaurants are all worth visiting. But if you’re looking to spend on a luxe meal at the restaurant of a chef you’ve seen on TV, you can do that here. Luckily, since many high-end restaurants offer breakfast too, you can treat yourself without dinnertime price points. Whichever time of day you go, keep in mind that some high-profile restaurants will give you an exquisite culinary experience unlike any you’ve had before, and others will be mainly about the electrifying scene. Either way, you’ll end up with a quintessentially New York experience.

lovin’ this is easy😍 #welive4food

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Activities

One of the most exciting things you can do in New York City is just to roam around. For example, walk the streets and stare at the buildings; hop on the subway and explore a neighborhood you’re curious about; grab a table in one of the vest-pocket urban parks and watch people go by. All those activities are free, and they’ll help you feel like a local in NYC. The city has a few other things to offer too, of course; New York City is where you’ll find some of the most life-changing cultural experiences on Earth, from gorgeously landscaped parks to stunning art museums to spectacular musical performances and much, much more. Whatever you’re willing to spend, the city will hook you up.

Budget: Under $10

More than a century and a half after it opened to the public in 1859, Central Park still offers major shock value. How could an island as densely populated and relatively small as Manhattan possibly have 843 acres of green space smack in the middle? There’s no place quite like Central Park anywhere else in the world. And even though this astounding amount of green space, credited to the 19th-century landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, won’t be converted into glassy condo buildings anytime soon—it’s the law—the best way to show appreciation for a magical, unlikely park like this is to visit it. It’s free, of course. Bring a blanket, lunch, and a book (an actual book, the kind Olmsted might have read), and find a hill or lawn where you can stretch out for a few hours. That’s a few hours where you managed not to spend a single dime.

There's no place like the Central Park pond for a mellow (and free) escape from urban chaos. © Jon Niola / Flickr

Mid-range: $15–20

The Museum of Modern Art isn’t just an art museum—it’s a hypnotic, constantly morphing space that’s always reinventing itself, just like the city it calls home. Anyone who decides to pop in for a quick visit, just to check MoMA off the list, will get sucked in and emerge hours later, wondering what happened to the day—with no regrets at all. The more than 200,000 pieces of art in the museum’s permanent collection include van Gogh’s Starry Night, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Warhol’s Campbells’ Soup Cans, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, and thousands of other famous works, not to mention the robust roster of temporary exhibitions. After a series of expansions that have taken place since MoMA opened in 1929, including a controversial renovation by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004, the museum is set to expand yet again in 2019.

MoMA is as transporting as it is a crucial part of the New York City cultural scene. © Julien GONG Min / Flickr

Luxury: $40+

If you have the budget for it, don’t leave NYC without catching a show at the Met, aka the Metropolitan Opera. Few operas in the world rival the Met’s acoustics and optics, or the majesty of its performances. Whether you see a familiar classic like Aida, Carmen or The Magic Flute, or one of the Met’s first-time stagings of lesser-known operas like Adriana Lecouvreur—based on the true story of an 18th-century French actress with a legendary love life—a night at the Met will change you, or at least change your experience of NYC. And though you can book tickets for $300-plus each, you can also find less expensive seats in the $30–40 range in the Family Circle section or on the Balcony—it’s a luxury experience for a surprisingly non-bank-busting price.

A night at the Met is pure magic. © Billie Grace Ward / Flickr

Pro tips

Now that you’ve got your accommodations and food strategies figured out, here are a few more NYC travel tips that will make your visit as fun and easy (and headache-free) as possible.

Budget: Transportation

Want to take a free, jaw-dropping boat ride around New York Harbor? Hop on the Staten Island Ferry. The 25-minute ride will give you Insta-worthy views of the Statue of Liberty, and you can buy beer and snacks on board. Once you arrive, you can U-turn back to Manhattan, or buy a MetroCard and take a city bus to one of Staten Island’s classic Italian restaurants.

Also, NYC has embraced bike-sharing in a big way, and Citi Bikes are now available for cheap at hundreds of stations all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. You can get a short-term membership on the Citi Bike app, and then grab a bicycle to get you anywhere you’re going. Ride safely, since chances are you won’t be packing a helmet in your bag (kudos if you did).

Mid-Range: Entertainment

To save loads of money on Broadway tickets, show up at the theater the same day you plan to catch a show. Last-minute tickets are often available for less. The TodayTix app is another great way to find cheap tickets for coveted Broadway shows. If you have the time and patience, you can also try standing in line at TKTS.

The Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn is the home stadium of Brooklyn Nets basketball and Long Island Islanders ice hockey, but it also hosts concerts, boxing events, circus performances and much more. Snag cheap seats through the many online discount ticketing options (just google “Barclays Center cheap tickets”).

Luxury: Shopping

Think “luxury shopping” in NYC, and Madison or Fifth Avenues will likely come to mind. But skip the predictable lineup of international designer chain stores in those areas, and head to Nolita instead. The neighborhood east of SoHo and north of Little Italy is packed with one-off boutiques specializing in beautiful clothes, jewelry, housewares and more—and the cafés and bars are much cooler than what you’ll find uptown.

If you have time to scour racks of clothes and hunt for unbelievable deals on designer labels, go to Century 21. The famous NYC discount department store now has multiple locations, including ones in Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. You might find a $1200 sweater priced at $400—but that’s still a bargain, right?