New York City isn’t cheap. In fact, the Big Apple is consistently ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world, and when you take into account everything, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens occupy three of the top five most expensive places to live in the United States, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.
So, naturally, a weekend visit to the Big Apple can cost a pretty penny. Hotels generally average over $200 per night, and everything from theater tickets to taxis to parking can bleed you dry. However, if you follow a few rules, cut some corners, and are willing to visit when the weather isn’t exactly spectacular, you can pull off a more budget-friendly weekend visit to NYC. By adhering to the itinerary and tips that follow, two people can have a weekend in New York — including hotels — for under $500.
Be Hotel Savvy and Save Big
Winters in New York can be brutal. However, if you’re willing to tough it out, you’ll score the best bargains on hotel rates. Plus, you might get lucky and land in town during one of the city’s random 70-degree winter weekends (they do happen, trust us).
In fact, post-holiday January into early April may be the only time you’ll find a cheap room. If you play your cards right, you can find hotels in relatively accessible parts of town for anywhere between $60 and $90 per night. That’s a steal in a city where the average (even in the winter) is double or triple that amount, at least. Booking far in advance will also help you snag deals.
Bargains will come with a cost: You’re not going to get stellar views, frills will be few, and you may be slightly off the beaten path. But this being New York, you’d be a fool to spend all of your time in a hotel room anyway. Some of our favorite budget deals are still pleasant places to unwind at night. The Broadway Hotel & Hostel on the Upper West Side puts you within an easy walk of Central Park, the Hudson River, and several train lines to downtown. It’s also one of the cheapest spots in Manhattan, but still manages to be just attractive enough. You could also opt for budget chains in the same area, like the Best Western Plaza Hotel or Days Inn Hotel New York City – Broadway. YOTEL, near Times Square, offers micro-rooms at reasonable rates as well.
Overall Cost: If you travel in low season and book well in advance, your hotel bill can range from $128 to $160 for two weekend nights.
Sample Authentic International Fare and Local Classics to Save on Food
You can certainly blow $500 on a meal for two people at any of New York City’s storied Michelin-starred restaurants. And while that might be a bucket-list item for plenty of travelers, it’s not hard to rack up pricey bills in far less lofty restaurants across the city. In fact, dinner at trendy, casual joints in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, East Village and Hell’s Kitchen can easily hit $80 for two people — and that covers two cheap glasses of wine, an appetizer, two main courses, tax and tip.
The thing that makes New York City a magical place, though, isn’t only its hot new restaurants. It’s also the fact that more languages are spoken here than anywhere else in the United States. The city’s cultural blend means you can get your hands on some amazing international fare — often for far cheaper prices than you’ll find in any of New York’s so-called hot spots.
There are almost countless international communities across NYC. Of course, the easiest to reach and most famous is Chinatown. Here, you can snag a lunch or dinner for two for $30. These eateries might not be clad in repurposed hardwoods and shabby-chic antiques, but trust us when we say that the often hectic and no-frills ambience only enhances the experience. For an even wider spread of international flavors, head to Jackson Heights, Queens, where you can have your pick of South Asian, Tibetan, Filipino, Mexican, Ecuadoran and Venezuelan fare. We like the coffee and pastries at La Gran Uruguaya, and Tibetan momos (dumplings) at Phayul.
You can also keep costs down by going for only-in-New-York staples like Peter Pan Donuts in Greenpoint and slices at the city’s most famous pizza joints (or even a whole pie at legendary institutions like John’s of Bleecker Street). Pop into other classic spots for breakfast and save big as well — Mike’s Coffee Shop in Clinton Hill does amazing, cheap breakfasts, as does La Bonbonniere in the West Village. Better yet? Opt for NYC bagels or bagel sandwiches (which are, arguably, the best in the world). You can find them at any number of neighborhood spots.
Overall Cost: Sticking to one bagel sandwich ($15 for two) and one diner outing for breakfast ($30), lunches in Chinatown and Jackson Heights ($30 each), one pizza and drinks at John’s ($35), and one night in a trendier spot ($80), you’ll keep your food costs quite low — around $220 all in.
Get Your Cultural Fix on the Cheap
Let’s get one thing straight: If you’re hoping to spend as little cash as possible while still maximizing your NYC experience, you’re not going to a Broadway show. Even if you skimp on food and opt for day-of tickets at the TKTS booths, you’re still looking at a price tag of at least $50 per ticket, which will essentially blow the rest of this budget. Instead, you’ll have to opt for a mix of cultural destinations and free activities to keep yourself occupied.
Spend Saturday afternoon at the Chelsea galleries. All but one — the Dia: Chelsea — is free to enter. Galleries in Chelsea mount exhibitions from world-famous artists like Yayoi Kusama as well as underground collectives. You can easily spend an entire day doing the gallery circuit, and if you happen to hit up the Chelsea galleries (and the weather isn’t too cold), take a stroll along the High Line. It’s free, one-of-a-kind, and a perfect way to round out the day.
On Sunday, drop a few coins on one of the city’s main museums. You have your pick in NYC — and none of them are cheap. However, to call them world-class would be an understatement. The MoMA, Met, Guggenheim, Whitney and Natural History Museum will cost $25 each (or around that in the case of the Natural History Museum, which has extra fees for special exhibitions). The Met is pay-what-you-wish for visitors with identification proving that they live in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Once you’ve had your fill of museums, head to Bryant Park, where you can ice-skate for free (unlike the steep fees charged at Rockefeller Center). The setting is less iconic, but just as pretty, next to the New York Public Library and under towering skyscrapers.
If you happen to find a hotel bargain when it’s warmer, there are almost too many beautiful strolls to take — from Central Park to the brownstone-lined streets of the West Village. Times Square, the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial, and Rockefeller Center are all — of course — free to visit as well.
Overall Cost: Stick to one museum visit and add freebies like parks or ice-skating, and you’ll only spend $50 for two people.
Ace the Logistics
In order to stay within the budget, you’ll have to rely on the subway and your own two feet to get around. You’ll likely take the trains about five times per day. That’s 10 trips over two days per person, at a total cost of $28.50 each (it’s $2.75 per ride, and $1 for a new MetroCard). While buying an unlimited MetroCard might seem to make sense, the system only lets you swipe once in a set period of time. Instead, buy two separate pay-per-ride cards for $28.50, or one pay-per-ride card for $56 and share it. Keep in mind that if you’re headed to or from JFK Airport, you’ll also need $10 each to handle the round-trip AirTrain ride. You’ll save money by not driving into the city, as parking in any hotel or garage can run anywhere from $25 to $50 per night. Opt for the bus or train to enter Manhattan, if you’re coming from destinations closer afield. Keep in mind that while the subways run 24/7, delays aren’t unheard of (and overnight service is often changed), so plan ahead.
Overall Cost: Budget $57 for your subway needs over two days and avoid cabs.