New York City – Manhattan in particular – deserves its status as one of the world’s ultimate tourist destinations. It’s easy to get around, has great food and wine, amazing sights, excellent cultural experiences and brilliant shopping. But if you’re going there for the first time, here are some tips to make the most of your time and budget.

Particularly in the height of summer and around New Year, NYC hotels can be very expensive. If you’re looking to spoil yourself or don’t have any great budgetary restrictions, the city has a huge number of very swanky hotels, ready to welcome you with open arms.

For those on a budget, you’re still looking at probably no less than US$300 a night in peak periods. I’ll mention an alternative shortly, but there are some things you should look for when choosing a hotel.

  1. Manhattan is the most expensive borough – if you don’t mind the prospect of using trains, buses or cabs to get around, perhaps consider Brooklyn. I wouldn’t recommend trying the other boroughs on your first trip.
  2. Research your preferred neighbourhood – on my first trip to NYC I stayed in midtown (around 42nd Street) and that’s arguably the most expensive part (although nowhere in Manhattan is particularly cheap to stay). It can save you money and time getting around.
  3. Consider your priorities – if you want somewhere in the thick of the tourist precinct (Times Square) be aware that hotel rooms can be very noisy – all night. After all, this is the city that never sleeps. If you’re not a night owl, it helps to have a room that overlooks one of the smaller streets with less traffic. Ask for a ‘quiet room’ when booking and request a high floor.
  4. Safety and security – your sense of wellbeing is not to be sneezed at in any large city. Look for facilities such as in-room safes (more on that later), 24-hour reception (and security detail).
  5. In-room facilities – the ability to make yourself a cup of tea or coffee can be very pleasant. Also, not all hotel rooms have fridges if you’re looking to self-cater for breakfast.
  6. Free wi-fi – part of the joy of getting to know NYC is being able to do some research on the go. If you have a smartphone or tablet, hooking into the wi-fi helps you find out all manner of things such as what’s on at various museums (and their opening hours), nearby restaurants and shops and Google maps is a wonderful thing. You can always ask your concierge but the chances are you’ll be directed to the nearest tourist trap – of which there are plenty, particularly around Times Square.

A note re: hotel safes. Some have a default code that will open them, no matter what code you put in. If you use the safe in your room, try entering 000000 to see if that works – it’s bandied about in lots of web articles as the ‘digital skeleton key’. I’m pleased to report it’s not worked in any hotel I’ve stayed in so far.

So, what’s the alternative to a hotel? Despite being, technically, illegal in NYC, Airbnb has literally thousands of rooms, shared houses and private apartments to choose from for stays of varying lengths. The ‘host’ (owner/sub-letter) reserves the right to state the minimum number of days you can stay and the flexibility on cancellation also varies widely. You should note that the advertised price per night on the website can also change depending on the time of year. When we were researching in February for a stay in May, the prices were significantly higher for the warmer months.

We took an apartment for just over two weeks in the East Village on our last trip. We weren’t challenged by any of the other residents in the building and if so, we were told to say we were ‘friends of the family’ visiting. Apparently our host had been evicted from another apartment building because her Airbnb clients had done the wrong thing and often that can just be attracting attention as renting through Airbnb. US news websites regularly post stories of Airbnb lettings ‘gone bad’, such as an individual who used an apartment for an orgy, advertised on Facebook. Social media isn’t all it’s cracked up to be sometimes!

Our apartment was above a bar but, all things considered, was fairly quiet and comfortable. For our  15-day stay, we probably saved US$1200 on what it would have cost us in a four-star hotel. Our host also thoughtfully provided a mid-stay cleaning service, plenty of towels (and toilet rolls!) and it was great to get up when we wanted, make our own breakfast (and occasional other snacks) and not have to worry about the housekeeping timetable. We’re very independent travellers, who prefer to research activities ourselves. The host was always available and willing to make suggestions so they were a ‘virtual concierge’ – it’s not for everyone though.

The cab fare from JFK to Manhattan is fixed, so don’t worry about getting ripped off by a taxi driver who takes you via the ‘scenic route’. If you’re staying at one of the major hotels, you could probably take the shuttle bus but you need to factor in a fair amount of extra time. You could also take the subway – but if you’re toting suitcases and your destination isn’t a direct link from the line that goes to the airport, it can be a little unsettling to try to navigate the subway first up – particularly if you’ve been on a long flight to get to NYC. The trip from Australia’s east coast, for example, takes a minimum of 24 hours.

Base information to know for your taxi driver – the street address (i.e., 111 West Whatever Street) isn’t as important as knowing the nearest cross-street. On our first strip, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt, at 109 East 42nd Street. That was pretty much useless information – to be able to navigate the largely one-way street system in Manhattan, your driver needs to know the nearest cross-street. The correct information for the driver was ’42nd Street, between Lexington and Park’. If you’re taking cabs to restaurants, again, make sure you know the cross-street. Don’t rely on them knowing where the restaurant is.

Don’t fear the Subway – it’s a great system and very cheap. Manhattan is a great walking city, but it’s too big to cover off by foot. Basically, Central Park starts at 59th Street and goes right up to 110th to give you an example. Also, when the weather closes in, being able to jump on a Subway train is a bonus. You can’t book standard cabs in NYC – you have to hail them in the street, or there are a couple of cab ranks where you can queue. Of course, you can get your hotel doorman to hail you a cab too (have the tip ready). Livery services (chauffeurs) can be booked in advance or you might want to try the social media car service, Uber.

If you’re using the Subway, buy a Metrocard. This is far and away the most convenient way to travel. If you use up the credit available, you can top it up by using cash or a credit card in most stations. It beats scrabbling around in your pocket or purse for change and queueing (and, at peak hours, you can bank on there being queues).

If you have a smartphone/tablet, download the NYC subway map or app. This helps you navigate, particularly if you need to change lines. You should be aware of two key things:

  1. Not all trains stop at all stations – some are express, particularly when they go up either the east or the west side
  2. Make sure you know whether you’re heading downtown or uptown before you enter the station. Some entrances give you access to platforms in one direction only – the entrance for the opposite direction is usually on the other side of the road.

The Subway is very safe in Manhattan – even late at night – but you’re likely to encounter people begging or busking. It’s up to you how to deal with that.

You could easily eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in NYC. A good breakfast is probably the hardest thing to find. The local offerings tend to revolve around sugary foods such as muffins and doughnuts. If you’re looking for a European breakfast (meats, cheeses) or an Australian fry-up (eggs, bacon et cetera) you may have to look hard, particularly in the Midtown area. When we stay in hotels (because we tend to gorge ourselves at other meals – this blog is evidence of that!) we often carry small plastic bowls and just buy a box of cereal, some bananas and milk (check that your room has a fridge first!). We take plastic cutlery (a knife to cut the banana and spoons) and we sit up in bed eating our very light breakfast.

There are lots of restaurants reviewed on this blog. Yelp is also a good resource in NYC as well as Trip Advisor. You can make bookings online for most restaurants.

For a light lunch in the summer, investigate the salad bars that feature everywhere in the city. You can make up your own salad (choice of leaves, whatever toppings you like, plus choice of dressing) and a large salad will feed two adults for less than US$10. There are plenty of public parks in the city (as well as the gigantic Central Park) and there’s free public seating (with tables) near Times Square and next to Macy’s on Herald Square (34th Street). At Times Square, be prepared to be annoyed by spruikers wanting to sell you various things.

Each neighbourhood has its own food stars. We particularly enjoyed downtown Manhattan on both the east and west sides (5th Avenue is the dividing line, in case you were wondering). In the East Village in particular, the food was sensational and the prices lower than midtown. I imagine it’s similar on the upper West side, although the upper East side can be a bit pricey!


Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge looking back towards Manhattan

Everywhere you look in Manhattan, there’s another landmark. Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty – just to name a few. Then there’s a wealth of cultural pursuits – museums, art galleries, theatre.

If you’re intending to do the tourist sights, getting one of the visitor passes is probably advisable. It gives you entry to one of the tall observation decks – Empire State or Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Centre), a choice of museums and a choice of water tours (Statue of Liberty or the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan).

On our first visit we opted for the Empire State, the Circle Line cruise, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA. The pass gives you ‘priority’ at the Empire State building but that only takes you as far as the 80th floor – the queues there to take the second elevator and head up to the observation deck can be very long. Friends have timed their visit to take advantage of the final elevator ride of the night and reported very short wait times – certainly, on a clear night, it would be quite spectacular. During the day, it can be very hazy and the crowds absolutely formidable.

When we first visited, the Statue of Liberty itself was closed to visitors so we took the Circle Line boat cruise which was actually quite fun. It’s great to see Manhattan from the water.

A free alternative is the Staten Island Ferry. You catch it from Lower Manhattan and head directly past the Statue of Liberty to Staten Island. If you want, you can explore, but a lot of tourists just head back into the queue to reboard the ferry and enjoy the amazing sights of the Manhattan skyline on the way back.

Another option is taking the Subway (or cab ride) to Brooklyn and walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan. It’s another million dollar view without a price tag. Bring your tiny padlock to add to the millions others have bolted to the bridge before you.

If you’re looking to go to the theatre, there’s a ‘bargain’ ticket box in Times Square which, in the summer particularly, attracts fairly long queues. An alternative is to sign up for last minute deals online. There’s a limited number of shows on offer at the ticket box on any given day.

Times Square itself is a sight to see but I’d recommend you go, take your pictures and then leave it behind. Quite frankly, it’s a zoo and you won’t be able to take five steps before someone tries to get you on a tour bus or to patronise some other tourist trap. Also, be careful of your belongings while you’re walking through the area.

Central Park is huge. You can hire bikes, you can walk it and you can also take a buggy ride, if that’s your thing. All the drivers and horses are lined up on 59 Street (not far from the famed Plaza Hotel).

The park is a beautiful spot to sit, particularly by one of the ponds or lakes, and have a picnic. If you’re in midtown, there’s a great deli available in Grand Central station (enter at Lexington Avenue). You can buy a bottle of wine or champagne and spend a delightful couple of hours watching the birds and looking up at the skyline. Strictly speaking, it’s not legal to drink in the park, but if you’re discreet and responsible about it, you’ll be fine.

As long as your local currency has a reasonable exchange rate with the US dollar, NYC is a shopping paradise. The big department stores (Macy’s, Bloomingdales) are the least expensive, while you can do some serious credit card damage at more upmarket emporiums such as Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.

No matter where you are in the US, each state levies its own taxes. These will not be waived for you, just because you’re a visitor. Macy’s and Bloomingdales offer a special discount coupon for tourists. Go to their visitor centre first, with your passport, and you can get a voucher printed for you that offers a 10% discount on most purchases (some categories like skincare are excluded) that effectively covers the NY state tax and a little more off the top. The voucher lasts, on average, for a month, so keep it in your bag to re-use throughout your stay.

Of course, the retail environment being what it is, there are lots of sales – and sometimes the deals are even better than the standard tourist discount. The sales associates will be very happy to give you the biggest discount that’s on offer.
Particularly good buys in NYC are shoes and clothing – especially if there are sales.

Tipping, especially in restaurants and cabs, is a fact of life in NYC. In restaurants, the standard tip is around 20% – at a minimum you should read the line on your bill showing the state tax – doubling that is the easiest way to tip. If you have any personal services performed, such as hairdressing or visit a nail salon you should also tip – ask your concierge or the stylist what the standard tip is.

One of the joys of being in Manhattan is enjoying the different neighbourhoods. They’ve all got their own personalities – from Harlem in the north, to the Lower East Side – you’ll be amazed at the diversity. Enjoy!

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