Are you young, broke and heading to New York City?
This is a page for you. It provides information about cheap accommodations and dining strategies for people who shudder at the thought of paying $100 a night for a crummy hotel room.
I originally wrote this four years ago for fans of a U.S. television show who got together in New York to attend a taping.
I have no business or social ties to anything described here. Information here could turn out to be wrong or outdated (some of the prices, for example, are probably about 50 percent than they were in 1996), but it was not influenced by cash payments.
** Suggestion: Try to call in advance, even if (especially if) you're staying at a Y or a hostel. Even calling a day in advance can make a difference. If you have a credit card or a debit card or can get permission to use someone else's, that will be a big help.
UNDER $30 A NIGHT
Banana Bungalow - 800-6HOSTEL, 250 W. 77th St. (on Broadway). Really nice neighborhood.
Blue Rabbit Hostel - 212-491-3892, 730 St. Nicholas Ave. (near 147th Street, in Harlem), need passport, HAS ON-STREET PARKING. Bunk-bed accommodations in an attractive brownstone. I was not able to see the rooms but the common area downstairs was lovely in a Reality Bites fashion. A friend described the area this way: RANDOM GUNFIRE. The immediate area is clean and attractive, but there are a ton of housing projects right near by. If you are new to New York, I suggest that you consider this hostel only if you drive there. If you do bring a car, make sure to look for "street cleaning" signs and move your car during the cleaning times. Otherwise, your car might be towed. Please remove irreplaceable personal items, such as your favorite tapes, _before_ driving your car to New York. Call Amtrak or Greyhound to figure out a strategy for getting home in case your car is stolen.
Mid-City Guesthouse, 212-704-0562, 608 Eighth Ave. (near 40th Street), need out-of-state ID. Upstairs from what looks like a palm reading shop in a raunchy neighborhood across from a huge bus terminal. Crummy bathroom. Friendly, intelligent, young guests who sleep on bunk beds all crammed together
Big Apple Hostel - 212-302-2603, 119 W. 45th St. Guests there dislike the rooms, but the common rooms I was able to observe were clean, pleasant and filled with interesting, intelligent European travelers.
New York International AYH Hostel - 212-932-2300, 891 Amsterdam Ave. (at 103rd Street). This is a big, beautiful, clean hostel in a neighborhood that was once pretty scary but now seems reasonably safe, even for women walking alone late at night. The staff is amazingly helpful.
BETWEEN $30 AND $100
McBurney Y - 212-741-9226, 206 W. 24th St. (in Chelsea). Has some four-bed rooms for about $80, need out-of-state ID. The unimproved floors are creepy, but the improved floors are OK. I thought the security seemed to be OK, but some of the guests do appear to be rather odd, and a guidebook I read said the staff lets creepy people slip in. Also, keep in mind that the only women's bathrooms are on the fourth and fifth floors. WARNING: Apparently, the plans to close this Y and sell it to a developer. Call to make sure it's open before heading over there.
Vanderbilt Y - 212-756-9600, 22 E. 47th St. I haven't seen it, but it's in an elegant location.
Carlton Arms - 212-679-0680, 160 E. 25th St. Beautiful hotel full of young European travelers. Crowded in the summer. Lovely but mildly boring neighborhood.
Hotel Iroquois - 212-840-3080, 49 W. 44th St. Probably a lot less per person for a double. Shabby but reasonably safe and hotel-like. Famous as a haven for counterculture types.
Pickiwick Arms - 800-649-6331, East 51st Street. east of Third Avenue. Similar to the Iroquois but a little less trendy.
Hotel Remington, 212-221-2600, 129 W. 46th St. The room are very clean.
Milford Plaza, 212-869-3600, 270 W. 45th St. It was probably really nice in 1966. It has a black-and-white "Odd Couple" TV show kind of feel to it.
EATING CHEAP * EATING CHEAP * EATING CHEAP * EATING CHEAP
August 2017 note: Obviously, this is now a vintage site that's pretty much frozen in time. But I think that some of the advice still holds, and maybe some of the advice is now so old and so severely out of date that it has some sepia-tinged nostalgia charm.
FINE FOOD COURTS:
The "food court" has become a new American tradition. It's the section of a shopping mall that's set aside for little restaurants and food kiosks. Food courts in most U.S. malls tend to serve the same combination of boring hot dogs, boring hamburgers and boring Chinese food.
Most New Yorkers think of the food court as one of those horrible suburban monsters that should stay the f*ck out of their city.
But New York food courts tend to serve better, more interesting food than food courts in the rest of the United States, and they are great places to go if you want to eat cheap, salmonella-free food in a clean, spacious, air-conditioned setting.
Here are two of the best food courts for tourists:
South Street Seaport Food Court, on South Street, in Lower Manhattan -- This one has a fresh seafood stall and many other alternatives to boring old mall food. The best feature: a spectacular view of the East River.
Manhattan Mall Food Court, 33rd Street and Broadway (in a building across the street from Macy's) -- This one is more boring than the South Street Seaport food court, but the Indian restaurant is decent and the Japanese kiosk has some nice prepackaged Japanese food. If you get a table right by the windows, you can enjoy a nice view of Herald Square.
Grocery stores -- The food is cheap, but preparing it will be a pain. Some of what you buy may spoil.
Delis -- Most of them are not the wonderful old delis your grandparents remember, but most of them do sell a life-sustaining combination of salads, cooked food and packaged food. View the salads and cooked food with suspicion. Ask yourself: could this give me salmonella? But getting butter or cream cheese on a bagel is usually safe, except for your arteries.
Gourmet delis -- A "gourmet" deli in New York is usually just a regular deli. It is probably not any better as a source of gourmet food than any other deli or convenience store.
Buttered bagels -- Cost less than $1 at most delis and many coffee places.
Hot dog vendors -- Many sidewalk vendors sell hot dogs for about $1 apiece and "sausage" (bigger, darker hot dogs) for a little more.
Pizza -- You can find a decent slice for $1.50. If you live on buttered bagels, hot dogs and pizza slices while you're in New York, you can eat for less than $5 a day. But make sure you save up for that open heart surgery.
Diners (also called "coffee shops) -- Good New York diners serve good food and are the best bargains in New York. But some are pretty lousy. If you walk in and smell mildew, walk out.
Coffee houses, like Starbucks -- Coffee houses are more narrowly focused on coffee and related items than "coffee shops." The coffee and the sweets at a coffee house may be good, but the food is often overpriced and mediocre. Sometimes, the coffee is not even all that great.
Fast food restaurants -- If you want hearty food for a low price, try Boston Market. It's not THAT great, but it's pretty good.
Chinese restaurants -- New York has a really weird type of restaurant: the crummy Chinese restaurant. Be wary of small, plastic-looking restaurants with huge menus and soda refrigerators in the front. Your best bet is a Chinese restaurant in China town or one that shows some sign that the owner tried to make the restaurant pretty.
Theme restaurants -- If you go to a theme restaurant like Planet Hollywood, remind yourself you're there for the experience, not great food.
The cheapest places to go for entertainment are amateur and semipro music or comedy open mikes. I.e., shows where the performers would probably be willing to pay you to watch. The truth is, attending a free to $5 open mike at that level is often a lot more fun than watching the low-level professionals at a $10-$15 show.
The best nights to find open mikes are usually Sunday through Wednesday (i.e., the nights when bars and clubs have the hardest time bringing in paying patrons and decide to rent their stages out to the rabble.)
Best way to find a open mikes: pick up a copy of Timeout magazine or NY Press.
Another option: the Upright Citizen Brigade improv theater, a little bit east of the northeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan. UCB usually has some kind of show on its stage every night but Monday.
FUN WITH COMMUTER RAIL:
If you want to go on trips outside New York City, the cheapest, most flexible way is to get on commuter railroads such as the New Jersey Transit Railroad, at http://njtransit.state.nj.us/transit.htm (start at New York Penn Station); the Long Island Railroad and the Metro-North Railroad, at http://www.mta.nyc.ny.us (Grand Central Station).
Many of the trains run at least once an hour, seven days a week, from early in the morning to late at night. Fares to interesting places usually range from $5 to $15 per person, round trip.
One of the best commuter rail bargains for tourists is probably the New Jersey Transit's North Jersey Coast Line. The line goes to many beacheside cities, and each city has its own personality.
If you want a nice, working-class beach that's close to New York, get off at Long Branch. (We stayed at a really gross motel there on the Fourth of July for $45 in cash per night.) If you want a pretty Victorian village with lots of bed & breakfasts -- and no booze! -- get off at Asbury Park and wander around lost till you find the bridge over the little creek that leads to Ocean Grove. If you want to see urban ruins, and a stunningly weird '60s Howard Johnson's motel, stay in Asbury Park and walk to Asbury Park's beach.
Metro-North's Hudson line is another great tourist bargain. The train travels along the spectacularly beautiful Hudson River. If you get off at Cold Spring, you can stay at a nice bed & breakfast for about $100 a night.
One hotel to avoid if you take the Metro-North Hudson line: the Marriott in Tarrytown, New York. The Marriott is fine for business trips, but it is really, really boring. If you are young and healthy and on vacation, and you have enough money to stay at the Marriott, why not have more fun with your money. At least stay at a bed and breakfast.
If you want to go to Philadelphia, take the New Jersey Transit train to Trenton, then take a Philadelphia transit train to Philadelphia. The round-trip fare for this trip will be about $20. This is MUCH less than the fare for taking the same trip via Amtrak.
If you are reading this because you're a young independent filmmaker or film goer, and you are thinking about going to East Hampton for the Hamptons International Film Festival, my first question is, Why? Unless you are the director, the star, or someone else intimately involved with selling a film, or you were born with the inner strength to put up with rich people, you are probably going to have a hard times in the Hamptons. East Hampton is not a great place for grungy people in their 20s or 30s who have just blown out their credit cards on financing an unmarketable short film.
But, anyhow, if you're poor, you CAN get to East Hampton by taking the commuter rail for less than $20 round trip. You can stay at the Holiday Acres Motel, 166 Montauk Highway, 631-324-0565, for about $100 a night. For that price, you get nice, clean rooms in the woods with kitchenettes but no telephones.
You really need a car in the Hamptons, though. In theory, you could easily walk from the motel to downtown East Hampton. In reality, there aren't any sidewalks. A car will smush you.
New York is a _lot_ safer than it was a few years ago, but it's still a big city. You might consider taking the following precautions:
- Make a photocopy of all important identification cards, credit cards, etc. Write the theft-report telephone numbers and account numbers on the copy. Make two sets. Leave one set at home and put one set in your luggage.
- Go to a department store and try to buy a money belt. This is a flat pouch you can wear under your clothes. Whenever possible, keep everything important in the money belt.
- Turn your wallet into a decoy wallet. Fill it with some of your couch, a college ID or some other picture ID that you could afford to lose, and junk that you wouldn't mind having stolen.
- Even if you ignore these instructions and everything you value in the world is in your purse or wallet, give it up the instant a mugger asks.
- When you get to New York, don't say hi to everyone but don't feel you have to glower or look like a scared sheep. Except when they're tired or in a rush, most New Yorkers are friendly. Even the panhandlers are usually friendly. The suggestions I'm listing here are ideas you should use in any big city.
- Traffic - Look both ways before you cross streets, and remember that New York cars often cut across two lanes of traffic. Also, contrary to their reputation, New Yorkers are pretty good about obeying walk/don't walk signals. It's rude to jaywalk if it looks as if cars may be coming. Don't dash in front of moving cars just because the New Yorker with you thinks that's the way to cross the streets.
- Fate - If it's your time, it's your time. Always tell relatives that you love them when you get off the phone with them, even if you're angry with them. Treat yourself to little luxuries if you feel your life would be incomplete without them.
CARS: Bringing cars into a Manhattan is a pain because the tolls are outrageous and parking is scarce. If you have a car, hunt for a parking garage near your room. Parking lots near the McBurney Y, in Chelsea, around the corner of 20th Street and Sixth Avenue, were about $17 for 24 hours. (That includes 18 percent tax.) Parking in the suburbs is a lot cheaper, but, if you're a newbie, you may have a hard time figuring out how to get back to your parking lot.
SUBWAYS: Bad things can happen anywhere, but subway stations and subway trains in Manhattan and most areas outside Manhattan are at least as safe as the surrounding neighborhoods. If you take the subway, carry a guide book with a good subway map in it. If you aren't sure what train to take, feel free to ask friendly, sane-looking people for advice. The New York subway system is very confusing and residents ask for directions all the time. If you are afraid of asking directions, or you can't understand the directions, consider walking. This is especially true in Manhattan. A healthy adult should be able to walk from Central Park to Wall Street in two or three hours.
GUIDEBOOKS: Let's Go USA gives a great description of New York from the budget traveler's point of view. (Look in your library.) The Flashmaps New York book, published by Fodor's ($8.95), has tons of useful maps, addresses, etc.
MAPS: If you will be carrying a purse or knapsack, one great thing to get is the stiff plastic Fastmap map of New York. You should be able to find it in a good bookstore in your hometown. It's much easier to use than a big, floppy paper map. Some people will tell you, "Never pull out a map in New York! Someone will mug you immediately." Personally, I think it's safer to step into a fast food restaurant or a laundromat and look at a map than to wander around lost.
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