Whilst dreams of visiting afar are often highest and most frequent on any travellers list, some of the world's most spectacular and adventure-filled cities lie right in our own backyard. New York is the poster child for such a description, and is one of our favourite cities to explore. Whether you've come here before or are tickled to add the Big Apple to your wish list, New York never disappoints.
Here the vibe seeps in excitement. NYC is a city where people flock to chase their dreams, whether acting on the big screen or simply chasing a more eclectic life. Without further ado, here's tips to exploring one of the world's most interesting mega-cities: New York City!
1. Cut flight and accommodation costs
Flights and accommodation are the biggest expenses on any New York City visit. Fortunately, there are international domestic airline sales as well as error fares on websites like Airfare Watchdog. and Secret Flying. You can also easily use Skyscanner to search for flights from your own city (select whole month for dates to visualize cheaper fares in green). For more tips on cheap flight booking, check out our article How to Book the Cheapest Flight Possible to Anywhere.
Here's what we recommend for finding cheap accommodation in the big apple:
- Great for authentic-feeling travel
- Much cheaper than most hotel options
- Private rooms often cheaper than hostel dorms if 2+ people
- $25 sign-up coupon available here
- Mystery deals are great for big savings on high-end hotels
- Downside: it's a mystery what you'll actually get
- Tip: Mystery deals can often be figured out before booking via BetterBidding
Take note, if you're two or more people, hostel dorms often aren't your cheapest option. You can get a private room in an apartment via services like AirBNB (or even a private room in a hostel) for fairly cheap, so it pays to research in advance. When you can, book ahead. NYC is an expensive city – do not try the “wait and see” approach on accommodation!
Note: we've done both Hotwire mystery deals and AirBNB and had great experiences with each. We loved sharing an apartment with our AirBNB hosts (a dancer & a model – does it get more NYC than that?!) in a gorgeous high-ceiling apartment in a neighbourhood oozing with character. We've also scored a great hotel in the financial district downtown. Both very different and fun NYC experiences!
2. Visit the city's free attractions
If you're dropping dollars in New York on attraction after attraction, you're doing it wrong. There are SO many free iconic sights to enjoy here, that you needn't bleed cash just to “see” the city. Not to mention, it is quite walkable, though when your legs tire, simply give 'em a rest and enjoy its quintessential public transit.
For free activities happening daily, weekly, monthly and on the regular, check out Time Out's listings. Here's a few attractions that are always free:
- Central Park (often has free events going on & great for picnics)
- Times Square – be sure to go at night to take in its neon buzz!
- Staten Island Ferry – a great way to get water views of the Statue of Liberty for FREE! Not to mention, you'll skip waiting in long lines & security scans to enter it
- Markets – there are plenty of food, farmer's, artisan, craft & flea markets which are free to wander (we loved the Brooklyn Fleas & Artists and Brooklyn Night Bazaar)
- Take the Governor's Island ferry (offers great city skyline views)
- Learn about America's history in the National Museum of the American Indian
- Do a free city walking tour (you “pay what you wish” at the end)
- Do a free brewery tour – several NYC breweries offer free tours, some even give free beers (heck yes!)
- New York Public Library (truly stunning, it's no wonder many movies have been filmed there!)
- Brooklyn – riddled with quirky shops, cafes & bars, this part of NYC is just great to explore by foot (it also gives great water views of the skyline)
- Walk the Brooklyn Bridge (great city views)
- High line park (a park built on an old train track – awesome for pictures!)
3. See shows on the cheap
If you're flexible with which shows you see and when, you can save as much as 50% off on same-day tickets both for on and off broadway shows. Simply show up at the official Last Minute Ticket booths to see what is playing that night. We've done this on two visits, the first time we saw Avenue Q (AWESOME!) and the classic Chicago.
4. Visit galleries & museums on free or discount days
Many galleries and museums in NYC have free entry on certain days & times. A few of the most popular attractions with free entry days include:
- Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) (FREE Fridays 4-8PM)
- New York Botanical Garden (FREE all-day Wednesdays, 9-10AM Saturdays)
- Museum of Moving Image (FREE Fridays 4-8PM)
- 9-11 Memorial Museum (FREE Tuesdays 5PM-close)
- Bronx Zoo (FREE all-day Wednesdays)
- American Museum of Natural History (FREE in its last hour, otherwise always pay-as-you-wish)
- Brooklyn Museum (FREE first Saturday of the month with DJs & wine from 5-11PM)
Note: free days/times subject to change – check attraction websites to confirm free days/times before your visit.
A comprehensive list of museums that are always free or have discount days can be found here. Current free exhibitions and show listings that are temporary can be found here.
5. Get activity discounts with a city pass
City passes don't always equate to savings, but if you're hitting up several big-ticket attractions in NYC, the New York Pass can definitely be cheaper. Starting at $94 USD, it's easy to calculate if this pass will cut costs for you as it provides free entry to 100+ attractions priced at $25-$35 USD per visit. The Empire State Building, the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Rockefeller Centre are just some of the sights included. You even get Fast Track entry to many attractions, letting you skip the line and see even more on your trip. We recommend using the mobile option, letting you instantly download your pass to your phone without having to pick up your pass or wait for it in the mail.
6. Find cheap or free events
TimeOut is my favourite resource for current free events and shows. Throughout the year there's always festivals and events going on. Be sure to check and see what's happening on your visit, or you could be missing on some serious fun – NYC is ALL about arts, creativity and events!
On our last visit we stumbled on this epic party under the Brooklyn Bridge – completely free and filled with pumping tunes and affordable beer on tap.
7. Eat cheap!
Cheap eats in NYC
You are in the good ol' USA, so cheap food isn't all that hard to find. Here's some quick options for dining cheap in NYC:
- Groupon and Travelzoo are GREAT for bargains when you do want to dine out for a nicer meal. We did this multiple times for a nice pizza & beer dinner and other meals out, I highly recommend at least checking.
- 99 cent pizza (plentiful!)
- Hot dog stands are common throughout the city, though I don't recommend this (or pizza!) as a staple sustenance on your trip. (Papaya King is a definite mentionable though).
- After something fancier? The Big Apple even has affordable Michelin Star restaurants – check our list of cheapest Michelin dining spots here!
- Food trucks offer fairly cheap, filling snacks from kebabs to hamburgers to gourmet ice cream. There are many higher-end ones popping up about the city, we had some epic homemade tacos at one in Brooklyn
- NYC super-stuffed bagels are a good budget-friendly brunch option
- Do a DIY $1 Chinatown eating walk – we did this & it was a great way to tour and “sample” an array of Chinatown's $1 snacks!
- Time Out and Eater have comprehensive city-wide lists of NYC's cheap eats, I highly recommend sifting through them (it's how I discovered the $1 Chinatown eats!)
Thrifty tip: If going out for a big meal, go out for lunch instead of dinner where possible, as it will be cheaper & lunch specials are common.
DIY Food Options
Even if you don't have access to a kitchen (or simply don't want to cook, understandable for short trips!), make a pitstop for ready-to-eat goods such as sushi rolls or premade grocery sandwiches for picnic or on-the-go goods.
Breakfast: we always bring a coffee filter, portable mugs, and a small bag of coffee so we can brew our own java each morning. We also try to buy room-temp foods like fruits or muffins that we can keep in our room & eat each morning if we don't have a fridge.
Lunch: we usually carry a small utensil set or spork, so we can easily pop into grocery stores and grab foods like yogurts, sandwiches, hummus & carrots, cheeses, breads and such on the go. It at least leaves the option of a picnic anytime. We bring refillable Platypus bottles to curb waste and senseless dollars on water bottles. Fountains are plentiful in NYC, in fact someone has even mapped them out here and the city has a free fountain locator app!
And there you have it, some quick tips for seeing this epic city on the cheap. This is a city that should most certainly be on any wanderluster bucket list. Happy saving!