Money & costs
With the US economy as shaky as it has been for a long, long time, one would think a cheap trip to New York would be more than possible. And, well it is ... just don't expect big changes. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the city, with options for just about every budget. Finding deals just takes a mix of forethought and creativity.
Basic costs for a NYC trip start with accommodations (unless you’ve got a friend or relative who’s willing to put you up in their sure-to-be-cramped apartment). An unavoidable fact is that the average night in a city hotel still costs $250, with those on the more desirable end easily going for upwards of $400. The best way to find serious bargain rates is by not being picky about your hotel’s location; in other words, look for beds in non-trendy parts of Manhattan (like East Midtown) or, better yet, in Brooklyn, Queens and even across the Hudson River, in New Jersey. If you’re patient enough to deal with mass transit to get you into the heart of the city each day, you’ll wind up saving a pretty penny (though don’t expect your rates to dip too far under $150 a night).
City B&Bs also tend to be more affordable; several in and around the Chelsea area have rooms with shared bathrooms for about $120 – just book far in advance, as they tend to fill quickly. Another way to bargain hunt is to book through online resources such as hotelsandhostels (www.hotels.lonelyplanet.com), tripadvisor.com, orbitz.com, and hotels.com – the sheer number of them keeps prices competitive. Finally, those who can stomach hostel aesthetics are most in luck, as there are several barebones places right in Manhattan, such as those in the Jazz Hostel group, which offer dorm beds for as low as $30.
You’ll also have to pay to eat, of course. The absolute cheapest way to go is to forgo the foodies’ restaurant-scene paradise and stick to making your own meals (if you have access to a kitchen) or subsist on packaged and prepared foods bought at the city’s many markets. Basic non-gourmet delis, found on practically every corner, make egg-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast ($3 on average), and a range of other basic sandwiches throughout the day, whether it’s egg salad on rye for $6 or roast beef on a roll for $7. Street food, while not too healthy, is also way-cheap, with everything from hot dogs for $2 to gyros for $3. Or you can try to be wholesome by trolling the city’s vast array of Greenmarket Farmers Markets (www.cenyc.org) for fresh fruits, breads and cheeses for in-room backpacker picnics.
Eating at restaurants will cost you, but still, the prices range tremendously. The most budget options can get you hearty ethnic meals for under $10, while midrange restaurants with table service start at about $10 to $15 per person for dinner, with the numbers going up from there. Head to a five-star dining establishment, order three courses and throw in a bottle of wine, and you could easily drop $200 per person. Families looking to save should head to diners and other low-key spots with kids menus, which usually offer dishes for less than half of the normal price.
If you want to shop while you’re here – and who doesn’t? – then you’ll also find extreme price ranges in all categories. For clothing, there are bargain spots aplenty, with stores like Filene’s Basement, Century 21, Loehmann’s and H&M high on the radar screens of local bargain shoppers looking for knockoffs and discounted labels. You can also try your luck at designers’ sample sales.
Entertainment prices can be sky-high, with prime opera or theater tickets easily costing over $100 a piece. But there’s plenty for paupers, too. Get your dose of theater for $15 a pop at Off-Off-Broadway productions, or through events like the Fringe Festival – or try your patience waiting in line for tickets for Shakespeare in the Park, which offers top-notch theater for free. Broadway tickets can be bought for half price at the two TKTS booths in Manhattan. And plenty of venues all over the city – music, comedy, cabaret, dance and theater – frequently offer cheap ($5 to $10) and free performances; check local arts listings in publications such as Time Out New York and the Village Voice for daily free and cheap activities. Also, while museums like the expensive MoMA can charge up to $20 for entrance, many have ‘pay-what-you-wish’ days or times, plus generous discounts for students and seniors.
The US dollar (familiarly called a ‘buck’) is divided into 100 cents (¢). Coins come in denominations of 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), the practically extinct 50¢ (half-dollar), and the not-oft-seen golden dollar coin, which was introduced in early 2000, featuring a picture of Sacagawea, the Native American guide who led the explorers Lewis and Clark on their expedition through the western US. Although striking, the gold coins are prohibitively heavy and jingle conspicuously, alerting panhandlers to your well-heeled presence. These coins are often dispensed as change from ticket and stamp machines. Notes come in $1, $2 (extremely rare), $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 denominations.
In recent years the US treasury has redesigned the $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills to foil counterfeiters. Yes, they’re still green, but the portraits have grown exponentially.
Automatic teller machines are on practically every corner. You can either use your card at banks – usually in a 24-hour-access lobby, filled with up to a dozen monitors at major branches – or you can opt for the lone wolves, which sit in delis, restaurants, bars and grocery stores, charging fierce service fees that go as high as $5 for foreign banks in some places. Most New York banks are linked by the New York Cash Exchange (NYCE) system, and you can use local bank cards interchangeably at ATMs – for an extra fee if you’re banking outside your system. Getting money this way saves you a step – no changing money from your own currency – and is a safer way to travel, as you only take out what you need, as you go.
Banks and moneychangers, found all over New York City (and right in the airports where you’ll land), will give you US currency based on the current exchange rate. Banks are normally open from 9am to 4:30pm or 5pm Monday to Friday. A couple of options:
American Express (212-421-8240, for locations 800-221-7282; 374 Park Ave at 53rd St, Midtown East; 9am-5pm Mon-Fri) American Express has plenty of branches about town.
Travelex (212-265-6049; 1590 Broadway at 48th St, Midtown East; 9am-7pm Mon-Sat, 9am-5pm Sun) Features currency exchange at eight locations in the city, including the Times Sq office.
Major credit cards are accepted at most hotels, restaurants and shops throughout New York City. In fact, you’ll find it difficult to perform certain transactions, such as purchasing tickets to performances and renting a car, without one.
Stack your deck with a Visa, MasterCard or American Express, as these are the cards of choice here. Places that accept Visa and MasterCard also accept debit cards, which deduct payments directly from your check or savings account. Be sure to check with your bank to confirm that your debit card will be accepted in other states or countries – debit cards from large commercial banks can often be used worldwide.
If your cards are lost or stolen, contact the company immediately. The following are toll-free numbers for the main credit-card companies:
American Express (800-528-4800)
Diners Club (800-234-6377)
This old-school option offers protection from theft or loss. Checks issued by American Express and Thomas Cook are widely accepted, and both offer efficient replacement policies. Keeping a record of the check numbers and the checks you’ve used is vital when it comes to replacing lost checks. Keep this record in a separate place from the checks themselves.
Bring most of the checks in large denominations. It’s toward the end of a trip that you may want to change a small check to make sure you aren’t left with too much local currency. Of course, traveler’s checks are losing their popularity due to the explosion of ATMs and you may opt not to carry any at all.
Restaurants and retailers never include the sales tax – 8.375% – in their prices, so beware of ordering the $4.99 lunch special when you only have $5 to your name. Several categories of so-called ‘luxury items, ’ including rental cars and dry-cleaning, carry an additional city surcharge of 5%, so you wind up paying an extra 13.375% in total for these services. Clothing and footwear purchases under $110 are tax-free; anything over that amount has a state sales tax of 4.375%. Hotel rooms in New York City are subject to a 13.625% tax, plus a flat $2- to $6-per-night occupancy tax. Since the US has no nationwide value-added tax (VAT), there is no opportunity for foreign visitors to make ‘tax-free’ purchases.