By Benn Farrell, June 6, 2019
New York City – Travel money, or a lack thereof, has never kept me from having an amazing time in the Big Apple. While any vacation can be expensive beyond what you had in mind as a budget, New York City, specifically midtown Manhattan can be one of the most pricey travel destinations one could have.
That is, unless you know how to experience New York City without making your credit card scream for mercy.
I personally love New York City and have loved every visit my wife and I have made there. We have taken family members to the Big Apple on occasion as well all of whom have been eager to see how we “do” New York City. The reason for this, my wife and I have developed key ways to keep the cost of our visits as low as possible while still having an amazing and memorable time.
Central Park in New York City. Photo by Benn Farrell
It has taken a few visits there to develop our strategy, but it works. Every time we go, we return with fantastic stories and experiences, but if you are planning a visit to Manhattan, here are just some of the ways my wife and I make sure we don’t go broke doing it.
One thing we have learned about traveling, location is everything. When my wife and I visit NYC, we have always stayed at the same hotel. The Park Central on 7th avenue is our favorite place to stay for several reasons. The hotel is a 1920’s building which has been renovated with rooms which are clean, more modern than one may expect for a building that age and plenty of quick food and coffee options around it.
For the way we do Manhattan, Park Central’s location cannot be beaten. First of all, just half a block away is access to the subway and its not difficult to find the right train to Times Square or the 9-11 Memorial/Freedom Tower or Chelsea Market, where my talented chef of a wife lights up every time. What’s more, if you decide most of your visit will be on foot, Park Central is a mere three blocks to the south side of Central Park, two blocks from Fifth Avenue, seven blocks from Rockefeller Center and eight blocks from Times Square. If you don’t mind walking, this hotel is a perfect central location.
Another reason we prefer the Park Central, there hotel offers regular promotions throughout the year and if you keep an eye on your email inbox for the latest offer, you could save quite a bit on a three-four day stay.
This is possibly my favorite part of visiting Manhattan. There are so many celebrity chefs whom have restaurants in NYC, it’s hard to choose which one may be best. If you decide to dine at a celebrity chef eatery like those owned by Scott Conant, Masaharu Morimoto and Geoffrey Zacharian and a ridiculous amount of others, be sure to make a reservation before you even get on the plane for NYC. Using an app on your smart phone called OpenTable is also very helpful getting a table at a time and day which works for you.
However, celebrity chef restaurants, in lieu of keeping cost down, are not the way to go. When my wife and I visit, we choose one celebrity chef restaurant to book a table during our stay but that is all. Instead, what we have done is take note of a multitude of places where the food is good and less expensive than a celebrity owned establishment.
Crudités at Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center building in New York City. Photo by Benn Farrell
One of my favorite personal options for a good quiet meal is a little corner bar which isn’t easy to find. It’s located near Columbus Circle, in the bottom floor of the Time Warner Center building, and within easy walking distance from Park Central Hotel. On the bottom floor of that building is a Whole Foods, and inside that Whole Foods is a quiet little eatery and bar near the gourmet cheeses. Now I won’t mention the name of the bar since the shell of the place seems to change on a regular basis, but it’s quiet, cozy and if you just buy a drink or two, you can bring in any food you get from the Whole Foods store or from its steam table cafeteria selections inside the bar to sit down and eat.
Usually, my wife and I will gather up a variety of crudite items, cheeses, meats and breads mostly, and put together a lunch from Whole Foods resembling a Swiss breakfast. However, one could also order something from the massive options in the steam tables at Whole Foods and sit inside the bar to eat as well. We’ll sit in that bar, enjoy a couple drinks and the quiet. Doing this is not any more expensive than a visit to the grocery store and its delightfully quaint.
Another not so expensive option is on the corner from the Park Central Hotel. The very first time we visited New York City, we got checked into the hotel late and were starving. Open just at the corner of the hotel was a delicatessen named Benash, which for a long time was my favorite deli in Manhattan until it was permanently closed, sadly. However, delicatessens along 7th Avenue between the hotel and Times Square are bountiful and not nearly as expensive as celebrity chef restaurants. There is also an Irish pub on 35th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, called The Playwright where my wife and I stopped in for a quick bite of Irish fare. Again, its a quaint little place with authentic Irish feel and decent pub food for reasonable spending.
To be honest, the least expensive option for anyone in Manhattan to find sustenance is almost on every corner of the city. You may be surprised and may not even believe me, but the hot dogs from street corner vendors in New York City are absolutely fantastic. I don’t know what it is about those street dogs, but those are hands down the best dogs I’ve ever had. I believe it is because the dogs soak for so long in product from the Brooklyn Water System. My wife and I always make friends with the vendor who is stationed closest to Park Central. Once, we visited NYC with our children for a couple days returning from Europe. We had them try the hot dogs as well from our favorite vendor, and my son to this day keeps asking when we can go back to New York City. Not because of the massive playground in Central Park or the Central Park Zoo, but rather he is begging for another hot dog from that street corner. You can’t get a lower cost for a quality meal than this in Manhattan.
Broadway and shows
Now if you are the type of person who wants to see what the professional theater community in midtown Manhattan has to offer, getting to see a Broadway show is fantastic but extremely pricey unless you book your seats months, maybe a year, in advance. I have paid out Broadway ticket prices for almost every visit my wife and I have made to NYC. Outside of celebrity chef restaurants, a Broadway show could be the biggest expense once you’re in Manhattan for your travel budget, sometimes hundreds of dollars for just two people.
However, there are options to get top quality theatrical experiences on Broadway without paying a hefty ticket price. First, let me explain the difference between Broadway, off Broadway and off-off Broadway productions; these are the three main categories of NYC theater. Although Broadway is the name of an actual street which intersects with 7th Avenue at the south end of Times Square, these production terms refer to how many seats are available within an individual show’s venue. A Broadway production means the show is housed in a venue with 500 seats or more. An Off Broadway show is housed in a venue with anywhere between 99-499. Off Off Broadway productions refer to shows in venues with 98 seats or less.
So with three different categories of Broadway production, there is usually three different tiers of ticket pricing. Now this doesn’t mean the productions are any less professional or spectacular. In fact, many celebrity actors, actresses and playwrights premier new plays in Off Broadway venues on a regular basis before opening to a Broadway size audience. However, if you are looking for a quality theatrical experience at a reasonable price, seeking productions Off-Off Broadway may be the way to go.
A scene from The Laugh Supper at the Manhattan Repertory Theater in New York City. Photo courtesy of Manhattan Repertory Theater.
For instance, located at 17-19 West 45th Street, No. 301, near Times Square in the heart of midtown Manhattan is an Off-Off Broadway venue called the Manhattan Repertory Theater. This theater company produces original works usually for their world premier performances of quality, so there is opportunity to experience a show and be a part of the play’s history by attending its debut to the world.
“We focus on new work and emerging playwrights,” Manhattan Repertory Theater artistic director Ken Wolf said. “We celebrate personal stories and believe that a script is not a play, just a map for a creative team to bring the play to life. Theatre is an emotional experience.”
What’s more, tickets to Manhattan Rep’s productions are usually only $20, offering patrons something different at an affordable price point, Wolf said. While tickets for Broadway size theaters are often difficult to get without booking seats months in advance to have a spot during the dates of your visit, Manhattan Rep tickets are far more easily available, especially from the theater’s Web site at www.manhattanrep.com.
“[Our productions are] intimate and thought-provoking new theatre in the heart of Manhattan,” he said.
Another inexpensive options for getting to experience live entertainment in New York City is comedy clubs. For comedy shows, tickets can be a little upwards at the door; however, the best way to get to see a comedy show during your visit is to simply walk through Times Square. There are several basement comedy clubs around the city and just outside midtown which host many up and coming comedians, and on occasion, a celebrity comedian may stop by to jump on stage and do a quick set.
However, these types of showcases in speak-easy comedy clubs aren’t very high profile and have to make an aggressive effort to get tourists in midtown to visit their venues. What my wife and I have always encountered, these comedy clubs send a street team of people into Times Square to hand out free passes to their showcases, inspiring anyone to get on the subway and see a good comedy show. Comedy clubs across the country have made a two item minimum standard no matter what the show, so be prepared to spend a little money once you’re in your seat. But you save much more by scoring free passes to the show from the clubs’ street teams. If a NYC comedy club sounds interesting to you, that is the least expensive way to get into one. Take a stroll through Times Square and keep an eye out for street promoters.
If you are like me, you prefer to travel to vacation destinations with hundreds if not thousands of years in its history. This is mostly because I enjoy seeing architecture with substantial age to it. I say, the older the better, and New York City is no exception.
Ellis Island in New York City. Photo by Benn Farrell
Site seeing can get pricey depending on what you have your heart set on visiting. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is a must. You can book a ferry to both locations, but you have to reserve your ferry tickets weeks in advance. Otherwise, there may not be room for you when you get to NYC.
Central Park will give you so many pleasantries to see just walking through it, you could spend a whole day in the park and still feel like you haven’t seen it all. There are several maps available at different kiosks to guide you to the key staples of the park. It’s not a lot of money to get one and it will save time and blisters on your feet if you know where these facets of the park are located ahead of time. There are also rickshaw and carriage rides through the park, but they can get quite expensive. However, if you have a good rickshaw driver, he or she will serve as a tour guide as well, giving you little insights and laughs into the views of Central Park and surrounding areas.
Another inexpensive sight seeing adventure is taking a simple stroll down 5th Avenue. The department stores along 5th avenue go full out when dressing its windows. Some of these window displays are almost a work of art in itself, and my wife and I always make sure to see what changes the stores have made to their displays when we visit.
The interior of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Photo by Benn Farrell
If you’re like me and architecture is your thing, one of the more breath taking sites on 5th Avenue is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just a block east of Rockefeller Center. I’ve seen quite a few religious structures during my travels including Notre Dame in Paris and the Duomo in Milan, Italy. I have to say, as far as cathedral’s in the United States, St. Patrick’s is maybe the most glorious and mouth-dropping I’ve seen. If you find the doors open, stop on inside. You can also visit www.saintpatrickscathedral.org for a list of masses and other events being held during the days of your visit. It’s inexpensive and beautiful.
Further south on 5th Avenue from St. Patrick’s is one of my favorite buildings in mid-town Manhattan; the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. This is the same library branch depicted in the action film The Day After Tomorrow, one of my wife’s favorite movies.
The New York Public Library mid-Manhattan branch. Photo by Benn Farrell
This is another structure which is completely free to simply walk in and see, and believe me I was staggered at how beautiful the architecture is inside and out.
Between the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Central Park, 5th Avenue, St. Patrick’s and the New York Public Library, you can fill at least three days of your stay with inexpensive sight-seeing.
If you consider yourself a foodie, you can’t beat a visit to Chelsea Market. From mid-town, you will have to hop the subway south, but a stroll through the market is well worth the time and costs nothing just to window shop.
Now, the 9-11 Memorial and museum is one place everyone who goes to New York City wants to see. I will agree, this solemn memorial is impressive and worth seeing at least once in your life. However, the cost of admission is substantial and even by subway, from Park Central Hotel, a visit to the memorial can eat up most of the hours in that day. If you decide you are going to visit this memorial and museum, my only advice is to plan well ahead. However, this site isn’t exactly on my list of inexpensive New York City experiences.