Cheap Vacation Ideas for New York City

budget travel new york city

New York can be crazy expensive. $8 for a bottle of beer. $300/night for a hotel room. $400 for dinner at famed Japanese restaurant Masa. As someone who spent most of 2008-09 writing about the Big Apple for Gadling and who’s lived here over 7 years, it’s a sad fact I’ve come to know all too well. But here’s another shocking fact I’ve discovered about my adopted hometown: if you know the right places to eat, where to stay and what to do, New York City budget travel can also be a surprisingly rewarding experience.

Best of all, budget travel in New York doesn’t mean you have to give up on all the good stuff. Still want to eat like a king? Stay in a trendy new hotel? Experience New York’s legendary activities and nightlife? It’s all yours for the taking. It simply requires an adjustment in your approach.

We’ve scoured New York high and low and come up with the following ten budget travel suggestions. Want to learn how to visit New York on the cheap? Keep reading below!budget travel new york cityThree Tips on Where to Stay
Tracking down reasonably-priced accommodations is arguably the most daunting part of any New York budget travel experience. Visitors who so much as sneeze near popular hotel spots like Times Square can expect to pay upwards of $300/night for lodging. Budget travelers, fear not: if you want to avoid the sky-high prices (and the crowds) check out some of these wallet-friendly options:

  • The Jane (doubles from $99/night)The Jane, a hotel that effortlessly blends old and new inside a beautifully renovated building from 1908, oozes New York cool. Best of all, you’re just steps away from free attractions like the High Line.
  • The Harlem Flophouse (doubles from $125/night) – don’t let the name fool you; this “flophouse” is part of an emerging crop of intriguing Harlem lodgings that are easy on the wallet. Part B&B, part art gallery, guests can immerse themselves in the home’s one-of-a-kind decorations. All rooms have shared bathrooms.
  • The Gershwin Hotel (doubles from $109/night) – you can’t miss The Gershwin hotel from outside. This distinctive hotel is adorned with a one-of-a-kind facade of curvy glass lanterns. The intriguing interior decoration (and the prices) don’t disappoint either. Especially thrifty travelers should check out the Gershwin’s $40/night hostel-style “Bunker.”

Three Tips on Where to Eat
You probably already know New York is one of the best places in the world for eating. Did you also know it’s one of the best for cheap eats too? Thankfully, eating well and eating cheap in New York are not mutually exclusive. Here’s three of our favorites:

  • Xi’an Famous FoodsXi’an Famous Foods, which first found fame on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, recently opened an outlet of its famous Flushing noodle shop in New York’s East Village. Spice-lovers can grab a plate of the shop’s hand-pulled Cumin Lamb Noodles for under $10 bucks.
  • Super Tacos Sobre Ruedas – this unassuming taco truck, parked on Manhattan’s 96th Street, doesn’t look like much. Yet it’s one of an increasing number of under-the-radar New York spots to get outstandingly good (and cheap) Mexican food. Grab a cup of milky Horchata rice milk with cinammon and a couple Carnitas Tacos for just a few bucks.
  • Pies ‘N’ Thighs – think New York is all “fusion” cooking and snooty French cuisine? The down-home Southern cooking at Brooklyn’s Pies ‘N’ Thighs will prove you wrong. Enjoy Fried Chicken, biscuits, and apple pie at (nearly) Southern-level prices.

budget travel new york cityThree Tips on What to Do
Having fun and free are not opposites in New York. In fact, the city is filled with surprisingly fun activities and freebies for budget travelers looking to save a couple bucks:

  • Free Friday museums – even the city’s most famous cultural centers aren’t always expensive, particularly on “Free Fridays.” Venerable institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (Free Fridays from 4-8pm) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (pay-what-you-wish, Fridays 6-9pm) help art lovers enjoy these great institutions at low or no cost.
  • Wander Grand Central Station – It’s free to enter this gorgeously restored New York landmark. Gaze in awe at the vaulted ceilings in the Main Concourse, stop by the great food court and share a secret with friends in the Whisper Gallery. Here’s a few more Gadling Grand Central tips to help you out.
  • The High Line – New York’s High Line, the city’s newest and greatest park is built atop the ruins of an old elevated railway line. In its place is a beautifully designed park, complete with wild grasses, art exhibits and plenty of great people-watching.

One Wild Card
One of the most intriguing and cheap ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday in New York is at the Brooklyn Flea. This one-of-a-kind swap meet meets artisanal food tasting meets art show is one Brooklyn’s more intriguing weekend activities. Pick up inexpensive jewelry and handcrafted clothing and art from Brooklyn artists while enjoying cheap eats from local food vendors.

Just another surprising example of New York’s refreshing range of cheap accommodations, inexpensive eats and budget-friendly activities.

[Photos courtesy of Flickr users b0r0da, DanDeChiaro and albany_tim]

Tips for saving money on a road trip

Having spent many of my post-college years both (a) totally broke and (b) living on the road, I know very well the financial perils posed by the seemingly-cheap road trip. In order to help you avoid some of my same mistakes, I offer what I’ve learned … most of it the hard way.

Fuel efficiency matters!
Remember when Barack Obama said Americans should pay more attention to their tire pressure? Well, it’s true. Check your tires before you start your trip and each time you stop for gas, and be sure to air ’em up if they’re running low. (Be careful not to overpressurize your tires, though. Your car’s owner’s manual should contain information about the appropriate pressure range, and most tires are marked as well.)

Also, don’t overload your car with heavy or bulky stuff that you’re not likely to use — extra weight, or odd-shaped things like surfboards stuck to the car roof, increases fuel costs.

Drive the speed limit.
It’s a sad fact for us adrenaline junkies, but according to fueleconomy.gov, “Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas.” Gas is one of the biggest road trip expenses, so anything you can do to minimize it is worth considering. Plus, it’ll keep you from snagging a speeding ticket, which is a definite road trip bummer.

Get to know your National Parks!
They’re not just for Ken Burns documentaries — the National Park system is there for people to use, and one thing that a price-conscious road-tripper can always use is a cheap place to sleep.Even at the most popular parks, like Yellowstone, camping fees start at only $12/night — a lot cheaper than you’ll find at any motel, and with better scenery too. Some parks do have a vehicle entry fee, so it’s also worth investigating the National Park Service’s Annual Pass; at $80, it pays for itself after four nights at Yosemite.

Check out hostels.
If your travels are taking you to more urban locations where camping isn’t much of an option, make reservations at hostels instead of hotels or motels. For a single bed they usually run about $20-$25 per night or, if you’re traveling with a group of people, you can all share a room instead of hanging out with strangers. It’s worth noting, however, that hanging out with strangers has its perks — when you’re in an unfamiliar place you can swap tips and often get some good advice.

To see if there are hostels in your area, check out Hostels.com or Hosteling International.

Bring your own food.
The single biggest waste of money on a road trip is road food. Instead of hitting up pricey restaurants or unhealthy fast food, swing by a grocery store and pack snacks for yourself.

Carrot sticks, apples, protein bars, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all keep well — and they’re cheap and healthy to boot.

Check the Internet.

Pro tip: To avoid parking tickets in large cities, set an alarm on your phone to remind you to feed the meter.

If camping isn’t your thing and you’d rather not dole out the cash for a hostel, well, it’s the Internet to the rescue! Social networking sites like Facebook make great directories, so if you’re trekking to visit San Francisco, why not search your Facebook friends and see if anyone you know has moved there recently? You never know who might be eager to see you again.

And if your social networking sites are a bust, don’t forget sites like couchsurfing.com. It can seem a little disconcerting to crash on the couch of someone you’ve never met before, but chances are pretty good that they’ll not only be happy to have you (since they volunteered for it) — but they might even be willing to play tour guide.

Avoid parking tickets.
The biggest headache of a road trip is usually also the thing that makes it great — that is, your car. Parking tickets are a particular concern if you’re visiting an urban area, where popular, touristy neighborhoods are often targeted for parking enforcement. And just because there’s not a meter on the street doesn’t mean the parking is free: many cities are moving towards parking pay boxes, which are usually spaced one per block and require you to pay and place the printed receipt somewhere visible in your car.

Pro tip: Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to feed the meter, and don’t count on leniency just because you’ve got out-of-town plates — many cities and towns rely on tourist parking tickets as a regular revenue stream.

Plan, plan, plan.
The great beauty of the road trip is its flexibility and potential for spontaneous adventure. However, some careful planning can be a fiscal lifesaver on the road.

When you’re figuring out a route, be aware that things like toll roads and mountains will increase your driving costs; if you have particular weaknesses for things like outlet shopping or antiquing, steer clear of towns that are likely to lure you into big spending. Also, do some research and see if any of your destinations are hosting special events that are likely to raise lodging and parking costs — even the sleepiest small town can charge steep prices when the state fair is in town.

Set a budget and stick to it.
The easiest way to stick to a budget is to avoid using plastic. A credit or debit card is useful for getting gas on the road, but beyond that, figure out how much you want to spend each day on food and sundries and use cash to help yourself stick to it. An easy way to do that is to have an envelope for each day of your trip; inside the envelope is the amount you’re allowed to spend that day (not including gas and lodging), and once that’s been tapped, consider yourself cut off.

And if that’s hard for you, just remember: the road trip is all about adventure and self-discovery (On the Road, anyone?), not kitschy souvenirs, and nothing you buy will be as fun or as enduring as the stories you’ll have when you get home.

Saving money on a road trip isn’t that hard. And remember: the more money you save on this road trip, the more money you have for another road trip!

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First snow: Eight winter activities for budget friendly fun

With the first snow comes thoughts of winter’s smorgasbord of budget friendly travel options. Fall festivals and foliage tours are long gone. What was missed has been moved to next year’s got to go agenda.

The first snow is a reminder that winter, like other seasons, has a timetable that waits for no one. To make the most of winter, create a checklist of what you’d like to do. Plan for those winter outings before it’s too late. Don’t be left behind wondering where the winter went.

Here are 8 winter activities to put on your list of things to do before the spring thaw comes and crocus appear.

1. Go tubing: For anyone who wants the thrill of speeding down a snow packed hill, but is not fond of the idea of falling (count me in on this one) tubing is an excellent option. If you have the physical skills to sit on the ground and get back up again with or without help, you can tube. The beauty of tubing is that people of various athletic abilities and ages can enjoy the same experience at the same time.

Many ski resorts have added tubing hills to their repertoire. From the Poconos in Pennsylvania to Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, the cost for tubing is quite a bit less than the cost of a ski lift pass. Plus, there’s no equipment to rent and you can enjoy the warmth of the ski resort’s lodge like any skier who forked out more money than you did.

2. Take a winter hike: Although hiking might seem more suited for warmer weather, winter hiking offers another look at outdoor beauty. Plus, there’s a level of solitude for reflection, part of what winter months invite. Sections of the Appalachian Trail are one possibility. For options that offer the opportunity to find out more about nature and natural history of an area, check your state’s park system. Many have an organized winter hike like Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio does. This park’s winter hike is January 16.

3. Go cross-country skiing or snow shoeing: Where there is snow, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe. City and town parks, logging roads or trails that have been specifically for either sport are waiting for you. The Enchanted Forest in northern New Mexico is one such place. To see if either sport is a good fit, head to a trail on Winter Trails Day. This winter, January 9th is the day to bundle up and strap on skis or snowshoes. Rentals are available.

4. Build a snowman in an unusual place: Where there’s snow perfect for packing, you can build a snowman. By building a snowman in a place that’s more public than your yard, you add to other people’s winter fun. A favorite memory of mine is watching people build a snowman on the Great Wall of China.

For people who live where it never snows, don’t pass up a chance to indulge in a snippet of childhood if you happen to have traveled to a place where it does–London, England, for example.

5. Sip hot chocolate, mulled wine or another hot beverage made extra warm by alcohol by a fire crackling in a stone fireplace. This is where you enjoy a winter wonderland by looking out a window. Where does one find such an experience? Ski lodges and hotel lounges and lobbies are perfect places for indulging in an afternoon or evening of relaxation in a comfy chair. Going solo? Bring a book. You don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy such pleasure.

6. Visit an historic village to learn about winter life in the olden days. At an historic village, costumed interpreters demonstrate how life was lived in yesteryear. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts is one of the more extensive historic villages. The sticker price is not exactly budget friendly. For the cheapest option, head to the Slate Run Living Historical Farm in Ohio. It’s free. I repeat. Free.

7. Bird watch at a local park, a nature center, a refuge or another area known for bird watching. Check out Critter Watch, for best winter birding spots in Colorado. In Ohio, the newest bird watching place is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, one mile from the heart of downtown Columbus. It’s located on an important migration stop next to the Scioto River.

8. Ice-skate at a city’s outdoor rink or a frozen pond. Many cities open skating rinks in their downtown’s to attract people. One of the most famous is the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. There are other less touristy skating options in New York City, however.

If you’re planning to head to any other city, see if there is an outdoor skating rink there. Skating on a city’s downtown rink is an active way to enjoy the city’s architecture while becoming part of the city’s scene. Skate rentals are available.

Some city parks and zoos like Buhr Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus Ohio, also offer ice-skating with skate rentals available.

Budget Travels’ top 10 budget destinations and a Gadling twist

As you may have noticed, Gadling’s been busy this month with budget destinations. Each one we’ve found deal worthy from personal experience. Budget Travel magazine has picked top 10 budget destinations for 2009. The variety is such that anyone should be able to find a deal to his or her liking whether it’s a particular city you’re after, or a whole country. Instead of presenting them in a rated fashion, the magazine lists them according to what makes them list worthy.

Each of the suggestions offers details that range from what to do to where to stay and describes exactly each place was chosen to highlight.

Throughout the past few years, we’ve had personal experiences with these destinations ourselves. Here are the destinations with a Gadling blogger’s angle. Some bloggers are alumni and others are current.

Closer to Home

Tumbling Currencies

  • Budapest, Hungary–Erik’s first visit to Budapest was after college where he found the architecture and the women sublime.
  • Reykjavik, Iceland–The economy has helped make it a bargain. Although Brook Silva-Braga didn’t talk about Iceland’s economy in this post of his, he did give a close-up look at a pretty wild and fun camping experience.
  • Mexico– If you’re going to be driving in Mexico, Kelsey gave the tips on how to survive the experience. She and her husband drove the length of Mexico from north to south

Major Events and Anniversaries

  • Berlin–Iva headed to Berlin in June 2008 and offers her first impressions. The anniversary is the 20th year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Vancouver, B.C.–Ember Swift who spent some time at Gadling blogging about her travels in a band, spent time in Vancouver riding the SkyTrain. The upcoming Olympics have the city going through some additions that will add to the traveler’s experiences.

Before They Become Overrun

  • Cambodia–For a perfect way to see Cambodia, Erik suggests a boat trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, one of the most interesting trips he has had.
  • Panama–Kent’s version of Panama is from the unusual perspective of the cockpit. He was there during the riots in Panama City earlier in 2008.

Perhaps you’ve have your own ideas of budget destinations, and we have more on the way.

Jauntsetter – Travel deals for New Yorkers

La Guardia AirportNew York, New York. You wanna be a part of it … but sometimes you need to get the heck out of it.

Good news! There’s a website called Jauntsetter that has travel deals specifically for New Yorkers. They know we’re too busy to find them ourselves, and that if no one hands us a deal we might just not go anywhere. I mean, we can get any food you can imagine, and there’s always some part of the city to explore. We can convince ourselves that this is all we need.

But it’s not! New York City is not the whole world, and those of us with the means to see the world should do it! It’s important to the international perception of America, important to our appreciation of our own country, and to each and every one of our personal growth. The more America knows about the rest of the world, the stronger America is in so many ways.

So, if you live in New York, check out the weekly updates on Jauntsetter.com. This week, for example, they have great international deals, as well as $200 flights to LA and New Orleans and great Sundance accomodations. Our pick of this week? San Juan, Puerto Rico for just $189!

Bookmarked. Thanks, Brian O’Neal, for the tip!