Cheap Vacation Ideas for 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!Three 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.

Three 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]

Escape from New York: Five tips for leaving the city when flights fail you

New York is no stranger to tourist and business travel. We get lot of guests here, and eventually, their trips must come to an end. When the weather turns harsh, this can be problematic. Spring may be close, but March and April snowstorms happen, and there are always spring showers to make getting off the ground at JFK or LaGuardia a pure living hell. Whether you’re traveling in the northeast corridor or need to get to a different airport to get home, there are options.

I came face to face with this problem around six years ago. I was trying to get back to Boston, where I lived at the time. I was in New York every week on business and by Friday wanted nothing more than to get home. I stepped outside at 2 PM and saw snow accumulating on the street, even despite the city traffic. I checked Delta‘s website and saw that nothing had been canceled. So, I high-tailed out to LaGuardia hoping for the best. After a two-hour cab ride, I hit the Marine Air terminal only to find that the website wasn’t being kept up to date.

I needed some options and the thought of another two hours of taxi rides in a blizzard didn’t thrill me. Back in Manhattan, I figured I could pick up a train on Amtrak from Penn Station (which wound up working out). Along the way, I learned some tricks that can help anyone traveling the northeast or looking for an alternative airport when hope appears to be lost.1. Don’t fear public transportation
There’s no subway to LaGuardia, but there are buses. Catch the Q48 from the main airport or the Q47 from Marine Air (if you’re taking the Delta Shuttle). Get off at Roosevelt Ave in Queens, where the F or 7 train will get you back to Midtown. From there, it’s easy to hit Penn Station (New Jersey, Amtrak) Grand Central Station (Connecticut and New York) or the PATH train (if you want to try your luck at Newark). From JFK, you can catch the Skytrain to the subway, but brace yourself for a very long ride – the fastest I ever made it to Midtown was around an hour and a half.

2. Rental cars are risky
First, when flights aren’t taking off, there will be no shortage of people with the same idea. So, supply will be limited. Also, nasty weather makes for nightmarish driving conditions. You’ll be extremely unhappy behind the wheel, a situation that’s likely to be made worse by traffic. If you want to try driving, take public transportation out to the ‘burbs and use a rental agency out there (call first to make sure they can help you out).

3. . Be mindful of the other side
Getting out isn’t enough: you also have to think about where you’re going. If bad weather’s pounding New York, there’s a pretty good chance the situation in Philadelphia, Newark and Boston is also pretty ugly. If you’re having someone pick you up, call ahead. Arrange for a taxi or town car in advance. Definitely check the situation on the ground if you’re trying one of these airports instead. During my trek to Boston during the blizzard a few years ago, I called a local taxi service and asked to be picked up at South Station – and requested that they ask for my name before letting anyone into the cab. Sound arrogant? Well, it saved my ass. I saw the driver turn at least four people away as I pushed through the crowd, and I have no idea how many people tried before I got there.

4. Giving up may not be an option
Sometimes, it’s tempting to quit and just get a hotel room for a night (or a few, depending on how severe the storm is). Depending on what’s going on in the city, however, this may be a pricey alternative. As with rental cars, you won’t be the only person to think of this. Also, a busy night or weekend can cut available rooms down to nothing fast. If you are able to score some digs, you could wind up paying a fortune. If you do decide to stay in the city, hunt for the boutique hotels that y may never have noticed otherwise: they’re your best bet.

5. Draft your friends and family
During my escape from New York, I called my wife and asked her to book my train ticket for me. Handheld computing has come a long way since then, but it’s still inconvenient to hunt for alternatives on an iPhone or Blackberry. If you have someone who’s sitting in a warm office or home, hit him or her up for a hand. They’ll be able to find hotels or other travel arrangements easier than you will. By the time you get from the airport back into Manhattan, you may have a plan that only needs to be executed.

Gadling Take FIVE: Week of September 13–September 19

In a week where Wall Street has gone haywire, and Hurricane Ike made it to the Midwestern part of the United States creating a whole bunch of mischief, this has been a week at Gadling for waxing nostalgic and feeling gushy.

  • Scott took us on a trip down memory lane with his post on vintage airline commercials.
  • Matthew got all poetic on his cup of ramen noodles, and told us just how to jazz up our own bowl of the good stuff.
  • Jeremy gave us a up close and personal look at the architectural gem of Grand Central as part of his new series, “The Undiscovered New York.”
  • Heather lamented a bit for the good old days of air travel when there were decent layovers and when airline food service was adequate enough to make both the flight crews and the passengers happy.
  • And, Meg pointed out one way Portland, Oregon remembers its history through horses–fake horses that can be found at various locations about town.

As for me, personally, I’m feeling nostalgic about electricity. We haven’t had it at my house since last Sunday. Of course, I realize this is a minor nusance. The upside is that electricity has been a great conversation starter as of late–as in, “Do you have any?”

Subway System in New York City Helps Riders Locate Themselves

For the most part, I think riding the subway in New York City is simple enough, but usually my brother tells me which train to take before I head out. There are the moments of standing beside a track wondering if I’m heading the right direction and do I need to turn around to go the other way, or go to another track entirely. I’ve managed to figure out how to read the maps posted inside the cars to follow the train’s path. Where things have gotten dicey is when I get off the subway and am once again on the street. Even when following the directional signs underground to make sure I end up on top where I need to be, there’s a moment of confusion when I step off that last stair and out of the subway’s entrance. Even when I get off the subway at Union Square, the one I most commonly use, I have to orient myself.

“Which way is . . .?” is a question I commonly ask. Most passerbys are happy to point which way a particular street is to help me out. Turns out that folks who live in New York City aren’t the only ones directionally challenged. According to this New York Times article, A LOT of New Yorkers often go through the same, “which way is . . . ?” scenario

Recognizing the navigational problems, even by seasoned Manhattanites, there is a new system being tried out. If you are at the subway stops near Grand Central Station, you’ll notice directional decals on the sidewalk by the subway entrances. They tell the names of the closest streets and tell which way is north, south, east, and west. That’s a neat idea. I think the decals look rather snazzy. If the system is helpful, it may expand. The photo by mihow posted on Flickr is of one of the Grand Central exits. She took the shots on the day “The Nanny Diaries” was being filmed. Scarlett Johansson was here on that day. That’s what the orange signs are about. Just a New York happening.

Traveling Coincidences: Who Else Have You Seen?

Brett’s post on famous people you’ve come across in your travels reminded me of other traveling coincidences. It’s neat to see famous people for sure, but what about the people who aren’t so famous? What about the people from other parts of your life who show up in places where you least expect to see them? This is another aspect about travel that facinates me. Does the universe just put us at the same time on the same corner of the world with someone from another part of our life far from where we normally reside for a reason–or is this just luck? Some people say it’s just luck. Others say there is some greater purpose at work. Regardless, I’ve run into people where I didn’t expect to see them for perhaps no other reason than it gives me a thrill. Often I didn’t find out the connection without a conversation between us first.

Here are my stories: One New Year’s Eve I was shivering in the cold at Times Square waiting for the ball to drop. I heard “Jamie!” called out in a loud voice. It was one of my close high school friends who I hadn’t seen for a few years. We just happened to be on the same block.

Years later when I was crossing the street at Grand Central Station, also in New York, I heard, “Ms. Rhein!!” When I turned around to see who called my name, I saw one of my former 11th grade American Lit. students who I taught when I lived in Singapore.

Another time when I was on a ferry going from Le Havre, France to Ireland I saw a young woman wearing a Penn State sweatshirt. I asked her if she went to Penn State. She said she was from State College. After I told her I had lived in State College when I was in the 4th and 5th grade we found out that we had gone to the same elementary school. Turns out her brother was the cutest boy in my class.

When I was trekking in Nepal there was a woman at one of our stops who looked familiar for some reason. It turns out she was also teaching internationally. After a few more conversation details, I remembered talking with her in a hotel bathroom in San Diego at a teachers’ hiring fair. She was in the bathroom to change out of her interview garb into more comfortable clothing.

And once when I was traveling from Albuquerque to Cincinnati on my way to a family gathering at a horserace at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, I changed planes in St. Louis. As I was traveling on the moving sidewalk, I heard some call my name. It was my cousin who lived in Pennsylvania at the time. He was heading to Texas, but had plans to be in Kentucky later that week.

I’m not sure if the universe is any better because of these happenstance meetings, but they do make me smile when I think of them. If you run across someone who looks familiar, it never hurts to start asking questions. (This photo, thanks to phototo penguin on Flickr is of the corner where the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.)