Insider’s Guide: Cheap Trips to New York City

By: Josh –
Last Updated: October 23, 2013

A trip to the Big Apple can be expensive. According to NYC –Go, the average New York City hotel room costs $238 per night. Then there is transportation to the city, the cost of Broadway shows, museum fees, transportation around the city, food, drinks, tours, etc. After adding it all up, that vacation to NYC can cost a pretty penny.

I live in NYC and so have special insight into how exactly one would go about taking a trip on the cheap to the city. In this guide, I’m going to give an example of exactly how I would go about taking a trip to New York City from Washington, DC for an entire week, for dirt cheap, while still having a great time. As you’ll see, you can have an amazing time in the city, see all the attractions, eat great food, have a place to sleep and have a great time. You just need to know how to do it, and soon you will.

Getting to NYC Cheaply

I have family in Washington, DC and when I was a student here in NYC, I would have to go back and forth a lot for holidays, etc. As I was a broke student, I utilized the cheapest options possible.

My favorite option is the Chinatown Bus. There are several different Chinatown carriers, so you’ll want to shop around on the web. Right now, I’m looking at a round trip ticket from DC to NYC for $30. That’s $15 each way. Dirt-cheap. They will pick you up from Chinatown in DC and drop you off in Chinatown NYC. The Chinatown buses run from many other cities as well. Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, you name it.

If you book well in advance and take a late night, 1am bus, you may be able to book a seat for as little as $1 with such bus services as Bolt Bus. You typically have to buy a round trip, and you’ll have to pay full fare one way, which costs $20 - $30 depending.

I know many of you may be coming from oversees or the West Coast. In your case, you’ll simply have to find the cheapest flight you can. If you fly into JFK, you may be interested in checking out our article on cheap airport transportation options.

In my case, let’s say I’m not booking well in advance, I’m coming from DC and don’t really feel like catching the redeye. Therefore, I’d book my Chinatown Bus for $30 round trip.

Cheap NYC Lodging

Once you get to NYC, you’ll need a place to sleep. You can crash on my couch if you want... NOT!

If you have a friend with an air mattress or a couch you can crash on, that would save you a ton, but because apartments in NYC are small and your friend may even have a roommate (or three) this may not be ideal.

The option I often recommend to friends (I’ve even done it myself) is to stay in a NYC hostel. I know what you’re thinking but many hostels in NYC are actually quite nice. How much time are you going to spend in your room while in a city like New York?

Hostel prices range widely depending on where you stay, how many people are in your room, what time of year you stay, etc. Today I’m using the Web to do some research and found a bunk with five others in a co-ed room right in downtown Manhattan for $25 per night. That is an amazing price. There is a shower in each room and a locker for each guest. What else do you really need?

You may want to check out our article on what you should know about NYC hostels.

If you want to upgrade from a hostel, you could always try booking your hotel through Priceline’s “name your own price” option. I’ve booked many Manhattan hotels for as little as $80 per night this way. Check out our article on how to book a NYC hotel with Priceline to find out more.

In my case, I’d book a bed in a NYC hostel for $25 per night for seven nights for a total of $175.

Getting Around NYC Cheaply

New York City has one of the best mass transit systems in the world. The easiest and cheapest way to get around the city (rather than walking) is with the Subway and bus systems. You can buy a 7-day unlimited ride “Metro Card” for $30. You can use it as much as you like on all the city subway and bus lines.

I’d buy myself one for $30.

Eating Well on a Budget in NYC

We all have to eat. New York is jam packed with cheap and delicious food. You just have to know where to look.

Stay away from Times Square and much of Midtown. The Times Square location caters to tourists, is full of cheesy corporate big box restaurants and is overpriced. Instead, try the Upper West Side or below 14th street in Greenwich Village.

For breakfast, eat big. You’re going to need your energy and breakfast is cheap, considering. New Yorkers love diners and there are a lot of them in the city. Find one. You can easily buy two eggs with sausage, home fries, toast an orange slice and coffee for less than $10 including tip. Change up what you eat each morning and try different diners so you don’t get bored.

Some hostels offer a small breakfast in the morning. The breakfast usually consists of not more than some cereal and toast. Nevertheless, take what you can get.

For lunch, you should consider a falafel. They are amazing! For $2.50 you get a pita stuffed full of fried chickpeas, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and yogurt sauce. You’ll find places selling falafel all over the city.

Another day you may want to try a New York “slice”. Thin crust slices of pizza are amazing in NYC. For as little as 99 cents, you can find yourself an amazing slice of pizza.

Try a NY deli. For $5, you’ll find lunch specials that include a sandwich, bag of chips and a soda. New Yorkers know how to make a mean deli sandwich.

If you’re willing to spend a bit more, try sushi lunch. There are many great sushi restaurants around the city and just about, all of them offer sushi for less during lunch hours. I have a place I go to in Greenwich Village that has sushi lunch for $9.95. It includes six pieces of sushi, one roll, a cup of miso soup and all the green tea you can drink.

Dinner can be a bit tricky, but I must recommend that you try a doner kabob. They are pitas stuffed with a massive amount of lamb meat, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, white sauce and hot sauce. It will fill you up and costs $5.50 at most location. Look for the massive spinning slab of meat on a stick in the window. They slice the lamb from it.

Look out for happy hour specials. In the East Village, you’ll find a ton of places that offer 20-cent wings, half price burgers, cheap nachos, etc.

Eat at Rice. One of my favorite cheap places to eat is Rice. No, I’m not saying to eat only rice, the name of the actual restaurant is Rice. They have a number of Asian Fusion dishes, many of which cost $6.50 and fill me up no problem. There is a location on Elizabeth Street near Houston Street in the Lower East Side.

There are tons of other cheap places to eat in the city. You can check out our list.

If we add all this eating up, we get: $10 for breakfast (if we never eat free at a hostel and always eat a big wholesome breakfast to start out the day. You could save more if you grabbed a breakfast sandwich at a deli). We average about $7 for lunch if we have Sushi one day, a sandwich from a deli the next and maybe a falafel or slice here and there. In addition, we average about $7 for dinner for a total of about $25 rounded up per day for food. And that’s eating well.

Cheap Sightseeing - Museums, Zoos and Attractions

A little known secret to museums in the city, is that many are suggested donation and you don’t actually have to pay anything to get in. The sign up front may “suggest” $25, but you don’t have to pay a dime. I typically throw down a dollar or two. The museum of Natural History is one of these museums as is the MET. You’ll save a ton.

Even museums that are not suggested donation often have free days and times sponsored by Target. These Target Free Events will get you into amazing museums and art galleries free.

Every Wednesday you can get into the Bronx Zoo free. It is amazing and I highly recommend it.

Take the Staten Island ferry for a free view of the city from the river.

In addition, if you are a true die-hard and simply have to see every attraction NYC has to offer, you may be interested in buying the New York Pass. For around $160 for a 2 day pass, you will gain you access to just about every attraction NYC has to offer, including the Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building viewing platforms. The New York Pass even lets you skip to the front of line!

I ’d buy myself a New York Pass for this trip.

The Math

$30.00 for roundtrip transportation on the Chinatown Bus from DC

$175.00 for seven nights in a NYC hostel in Manhattan

$30.00 for a seven day unlimited ride MetroCard

$175.00 to eat three times a day for seven days.

$160 for a New York Pass to get into all the NYC attractions

Total: $570

$570 divided by 7 days = $82.00

We can even round that $82.00 up to $90.00 to make sure we cover all the taxes, etc.

As you can see, with a little planning and not much sacrifice you can take a nice weeklong trip to New York City for well under $100 per day.