New York City has more billionaires than anywhere else on earth. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a one-percenter to visit. There are ways to do the city affordably, provided you’re savvy about it and willing to be flexible.
What follows are 35 helpful tips for planning an affordable trip to New York City, whose great riches—and I mean cultural riches such as Broadway shows, world-class museums, extraordinary architecture, innovative restaurants, top-tier dance and music, engaging literary events, and much, much more—still make NYC one of the most rewarding vacation destinations in the United States.
By the way, I’m the author of Frommer’s New York City 2023, so if you like what you read here, consider getting the guidebook for even deeper intel on planning a great trip.
Visit in January, February, or March. This is the most important tip on this list. During the chilly winter months, New York goes on sale—there are often promos for discount theater tickets and restaurant meals, as well as lower airfares into the city’s hubs. Most important, hotel prices drop an average of 66% compared to other times of year. I’ve seen rooms at very nice hotels sell for $129 per night in February; that same unit goes for $399 between September and the end of December. And that huge spread in costs is the rule, not the exception.
Fortunately, it’s not much of a sacrifice to come to New York in deep winter, since most of the city’s top sights and experiences are indoors. Because of climate change, snowy days and bitterly cold temperatures are few and far between in any case.
Stay a Sunday night. One legacy of the pandemic is that New York has turned into more of a long weekend destination than a center for business travel. Consequently, Sunday nights are very quiet as other travelers head back home—and you can get a February-style deal if you just want to dip into the city for a night (or two—Mondays are the week’s second-least expensive night at the moment).
Book reservations you can cancel. This may not be the case in other markets, but in New York last-minute hotel deals are almost always better than pay-in-advance rates. Do reserve a room when you first make plans to ensure you have a backup bed, but then undertake a search in the week leading up to your trip. Unless a major event such as the New York City Marathon is scheduled, you’ll almost always find that rates have dropped. Cancel your original reservation and opt for the lower price instead.
Use a club to find a hotel. How you do that search is also important. I’ve found that those who book through private clubs such as @Hotel on Instagram, Travel + Leisure Go, and Room Steals get better rates. For an explanation of why their rates are lower and a rundown of the pluses and minuses, click here.
Or try Priceline. Especially if you want to find a deal on a hotel in Manhattan—Priceline has options for a number of midrange chains there. The online travel agency’s Express Deals offer unusually low rates for overnighters willing to book without knowing the name of the hotel (though we know a free and easy hack for figuring out the name before booking).
(The affordable Lodge at Red Hook in Brooklyn; see full Frommer’s review here)
Stay in Long Island City. Despite the name, this is a neighborhood in Queens that’s just one or two subway stops from Manhattan, making it a convenient area for sightseers. Until recently, Long Island City was mostly industrial, so the many chain hotels here charge less than they would in Manhattan or Brooklyn, because you’ll likely have to travel to reach some of the restaurants and bars on your must-see list.
This is one of the few affordable NYC neighborhoods for hotels. These days, most Brooklyn properties are as pricey as those in Manhattan—with the exception of hotels (like the one pictured above) in less touristed neighborhoods such as Red Hook. Decent hotel options are lacking in the rest of Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
Despite what you read elsewhere, I can’t recommend booking an Airbnb for one simple reason: Almost all short-term rentals are against the law in New York City, which doesn’t allow rentals of under 30 days except with a rarely issued special license. Though the city has delayed enforcement of the law, an Airbnb crackdown could leave you bedless.
Opt for a New Jersey hotel—but only if there’s a rail link. New York City has one of the country’s worst commutes—not to mention horrifically high parking prices—so I don’t recommend staying in New Jersey and driving into the city using your own vehicle or riding a bus. However, there are a handful of hotels situated near the PATH train in Jersey City, Hoboken, and Newark that could work. Only use this tip if the above strategies don’t pan out.
Just walk. That’s what New Yorkers do! Wear comfortable shoes and enjoy the fascinating parade of fellow pedestrians as well as the endless varieties of restaurants, shops, and pocket parks. Manhattan, the borough where most visitors spend the bulk of their time (’cause that’s where the densest concentration of important museums and historic sights is), has a grid system for the majority of streets, so it’s simple to avoid getting lost. Going uptown? Look for numbers going up. Going east? Fifth Avenue is the dividing line between east and west for most of the island.
Rely on subways and buses. If you have to go a considerable distance—say, a mile and a half or more—hop on a bus or the subway. At $2.75 per ride, this is the most cost-effective way to get around, beyond strolling, and the subway will often get you where you’re going far faster than a taxi, thanks to perennially gridlocked streets. Buses get their own lanes on many avenues and are therefore more efficient than taxis and Uber rides much of the time.
For tips on navigating New York for those with accessibility concerns, consult the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s accessible transit guide or the guide to accessibile transportation compiled by New York City’s official tourism office.
Take a free harbor cruise for up-close views of the Statue of Liberty. There’s no cost to jump aboard the Staten Island Ferry, and while I don’t recommend tourists spend much time in Staten Island (simply take the ferry back; other boroughs have more items of interest), getting into New York Harbor and seeing the city and Lady Liberty from that viewpoint is a splendid experience.
See incredible NYC views without paying a dime. Yes, going to the top of the Empire State Building is a classic tourist experience. And the new SUMMIT One Vanderbilt is a hoot with its all-glass interior, floating mirrored balls, and fab Midtown views. But at $42 to $79, those skyline-skimming experiences are not cheap. You can see spectacular cityscapes for free from these spots:
(View of Columbus Circle in New York City | Credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock)
Be part of the studio audience for a free TV taping. Yes, you can watch Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Drew Barrymore Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for free at home. But seeing tapings in person introduces you to the effort and artistry that go into making a TV show. It’s a fun and fascinating look behind the scenes. To learn how to snag free seats to those shows and others taped in NYC, click here.
Head to one of the city’s free museums. Alas, such marquee museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History no longer have “pay what you wish” policies (except for citizens of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). But many smaller, stellar cultural institutions do. These include the Museum of the City of New York, African Burial Ground National Monument, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum at FIT, El Museo del Barrio, Federal Reserve Bank, Hamilton Grange National Memorial, BLDG 92 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the New York Public Library (which has excellent exhibits at its 42nd street branch) and the American Folk Art Museum.
Visit other museums when they’re free. Though entry fees have risen in the past 2 years at pretty much all of New York City’s museums, most still have weekly get-in-free periods. Here’s a quick summary of where and when entry fees are waived at some of the city’s top cultural draws.
And it’s important to remember that visiting art galleries is always free. New York City has more of those than any other city on earth, meaning the variety of art you’ll see here is mind-blowing. Click here for more info on that.
(New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is free on Saturday evenings. | Credit: ItzaVu / Shutterstock)
Get a CityPass. If you plan to see the city’s most famous sights during your vacation, buying a CityPass will save you a good amount of money. Take a look at this article to find which attractions are covered and how much you’ll save by getting the pass.
Sign up for a Big Apple Greeter tour. This personalized tour, led by a local volunteer who is well versed in the area you’ll be exploring, is absolutely free and can be scheduled at the most convenient time for you. Here’s a Frommer’s report on the wonderful Greeter program.
Join a free walking tour. Truth be told, these are free in name only, because participants are expected to tip at the end. But what you tip is up to you, and because guides are working for tips alone, there’s a self-selection process, with only the most entertaining guides sticking with the job. I recommend Free Tours by Foot.
Wander through a park. Central Park (pictured below) was the first landscaped public park in the United States, influencing thousands of other municipal green spaces across the country. Central Park is still a wonder, but you’ll also be wowed by the elevated High Line, the floating Little Island, the transformed sugar factory Domino Park, and many other innovative, artistic parks across the city. Bring a picnic and enjoy.
(Central Park in New York City | Credit: Pauline Frommer)
Kayak on the Hudson for free. Thanks to the all-volunteer nonprofit Downtown Boathouse at Pier 26, anyone can take a kayak for a spin on the Hudson River at no cost. There are also free lessons available for those who’ve never kayaked before. Visit HudsonRiverPark.org for more info. (Obviously, this is strictly a warm-weather activity.)
Get discounted Broadway theater tickets. The majority of shows on Broadway (and Off-Broadway) sell cut-rate tickets either through discounters or lotteries, or to playgoers willing to stand rather than sit throughout the show. See our detailed advice on the many ways you can save on live performances.
Soak up the scene in Times Square. If you’re in Times Square for a Broadway show, hang out a bit longer for some free nighttime entertainment. The pedestrianized square becomes an impromptu stage for talented performers every night. And at 11:57pm, the lights around the square dance in a choreographed 3-minute light show that’s been heralding midnight—and delighting visitors—for the past decade.
Try to snag tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. In summertime, there are few better ways to spend an evening than at this festival held in Central Park and starring some of the biggest stars of stage and screen. Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman, and Al Pacino are just a few of the celebs who’ve trod these boards. Tickets are free and available via lottery or by waiting in line at the theater. Good luck—er, break a leg! Click here for more details.
Attend a book reading or lecture. Because the city is the media capital—home to major TV and radio networks, publishing houses, and journalism outlets—top minds know that New York is the preeminent soapbox for telling a story, explaining a concept, or otherwise broadcasting one’s yawp to the world, to paraphrase the New Yorker Walt Whitman. Held at bookstores, universities, and cultural centers, literary events are usually free to attend, though some require the purchase of a book. They happen every night of the year—simply search online for “book readings NYC” to see what’s on.
Find a festival. In the warm-weather months, the city hosts numerous free or low-cost festivals that bring symphonic music, opera, dance, jazz, and other types of performance to the city’s parks and outdoor stages. The work on display is often stellar since the quality of the talent in New York City is so high. Again, a quick online search will show you what’s happening while you’re here.
Share dishes and under-order. Restaurant prices have gone up across the United States, but so have portion sizes. Of course, you won’t learn that from the server. Waiters across Gotham have been trained to say, “We recommend 3–4 dishes per person.” Don’t believe it—under-order and share dishes. You can always order more if you’re still hungry.
Go with the city’s starchy specialties. I’m talking bagels and pizza, two staples NYC does better than any other city in the USA (sorry, Chicago). You can craft serious meals from both, and many of New York’s pizza restaurants have handsome décor, potent potables, and other trappings of a night on the town. Or you could just grab a slice and keep sightseeing. Up to you. To see a list of Frommer’s-recommended NYC restaurants—including bagel joints and pizza parlors—click here.
Make a meal of happy hour specials. If you’re willing to dine before 6pm—and at the bar—you can make a nice meal out of the happily priced happy hour specials offered at many of the city’s top restaurants. These include a tasty meatball sandwich at Portale; flatbread pizzas at Iris; cheap beers (just $4!) and oysters, shrimp, and corn dogs at Sidney’s Five; curried mussels and seafood fritters at Kokomo; and so on.
Go upscale for lunch. If you want to try one of the city’s top restaurants but don’t want to spend your child’s college fund doing so, make a lunch reservation. Such temples of gastronomy as Ai Fiori, Aquavit, Iris, Le Pavillon, Le Bernardin, and others offer tasting menu lunches for 25% to 50% less than what you’d pay at dinner.
Eat in Queens. The most recent U.S. census found that 47.2% of the people who live in Queens were born outside the United States. They are from all over the world, and that diversity is reflected in the borough’s smorgasbord of authentic, inexpensive restaurants showcasing the culinary heritage of an astonishing roster of nations.
Some of these cuisines are next to impossible to find elsewhere in the United States, or in such wide variety. For instance, in the neighborhood of Flushing—one of the largest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia—it’s possible to try Hakka, Korean, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese, Sichuanese, Cantonese, Fujianese, Mongolian, and Uyghur fare, all within a few blocks. Also in the borough: restaurants serving food from Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Greece, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, and on and on and on.
Want to try a variety of different cuisines all in one place? Head to the awe-inspiring Queens Night Market, where most dishes cost just $3–$4 apiece.
Get your souvenirs in Chinatown. In the market for a Statue of Liberty hat, an I Love NY sweatshirt, or a snow globe containing a yellow taxi and a skyscraper? Wait until you get to Manhattan’s Chinatown to buy. The neighborhood has dozens of souvenir stores selling the same goods you’ll find in Times Square or near the Empire State Building, but at a fraction of the cost.
Visit a discount haven. The city has a number of top-notch outlet stores that sell all kinds of goods at deep discounts. At the forefront are B&H Photo Video (for electronics and cameras), Century 21 (for designer fashions), and Empire Outlets on Staten Island (for savings on big box brands).
Ditch your car. Please don’t drive into New York City. Your costs will rise exponentially if you do, thanks to nightly parking rates rivaling the cost of a hotel stay in other cities. If you must drive, park your car in one of the bedroom communities that has train access into the city, and use public transportation while in New York itself.
(Traffic leading into NYC | Credit: Ryan DeBerardinis / Shutterstock)
Hop a cheap bus. If you’re coming in from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, or other relatively nearby spots, there are inexpensive buses that will get you into the heart of NYC. Wanderu.com is an excellent resource for finding these types of fares.
Search for and book flights on the right day of the week. According to another study examining tens of millions of booked airfares (not just airfare searches) done by the Airlines Reporting Corporation, passengers who buy tickets on Sundays can save a good amount, statistically speaking. It’s also important to purchase roughly 4–6 weeks before travel. That’s the sweet spot for getting a good rate.
Now come and enjoy the Big Apple. We look forward to welcoming you to the greatest city on earth!