New York, America
Oh, New York. This Spring marked my third time in New York, the city of my dreams. I can’t really explain why I love New York so much even if I tried – so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say there’s just something about the city…
And that something, magical as it may be, is probably subject to tax and a twenty percent tip.
I love New York so much but there’s no denying that this love is an expensive one. The city is pricey to begin with, unashamedly so, and on top of that there’s the tipping, which will kill you if you’re not used to it and also, not used to math. I check both boxes. And if there ever were a city that needed a BSG, it’s this one.
Getting to New York
I wrote a post on this last year: Let’s go to America! Broke Student’s Guide to Pre-Trip Planning. Just an add on to that – I’ve heard from friends that prices for tickets can drop to as low as 1.1-1.2k during the less popular timings, like in Jan or Feb. Post festive season, plus the weather’s mad cold. I have a friend who actually made it there for 1.2k on ANA, which is a fantastic deal.
Accommodation in New York
Accommodation will be the main thing that kills your budget, I think. I have friends in New York that I stay with, but otherwise I think the best option is Airbnb – I’ve checked, and if you book early enough you can get a place for about a hundred a night. If you’re on an even tighter budget, you might want to consider couchsurfing.. my guide on that is here. Still, that’s really down to character – some people aren’t comfortable doing that, or are worried about safety, so I’d say it really takes a healthy mixture of courage and brokeness to go for it.
On that note…
New York gets a bad rep from the movies, but I’ve found it to be really safe as long as you have common sense. You know. Don’t walk into a pitch dark park at night. Don’t do stupid things. Etcetera etcetera. But I always get questions on where to stay, so I would say generally anywhere in Manhattan from the Upper West downwards is safe-ish. I’ve stayed in both the Financial District (super safe) and East Village (really fun), and would recommend both. Even staying in Brooklyn is great because it’s cheaper and it’s got it’s own vibe and stuff going on. I wouldnt stay, however, in Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island, because they’re just too far from whatever you’d want to get to. You actually have to take a ferry to Manhattan if you stay in Staten Island. It’s just not worth it. I also wouldn’t stay in Harlem – a personal choice, I just dont find it as safe.
How much to bring is up to the individual. But as for changing money..
I’ve never actually changed money in New York before, purely because the culture there is so much card based. People tend to just sign for everything, so bring your Visa, and do your research on what’s the best card for your needs. I used the FRANK OCBC Visa Credit Card almost exclusively on the trip, which I initially applied for because I get a really good rebate for “entertainment” spending in Singapore, which is basically, you know, food. Movies. Karaoke. But when it comes to travelling, the card also has a 6% rebate for online shopping with a minimum offline spend that’s really easy to hit if youre travelling, and the US is great for online shopping (hello next day delivery!) so it made a lot of sense for me at the time.
As for cold hard cash, you pay cash for things like random snacks from food carts, maybe small purchases, a coffee run.. but people mainly pay with card. I actually went to a cafe where it only accepted card, no cash at all. That was modern, even for me. If you call a car service though, that’s paid for with cash only. I usually just change my money at the Simei Eastpoint basement, which I find has the best exchange rate in the east, but I have a friend who changes a fixed amount every month for the number of months leading up to her trip, because then she gets the average best exchange rate. It’s more effort, but I guess it makes sense if you’re going somewhere expensive, like the states.
Transport in New York
This depends on how long you stay, but generally getting around New York is a mix of walking and training. You get a metro card and top it up to take rides. The train rides cost about USD2.75/ride no matter how long or short your travel distance is, a weekly pass is $31, and a monthly pass is $116.50. I got the monthly pass all three times I was here because I’m always in New York for about a month or two per time, but honestly, it only evens out if you think you’ll take upwards of two rides a day. Up till now I’m still not sure if that was the wisest choice for me, because half the time if I’m out with friends, we’ll end up splitting an uber or cab.
Which brings me to..
Private cars. Cabs, Ubers, and Lyfts are available through New York City. Generally, it’s not a huge difference if you take a cab or an uber, but I’d say the most savings you’d get is if you’re alone (which I usually am) or with one other friend, because then you’re eligible for Uber Pool and Lyft Line.
Uber Pool and Lyft Line are car pool services, which basically means you pay a fixed fare that’s pretty low, lower than if you’d take a normal uber or cab, but it also means you might be sharing your car with other passengers going the same way.
Between Uber and Lyft, the price differences lie in the discounts you get. From experience, Lyft is always cheaper, because they’re forever giving out free codes for 50% off rides, $10 off your first ten rides each, etcetera etcetera. If you’re a new user, you’re going to get a ton of credit for use, which is pretty great. And if youre there over some random festival or something, they’ll give out more free credits too – I was there over Memorial Day weekend this time, and all rides were 50% off!
The great thing is, they’re always engaging in price wars because of this, and the last week I was there, Uber Pool launched a $5 flat fare for commuting hours, which was, you know, pretty great.
Another app people there use is Gett, but I’ve not tried that one. But it’s an option, so just throwing it out there!
Note: if you’re doing this, you should get a NYC number, because it’s really difficult for drivers to contact you if you dont have a working number, and if they get annoyed and just leave, you still get charged.
Note II: A useful app to have is NYC Subway, which is a free offline map for the new york subway. You can enter where you are and where youre going, and they’ll show you the best way vs the fastest way vs the most direct way to get there. Anyway it’s handy to have around!
Note III: If you’re going out of New York, you don’t travel by metro so your unlimited pass wont work if you’re thinking of taking a train to, say, Atlantic City or something. I’m not sure if trains even go there, to be honest. But yeah, depending on where you go, you have to buy separate tickets from the terminal. Google it depending on what day trips you want to make!
Data/ Sim Cards in New York
New York has three main service providers – Verizon, T Mobile, and AT&T.
If youre using a non-US phone, chances are you can’t get a Verizon card. It’s not compatible or something like that.
I got an AT&T card the last time I was here and I absolutely hated it. It was about USD80 for 4GB, which ran out in NO time. This time, I got a T-Mobile unlimited data card, which is unlimited everything (data, call, text) for thirty days, and costs about a hundred bucks. Given how much I had to pay to top up my stupid data the last time whenever it ran out, I thought the Tmobile deal was a lot better, all things considered.
Data is expensive overseas, ok? Get used to it. There are definitely a lot of cheaper options if you dont need as much data as I do, but because so much of my work is based online, it makes more sense for me to just invest in an unlimited plan. I had a look and there are prepaid sims for as low as $30, so dont freak out – there are cheaper options, as long as you know what you do and dont need!
Eating in New York
Food in New York is pricey once you eat out, but as with every destination, there are cheaper options for everything. Generally, if you sit down and eat, you’ll have to tip about 15-20% of your meal price. But if you go to, say, a deli, you can eat from their Hot/Cold food buffet, where you pay by the weight of your meal. Basic things like Pizza and Hot Dogs are cheap, but they dont have to be bad – there are a ton of really fantastic pizza joints around the city, my personal favourite being Bleeker Street’s Pizza.
Bleeker Street Pizza
69 7th Ave S, New York, NY 10014, USA
Other than that, I’d say keep an eye out for lunch deals. Lots of restaurants around the city do lunch deals from 12-2pm, which is basically a set meal of a main, a soup/appetiser, and a drink, for maybe ten bucks or slightly more. It’s the best! It’s definitely something you need to lookout for, because they’re going to be way cheaper than if you get an ala-carte main. I assume its to cater for working people around the area, but it’s a great thing either way.
And if you’re really feeling the pinch that day, check out the food carts all around the city. Because they’re grab and go, you dont have to pay for tax, and there’s just an optional tip jar where, realistically, people just leave their spare change. Prices for food carts depend on what you want, but say, the Halal Guys (super famous meat+rice NYC street food) would set you back about six or seven dollars, and a hot dog might set you back about two.
One more thing – always ask for tap water. Tap water is safe to drink in NYC, and some restaurants will just ask if you want sparkling or still water, both of which are chargeable by the bottle.
I’ll be doing another post soon about the different meals you can have in NYC – New York is so amazing when it comes to food options, that deserves a whole post on it’s own!
The Regular Bucketlist
New York is famous for several things, the tangible things, like the statue of liberty, central park, the rockefeller, etcetera.. and while I personally believe that the charm of New York lies not in the things to see but the things to experience, it still stands that people are gonna want to see what they want to see. And the good news is, most of these things are free.
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge, going on the High Line, hanging out in Central Park, and even brushing the Statue of Liberty – all these are free and very iconic activities you can do. For the Statue of Liberty – you can take a free Staten Island ferry from the FiDi that goes past it, so you can go close enough without paying to get on Ellis island. It’s a pretty good way around the Statue of Liberty admission rate, I think.
Things you do have to pay for include entry to the Top of the Rock, but I hear that if you’re not fussy about having to go in the day, or to the very top, you can just go for drinks at the Rainbow Room that’s in the same building after dark and get the equivalent view.
I really feel like one of the best things about New York is how much there is to do, all the time, and for any interest, age group, or budget! New York is a playground – not just for people with money, but for everyone. And yes, it’s an expensive city, but it’s full of creative people, talented people, and resourceful people – so when you put all that together, you have a ton of stuff to do, and a ton of ways you can find out about them.
My favourite website for New York activities on the cheap/free is The Skint. Their tagline is Free and Cheap New York, Everyday. So, you know. Basically my life. They update their site every single day on whats up around the city for free or cheap to do around the city. I’ve been to cheap comedy shows, free exhibitions, and attended pretty fun activities just by seeing it on their site. They also list when certain museums have surprise free entry days, or when there are random events that happen around the city for free. Eg. Bryant Park has free dance classes depending on the season, and some places do free movie screenings. There are lots and lots of really great events that are free as long as you RSVP, and all that is on the website.
You can also google Time Out New York for whatever is happening for the day. Whatever appears on Time Out tends to be a bit more commercial/mainstream, though that’s not to say it isnt still really great. It’s just that events listed on The Skint are really, really local.
New York is also really huge on fitness, so you can get free dance lessons during the summer at the parks, or do random marathons for different charities. A really popular thing to do also is to take a Pay as you wish Yoga class from Yoga to the People. Renting the mat is $2, but other than that you can pay whatever you want.. really great for broke students. Lol!
Yoga To The People
Classes are an hour long, mat rental $2
Suggested donation: $10, but it’s basically pay as you wish
As for musicals, plays, and shows..
Comedy Cellar is a fantastic experience for anyone who’s into comedy (or even for anyone who’s not, really) because it’s the place where lots of famous comedians started, and it’s a bit of a legend by now. The entry fee is $14 and there’s a two drink minimum.
But! If you’re on New York on a Tuesday night, I’d suggest checking out the weekly Sweet Comedy Show at the Slipper Room. It’s hosted by Seth Herzog, the opening guy for Jimmy Fallon. He’s so freaking great, really. We went for this the last time I was in New York, and it’s definitely comparable to Comedy Cellar – plus it’s $7, with no drink minimum. It’s really a bit of a local’s insider secret, so you’ll rarely get a tourist there, I only went because I had a friend who was a friend of Seth’s, and recommended it. Otherwise it’s practically impossible to hear of it – I googled it and it said the show’s run had ended, which obviously is untrue since, you know, I was there.
Like Comedy Cellar, they occasionally have celebrity appearances, but they dont announce it before hand because it’s a surprise. I dont know enough about the comedy scene to recognize anyone except Tina Fey, but I was lucky enough to catch comedy celebs both times when I went to Comedy Cellar and Sweet.
The SLIPPER ROOM
(SW corner of Orchard and Stanton)
Doors at 8, Show at 9
Note: If you’re new to comedy, I would definitely recommend that you attend at least one show in New York. It’s a fantastic experience, but go in with an open mind. They will pick on you, especially if you sit near the front. But it’s all in good fun, so don’t take it personally, and you’ll have an amazing time. Audience interaction often makes up a really fun part of the show, so just go with it!
Ah, Broadway. The love of my life. Growing up as a choir girl, musicals have a really special place in my heart – but full priced tickets could give you a heart attack. I hear Hamilton tickets are going on the black market for about $900 each now…
The one thing you must know about Broadway is how to Rush.
Rush is basically slang for getting Rush tickets, or cheap day-of tickets. You can only buy them on the day of the performance at the box office, and they often go for about thirty bucks, as compared to the usual rate of, say, eighty? It’s great but not all shows have them. Phantom, for example, is so popular that it never goes on rush. Ever.
But to be honest, I’ve never watched a bad musical in New York. Everything has been absolutely fantastic. I have my favourites, of course, but I cant imagine any musical you catch being bad. On my last week in New York, I randomly picked a musical to buy rush tickets for, and it turned out to be one of the best musicals I’ve ever watched!!! The musical in question is called Something Rotten, by the way. I went in blind, had no idea what it was about, and had such a great time. 10/10 would recommend.
You can get the full list of musicals on Rush here. Some places do a student rush as well, which is slightly pricier than general rush from my experience, but comes in handy when general rush tickets are sold out. For this you need a valid student ID, so bring yours if you’re young. You know what I mean.
*A personal tip I have for if you want to catch Phantom is to go early and buy box seats. They go for $69, which is a really, really great price for such premium seats. They’re at that price because it’s supposed to be a mildly restricted view, but honestly, there’s no difference I think. These aren’t rush prices either, so you can buy them days in advance.
A great alternative to Broadway is to, well, catch off-Broadway performances. They’re cheaper, less mainstream, but normally just as good. I have no idea why they’re considered off-broadway, maybe because they appeal to a different audience? But my experiences with off-broadway have also all been great. One of the best night’s I’ve had in New York was spent off-Broadway at a Drunk Shakespeare performance in a hidden library off West Broadway. That’s exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare, but played by actors who get increasingly drunk. I’ve never laughed harder in my life. Such talent!
The Drunk Shakespeare Company
300 West 43rd St, Level 2
Near 8th Avenue
I recommend this so hard I can’t even. You’ll also find that you can normally find groupons for shows like these. Which brings me to..
A Random Tip: Embrace the Groupon.
The groupon culture in New York is serious. Lots and lots of things have groupons that just stay on forever. I think it just helps with publicity for them, and it’s kind of a lifestyle thing. I know in Singapore we tend to feel like groupon deals can be a bit of a scam, but the attitude towards groupon is completely different in the States. You can find groupons for everything – meals, shows, experiences, even gym memberships. I bought a month long gym membership for a gym near my NYC place for $14, half the normal price of a monthly membership. Worth it? I think so.
An alternative to Groupon is LivingSocial. It’s like groupon, same concept, just might have different deals. So I would suggest scouring these two sites if you have something you know you want to do, or if you’re just looking for ideas.
Some museums have a fixed entry rate, but to be honest, you can get into most museums for free or a really, really low rate. The Met, for example, is entry by donation, so you pay whatever you want. There are suggested rates, of course, but it’s up to you at the end of the day. You could even pay a dollar – I’ve seen people do it, and no one even bats an eye.
Other museums have timed free entry. MoMA is free on Fridays, and the Guggenheim has free entry during certain hours on Saturdays. It differs from museum to museum, so google dat shit.
Lastly.. getting back home
So you’ve had a great time in New York, the place where honestly, no time is enough time. There’s always more to do, more to see, more to fall in love with…
But I digress. All dreams must end, and parting is such sweet sorrow. You have to head back to the airport to go home, but cab rides to JFK are a flat fare of $59 before tip. It’s expensive, and you’re feeling even more broke by the end of your trip. So what do you do?
The cheapest way to get to the airport is the JFK Air train. It’ll set you back about five bucks, and plus the transfer from whatever previous train (probably the Long Island Rail Road) you had to take to get to Jamaica station which is $6.25 on weekdays (except rush hour in the peak direction) and $3.75 on weekends (CityTicket), you’ll spend about ten or fifteen dollars in total.
If you don’t want to pay almost seventy bucks for a cab (that’s nearly how much it is after tip, basically) but also don’t want to struggle with luggage and a train, then the way to go is a chinese car service. These private car service operators are usually located in Chinatown, and will get you to the airport from Manhattan for about $40, cash only, before tip. There are a bunch operating in NYC, the more popular ones being Good Luck car service, or New Golden Horse car service. Call in advance. They say you get a better rate if you speak in Mandarin, but I don’t know. Maybe my mandarin is so bad they can’t tell I’m speaking mandarin. Anyway. It’s significantly cheaper than taking a cab, so yes, would recommend this!
It’s always so hard to wrap up any travel post, but posts about New York.. just writing about it makes me feel like I’m back there again, and it’s always such a shock to look up from my screen and realise that I’m back home. Don’t get me wrong, I love being home too, it’s just that New York.. is where I’ve left half my heart. And the other half is always clamouring for a way to get back to it.
I have a bunch of plans for other New York posts coming up, but really, there’s no right way to do New York. It’s not the type of place that you go into with a roadmap of things to see – you do, but it’s not what makes it special. Rather, the city radiates a unique vibe that really envelopes you – either you love it or you hate it, but you cant deny that it’s, well, something. The city is so random, I made incredible friends with people just by standing beside them in a queue, I had a mini concert once in a yoghurt shop where a lady and I started harmonising randomly to a song on the radio which turned into a swing dance number, and I’ve heard life stories from countless Americans, the city always surprising me with how warm and open they are with their lives. And all I can do is go in with my palms open, waiting for something to happen, excited, trying to record whatever happens in a way that does it justice, and often failing.
But New York, oh, New York. You never do regret New York. It really is a city that breaks hearts, but never quite lets you go.
Till we meet again –