Sunday, June 3, 2007

Visiting New York on a tight budget

This is actually a story I wrote for my travel writing class at Quinnipiac University a few years ago, but I think it works well here, too:

When I was in New York this weekend, I realized that no matter how much money I have with me, I always manage to spend it all. There’s no city that can make me go as crazy as New York can. I always need money for the train, some food, and then some shopping, those $5 coffees from Starbucks and then some more food… and it can go on like that until I am up to over $100 for a day.

Then I thought about all those other times when I have actually gone to Manhattan without bringing hardly any money, and I’ve had just as much fun. Without spending any money, you can still experience the fresh green, slightly wet grass in Central Park, the smell of fresh fish off the ship at the South Street Seaport or the sounds of angrily honking taxicabs trying to cross over Seventh Avenue at Times Square.

There are several ways you can go to New York on a tight budget. First of all, don’t waste $25 on taking the Metro North into the city from New Haven (or wherever you are coming from). Instead, if you have a car, drive down to the Bronx and take the subway to Manhattan for $1.50. Of course, you have to know your way around the Bronx a little, because you don’t want to park in the back streets of South Bronx and come back from a day in the city to find out your windows, your stereo, and your seats are gone. Nor would you want to come back from the city to find out that you have a $25 parking ticket because you parked on the wrong side of South Broadway.

The best places to park are right around subway 5 (green) or the 1 and 9 (red). You can get to number 5 by taking exit 7 off the Merritt Pkwy (of course it will change to Hutchinson River Pkwy as you enter Westchester County), and you can get to number 1 and 9 by taking the New York State Thruway 87 down to the 238 street exit.

If you are going to New York with a group of friends, it really isn’t a bad idea to drive in and just park at a municipal parking garage for the day. To park for a day is about $18 (including tax and tip), which I usually split with my friends, and I have personally never had any trouble driving in the city or gotten anything stolen from my car while parked.

If you do decide to take the subway into the city, and you plan to move around a lot between downtown, midtown and uptown, you should definitely consider getting a Funpass. Funpasses are $4 and you get unlimited rides on the subway until midnight. That way, if you get tired throughout the day from walking the miles-long avenues, you can still hop on the train even if all your money is gone.

Walking around the city taking photos is, of course, something that doesn’t have to cost you a cent, until you get home and want to develop your film. If you want to take good photos of the now chopped down city skyline seen from the south, you can take the Staten Island Ferry for free. It will give you an opportunity to get good photos of the city without the World Trade Center, both when you are sailing away and coming back. The trip takes about 20 minutes one way.

For a taste of the nature in the middle of the greatest city on earth, you can visit Central Park, also free. You can either step into the park and leave the city behind, or stay along the paved sides of it, like I did when I was trying to get a glimpse of Harrison Ford. Ford is supposedly renting an apartment at 101 Central Park West, really close to the Dakota Building outside of which John Lennon was shot. If you get tired from waiting, there are nice wooden benches along Central Park West, and also throughout the park. Be sure to bring some leftover bread, however, if you plan to sit down around the Baruch Chess and Checkers house since it is filled with hungry and overly friendly squirrels.

If you go to the city on a weekend, there are always fun things going on and fun people to talk to in Washington Square Park. You can take the 1 or 9 to Christopher Street or the green, yellow or gray line to Union Square. From here it’s also a close walk to Greenwich Village where you will find second hand CD’s, funky stores, and semi-cheap coffee houses.

If you walk around in Greenwich Village, you should definitely pass by Grove Street where the Friends building is located. It took me several years of walking up and down the street until I actually found the brown brick building. The trick is to walk onto Grove Street from Hudson street towards Seventh Avenue until you see the Friends building appear on your right. If you are a fan of this number one rated show on television, as I am, it is definitely worth the while looking for the famous façade.

Eating in the city can be quite expensive if you go to the wrong places. So, don’t. You don’t need to go to the Rainbow Room or even the Hard Rock Café to get a good meal. Those places are best seen from a distance, where the luxurious view of the city or the loud music won’t bother you or your wallet. I’ve actually had friends who found buffets in Chinatown and Greenwich Village for $1 per person. My best meal in the city, however, was a juicy gyro in soft pita bread with plenty of fresh salad for $3.50 at the deli on the corner of Third Avenue and 43rd street.

Personally, I value food above everything else, so I’d rather save my money and make sure I eat well instead of buying souvenirs or clothes. However, if food is not a priority, you can either bring a sandwich and some water in your backpack and have lunch on a park bench or in the grass in Central Park, or go to McDonald’s, which is only slightly more expensive in the city.

There are many events going on for free in the city, especially during the summer. Keep your eyes open and check in newspapers and magazines to be sure to spot some of them. Famous people appear randomly at bookstores and in music stores for promotional events and you might be able to catch a glimpse of them. I once saw Alice Cooper when he was in Coconuts on Sixth Avenue signing CD’s. One warm, sticky summer night in Central Park I also managed to catch a free play starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Natalie Portman, thanks to my dear friend who found a small ad in the newspaper. Of course, we had to stand in line outside the Delacorte Theater for two hours with our clothes sticking to our bodies because of the intense heat and wait for returned tickets, but we had more or less been guaranteed spots by the employees, so it was worth the wait.

Ground Zero is of course the newest tourist attraction that is so far free to visit. If you really want to stretch your legs, you can walk from Times Square all the way down on Broadway, a walk I accomplished in a little less than three hours. Otherwise, take the subway.

Last time I was down there, Ground Zero covered an area from Chambers Street in the north to Cedar Street in the south and from Trinity Place/Church Street in the east all the way to the Hudson River in the west, but I would imagine they’ve cleaned up some more of the ashes and rubble by now.

While you are downtown anyway, I recommend walking over to the East side of Manhattan to experience the South Street Seaport. As I was there on a Saturday with beautiful weather, I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of visitors and the smell of fish, but in general I believe it can be a really nice place to visit.

When the sun decides to come out, as it often does in the city, the Seaport is a nice place to just sit down and relax, look at people and pretend that you are sitting at a beach in Maine. Try to stay away from the actual shopping area on Pier 17 if you don’t want to spend money, but definitely look to the north for a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

As the sun sets, you should definitely make your way over to the Hudson River, and watch all the roller-bladers fly by in their helmets and kneepads. And before you head back to your car, just stop for a moment and think about the amount of money you spent. If you follow my advice, you can have a great day in New York City for less than $10.

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