How to Experience New York City on a Budget

I mentioned a few weeks back that we got the chance to go to NYC and visit my brother and sister in law, which was so much fun! Right after we graduated from college Bryce and I had the opportunity to live in Manhattan for three months while he trained for his new job. It’s an understatement to say I completely fell in love with the city. From the culture, to the walking, to the bagels (everything, of course) and back to the culture it was an amazing experience! One of the only things that is not optimal about NYC is that it can be e-x-p-e-n-s-i-v-e.
The simple fact is, you can’t visit NYC and get the full experience without spending some money, but it doesn’t have to break you, it is doable. Everybody should get a chance to visit this city, so here are all my tips to help make it happen for you!

Getting from A to B.
First let’s talk airfare to New York. There are three airports in close proximity to the city: JFK, Newark and Laguardia. Being flexible about which airport you fly into will give you a better chance at a decent fare. Typically your cheapest option will be midweek and red eye flights. (We flew the red eye when we last went. When the plane landed, I honestly wanted to die, but after a quick two hour siesta, I was good to go all day!) It is always cheaper to buy your tickets in advance if possible.The easiest mode of transportation from the airport to the city is a cab (from JFK to Manhattan is $60) but you can get to the city using public transportation. You take a little airport shuttle train over to the subway stations and into the city from there. It only cost us like $15 for both of us to get from the airport to the city this way. Yes, it takes longer, but that’s one more nice dinner we gained from our sacrifices (oh how I love the NYC food scene).Once in the city, you will want to put some money on a metro card to use the subways. Start with a smaller number, you can always add more money if you need to, but if you put too much on you just waste it when you leave. New York is a walking city, so walk as much as you can! I love seeing the city views from my own two feet, and whenever it is possible and convenient, we walk. Save your metro card for long distances and never waste a fare on something that’s within walking distance. Another fabulous perk of walking is that you feel less guilty about the next amazing meal you indulge in, haha.

Of course you want to go to a show. I love Broadway. I am giddy like a school girl every time I get to go to a show, without fail. Musicals are my favorite. I love the voices, the dancing, the stories… ah-mazing! Good news for you, I am going to tell you how to see shows on broadway without breaking the bank. In recent years Broadway has done a lot to make tickets more affordable for students and others who can’t spend upwards of $100 on a ticket.

A few of these options are rush, standing room only, and lottery tickets. For rush or standing room only tickets you typically have to be at the box office when it opens and wait in line. Standing room only are usually only available if the performance is sold out (so you have a better chance at SRO with really popular shows).

Lottery tickets are my absolute favorite way to get into Broadway shows. How it typically works is you show up a couple hours (each show will have a different time) before the show opens, and put your name in a drawing for super cheap tickets. A half hour later, they draw out tickets and if your name is drawn you can pick to buy 1 or 2 tickets right there, in cash, for the show. Lottery tickets usually range between $20-30 depending on the show. We have successfully seen Newsies, West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera, and several others from winning lotteries, all for less than $30 a ticket! If you are staying in the city for 3 days, and you REALLLY want to see Matilda (I am dying to, btw) then try the lottery the first two days, and if you don’t get in, then consider buying full price tickets.

Another great option are the TKTS stands. To get tickets there, you show up the day of and they will have a list of what shows are available and what their discounted rates are. For a complete and up to date list of lottery, rush and STO policies for each show and instructions for each, click here.*Note that you you usually need cash and a photo id for all of these discounted options.

New York is for foodies. How can I put this…. don’t go to Time Square and eat at TGIFridays (no offense, TGIFridays). Not only is that about the most expensive way you could go, it also doesn’t give you the true New York City food experience. Don’t eat at any chains (excepting the Shake Shack). The “touristy” areas are always going to be the most expensive places to eat, but if you wander just a tiny bit off the beaten path, not only are there amazing ethnic restaurants of every variety, but they are also way more affordable. Eat at food trucks (there are seriously so good). In the morning, grab a bagel (I love you, everything bagel) or some fruit from a food stand.
Let’s talk museums. The city is like heaven for museum enthusiasts. You could literally spend days in the city doing nothing but exploring museums. Not only that, but typically museums are pretty affordable. Many museums have “donation” policies where they have a recommended donation price , but really you just pay what you feel like the experience is worth to you. I feel like museums do this purposely considering those who would genuinely like to go and learn and experience and don’t have a lot of money. I am grateful that they do, and try to pay what I can when I can. One day, hopefully we will be huge donors ;).  Here is a complete list of free NYC museums as well as a complete list of museums that offer discounted tickets during certain days/times. My personal favorite museum in the city is the Museum of Natural History.
You need to sleep somewhere. Hotels typically aren’t cheap in the city, but don’t give up on finding a deal right away. Prices are typically much cheaper in the heart of summer (like half price!) because well, it’s blazing hot… but if it’s the difference between getting to go and not getting to go, it’s so worth it! The city also has tons of Hostels that are insanely cheap (like under $40!) While I have never stayed in a hostel in the city, my cousin and my grandma both have and both had positive experiences. Do your research, a hostel may be a good fit for you. I don’t recommend staying outside of the city and commuting in. Even though it would undoubtedly be cheaper, you will waste tons of time and money traveling in every day, but of course it’s up to you!

Free stuff rocks. One of my very, very absolute favorite places in Manhattan is Central Park, and guess what? It’s free! The city is super fast paced and I love visiting central park a few times each trip to catch my breath. Some of my favorite things to do at central park are watching performers, having picnics, laying on the grass and reading a good book, getting ice cream and people watching, playing checkers (bring your own pieces), and going for long walks to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

You can also go check out Time Square, grand central station, the financial district, Chinatown, Little Italy, the Brooklyn Bridge, 5th avenue, 34th street (just to name a few) at no cost! Of course you may want to buy some souvenirs while you are there (I can’t resist the cheap purses in Chinatown) but you don’t have to pay anything to explore. Even though I know I’m probably not going to buy anything on 5th avenue, it can be fun to window shop at some truly incredible places. Also, at least once it can be fun to see the M&M factory, the Nike store, FAO Schwarz etc.

Another cool option are the free walking tours. There are options where guides will take you around on a tour of a specific place (ex: Midtown Manhattan tour) and at the end you pay the guide what you felt like the tour was worth to you. This ensures that your guides are always at the top of their game and that you won’t get into something you can’t afford! Newer tour versions are available now where you can download where to go, what to eat, what path to take etc. (no actual guide) and then after you get online and donate what you feel like the tour was worth. They have tours for all different areas and this helps plan out your stay and maximize your metro cards.

So much History. Even though it can cost a little money, it is also fun to check out some of the historical aspects of NYC. I loved Ellis Island. It is an amazing view from the top of the Empire State Building, it’s crazy to see the Statue of Liberty in real life and the Twin Towers Memorial sounds amazing (last time I was able to get there it wasn’t quite finished).  Maybe pick one that you’ve always wanted to do and hit the rest next trip.. I can guarantee once you’ve been to the city once, you’ll be dying to get back!
Well there you have it. Hopefully some of you learned something you didn’t already know that will help make an NYC trip a reality! If any of you have any tips, tricks or favorite spots that I missed, please add them in the comments, I love learning from all of you!
NEW! Check out our sister post – Cheap things to Do and Eat in New York City. Also, if you love to travel as much as we do, check out Sarah’s video from her stay at the Magnolia House below! It was so awesome!
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    Rosemary David

    Thank you for this post. Enjoying the beautiful city, having some fun and saving money as well. That is amazing.


    Thanks so much for this! First timer and really need some advice on places to stay?


    staten island ferry is free and some great views of the city


    Hey! Thank you for the post! If you want to save money on housing look into! I highly recommend it!


    I bought a weekly metro pass… it works on the buses too, fyi


    Which hostel did you cousin and gma stay at? We are going in May but geesh hotels are soo expensive and I would rather spend my money on having fun.

    Amy Pen

    If you are going to make more than 12 trips on the subway, buy the weekly unlimited pass for $30 you can use it as often as you like!


      Oh for sure!! Thanks so much for pointing that out!


    Thanks for the tips! My sister and I are working on planning a trip to see Matilda in a year. We really really want to see it!


      Oh you totally should! I haven’t seen it yet but I really want to!