3 ways to experience New York City, whether you’re on a budget or have money to burn

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Few destinations on Earth have a reputation quite like New York City, which may be as well-known for its Broadway productions and iconic skyscrapers as it is for its eye-watering prices.

Though it’s certainly possible to spend upwards of a thousand dollars per night on just a few hundred square feet, there is a Big Apple vacation that’s possible no matter how economical or infinite the budget. After all, the city’s culinary reputation is cemented not only in Michelin-starred restaurants but also in $1 slices of pizza from no-frills counters.

So, on a particularly cool, blustery spring day, a trio of TPG editors and writers met at Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park, to begin a whirlwind journey to see how to make the most of a trip to New York City regardless of budget constraints (or lack thereof).

To determine who would have the biggest budget and therefore the most lavish New York City staycation, three tributes — Ashley Kosciolek, Melanie Lieberman and Stella Shon — bought a giant pretzel from a nearby street cart (stay with us now).

With a firm grip and determination, each grabbed hold of the pretzel and pulled it apart. Shon patently tore off the biggest piece of pretzel, landing her with the biggest budget and a deluxe stay. During a face-off with a second pretzel, Lieberman was able to secure the moderate budget. And Kosciolek found herself with a shoestring to stretch for the duration of her budget stay.

As the three went their separate ways (and sometimes, came back together) they experienced three distinct versions of New York City — and discovered when it’s best to save your cash or splurge on an unforgettable, only-in-New-York-City experience.

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Where to stay

Deluxe: A luxurious night at The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel

With more than 20 hotels available from approximately $1,000 per night, it’s easy to find luxury in Manhattan. For the most iconic New York City experience possible, I chose to stay at The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel dating back to the 1930s on the Upper East Side.

Related: An introduction to New York City’s neighborhoods

I booked this reservation through TPG’s luxury travel agent, which gave me access to additional perks such as a one-category upgrade, a $100 on-property credit, complimentary breakfast for two, free parking and more. You can get similar benefits by booking through the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts program or Chase’s Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection with a qualifying travel rewards card.

When you’re paying top dollar for your hotel, expect the top-dollar experience. Upon exiting my Lyft, two butlers immediately helped me unload the trunk with my belongings and check in to the hotel.

My room wasn’t ready yet, and the front desk associate was extremely apologetic and put two free drinks on my account. Luckily for me, it was the evening the iconic Bemelman’s Bar reopened following the pandemic. There was a ton of buzz about it throughout the lobby — you had to buy tickets to get a seat and, apparently, the hotel sold more than 3,000 tickets when they first launched online.

I was upgraded to a 375-square-foot deluxe king room that overlooked Madison Avenue at the end of a quiet hallway. The butler who escorted me to my room told me that these rooms were recently renovated — and they do look incredible. (Think: a marble bathroom, monogrammed bedspread, plush robes and slippers.)

My stay at The Carlyle was divine. Staff checked on me twice, and everyone I encountered was so attentive and friendly. After my in-room breakfast in the morning, I called the front desk to ask for late checkout — which was granted with no hesitation.

I got my room bill at the end of my stay — a cool $955 for one night at The Carlyle.

Moderate: A great value at the Renaissance New York Midtown

 

One of Marriott’s “premium” brands, Renaissance properties are popular with business travelers seeking a contemporary stay at a moderate price.

I booked directly through Marriott, and it was hard to argue with the $260 price tag for a city-view king room at the Renaissance New York Midtown, which is centrally located on 35th Street. The Category 6 property surprised me with its stylish public spaces and thoughtful design.

When I entered my room, I was impressed by the floor-to-ceiling windows and marble bathroom with a rainfall shower that felt almost out of place at this modest hotel in the Garment District. The room felt spacious (despite being a little under 300 square feet, I was told) and full of light, and had playful nods to the neighborhood, such as an accessory dish on the nightstand in the shape of a giant button.

The room also had an oversized workspace and an inviting chaise by the window. And the public spaces were impressive for the price as well: Instead of a small fitness center with an assortment of mismatched dumbbells and a lone treadmill, guests have complimentary access to the adjacent Planet Fitness gym. And during my stay, the hotel’s restaurant, Versa, reopened to an eager crowd that quickly filled the 8,000-square-foot terrace.

Budget: A bare-bones La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham, New York City Central Park

For my budget accommodations, I turned to Hotel Tonight, a last-minute booking app that offers deeply discounted rooms. I chose the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham, New York City Central Park, partly because the room was $61 per night (versus $100 or 30,000 points on the hotel’s website), but also because of its location less than a block from Central Park West.

The hotel looked clean and inviting from the outside, and the lobby — which offers an ATM, sitting area, small “business center” and vending machines as some of the property’s only amenities — was uncluttered and welcoming.

I checked in just after 8 p.m., and the no-fuss process took only about five minutes, during which time I was charged a $30 amenity fee (which includes “free” Wi-Fi and continental breakfast).

But when I stepped out of the hotel’s only elevator, I was disappointed to see the carpet was covered with lint, paper and other debris. My room was equally dirty and a bit run down, with unvacuumed carpeting, splintering doors, hair and stains on the bedding, and a broken deadbolt. I called the front desk and was promptly and courteously moved to another room, two floors up.

The second room was much better. It was the same size and layout, albeit with more modern lighting and updated bathroom fixtures. Plus, it was clean. However, a noisy climate control window unit impeded my sleep, forcing me to shut it off; the television wouldn’t turn on; and I could hear everything that happened in the room next to mine (including a barking dog and someone throwing up around 7 a.m. the next morning).

Related: The 37 best hotels in New York City for every type of traveler

Activities and attractions at every price

Deluxe: VIP views, a meal at the museum and a sunset harbor cruise

If there’s a city that can drain your bank account, it’s Manhattan — especially if you want to elevate your trip with VIP access and premium attractions.

For $75, I purchased a VIP Admission ticket to The Top of the Rock, one of the most well-known observation decks. VIP visitors are promised ‘”expedited access and priority elevator access.” But it was was totally not worth the cost since I visited on a Monday afternoon when there was virtually no line.

If you’re visiting on a busy weekend when tourism picks back up, perhaps the extra $40 for admission may be worth it, but I found that VIP ticket holders don’t really get preferential treatment.

The outrageous ticket price aside, I loved the rooftop views at the Top of the Rock. You’re on the 70th floor in the middle of midtown Manhattan, giving you terrific panoramic views of the city. While other rooftops have bars where you can purchase food or drinks, keep in mind there’s really nothing up here besides, well, the view. I bought digital copies of my photos which set me back another $25. 

Afterward, I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Because of the pandemic, the museum is limiting private and group tours. To elevate my experience, I wanted to have lunch at one of the restaurants on site. To my surprise, all but one was closed — the Terrace Cafe. The menu was quite limited and food was served dining hall-style in single-use plastics because of the pandemic.

Until the other dining options are open again, I recommend skipping the Terrace Cafe at the MoMA. While the views were lovely, a Caesar salad, tomato soup, water and a glass of chardonnay ran me a whopping $41.

At the end of the day, I went to Pier 83 on the Hudson River to check out the New York City Sunset and Harbor Lights cruise. Despite being one of the more premium sightseeing cruises, I only paid $35 for a two-hour tour. The boat departs at 7 p.m., and you can purchase snacks and drinks on board. Again, I’d save your dollars for dinner at a restaurant afteward, as I got a mediocre turkey wrap, water and a Budweiser for $27.

Of course, tourists from all over the world come to Manhattan for its renowned shopping, so for travelers with a limitless budget, there are few better places to shop for souvenirs than the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan. You might, for example, get a luxury souvenir such as an exclusive New York City snow globe for $35. Of course, with The Platinum Card® from American Express, cardholders could use their up to $50 statement credit for Saks for this souvenir available twice per calendar year. (Enrollment required)

In total, I spent $168 on tourist attractions and activities alone. 

Moderate: General admission views, modern art and an afternoon harbor cruise

Despite paying less than half the amount of Shon spent on activities, my mid-level tour of New York City was an almost identical experience. We went together to the Top of the Rock and, even though her ticket was nearly twice as expensive, we took the same escalators and elevators together, and experienced the same view of New York City.

For travelers who want a great view of the city from one of the iconic observation decks, the Top of the Rock is a great choice. General admission ($38 for adults) is comparable to other observation decks in Manhattan, but there’s no bar where you might accidentally spend more than you intended.

The following day, I also ventured west to the Hudson for a river tour. As a resident of Jersey City, I have taken many public ferries back and forth between New York and New Jersey. I’ve always been impressed with the views you get on the quick, inexpensive ride — and I was curious if paying $19 for an official tour would really be worth the upcharge.

Even after living and working in the city for nearly a decade, I have to admit I learned a lot on the two-hour tour, which ventures down the Hudson, around the tip of Manhattan and up the East River past Brooklyn. If you’re looking to get out on the water and sightsee, I’d personally recommend spending a bit more for all the history and context you get with an official tour guide.

Later, I dropped by the MoMA for the first time in years and revisited some of my favorite pieces. All the exhibits are accessible with a general admission ticket ($25) unlike other institutions in the city where you may have to splurge for full access.

One of the city’s most popular destinations for art lovers right now, for example, is the New York Botanical Garden, which has works by Yayoi Kusama on display. General admission includes all outdoor installations, but access to indoor works requires a more expensive — and harder to reserve — ticket. So, you can certainly pay more for a more robust or premium experience. But, depending on what’s available, it’s not always worth it.

For travelers seeking memorable New York City souvenirs, the MoMA is also a great place to shop. The MoMA design store has a ceramic coffee cup ($15) inspired by the Greek-style “We Are Happy to Seve You” cups you’ll see all over the city. Other fun souvenir ideas include an I Love New York enamel pin ($10) or a set of MoMA coasters ($20) featuring a colorful interpretation of the New York City skyline.

Ultimately, I spent $82 on tourist activities and attractions — a reasonable way to fill a day or two in a city as expensive as New York.

Budget: An inexpensive rooftop drink, free gallery crawl and a commuter ferry

It’s easier than you might think to have a fun experience in New York City with limited funds. During my whirlwind day in the city, I chose activities that were free or super low-cost, keeping my total spend under $200 — including my hotel stay.

For my fill of lovely skyline views at a low(er) price point, I checked out the Magic Hour Rooftop Bar and Lounge, part of the Moxy NYC Times Square hotel.

Although the vistas aren’t quite as sweeping as a major New York City observation deck, the trendy space (which has a Pink Rose Garden theme through October of 2021) features bar areas and waiter service so you can order drinks, small plates and other treats — a much more complete experience than what you’ll find at the Top of the Rock.

There’s no fee to enter, but reservations are recommended, and it’s polite to order something small if you’re going to occupy a table. I opted for a plate of chips with guacamole ($15) and one of the menu’s specialty cocktails ($18) for a total of $33. (Yes, that’s about as much as admission to Top of the Rock, but it also included my dinner.)

Another stop on my itinerary was the High Line Nine, one of several free art galleries in Chelsea. There’s no cost to wander through its nine rooms (hence, its name), where you’ll find helpful volunteers who can answer questions about the exhibits. If you find your stomach rumbling after you’ve meandered around for a bit, there’s a cafe near the rear entrance. In an attempt to keep costs low, I didn’t buy anything.

And, of course, one of the best ways to see the Big Apple is from the water. There are organized tours, but travelers can also take advantage of the public ferries, all of which offer impressive city views for a fraction of the price. But only one is completely free and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week: the Staten Island Ferry.

After taking the subway to the ferry terminal, I rode the escalator to the upper floor and made my way to a large waiting area. During the week, the boats arrive every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the time of day, and serve as both commuter ferries that shuttle Staten Island residents back and forth and an inexpensive way for tourists to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.

The ride takes less than 45 minutes round-trip, but you’ll have to disembark on Staten Island and walk back around through the terminal to reboard for the return trip to Manhattan. During my ride, I met a friendly ferry worker named Paul who showed me the best spots from which to take photos. (Stand near the outer glass windows, and bonus points if you snag a spot in front of ones that are open so the glare won’t impede your shots.) For the best views of the statue, sit on the righthand side on the way to Staten Island and the left side on the return trip to Manhattan. The most expansive skyline views will be visible on the way back.

And what would a trip to New York City be without some cheesy souvenirs? Tons of stores sell them, and you’ll see the same items at most places. I popped into a sprawling store on Seventh Avenue, less than a block from Times Square because I was striving for convenience and a vast selection, though stores farther away from touristy areas of the city may have better prices.

Although I really wanted a stereotypical I Love New York T-shirt, its $20 price tag seemed excessive, so I opted for a $6 Statue of Liberty pen (for my novelty pen collection, of course).

Related: Everything you need to know about visiting New York City this summer

What to eat

Deluxe: Wining and (fine) dining

There’s no shortage of incredible dining experiences in Manhattan. Because the famous Bemelman’s Bar was waitlist-only for the evening, I made a reservation at a nearby Italian restaurant called Sandro’s.

The meal came with complimentary bruschetta, and I ordered a burrata for an appetizer, spaghetti con vongole and a couple of glasses of pinot grigio. Including tip, my bill was $70, which seemed fair for the delicious Italian food and great service.

Once I returned to my hotel, the Bemelman’s Bar was finally vacant. A couple of friends who lived nearby joined me an hour before last call, and we ordered the Rhinelander 4-1600 for two. The cocktail — a blend of Don Julio 1942, La Copa sherry vermouth, Campari and Massenez Fraises De Bois — cost $120 but comes in a decanter that easily poured six drinks, making the cocktail a great choice if you’re sharing with friends. In fact, it’s a bargain when you consider that a single signature cocktail at Bemelman’s would otherwise set you back $25 to $35.

In the morning, I called in-room dining for my complimentary breakfast for two. On top of this, I ordered a fruit plate, an iced latte and their specialty fresh-squeezed juice to take advantage of my $100 on-property credit. Within 30 minutes, the server rolled in my table with a beautiful spread of pastries, jams, coffee and tea.

Moderate: All-day diner brunch and a hotel dinner

Brunch is something of a ritual in New York City, so I was eager to drop by the quintessential Skylight Diner around the corner from the hotel on West 34th Street for a late breakfast.

I went a bit overboard, admittedly, on a giant egg-white omelet with peppers, mushrooms, onions, tomato and basil plus a side of avocado, fruit salad and a cold brew. But despite my indulgent meal, I only spent $27 before tip. This is one of the great joys of a neighborhood institution like Skylight: You can feast in the city without spending a fortune.

For dinner, I ventured back to the hotel, where I ordered two salads (for journalism!): An inspired Panzanella salad with burrata, heirloom tomatoes, pickled red onions and grilled zucchini and a classic house salad with seasonal vegetables topped with grilled shrimp.

If that all seems like a lot of vegetables, don’t worry — I finished the meal with a Summer Thyme cocktail (gin, raspberries, thyme-infused syrup, lemon, rosemary and a splash of tonic). The meal cost me about $51 before tip.

Budget: A “free” Continental breakfast and food cart fare

My budget didn’t allow for anything fancy, so the plate of chips and guacamole ($15) I ordered at Magic Hour served as my evening meal. I certainly could have found something cheaper and more filling in the city, but I decided to kill two birds with one stone since I felt obligated to order something from the Magic Hour menu anyway.

The next morning, I perused the offerings at my hotel’s “included” continental breakfast buffet. Unsatisfied with the selection, I asked the woman at the front desk to point me in the direction of a place with inexpensive alternatives. She directed me to Broadway, where I found a food cart near 72nd Street and scored a bagel with cream cheese and a small coffee for just $3. Both were excellent.

Transportation

Deluxe: Ordering private cars

Taking Ubers and Lyfts adds up. I’ve also noticed that prices have been higher throughout the pandemic since there aren’t as many drivers available anymore.

I took a Lyft almost everywhere I went and found it wasn’t worth the cost in most cases. (Screenshot courtesy of Lyft)

I took a Lyft to and from each attraction (when it wasn’t within a 15-minute walk or so), and I racked up more than $250 in charges. There are plenty of other transportation options in Manhattan — from the subway, Citi bikes, walking and even the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan — so you can definitely save money where it makes sense.

And in Midtown traffic, an Uber or a Lyft can sometimes take longer than any other transportation method.

Moderate: Hailing a classic yellow cab

Regardless of your budget, I’d encourage every first-time visitor to try hailing a yellow cab at least once — nothing will make you look or feel more like a local.

And for people who may not be comfortable riding the subway (it really is usually the fastest way to get from one part of the city to another) or would prefer the mid-level luxury of a private ride, hailing a taxi will often land you in a sweet spot that’s significantly less expensive than ride-hailing apps such as Lyft and Uber.

When Shon and I took cars to and from the same location, her Uber cost $31.51 — and my cab cost just over $17. Best of all, I didn’t have to wait for my ride to arrive. I was able to just step off the curb, raise my hand and watch as a yellow cab pulled right up to where I was standing.

Budget: Riding the subway (and walking — a lot)

To keep costs low, I took the subway everywhere I needed to go for less than $20. There was also a lot of walking involved to get to the nearest station in some cases. (I definitely beat my daily step!)

If I had more time, I probably would have walked more, which would have allowed me to save even more money, get even more exercise and avoid the headache of navigating the complicated subway system. I eventually got where I was going, but without the help of Google Maps to help me plan my routes, I would have been totally lost.

Bottom line

If you have the money to spend, there are ways to live lavishly in New York City. Shon spent almost $1,600 in a single day, including food and drink, the hotel room and activities. For travelers considering a trip here for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, keep in mind that many experiences continue to be relatively uncrowded and may also not be operating as normal, meaning it won’t always pay to spend more for expedited or preferred access.

When the city does return to “normal,” a bigger budget can certainly mean fewer frustrating lines and crowds, or a prime seat at your favorite Broadway show, while travelers with a moderate budget are watching the performance from the mezzanine and travelers with an even more restrained budget might try their hand at a Broadway lottery or the infamous cancellation line.

Most importantly, it’s important to remember you don’t need to drain your bank account for a trip to New York City. Kosciolek had a fabulous (and free) time on the Staten Island Ferry and at the High Line Nine art gallery. And if you’re going to spend a little extra money, you might decide to do so with the accommodations.

Although $61 per night is an amazing price for a hotel in New York, it was definitely a case of “you get what you pay for.” Saving a few extra bucks is rarely worth the hassle of changing rooms, and with the mandatory $30 amenity fee, it wasn’t even as affordable as it seemed.

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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