Looking to travel New York on an extreme budget? I’m here to help. A New York native currently living in Brooklyn, I live my life on a shoestring while still enjoying what the city has to offer.
TIP: Looking for an NYC tour guide? You can read about my experience on becoming a tour guide by clicking here, and email me at jessieonajourney (at) gmail (dot) com for rates.
This is where it gets tricky for the budget traveler. The cheapest decently located hostels you’ll find will be around $40 a night — for a dorm — while the cheapest Airbnb I’ve seen was $20 for a bed in a dorm, and even that is extremely rare. If you’re really trying to be an uber budget traveler, you’ll need to opt for Couchsurfing (free), GlobalFreeloaders (free) or house sitting (trustedhousesitters.com is $7.49 per month). These options have perks, as with all you’ll get to experience NYC like a local. The difference is with Couchsurfing and GlobalFreeloaders the host is typically in the house with you — and is usually happy to show you around — while housesitting you’ll be without a host but living in a local home. These options also allow you to save money on food as you can cook your own meals.
The cheapest ways to get around New York City are the subway and Citi Bike. The subway costs $1 for the MetroCard itself and then you can load money in (you get bonuses the more you load), or pay $30 for a week unlimited or $112 for a month unlimited. Single ride tickets are $2.75 per ride. With Citi Bike, it’s $9.95 for 24 hours unlimited or $25 for a week unlimited. The great thing about New York City is that each neighborhood has its own personality worth exploring — not to mention that many worthwhile hoods are close together — meaning you can often skip public transport altogether depending on what you want to do.
There are plenty of delis, cafes and mom-and-pop restaurants serving budget-friendly meals. Plus, you’ll see $1 slices of pizza on almost every block. You should also go to some farmer’s markets, like the Greenmarket in Union Square, and munch on some free samples.
- Check out Groupon or LivingSocial to see what nearby deals they have when hunger strikes. Activities like massages and day trips are also listed.
- Take advantage of having your own kitchen and cook your own meals.
- Each a big brunch and combine your breakfast and lunch into one meal. Or eat a big late lunch and a smaller dinner, as it’s easy to find affordable lunch specials all over the city.
- Find places that offer free samples of their product, like Mast Brothers Chocolate (you can see the chocolate being made in their factory), Bedford Cheese Shop and Papabubble.
- Hot dog, pretzel and nut vendors — not to mention ethnic food trucks — are all over the place and provide a quick cheap bite for those not concerned with ambiance.
- Cafe Metros and Cafe del Sols are all over the city and offer decadently good food that’s cheap with seating.
- Hell’s Kitchen has some of the best lunch specials in the city, with a large array of choices. Around noon, stroll up Ninth Avenue between 34th and 59th for enormous and delicious lunches for $10 or less.
Some of my favorite places for cheap eats include:
- Stay Fresh Grill & Deli (Bushwick, Brooklyn): NOTE: I am the most picky deli customer you will ever meet. I hate almost every single deli I’ve ever been in. This deli is not only great for a deli, it’s one of my favorite “restaurants” in NYC. Everything is fresh and made to order and just so so so delicious. Pancakes ($4.99), BLT ($3.75) bagel with topping ($1.99), chicken and lamb with rice ($6.99), turkey cheddar wrap ($6.99).
- Sticky Rice (Lower East Side): This Thai restaurant is cheap to begin with, but if you go before 7:30pm — even on weekends — you’ll get an entree, appetizer and glass of wine for $12.95. Really fun atmosphere and great for a date, solo or with friends.
- 983-Bushwick’s Living Room (Bushwick, Brooklyn): This relaxed farm-to-fork eatery has a hipster vibe, craft cocktails, made-from-scratch food and walls lined with local artwork. Some menu highlights include cheese quesadillas ($6), burrito grande ($10), burger with fries ($10), pancakes any style ($8) and a grilled Swiss, tomato and avocado sandwich ($11).
- Simit + Smith: Traditional Turkish simit, simit sandwiches, simit chips with homemade dips. Best of all it’s healthy and everything is made fresh. It’s possible to be completely full for about $2-$7.
- Savoury (Upper West Side): Delicious Indian food made in a modern, healthy style. The restaurant fuses both Northern and Southern Indian ingredients and gives dishes a bit of French flare in terms of cooking style. Some menu highlights include vegetable samosa ($6), warm lentil salad ($5), and an extensive menu of generously portioned vegetarian fare like spiced okra and paneer makhani served with basamti rice ($13).
- Smorgasburg: This weekend food truck market has locations in Williamsburg and Dumbo in Brooklyn, and has over 100 food truck options selling really innovative, artisanal and affordable food.
- Amy’s Bread (West Village/Chelsea Market/Hell’s Kitchen): The best bread in NYC, and possibly the entire country. Some menu highlights include brie and apple on whole wheat walnut bread ($6.25), grilled ham and Swiss on potato onion dill ($6.95), spinach and mushroom quiche ($5.50), smoked salmon on pumpernickel ($6.50), giant homemade cupcakes ($2.95), a cannellini bean and avocado salad with pumpkin seeds ($7.95).
- Calle Ocho (Upper West Side): One of the city’s best and most budget-friendly brunches (so make sure to reserve in advance or call the night before to check on last minute cancellations). For $18 to $26 depending on what you order you’ll get a meal and unlimited sangria. If you only want one drink during brunch head to Casa Mezcal where a drink and an entree are $13.
- Wondee Siam (Hell’s Kitchen): Cheap and delicious Thai food, like duck spring rolls ($4), spicy tom yum soup ($4), spicy mango salad ($9.95), beef curry with rice ($10.50), bbq chicken with rice ($10.50), seafood curry ($14.95) and pad thai ($10.50).
- Bahn Mi Saigon (Nolita): Delicious and satisfying bahn mis for $3.50-$5.75.
- Rudy’s Bar & Grill (Hell’s Kitchen): A free hot dog with each beer purchase. Beers start at $3 and pitchers start at $8.
There are so many free and budget-friendly experiences if you go beyond the guidebook. Here are some recommendations:
- Peruse beautiful street art and galleries in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Just get off at the Morgan L stop and wander the streets. Here you’ll also find free galleries and studios like Momenta Art, English Kills and Luhring Augustine. Another great spot to take in street art in Bushwick is Troutman Street between Wycoff and St. Nicholas. Price: Free.
- Sail the Hudson River with the North River Lobster Company. It’s a sailing restaurant with an affordable menu, allowing you to take a harbor cruise on a budget. Order a New England Clam Chowder ($6), shrimp po’ boy ($13), homemade coleslaw ($3), handcut fries ($5) or Key Lime tart ($6). Price: $3+
- Take in an experimental art show at Bizarre Bar, also in Bushwick. They showcase everything from freak shows with sex, blood and shocking stunts (live suspensions, anyone?) to burlesque to poetry readings and beyond. Price: Free (drinks are $4 (beer) to $12 (cocktails)).
- Check the Bryant Park, Central Park and Prospect Park calendars. These parks are always hosting free yoga classes, concerts, movies, nature tours, sporting events, performances and much more. The latter two are also great places to do photo walks and urban hiking. Price: Free.
- Take a free walking tour with FREE Tours by Foot. These guides work on a tips only basis, so you don’t have to pay for the actual tour, although a tip is appreciated as these guides work very hard. I’ve actually taken a few of their tours for fun and I’m a local. Some of the tours they offer include “SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown”; “Lower East Side Food Tour”; “Bushwick Graffiti And Street Art Tour”; “Photo Tour – Central Park”; “Dark Side of the High Line”; and “9/11 Memorial + Brooklyn Bridge Night Tour.” Price: Free + Tip
- NYC is home to a slew of free and donation-only museums. Some of these include The City Reliquary, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at FIT, The Harbor Defense Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and Socrates Sculpture Park, to name a few. If there’s a museum you want to go to that’s not always free, make sure to check if they have any free days/times during the week or month. Price: Free.
- Bridge walks like the Williamsburg Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge can be a scenic, fun and free way to spend your day. Bring your camera for some great shots! Price: Free.
- Visitors always seem to equate “show” with “Broadway”; however, the truth is there are a number of budget-friendly performance options if you’re not dead set on Broadway. One of my favorite show experiences is bar hopping in the Lower East Side, littered with opportunities for live music (I recommend Rockwood Music Hall and Pianos). For comedy, Upright Citizens Brigade and the Peoples Improv Theater offer knee-slapping comedy for $0-$10ish. There are also sexy free burlesque shows at Nurse Bettie. Price: $0-$10.
- Enjoy aerial city views, public art and gardens on The High Line. In the summer they even sell $0.05 cocktails. Price: Free-5 cents.
- Take a class. There are loads of interesting and affordable classes in NYC. Some of these include Sonic Yoga at The Living Gallery (donation); Mosaic classes at Baked in Brooklyn ($10+); burlesque classes at The New York School of Burlesque (varies by class but I’ve taken numerous classes there for $18 per, with discounts for multiple classes purchased); kayaking at The Downtown Boathouse (free); and Latin dance classes at SOB‘s on Fridays at 7pm (free). Additionally, Brooklyn Brainery hosts a number of unique classes, tours and events, some of which are free, most of which are under $20. Price: Free-$20.
- Paint pottery at Baked in Brooklyn. You’ll choose your ceramic piece — which starts at $5 — and then pay a $9 paint fee for a fun and creative day. Price: $14+.
- Do a drink and draw class, where you can sip beer while you (typically) draw a nude model. Some venues to do this at include Bat Haus (Weds; $10), The Living Gallery (Weds; $10); and 92Y (Thurs; $20). Price: $10-$20.
- Wander the art galleries in Chelsea. Here’s a map to help you plan your route. Price: Free.
- Get a cheap massage. There are a ton of places for this in NYC. Click here for a list of some options. You can also scroll Lifebooker, Groupon and LivingSocial for spa deals. Price: Varies, but I’ve booked facials for as low as $15.
A One-Day Itinerary
Assuming you’ve chosen the free accommodation, we’re starting our budget at $0. This is just one example of many. For this one-day itinerary, we’ll be focusing mainly on Chelsea and its surrounds. Day Total: $24.70.
- Take the subway to Murray’s Bagels in Chelsea (242 8th Avenue) for breakfast ($2.75 for a single ride). If you order a bagel with butter or jelly ($1.95), you’re total for the trip is $4.70.
- Walk to the High Line for a morning of beautiful views, outdoor art and gardens. Bring your camera. Free.
- Explore the galleries around Chelsea. Here’s a map to help you plan your route. You can easily spend hours doing this, and there is a lot of interesting art to take in. Free.
- Walk over to the nearby Greenwich Village for a FREE Tours by Foot walking tour. You’ll need to check their calendar for times and dates for tours. If none of their Greenwich Village tours make sense, you may also want to opt for a nearby Times Square, Soho or Gramercy tour. Free + Tip (estimate: $10).
- Have lunch at Mamoun’s Falafel in Greenwich Village (119 MacDougal Street), where sandwiches range from about $3-$6. Their falafel sandwich is the signature, so for this itinerary we’ll choose that option for $3.
- Stroll over to the beautiful Our Lady of Pompeii Church (25 Carmine Street), which looks like it should be sitting in Italy with its Italianate architecture. That’s not surprising, as the church was created for the 19th century Italian immigrant community, associated with the Saint Raphael Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. Visitors can also go inside to see the stained glass windows and light a candle in prayer. If you’d like a rest, Father Demo Square across the street has benches, shade and a beautiful fountain. Free.
- Walk to the Upright Citizens Brigade (located in both Chelsea and the East Village) for cheap laughs. While it’s free-$10, most comedy shows are $5.
- For dinner, grab a slice at Percy’s Pizza (190 Bleeker Street) for $1 slice of true New York pizza. If you’d rather have a sit down meal, The Peculier Pub (145 Bleeker Street) has delicious quesadillas for $6 + tax/tip.
Do you have any budget-friendly NYC tips? Please share in the comments below.