Going Deep for the Cheap in New York
Going Deep for the Cheap in New YorkBy MATT GROSS - New York Times, 12/9/2009For those of us who live here, the expense of New York City is something we’ve long since adjusted to. Designer tank tops for $140, truffled hamburgers for $150, studio apartments renting for upward of $3,000 — even in the midst of recession, these things seem somehow normal, the price of admission to the greatest city in the world.
For visitors, however, these can be seriously intimidating numbers. Even if you’re not aiming for high-end Manhattan indulgence, the basic costs of lodging, transportation, food, shopping and entertainment are the most expensive in the nation.
But there’s an easy way to bring the price of a New York vacation down to earth. It’s called research.
About six months ago, I put together a frugal traveler’s guide to trip planning, which involved lots of Googling and various Web sites like Craigslist and Oanda.com. Now I’ve created one specifically for New York City, offering what I hope is everything you’ll need to figure out how to have a good time without a Wall Street bonus.
Planes, Trains and Buses
Getting here is, of course, the first step. If you live anywhere between northern Virginia and Boston, you’re in luck: you can hop onto BusJunction.com and find a ride into the city for as little as $15 one way on one of several low-budget bus lines. Having ridden a few, I prefer MegaBus, which is clean, relatively comfortable and equipped with Wi-Fi.
If you’re flying, you’ll want to check the usual booking sites — Kayak.com being my first stop — but you’ll also want to set up a fare alert with AirfareWatchdog.com, which keeps an eye out for great bargains, many of them not even advertised by the airlines. As I write this, AirfareWatchdog is showing me round-trips to Kennedy Airport for $98 (from Pittsburgh), $148 (from Cleveland) and $194 (from Dallas).
And if you’re driving, well, maybe you’d be better off going elsewhere. Parking garages are universally expensive, and street parking is a byzantine subject that even the most obsessive New Yorkers struggle to master. But, if you insist on bringing your superfluous vehicle into my city, check out nyc.bestparking.com for rates and coupons. And search gasbuddy.com for the cheapest places to refuel.
Where to Crash
Unless you’re planning to camp out in Central Park — an illegal but potentially rewarding proposition — you will want to organize a place to stay. Ideally, you’ll check out CouchSurfing.org, the social-networking site for travelers, where members offer their couches, floors and even spare bedrooms to other like-minded people — free. In New York, there are at least 3,700 members — TV producers, graduate students, cheese-shop managers — who not only can give you a place to rest your head but can also provide expert advice on navigating the city. If you’re skeptical but curious, check out one of their regular weekly get-togethers at downtown bars; check www.couchsurfing.org/meetings.html for times and locations.
If you like the idea of staying in someone’s home but feel more secure paying for the privilege, check out AirBnB.com, which operates like a cross between CouchSurfing and the vacation-rentals section of CraigsList.org (itself a good resource). Apartments range from couches to spare bedrooms, with prices as low as $40 a night; I recently tested AirBnB in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and had a wonderful time.
New York also has a surprising number of bed-and-breakfasts, many of them quite affordable. Back in 2007, Fred A. Bernstein surveyed many of these B & Bs for the Times and found some to be “terrific.” More recently, the Brokelyn.com blog — motto: “Living big on small change” — rounded up the best Brooklyn bed-and-breakfasts for under $150. I particularly liked their selection of Lefferts Manor (80 Rutland Road; 347-351-9065; www.leffertsmanorbedandbreakfast.com) in Prospect-Lefferts Garden, one of those up-and-coming neighborhoods I’m always meaning to spend more time in. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times A room at The Jane.
Finally, if you really do like hotels, there are a number of affordable options. The Jane (113 Jane Street; 212-924-6700; www.thejanenyc.com), once a seedy single-room occupancy hotel, was reborn a little over a year ago as a hip, well-designed spot with “cozy” (i.e., 50 square feet) nautical-themed cabins going for as little as $99 a night for a single. The Hotel Chelsea (222 West 23rd Street; 212-243-3700; www.hotelchelsea.com), where my wife and I spent a couple of nights for the travel article “Frugal New York,” also has atmospheric rooms for the same starting rate. At both of these, you’ll have to pay more for private bathrooms.
But if you want to search wider, check out Quikbook.com, a booking site that finds rates as low as $99 and is very popular with my Twitter followers (@frugaltraveler).
Once you’re settled, you may find yourself a bit hungry. In which case, you have more options than I can possibly summarize in one article. To begin, check out the Cheap Eats issues of both Time Out New York (under $10) and New York Magazine (under $25, mostly), not to mention the $25 and Under column in this newspaper’s Dining section. Then move on to blogs: to start with, SeriousEats.com’s list of $1 “tasty treats,” MidtownLunch.com’s “13 Cart Chicken/Lamb Over Rice Showdown” and WinedandDined.com’s “Ultimate Guide to Finding Free Food in NYC,” which I have to admit puts my guide to free bar snacks to shame. Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times Noodles at a Chinese restaurant in Flushing.
In general, though, seek out so-called ethnic neighborhoods for affordably amazing cuisine: the Chinatowns in lower Manhattan, Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens; the Indian communities of Curry Hill (Lexington Avenue between about 26th and 30th Streets) and Jackson Heights; the Koreatown centered on 32nd Street in Manhattan; heavily Dominican Washington Heights; the fascinating mix of Italians and Arabs in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Check Chowhound.com’s message boards for on-the-ground intelligence about what to eat and where.
But frugal dining doesn’t have to take place solely at the low end of the food spectrum. During the twice-a-year NYC Restaurant Week (next one is Jan. 25 to Feb. 7, 2010), dozens of the city’s best kitchens (and, okay, some middling ones) offer discount prix-fixe menus, meaning you can have three courses at, say, Café Boulud for $24 (not including tax, tip or drinks). Definitely worth it, I’d say.
Even outside Restaurant Week, you can hit Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St. (176 Perry Street; 212-352-1900; www.jean-georges.com) for what many say is the best three-course $24 lunch in town. And wherever you have your fancy-but-frugal meal, make the reservation via OpenTable.com — you’ll earn discount “dining cheques” through the site.
Drinks and Other Freebies
Here in New York, we take drinking as seriously as we do eating — and typically pay through the nose to do so. The current wave of ultra-high-end cocktails mean that artisanal martinis can top $20. Luckily, there’s myopenbar.com, the best friend of penniless tipplers since August 2005. Whether you check the Web site, subscribe to the newsletter or download the iPhone app, you’ll get access to dozens of events with discounted or no-cost drinks, like the daily open bar at M & R Bar (356 Bowery; 212-260-1890; www.mandrnyc.com) or Laid Off Mondays at the Delancey (168 Delancey Street;, 212-254-9920), where proof of your unemployment gets you a free shot of tequila.
Beyond eating and drinking, there are, of course, other things to do in New York. To figure out what’s going on, you could scan the event listings of New York magazine, The Village Voice or Time Out (which has a fantastic breakdown of “Free Things to Do in New York City”), but it’s much easier to turn to the Web, where several sites focus on activities for the frugal-minded.
FreeNYC.net is a good place to start, with about half a dozen events listed every day, from free tours of the Chelsea Brewery to “Buns and Puns,” a Sunday-morning comedy brunch in the East Village. But half a dozen really isn’t many. For more extensive info, check out NewYorkology.com, whose “Cheap Stuff” section details shopping deals, Circle Line discounts, Broadway specials and a superb guide to free and pay-what-you-wish museums.
The site I rely on to map out my leisure time (if only in my head, usually) is theskint.com. Less wordy than the other sites, theskint pares its listings down to just a line or two: As I write this, the site tells me, “nigella lawson’s still in town … enjoy free samples of her christmas rocky road and cranberry + white chocolate chip cookies while she signs her ‘nigella christmas’ @ williams-sonoma chelsea (7th ave @ 17th).” Meanwhile, “echo + the bunnymen’s ian mcculloch gives a rare acoustic show at other music, free.” Plus there are daily links to free mp3s (the Futureheads, Sinatra, RJD2) and hey, cool, a coupon for a $49 dental cleaning! Perfect if you’ve had too many cranberry + white chocolate chip cookies.
With all the money you’ve saved so far, you can certainly afford to go shopping. The weekend flea markets in Hell’s Kitchen (39th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues; 212-243-5343), Chelsea (112 West 25th Street; 212-243-5343) and Brooklyn (81 Front Street; www.brooklynflea.com) are excellent places to find bargains. At the Chelsea one 10 years ago, I bought a signed, numbered silkscreen by the Kwakiutl artist Calvin Hunt, possibly the best $20 I ever spent.
For clothing, head first to the thrift-store corridor on West 17th Street — Housing Works (No. 143), Angel Street (No. 118), 17@17 (No. 17) — then downtown to the East Village and Nolita, where consignment stores like Ina (www.inanyc.com) and Tokio 7 (64 East Seventh Street; 212-353-8443) dot the fashion landscape. If you want unworn clothes, check out The Market NYC (268 Mulberry Street; www.themarketnyc.com) for garments and accessories by young designers, and for slightly more established designers, there’s Inven.tory (237 Lafayette Street; 212-226-5292), which functions as a kind of permanent sample sale.
For the more ephemeral variety of sample sale, check out New York magazine’s year-round calendar of sales, and sign up for alerts from DailyCandy and Racked.com. Oh, and you may have heard of Century 21, the discount designer department store. By all means, go there — but be ready to battle the crowds.
Looking at all this information, all these possibilities, I have to admit I’m a little overwhelmed. There’s a ridiculous amount of fun to be had in this city, and just figuring out where to begin is a challenge. But challenges are why we come to New York — some of us permanently, some for only a weekend — and to emerge triumphant, psyche and wallet intact, is perhaps the greatest feeling in the greatest city in the world.
Note: This can’t possibly be complete. Readers, feel free to add your own NYC research strategies below.