You’ll never have enough time in New York. There will always be something that you didn’t get to to do or see, a neighborhood you never had the chance to walk through, a restaurant you didn’t eat at, or a show you didn’t get tickets to. When you leave the city, you’ll quietly put those items on an agenda in the back of your mind for accomplishing next time you visit. When you return, you might complete them all, but you’ll have found other things to add to this running list. It ends up being a never-ending NYC cycle.
When you’re on any vacation there’s immense pressure to make everything THE BEST EVER. There are people who feel so stressed about getting every. single. thing. on their travel list done that they don’t really get to enjoy the place they’re visiting, no matter how long or short the trip is.
New York City is one of those places that it’s easy to get caught up in checking things off of a to-do list, since it has so much to offer that it’s almost overwhelming. I tend to plan no more than 3 things per day and let the rest happen when I travel, but my most recent 3 days in New York were jam-packed, from the second I woke up to the second I passed out on my friend’s couch. It was totally worth it, but nearly a week later I still feel like I’m recovering!
Maybe you like the less stressful travel approach of planning just a few things per day and going from there. Or maybe you have a long list of must-do’s and must-see’s when you’re on the go. Whether you’re spending a day, week, month, or more in New York City, there is a way to make the most of your visit. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Familiarize yourself with the subway beforehand.
The NYC subway is amazing, but it can take a little getting used to. Before your trip, spend a few minutes looking at the subway map online. You don’t have to study it or anything, but try to have your first glance at it before you’re immersed in the city. Know that stops with a black circle are where only local trains stop, and white circles are where both local and express trains stop. Let the words “Uptown” and “Downtown” become your friends. Notice where certain lines branch off. And when you do finally arrive in New York, ask an MTA attendant for a free map and have it on you just in case.
More than likely, if you’re here for more than a day or two, you’ll get the hang of things, if not sooner. But if it seems intimidating, just know that most New Yorkers are actually quite friendly and usually happy to give directions. In fact, if you appear utterly lost, don’t be surprised if a kind person approaches you asking if you need help. There are also MTA workers who will point you in the right direction. If all else fails, download the Transit app on your phone to help get you on your way.
2. Buy an unlimited MetroCard.
If you’re going to be there for longer than one day, it’s worth it. A weeklong pass is $30, and the base fare is $2.50. So, even if you’re visiting for just two days, as long as you plan on riding the subway six times per day — which, let’s be honest, you will — then your money has been put to good use. Your unlimited card is good for the subway and any of the regular buses (just not the express buses). The comfort of knowing that you can swipe that puppy as many times in a day as you want to is well worth the price.
3. Familiarize yourself with how to hail a cab.
When you’re in New York, I highly encourage taking the subway or bus system over taking cabs everywhere. Why? Well, first of all, $$$. But more importantly, if you fail to ever ride the subway when you’re in New York, you’re missing out on a vital NYC experience. Basically everyone takes the subway. I once sat across from Kevin Bacon on the subway. And I always say, if Kevin Bacon is doing it, then I’m doing it, too.*
Now, there are times when taking a cab is just easier. My last day in New York, it was rainy, I had a bunch of luggage, and I just wanted to get to the airport without having to think too much. Hello, taxi!
If you want to hail a cab, the main thing to know is that the cab number on the roof light must be lit. If “Off Duty” is lit, or it’s not lit at all, that means the taxi is not in service or it already has passengers. Don’t be one of those fools who just sticks your hand up in the air, cursing every taxi that passes you. It’s funny to watch, but also kind of sad.
Be sure to enter and exit curbside (while watching for bikers). Also, if you’re paying by card confirm with the driver before the ride starts. I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as when I lived there, but all NYC taxis do accept cards — it’s illegal for them not to — so if the driver makes a fuss about it, get out and find a different cab (trust me, there will be plenty). Oh, and if you’d prefer other options, NYC also has the ridesharing service Lyft.
*I’ve never said that before, but I think you understand what I mean.
4. Wake up as early as you can manage.
Ugh, I hate early mornings. No matter how excited I am about sightseeing, I don’t usually transform into my bubbly, cheery self until after 11am. I don’t care how delicious breakfast will be and I don’t care how beautiful and sunny it is outside. Just. let me. sleep.
Still, if you’re able to get out and about before 10am, that certainly is preferable. New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but the museums still close, the kitchens eventually stop serving, and the parks get sketchy after a certain time. There are certainly some amazing things you can do and see at any time in New York, but keep those options open, suck it up, and get out there in the a.m. hours, too.
So how do you wake up early, sightsee all day, and party into the evening without getting burnt out? Make sure to plan a few activities in the middle of your day that allow you the chance to relax a bit. Have a picnic in Central Park and rest your feet, grab a seat on the Staten Island Ferry get a great view of The Statue of Liberty, or take a break at a hip little coffee shop. A few restful moments each day will make a big difference and reenergize you for the evenings!
5. Eat street food.
Returning to New York reminded me how darn cheap food is there compared to San Francisco. I was practically doing backflips when I walked into a pizza joint and got a cheap-ass slice of delicious heaven. Maybe I had rose-colored glasses on, but any food I bought seemed to kill my wallet less than whatever I buy in SF. Drinks even seemed cheaper.
Of course, not everyone visiting NYC feels that it’s cheap. For me, by comparison it is, but for someone visiting from a more rural part of the US or the world, it can be pricey. Eating street food is a great way to save some cash, and it’s sort of a New York novelty. The dirty water dogs are an experience, and the pretzels are a meal in and of themselves.
What I really love about the street food is that you can find it anywhere. I was basically grazing on small bites most days until dinnertime this trip. It was plenty enough to get me through the day — there was just no need to sit down for three big meals each day. I loved that this not only saved me some money, but saved me some valuable time as well!
6. Go to museums on free days.
If budget is a concern for you but you don’t want to sacrifice going to museums, see what free or pay-as-you-wish days are available. When I lived in New York, I spent many late Friday afternoons at the MoMA since it was completely free to attend that day each week. Some museums have weekly specials like this, although more often I think it occurs once a month, like the first Tuesday of the month. Check the museum website beforehand so you can plan accordingly and save a little cash.
7. See a Broadway show.
Theater in New York is phenomenal, and there are so many shows that no matter what you’re interested in, you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Seeing Broadway shows isn’t the cheapest activity to do in New York, but I promise you won’t be disappointed. You have numerous options for seeing a play or musical.
First, you can buy tickets directly from the show’s website/online box office. You’ll be paying full price, but if it’s a show you’re dying to see, you’ll at least know you’re guaranteed to see it. If you’re looking to cut the cost a bit, you can check out eBay or Craigslist. Make sure to read the listing thoroughly and, if you’re doing Craigslist, pay with PayPal. I like to think that I have pretty good radar for scammers, but you never know — and with PayPal, if you do end up getting scammed, you’ll get refunded.
A second excellent money-saving option is the TKTS booth. You can only buy tickets the day of for evening shows and the day before for matinees, but the tickets are discounted up to 50%. They have a couple locations in the city, and I recommend going to the South Street Seaport one to avoid the long line you’ll find at the Times Square booth.
There are a few caveats to this choice. First, super popular shows will very likely not pop up for purchase here. You can check the TKTS website and browse through shows to see how frequently discounted tickets are offered. Second, the seats they have available are, more often than not, orchestra seats. This is great because yay! awesome seats, but it could also mean that you pay more per ticket than something regular-price in the balcony. I opted to get discounted orchestra seats for Once from TKTS, but I could have saved about $15 by buying a regular-priced balcony seat. Because I was more interested in seeing the show than saving a few bucks, it wasn’t a big deal. Decide what’s most important to you — seats closer to the stage or cost — and go from there.
Another option is to rush or do standing room only (SRO). You can get greatly discounted seats (or, y’know, standing area) to see the show, but it does require a bit of a gamble. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll get a ticket, and it may require some line-waiting. This really isn’t the best option for someone visiting New York, since you probably have limited time and, as I mentioned, there’s a chance you won’t get a ticket at all. But if your trip happens to be during a slightly less-busy season and it’s the middle of the week, you could get lucky. Each show has a different policy, so if you’d like some more information on rush, student rush, and SRO tickets, check out this great article on Playbill and/or check the website for the show you’re interested in rushing.
Last, you can always see if someone is selling tickets outside the theater the night of the show. I’ve never done this myself, and I can’t say I know anyone who has…so buy at your own risk.
8. Don’t be afraid to throw plans out the window and just wander.
For me, NYC is all about the neighborhoods. Whether it’s Greenpoint coffee houses, East Village holes in the wall or random tucked away parks, just wandering always seems to uncover something interesting in NYC.
PREACH. Although you might be tempted to plan every single moment of your trip in New York, just don’t. Allow yourself the time to explore and adventure through the city with no particular goal in mind. New York City is incredibly dense, and if you meander only five blocks you’re going to find something cool. The city is so beautiful to walk through and it’s wonderful to just take it all in at your own pace and make your own little NYC discoveries.
Have you ever visited or lived in New York, and would you want to visit either for the first time or again in the future? Anyone out there with some more great NYC tips? If you’re dreaming up a trip to New York, what tips do you think will be most helpful?
I’ll be posting the rest of my photos from my trip on Friday. Wheeee, stay tuned! 🙂
NYC MTA website