There’s no city quite like New York. In 2018, upwards of 65 million people visited Manhattan—proving once again that the world continues to find NYC to be one of the greatest cities to explore.
Like many popular tourist destinations, New York has a reputation for being expensive and only being enjoyable on a Big Law salary. However, if you plan well, you can take a bite out of the Big Apple on a law student or public service salary. By making smart choices about when to visit, how to see the sights, and where to stay, you can cut your travel costs significantly.
Law school debtor’s or public interest budget
Travel: Since the best time to visit New York is from April to June and September to early November, the cheapest flights are from early July to late August and mid-January to the beginning of March. However, if you plan early enough and are willing to add a stop, you can find reasonably-priced flights for travel all year round.
Accommodations: Booking an Airbnb instead of a hotel will probably make the most difference in how much you end up spending on your trip. There are listings in practically every New York City neighborhood, allowing you the option of a Times Square apartment in the center of all the activity or a quiet brownstone in nearby Brooklyn where you can explore the trendy neighborhoods before taking a quick subway ride into Manhattan.
Transportation: Manhattan is a public transportation city, with easy routes to every destination for only $2.75 per subway or bus trip. The subway and bus systems are easily navigable and can get you to any destination of your choice throughout the five boroughs. If you come during the spring or fall, the weather should be nice enough to allow you to explore the city on foot, which is the best way to see it.
Things to Do: Of course, you can spend some of your money on the usual tourist attractions that New York is famous for. However, there are also a multitude of free or inexpensive events that happen throughout the year.
- Explore Central Park. As New York’s most famous park and the United States’ most visited urban park, you’ll be sure to have a great time. The park houses various attractions such as the Central Park Zoo and the Central Park Carousel, which are both relatively inexpensive, and Sheep’s Meadow, a free park where tourists and New Yorkers alike can picnic and hang out. In late spring through the summer, the park hosts free outdoor music and dance performance concerts, featuring both well-known and underground artists.
- Many museums have free admission every day that they are open. These museums include the American Folk-Art Museum, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Queens Botanical Garden and more. There are also a handful of museums that have a “suggested” admission, meaning you pay what you can afford; the American Museum of Natural History and Metropolitan Museum of Art are two that allow you to decide how much visiting is worth to you. There are also a handful of other museums that offer free admission on certain days or during certain hours.
- There’s a march, parade, street fair, or other celebration in New York for just about every reason you can think of. To include a few: The Saint Patrick’s Day parade in March, the Pride Parade and Puerto Rico Day Parade in June, the West Indian Day Parade on Labor Day (in Brooklyn), the Thanksgiving Day parade, and even watching the Ball drop on New Year’s Eve—all with no charge.
- Walking tours. Seeing the city on foot will allow you to easily experience different neighborhoods and pop into lesser-known boutiques, art galleries (usually free), and eateries. Try a pay-what-you-wish tour through Free Tours by Foot—they have tours of both Manhattan and Brooklyn, some of which include food or are done on bikes. You pay nothing up front and tip the tour guide at the end of the tour. (Be as generous as you can!)
- Visit the 9/11 Memorial and/or Museum. The museum has a collection of artifacts, stories, videos, and photos from the victims and their families as well as memorabilia from the buildings themselves. For a touching experience unlike any other, you can listen to voicemails from that day and learn more about the heroes who gave their lives to save others. The museum does have an admission fee ($26 per adult). If that won’t work for you, simply spending some time walking around the grounds where the two towers used to stand and taking in the memorial can be a profoundly meaningful experience.
- For other things to do, check out The New York Pass for free entry to over 100 attractions.
Nightlife: An essential part of visiting New York City is experiencing the city at night—after all, it’s the city that never sleeps. Since it can be pretty expensive to check out all the heavily trafficked, famous clubs, here are a few gems that won’t put too big of a dent in your wallet.
- For a night out filled with cheap drinks and music, try the Alligator Lounge in Brooklyn. Not only does this bar have fun karaoke nights, but a free personal pizza with every drink.
- For a fun, yet inexpensive sports bar on the East side, check out Bravest. They have reasonably priced drinks, happy hour deals, and a great burger.
- For live music, be sure to stop by The Living Room on the Lower East Side. On most nights there is no cover charge, and the showcase consists of musicians of all genres.
- For performing arts, make sure to buy tickets to a show at the Slipper Room in the Bowery. Their shows range from burlesque to acrobatics to comedy, with tickets generally around $10.
What to Eat: New York is known as a place where you can find every cuisine under the sun. Luckily, you can find plenty of deliciousness at hole-in-the-wall restaurants offering authentic foods for affordable prices.
- For some of the best Halal food in the city, check out The Halal Guys. They have multiple locations and offer full meals for around $7.
- Gray’s Papaya, one of New York’s most beloved hot dog joints, still manages to keep their prices low. Their famous “recession special” is a soda and double dog combo for only $4.45.
- For a great Tex-Mex style taqueria, visit Avenida Cantina in the East Village. While their tacos are normally priced from $4-5, they offer a $2 Taco Tuesday deal.
- New York is known for bagels and pizza, so don’t miss out on visiting either H&H Bagels or Absolute Bagels. Both places are inexpensive and have some of the best bagels in the city. For pizza, stop at Koronet for their notorious “Jumbo Slice” for only $3.75.
- For more great food, be sure to look at Refinery 29’s list of NYC’s best cheap eats and Food Network’s 25 best cheap eats.
Hello, Partner (or Big Law associate with little to no debt left)
Travel: When money is not a prime concern, it’s absolutely easier to have a successful trip in this expensive city. The best weather in New York is during spring and fall, hence the busy tourist season. So enjoy the beautiful weather, and avoid Times Square if you don’t want to spend your time with other tourists.
Accommodations: New York has a plethora of 5-star hotels that offer beautiful views, great customer service, and high-end amenities. From the historic Plaza Hotel featured in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Eloise at the Plaza to the sophisticated landmark that is The St. Regis to the new and modern 1 Hotel, you’ll be able to find a luxurious hotel that’ll feel just right for you.
Transportation: To avoid packed subway trains and long bus rides, use Uber or Lyft to get around the city. Both tend to be cheaper than NYC’s famous yellow taxis and won’t leave you waiting on the sidewalk trying to hail a cab. But be sure to experience a subway ride at least once, though—you are in New York, City, after all.
Things to Do: New York has many great things to offer you if you’re willing to pay:
- See a Broadway show. With Broadway musicals and plays as one of the city’s main attractions, it would be a tragedy if you couldn’t make it to at least one. At the moment, Hamilton, Hadestown, and Dear Evan Hansen are three of the most-talked about musicals—and of course, long-running crowd-pleasers like The Book of Mormon and The Lion King are still around—so try to fit one in your schedule and enjoy the show!
- Visit the spa at the Mandarin Oriental New York. After all the running around you’ll surely be doing, a spa treatment will hit the spot. At this luxury spa, you get a private room and can have as many treatments as you desire.
- Shop on Fifth Avenue. Since you’re here to experience New York in all its glory, be sure to hit the stores on Fifth Avenue and treat yourself to some goodies from high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf-Goodman.
Nightlife: Indulge in some of NYC’s most famous night scenes.
- For a great karaoke experience, stop by 5 Bar Karaoke and Lounge. With a full bar and extensive song collection, you’re bound to have a fun night.
- For a lavish night out, be sure to go to 1 Oak in the Meatpacking District. The drinks are pricey here at one of the trendiest, most exclusive clubs in the city.
- To catch a concert or a late-night game, be sure to check out who’s playing at Madison Square Garden or the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn while you’re here.
- For more entertaining things to do in NYC at night, check out Thrillist’s What to do After Dark.
What to Eat: New York has some of the best food in the country at its countless 5-star restaurants.
- For fine dining in the heart of the city, be sure to stop by Eleven Madison Park. This restaurant features modern European cuisine with a New York twist and offers an eight- to ten-course menu in the dining room or an abridged menu at the bar.
- If you’re looking for a ridiculously extravagant yet casual meal, try the 24k gold wings at the Ainsworth in Chelsea. These gold-dusted wings are available in a 10 piece ($45), 20 piece ($90), or 50 piece ($1000) that comes with a complimentary gold bottle of Ace of Spades champagne.
- For a whimsical and creative Asian inspired menu, make a reservation at Momofuko Ko. Much like Eleven Madison Park, they offer a table menu in the dining room and a smaller, single-courses menu at the bar.
- With countless amazing restaurants in New York, you will easily find the sophisticated dining experience perfect for you. Take a look at Time Out’s 100 Best Restaurants in NYC and Zagat’s 50 Top Restaurants in NYC to help you choose.