Biting the Big Apple without going broke... and other things to do in Manhattan, New York

The city of New York is synonymous with almost every romantic comedy, hit TV show and even a few books that I devoured growing up; the Big Apple had been on my must-travel-to list for a while. With time taken off for another trip that I didn’t end up booking, plus £250 flights, this May was finally my time to set foot in a city I had already fallen in love with.   

Now, it goes without saying that New York is expensiiiiive. I’ve heard this about many countries, for example, Oslo and Iceland, and just minimised the cost in certain ways to make it doable, but New York really is all about the dollar bills, yo. This trip was a birthday trip with my ma, so we didn’t necessarily adhere to the most cost-effective solutions when sightseeing or dining, but I definitely identified a few ways to enjoy the city to the max, without fully breaking the bank - whether we adhered to them or not.

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Travel

So, we travelled with Norwegian airlines - they came recommended by a few people, but they are a budget airline. Their tickets were cheap and cheerful, and to be honest, flying with them (me one way, my mum both ways), they were decent, but it is worth noting a few things. First things first, make sure you are completely within your baggage weight and measurements for both your carry on and hold luggage - they will charge yo’ butt for even the slightest scale tilt, so it’s best to avoid any fees. Secondly, don’t bother pre-ordering food; it’s definitely not worth £25, especially the veggie option. However, they have a selection of meals and snacks on board that are more purse friendly (like, not ground costs, but decent) and also, just better.  

After some airport shenanigans - my mum was flying in from home, while I was flying over from Cuba - we exited the airport, Times Square-bound. Here, we met a taxi driver who, for whatever reason, wasn’t in the main taxi queue, which we found strange. He quoted us NINETY DOLLARS plus taxes and tolls to take us, ranting on how Uber was cheaper. Do not fall for this - head on over to the taxi rank. This journey into the centre should cost around $60 (including taxes and tolls). We one-upped ourselves on the way back and went for an airport transfer that picked us up near Grand Central Station - that was cheap, comfortable and easy to get from a to b.    

Accommodation

We were pretty lucky with our accommodation; thanks to a hefty work discount, we stayed at Hotel Mela right off Times Square and Broadway (top tip: go down to the screen on the square for cheap on the day tickets). We even got an upgrade to a 16th-floor suite (accompanied by a cute fruit platter and personalised message)! Being so close to Times Square was absolutely incredible, and finally seeing the ball, though obvs not yet dropping, was amazing for me, as I’ve always wanted to see it drop on new years in person. This location also meant we walked EVERYWHERE, as most places in Midtown were within walking distance (there were definitely days where we must have walked around 80 blocks all in all). We had a plush living area with one- and two-seaters, where my mum curled up with her book when I went on my solo jaunts – it was like having our own apartment.

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That said, being in central meant everything cost a small fortune. Room service was crazy expensive, but we treated ourselves to a delicious and huge breakfast our first morning, naturally. If I were to come back here and do it in my usual cost-effective way, Airbnb would most definitely be the way forward. On one of our days, we walked a few blocks east as we ambled towards Chelsea Market – the perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon; it’s indoors, has well priced food, and is kitsch yet cool, with its lights and wood aesthetic – and saw the ‘real-life’ Midtown and where people actually live if they’re not a celeb, but in this suburb. We used the High Line to walk back towards our hotel, finishing at Hudson Yards shopping centre, which was hugeee.   

Bright lights, big city: sightseeing

Of course, we started with our fave: a city sightseeing tour bus, covering the majority of downtown with one ticket. The app said the weather was going to be bad, but it was brilliantly sunny. We got some great intel about the suburb, I saw Gossip Girl filming locations (like the hospital Eric is in  season 1, hahaha) and learned about the food rating system. We hopped off at the stop for the 9/11 Memorial Museum and…wow. The fountains are startling, glittering in the light as if like souls, and very symbolic and the museum itself is an incredible tribute. Hearing the voices of people who were related to those who lost their lives, seeing the massive room covered floor to ceiling in their images, the videos… it was incredibly powerful and moving.   

Next up, we walked through Battery Park, towards the Staten Island ferry terminal. Now, New Yorkers are so friendly and open, especially when they hear a British accent, but the closer we got to the ferry, the more people tried to sell tickets to us. Despite the flattery, don’t listen when these peeps say you can’t see the Statue of Liberty from the ferry. Yes, you won’t be stuck up close to it, or get off to climb up it, but you will get a pretty good view of the Lady for free. Ensure you are on the right side of the ferry when going towards Staten Island and on the left side as you return to Manhattan. On the way back, we hopped back on the sightseeing bus and saw the different quarters, plus some incredible artwork.

The next day, we headed towards Macy’s for a little peruse and, more importantly for me, we were on 34th Street! Miracle on 34th Street is one of my top two Christmas movies, and Cole’s is based on Macy’s. I could imagine myself sitting above one of the shops, just like Susan at the beginning of the film.

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From Macy’s, you also get a pretty good view of the Empire State Building from ground level. Although the idea of climbing this iconic structure was attractive to me – mainly because of the whole Blair and Chuck engagement shiz in Gossip Girl - the sheer height of the building was not. However, I definitely wanted to do something that would scare me a little so decided on Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre – many people, including the guide on our sightseeing bus the day, before say the view is better than from the Empire State. I bought a ticket online and then my mum and I went to explore the Rockefeller Centre for a bit – it was fab to see where the famous ice-rink and Christmas tree goes in winter – but when in there, we were advised that it was too foggy to see anything from the top. However, top tip, you can SWAP your ticket for a different time slot, so check the weather beforehand, so you can swap to a good slot. When I got up there the next day, the view was incredible! The lift is quick, but not stomach-flop-inducing. Weirdly, it wasn’t any windier or colder, and you can also opt to stay indoors.

Another great, cost-free way to spend an afternoon in the city is a stroll around Central Park – I did this with my headphones in and thoroughly enjoyed it – again feeling like I was in one of the films I love (also, as usual, I spotted a wedding shoot). I just did a couple of hours, but I definitely think you need a full day to do all the attractions and appreciate it fully.

Dining

I can’t dress this up: the majority of your money will go on food and tips at restaurants in Manhattan. On the evening of our second full day, we wandered over to the Met Life centre and had a great New York pizza… at New York prices. The fresh basil definitely made it though – it was up there with one of my favourite pizzas. A handful of mornings, we also made use of the diner a stone’s throw from our hotel; the breakfasts were huge and tasty, and the service good. Again, it felt like a proper American diner, with the coffee refills and all. On our last morning, we deviated to a different diner, but enjoyed our dishes just as much. I even had a cheeky Oreo milkshake.

I don’t want to close this post on a neggy note, so popping this before I go onto the best places to eat, but if you value your stomach or your wallet, do not, under any circumstances, eat in JFK Terminal 1 post-security. They aren’t allowed gas cookers, but they are allowed to commit daylight robbery apparently. At one of the restaurants, we fell hook line and sinker for the water on the table trick (bye $16.99 for two bottles of water) and the food… yeah, utter shite. $40-something worth of utter shite too. URGH.

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A hidden gem (well, for me anyway; I legit didn’t know this was here) was the food court under Grand Central Station. Now, Grand Central Station was amazing as it is – again, I was Serena in GG, Mila Kunis in that film with the flash mobs – I bloody loved it. The grand ceiling, the chandeliers… remind me why my local tube station isn’t like this again? Anyyyyway, when you go downstairs to use the loo, you’ll find a whole new world (not in the actual loo though, obvs). We parked up at a gelato bar and enjoyed the creamiest, sweetest, most indulgent gelato – perhaps even more so than that I’ve had in Rome or Milan.

If you’re looking for well-priced food fairly close to the centre of Midtown, the Hell’s Kitchen area is the place to go. Just a few blocks west, you’ll find a plethora of cuisines. I had arguably the best fried chicken I’ve ever had at a Korean place; so good that little ol’ me had six drumsticks in one sitting. I couldn’t manage near that a few months before back in the UK when KFC were doing the nine buckets for a fiver.

So, there you have it; there are plenty free activities to do in the Big Apple and, with a few changes to your itinerary, you can actually make the most of the city’s landmarks without totally breaking the bank. While food and tips are defo the biggest expenditure, you can minimise it a bit by where you eat, and definitely where you stay. I will 100% return.