New York or BUST!

By Melissa

If you have taken a trip to New York City in the past decade or so and told me about it, I likely bullied you into giving me your email address so I could send you my “NYC or BUST” word document that I’ve been carefully crafting since my very first trip. The Big Apple is one of our favorite places to visit and we continue to find ourselves drawn back to it. Luckily for you, I have done it inexpensively as well as splurged a little in certain areas, and feel that I have a good grasp of how to make the most of the city on any budget. So buckle up, I have a lot to say about The City That Never Sleeps (and luckily for you, am refraining from refraining from just doing a quick copy and paste of my previously mentioned word document. You are welcome).


Our very first trip in 2009! This was taken as we were on the pedestal that Lady Liberty stands on, and is a favorite view of the city.

The first time Philip and I went, it was my graduation present to myself after hygiene school. We had exactly negative one million dollars to our names, so our goal was to do it well, but do it cheap. I actually was getting a scholarship at the end of my last semester that was about $2100, so my goal was to spend less than that. We did end up coming in under budget, and didn’t feel like we sacrificed our enjoyment.

The second time we went, we decided to go at Christmas time. It was after Philip graduated, we booked the trip with the thought, “We don’t need THINGS, let’s make a memory!” Fast forward to when we were actually leaving for the trip, we had moved into our big empty house just nine days before, and we actually really needed THINGS. Whoopsies. But we figured that it would be our last hoorah before we had a baby, (newsflash, it wasn’t because of my bum uterus) and decided that the things we needed for our house could wait.

NYC at Christmas is more magical than you can imagine. Also more crowded and more expensive, but so so magical!

The third and fourth times were more by chance that we ended up going. I won a free hotel stay from a random contest I entered on Facebook, and you just can’t say no to a free stay! And lastly, Philip went for work in September, which again meant free hotel, and I couldn’t stay away.

So without further adieu, here is the advice I give everyone that will listen to me!


I had Maren convinced that a red-eye was going to be so fun! She got to sleep on a plane and wake up in New York!

Flying of course! Easy peasy. But how do you make the most of your flight time? Well, since we fly out of Phoenix, and it is a five hour flight with a three hour time difference, we have always taken a red-eye flight. We really enjoy flying on JetBlue when we go there for a variety of reasons, and even signed up for their credit card like five years ago to get a free flight (which might have been my first experience with travel hacking). When we went last September, we found great deals on Jet Blue flights and then used our Capital One points to erase those travel expenses, which was awesome. As far as prices go, I have usually found my “good deals” to be around $250 round trip. I’ve seen a little higher and lower, but if it is in the ballpark, I’m good. If you decide to go around Christmas time, or any time in the month of November, be prepared to pay closer to $400 for each ticket. Everything is so much more expensive that month.

Regardless of what airline you fly, I would suggest making sure it is a direct flight if you are taking a red-eye. One time we had a layover in Philadelphia, and it was super tricky to try to think coherently at 4 AM when we had been attempting to sleep on an airplane. Not our best move. So from then on, direct flights only.

Once there, we go straight to our hotel to see if the room is ready, which is a total toss up. If not, we drop off our luggage and go to breakfast and do a little sight seeing until our room is ready to go.

The other tricky thing about red-eyes, is that you can be so dang tired once you get there. We typically try to keep a light schedule for the first morning until we are able to check into our hotel, then go take naps. Maybe you aren’t as sleep dependent as I am, and if not, I’m very happy for you. But for me, I needed some rest to get me through the day.


If you want a photo on this iconic path in Central Park but don’t want a ton of people in your shot, all you have to do is take a casual stroll when it is 17 degrees outside!

This is probably the question I get the most when people are first planning their trip. I have perused many AirBNB listings and hotel websites on maps in search of the best place to stay. On our stays, we have had great, okay-ish and terrible locations. So what’s my main advice? STAY IN MANHATTAN. Better yet? Stay by a subway. You want more? Stay in Midtown. There you go! That’s all you need to know, right?

No but really, I typically start my search in Midtown, which is between Times Square and Central Park. There are a ton of hotels, restaurants, and shopping, as well as entertainment and subway stations. It is relatively clean, not too loud, and just so convenient. If you can’t find anything there that you’d like to book, I think the Upper West Side is also quite charming. Again there are a lot of restaurants, hotels and things to do and see, but a few less subway stations. It also has more of a neighborhood feel, and even though I don’t stay there, I so enjoy walking up and down the streets, admiring the brownstones, and pretending that I could totally be a New York mom. It really is just so lovely, but again, the convenience of less subway stations is enough to keep me from ever booking there.

If I were to put a solid rule on the areas in which to look, I would say this. Don’t go further East than 5th Avenue, or further West than 8th Avenue (I mean, just barely out of those boundaries is fine, but if you get much further, you’ll be far away from subways, which makes for a lot of extra walking). For North/South boundaries, I probably wouldn’t go South of 44th street or North of Central Park. There is more flexibility here, but in general, this would keep you in that Midtown area that I love so much.

Very ghetto but effective map of a general area to start your search.

Pricing can be all over the place. I got really good at bidding on Priceline for our first trip a decade ago and got a beautiful hotel in an awesome location for about $120 a night. Never have I seen them that low since then! At Christmas time, we spent around $275 a night for a not nice hotel in a not great location. The last two times we haven’t paid for hotels, but depending on location and quality, it could be anything. I would try to avoid 1-star hotels in the middle of Times Square, even if it is $60 a night, because I had a friend do that and she said it was legit HORRIBLE. I mean, if you want to go crazy cheap, knock yourself out, but for me? Hard pass.


Subways have just never been so cute.

Get a week long subway pass! We took the subways everywhere and loved it, and it was so nice to have an unlimited week long pass even though we’ve never spent a full week there. We took it from the airport to our hotel, down into Brooklyn, back up to Central Park, up into Queens, EVERYWHERE! Download the NYC Metro app, or get yourself a map so that you know exactly what trains go where. By the end of the week, you will be a pro and it is much cheaper than taxis or Ubers. Traffic is so crazy that the one time we did take a car in the city, it took significantly longer to get from point A to point B than if we had taken the train.

I will say this: GET TO KNOW A MAP! I had a friend that went that figured everything was “downtown” and so they constantly ended up on the wrong train going the wrong directions! Study a map, kind of figure out what activities are around each other so that you can make the most of your time and get there with less frustration.

The subway pass will run you a little less than $35, but if you were to pay every time you hopped on, it would easily be $15-20 a day depending on where you’re going, so again, it is worth it to me to just get the unlimited pass.


What’s not to do?! Over the course of our four trips, we have done a little bit of everything. I’ll highlight some of my favorite things.

Broadway shows

Such a truly phenomenal NYC experience. For some of the bigger, more popular shows (Hamilton or Wicked), you will definitely have to buy tickets in advance. There is also a TKTS booth in Times Square (as well as a handful of apps) where you can get same-day discounted tickets, but they are typically for less popular shows. It really is incredible to see shows in these small, intimate theaters. I am not sure that I’ve left a single one without crying and being just so proud and moved by everyone on stage.

As far as prices go, good heavens, like everything there is quite a range. I think the least we’ve paid is about $40 a ticket, and the most was close to $150 each (that was for Wicked on our first trip and was worth every penny).

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
I love this view of the city from the Lady Liberty, and look! The Freedom Tower has been built, and it wasn’t in our original picture in this spot.

This is one of my favorite “tourist” activities! BUT! IF YOU TAKE NO OTHER ADVICE, PLEASE TAKE THIS BIT… When going to the Statue of Liberty, make sure you get on the first ferry of the day. It usually leaves around 8 (google it to make sure), so get to Battery Park 45ish minutes before that. We got tickets that got us into the Statue of Liberty base, but not a tour, and they were $15ish each. Then once on the Statue of Liberty Island, go straight to security check points! Both times we’ve gone, we have been some of the first  through security. You can then go up to the pedestal and you have it pretty much to yourselves as you explore and take photos. When we were done and walking back to the ferry so we could go to Ellis Island, there was a crazy long line just to get through security. People are silly and will stop and lollygag, so make sure to just walk straight to the security and you’ll seriously be the first there. Ellis Island was really cool too. We didn’t do guided tours, but there is plenty of information on plaques to read. We spent probably 2-3 hours doing both stops, but you can make it as short or long as you want since ferries leave every 15 minutes from both Liberty Island (where Lady Lib is) and Ellis Island. And when we got back to Battery Park, the line for the ferry to go to Liberty Island was like a mile long! Unless you want it to take ALL DAY LONG, go first thing in the morning.

Empire State Building vs. Top of the Rock

I feel like this is a very fun NYC experience. We have done both, and having done both, I truthfully liked the Top of the Rock better than the Empire State Building. I thought it had a better view, was less crowded, and didn’t have quite as long of a line. Also, there are NBC workers at the top that will take pictures for you, and if you’re lucky, they will be really “creative.” The sweet gentleman who took ours took approximately 92 pictures with my phone of me “holding” the empire state building in my hand and such. It was actually hilarious and a highlight of that trip. Also, I love to do these types of trips at night time. Getting good photos can be a little trickier, but I think the lights of the city look just so magical at night.

Pricing for these activities is fairly high, usually between $30-45 per person! There are different activity passes that I’ll touch on that could bring that cost down, but in general, these types of things aren’t cheap.

Terrible picture of me, but one that makes me laugh because the photographer was just so pleased with how many shots he was getting of this.
World Trade Center Museum

Oh my stars, you could spend all day. We spent over 2 hours there, and could have spent more! Here’s the trick though, a lot of the museum is just memorial type stuff, which is cool-ish, (maybe I’m a brat and don’t care about a 40 foot memorial quilt?) but what I thought was just so incredible was the part that shows how September 11th actually happened, minute by minute. It was amazing and heartbreaking and sobering and humbling all at the same time. To get to that exhibit, you go through a revolving door that is across from the giant fire truck. Seek it out first, spend as much time as you can there, then look at the memorial stuff later. I wish I would have known how cool that part would be and known where to go first.

The site of the Twin Towers was also very sobering, almost reverent and I have loved going there. The survivor tree is lovely, St. Paul’s Chapel (known as The Little Chapel that Stood) is nearby, and in general, it is such a privilege to pay our respects to all impacted by the tragedy of 9/11. And on our last trip, Maren and I went to the top of One World Trade Center, which was neat, but I felt it was more take-tourists-money based than memorial based. I didn’t feel like it was a must do, but it was neat.

Prices for each of these activities is in the $25-35 range. One trick we learned that a ticket salesman (of all people) whispered to us, is to buy tickets to the One World Trade Observatory on Groupon! So while they are usually $35 per person, it brought them down to $27! And you can buy it right there on your phone and they will just scan it.

Natural History Museum
Us being dinosaurs, obviously.

I didn’t really have a strong desire to do this until I was taking Maren with me and we had shown her Night at the Museum to amp her up for the trip. I thought it was more of a kid activity, but boy was I mistaken! The museum is huge and has so many cool and interesting things. The day we were there though, the Ocean Room was closed due to a private event that evening and I was really bummed about it. So twist my arm, I might have to go back in the future. 😉

General admission for this museum starts at $23 for adults and $13 for kids. That is just for the basic admission though, and we opted for an add on that granted us access to a special 3D movie that we both really enjoyed. There are a handful of other add ons you can purchase with your ticket that can increase the price by $5-10.


If you are planning on visiting a lot of these attractions, it might be worth it to get a CityPass or The New York Pass. Both of these offer a group of attractions at a discounted price. We haven’t ever used them because we weren’t ever going to do ALLLLLL the things on one trip, or we weren’t interested in a handful of the things that were offered on each pass and didn’t know it would make sense financially. We have sprinkled in the more expensive activities with free things so we aren’t blowing our whole budget on entertainment. However, it might be worth it to price it all out if you are wanting to do at least three or four of these activities and see if it would make sense to get a discounted bundle of passes.


Just because these next activities are free, it in NO WAY means that they are less desirable! These have been some of my favorite things to do and see in NYC! If you are on a budget, you should stack your agenda high with these things and you will not be disappointed!

Central Park
Our first time finding Shakespeare’s Garden and I was in love with it!

In my mind, no time is ever too much in the park. (But don’t go at night. Philip was convinced we were going to meet certain death as we took a night stroll through on our last trip, and the single man whistling eerily behind us was making a compelling argument that we would indeed have a tragic end.) Daytime is the perfect time to rent bikes and ride around, meander through the beautiful paths on a casual walk, go to the Belvedere Castle, find Shakespeare’s garden, visit the famous fountain, or take pictures of pretty bridges. I highly suggest taking a treat or snack with you, so that if/when you get tired, you can park yourself on a bench and people watch. Seriously, you could spend all day!

Brooklyn Bridge

This is one of my most favorite activities to do. We take the subway into Brooklyn, eat delicious food, check out how cute Brooklyn has become, then make your way across the bridge towards Manhattan. I prefer walking towards the city so you have a pretty view of the skyline the whole time. We have done it at night time and in the day, and both views are spectacular, but pictures seem to turn out better in the daytime. Also note, the walk is over a mile long, so make sure you’re prepared. It’s a good way to work off what you just ate.

The Highline

I LOVED this! It is an old above ground railroad track that has been turned into a walkway with incredible vegetation and views! It is pretty long, but there are a lot of places to get on and off, a lot of places to sit and relax, and so many things to see and enjoy. I would do this again and again, it was just so great.

Staten Island Ferry

If you don’t want to splurge for the trip to see Lady Liberty up close and personal, this is a great option. It is 100% free, takes about an hour round trip, and goes by the Statue of Liberty. I took Maren on this, and while it was cool, it definitely didn’t measure up to going to Liberty Island. And once she realized that we were just passing it, she was a little bummed, but again, free!

Times Square

If you’re dying to feel like a tourist, or just want to see it once, visit Times Square. It is a lot of bright lights and street performers and stores you can find almost anywhere else. But it is fun to walk through just so you feel like you know New York a little better. Also if you’d like the I {heart} NY shirts, they are cheapest in the heart of Times Square. They are cheesy for sure, but I think they are fun little souvenirs for yourself or kids.

There are tons of other things to do also: kayaking, visiting Alexander Hamilton’s house, library tours, etc. I haven’t done tons of them, but they have rave reviews.


I’m actually going to stay out of this. Everyone has such different tastes that it’s so hard to recommend something that everyone will love! If you are going and have no idea where to even start and need guidance, let us know and we will be happy to guide you to pizza. 🙂 But the good thing is there is this thing called the Internet, and enough people like food that you’ll find no shortage of options.

I will say though, on our last trip, we went to Chelsea Market for the first time and it was an absolute delight. It is a marketplace in the old Nabisco factory, where there are more food options than you can imagine. The market is also sprinkled with unique retail shops and boutiques, and in general, is very charming. We very much enjoyed it, despite the fact that we couldn’t find a place to actually sit and eat our food! It is a thriving area, for good reason, so expect crowds. But there is something there for everyone.

So let’s go!

Have I convinced you yet that this is a trip you need to take?? New York is just such an iconic city. It is so neat to go and experience the energy, the magic and the history that is there.

And if you plan on taking kids, I’ve got a post coming up on that! Our last trip, Maren was my sidekick and it was definitely a different kind of trip. We went to carousels, toy stores, playgrounds, etc., and had the best time. I really wanted it to be a trip that she remembered and actually enjoyed, but I wanted to enjoy it too. Like have it actually be a vacation for both of us. So more to come on that!

But in general, kids or not, I love to help people plan their NYC trips, so let me help with yours! It is one of my favorite cities and I just want other people to love it as much as I do. As my cheap touristy t-shirt says, I HEART NY.

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