How I Traveled to NYC for a Weekend with $20 USD

How I Traveled to NYC for a Weekend with $20 USD
How I Traveled to NYC for a Weekend with $20 USD
How I Traveled to NYC for a Weekend with $20 USD

This is perhaps one of our most highly requested posts yet. I had mentioned in an earlier post that I would frequently travel to New York City (NYC) from Boston with $20 USD or less, including all transportation, accommodation, and food, and received an influx of messages asking how it is possible to spend so little money in one of the  most expensive cities in the world. Thus, I’ve put together this step by step guide to show you how I traveled to NYC for a weekend with $20 USD, and how you can do it, too.

Be Flexible

A huge component of travelling cheap is being flexible and open to new ideas. The $20 USD includes all of my transportation, accommodation, and food costs. This may sound impossible but it is very feasible, as long as you are willing to look at different options.

The most important facet of travelling cheap is being flexible. I was often able to find a bus ticket from Boston to NYC for only $2 USD each way. If you look early enough and check different dates, Bolt Bus will almost always have $1 USD deals from Boston to NYC. This may require playing around with bus stops (there are some in New Jersey, a short train ride from NYC, that may have $1 USD deals when the other locations do not) and dates, but some combination of dates and locations is bound to offer $1 USD tickets. Thus, the total cost for a roundtrip ticket is still less than $5 after taxes and fees. 

Window shopping can be fun too! This is a shot from the Kith store

Free Accommodation

My tip for accommodation is one that may be met with more skepticism. I visited NYC five or six times last year and stayed with Couchsurfing hosts on all but one of those occasions. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Couchsurfing, it is an online platform where locals (“hosts”) offer up a bedroom or a couch for travelers (“surfers”) to spend the night for free. The idea behind it is that surfers will be able to stay with hosts and more deeply immerse themselves in local culture. Many of the hosts on Couchsurfing are people who used to Couchsurf or still do Couchsurf when they travel and want to pay it forward. Hosts are almost always interested in becoming friends with their surfers, and some will want to spend a lot of time with you when you stay with them. I have had only positive experiences from Couchsurfing but have also heard numerous stories about people with horrible experiences. There is definitely an element of danger involved because the app/website allows for free accommodations without performing background checks on the hosts. My advice would be to meet up with the host in a public location prior to staying with them and to trust your gut instinct regarding whether or not it is safe for you to spend the night in their home. Nevertheless, I was able to stay in NYC for free whenever I wanted to because of Couchsurfing.

The view from one of my couchsurfing homes

Cheap Food

Food is the area where you can choose whether to go all out or to save money and keep costs low. For me, I chose to not eat out in nicer restaurants because I had been to NYC enough times that I didn’t feel the need to indulge in the food each time. In Chinatown, there is a bakery called Taipan Bakery that has the most delicious baked goods. My favourite pastry from Taipan is the shredded dried pork buns. There are two types, one with a filling and one that’s dry. The one with the filling is amazing, very filling, and only costs $1. One or two of these buns is definitely sufficient for dinner, and I will always eat these when I go. They are almost guaranteed to be sold out if you go after 7 PM, so if you do happen to make it over there, I’d recommend going earlier in the day. Other places in Chinatown also sell cheap but delicious food, which is a great money saver. If Asian food isn’t what you’re looking for, there are also other more affordable food options in gyro trucks, hot dog stands, etc. (but do buy them in non-touristy areas!!). 

A must-see in NYC


The only other cost I incurred in NYC was the cost of taking the metro (subway). On warmer days, I would take the metro much less because walking in NYC would provide extra sites to see anyways. On colder days, metro costs would be higher because I would choose to walk less. However, you can save metro costs in general by planning out your day well. For instance, I would plan to visit places closer together on the same day so I could walk rather than take the train more times than necessary. 

Another weird attraction, but visiting your favourite artists graves is always fun too

Free Attractions

Aside from food, transportation, and accommodation, almost all of the attractions I went to were free. Many of the museums in NYC are suggested donation (e.g. the MoMA, the MET, the Museum of Natural History) and while I would love to donate to them, and I do always try to give at least a dollar or two, the life of a struggling college student is rough. One day I will go back and pay them back for all of the amazing art they allowed me to see, but for now, all of these things are what allowed me to travel to NYC for a weekend with only $20 USD.

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READ MORE:  10 Best Weekend Trips to Take From the United States

How I Traveled to NYC for a Weekend with $20 USD

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  • Dóra Punk

    I participated in a Work and Travel program, so I worked for 5 summers in a summer camp in Massachusetts. New York was the main connection point with my camp and Hungary, so I needed to go there several times. In my first year New York was the last point of my 10 days trip (Boston, DC, Niagara, and New York), and I really wanted to do everything from $600 (the Niagara trip was booked beforehand). In New York I had 3 full days, which I didn’t consider too much, but yes, I did the same, I used Couch Surfing. About food, you can find cheap foods even nearby the touristy places as well. Once I found a $1 pizza slice nearby Time Square, but don’t ask where, I totally don’t remember 🙁

    About buses I can mention Megabus as well, that also have low fares as well. Sometimes Greyhound also has some good deals.

    Nice post! 🙂

    • Hope Chen

      Aw that sounds awesome! I’m glad to hear that you also used couchsurfing – it’s such a controversial thing right now and it’s nice to meet fellow surfers who had good experiences!

  • Only By Land

    That is super cheap from Boston, $1 with Bolt bus. Being flexible and booking in advance sure can save a lot, useful info about using different stops too. I guess there are other Bolt bus deals from other big cities that will get you to NYC for a buck too. I saw in the news that Trump Tower is one the most popular tourist destinations in NYC now.

    • Hope Chen

      It definitely helps keep costs down! Haha that doesn’t surprise me :/

  • Emily

    What a fun read! I love Chinese food and especially baked goods! Must visit soon. You got me drooling.

    • Hope Chen

      Haha I got myself drooling reading over it 😂

  • Jean

    What great ideas. I’m always saying to people how much fun crazy cheap adventures are. As you’ve shown you don’t need to spend lots of cash on food and activities. I do love the window shopping in New York. Usually with the Aus $ being so low it’s not always practical to buy things in New York.

    • Hope Chen

      The exchange rate does get annoying – I feel that with the Canadian dollar too 🙁

  • Ling

    That’s a pretty impressive way to save money for NYC. Makes me wonder if I can do the same from LA to somewhere like SF. When we visited Scotland, we picked up a hitchhiker that brought couch surfing to our attention and that’s something I may do one day for the experience but I’m OK with spending just a bit for a hostel. Still, some interesting ways to really budget travel for some expensive places…but you pretty much have to forgo a lot of things 😀

    • Hope Chen

      I’m sure you could figure something out! Let me know if you do 🙂

  • Charles McCool

    Love this concept of seeing NYC on the cheap. It can be very expensive to visit the Big Apple but there are also so many free and inexpensive things to do. Great article.

    • Hope Chen

      Exactly! It’s better to visit it cheaply than not to visit it at all because of costs 🙂

  • Ivy

    Wow, very impressive! Too bad the flight to NYC from YVR alone sets us back 4-6 bills each 🙁 I’ve heard many stories, some err… interesting, about Couchsurfing and while I don’t think I’ll ever give it a shot, I think it’s a great concept and I’m glad you’ve only had positive experiences.

    • Hope Chen

      Haha yeah I can totally understand why people WOULDN’T do it and I honestly hesitate to recommend it to people. I’m blessed that it’s been good to me so far though!

  • Inge

    Couchsurfing is great, I’ve only had really nice hosts. And I know that there are many great things to do in NYC that are free. My biggest cost in NY usually is coffee because there are so many fantastic coffee places (e.g. Toby’a estate in Williamsburg is the BEST).

    • Hope Chen

      I feel you on that!! They have the best coffee shops!

  • Ivana

    haha I agree with the part about food. 🙂

  • Julianne

    I must admit, when I saw the title of this post, I was a bit skeptical (as I live in NYC and know how expensive it can be!). However, your recommendations are valid and well thought out! When I was a grad student in Boston, I remember getting one of those $1 bus fares on Megabus. We left NYC at midnight and got to Boston at 5 AM, and basically slept the whole time! So being flexible and creative with cost-saving measures will definitely cut down on your expenses in NYC. Not sure about Couchsurfing, but I’ll definitely look into it for my next trip. Great post, as usual!

    • Hope Chen

      Hey I don’t blame you! NYC is an expensive city 😛 Megabus is also really good! I’ve taken it a few times from Boston to NYC too 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  • Midori

    I’ve never done coachsurfing… I think is a great platform for allowing people to travel for very less money. I prefer though the tranquility of knowing I’ll be sleeping somewhere safe. But in cities like NY, where accommodation is so expensive, is something to think about!


    • Hope Chen

      Yep I don’t blame you! Not sure how much longer I’ll be doing couchsurfing for, I think it’s part of being young and thinking you’re invincible haha 😂

  • Katie

    This is such a good post! I didn’t realise you could get buses around the country that are so cheap! Are they comfortable? We preferred to opt for cheap street food rather than restaurants when we visited NYC. Pizza slices in less touristy area only cost $2-4 as well and are always amazing!

    • Hope Chen

      They were really comfortable! It’s the same bus that most other people pay 30-40$ for, it’s all just about timing of when you purchase tickets!

  • Travelgal Nicole

    I’ve never tried couchsurfing but I definitely want to. NYC has so many free things to do and its a walking city so easy to get around.

    • Hope Chen

      Yes! I love it in the summer when I can walk everywhere 🙂

  • Caroline @ The Travelling Sloth

    Glad to see another uni-student travelling on a tight budget 😀
    That’s really cool that you manage to travel so cheaply especially to NYC (I always hear stories about how it’s so expensive)! Couchsurfing is definitely a great way to meet new people in the city, in some instances, it gives you a new perspective on things. Those pastry things you mentioned sounds delicious. I’d probably have to check out other eateries too, though. I’ve a tendency to get hangry!

    • Hope Chen

      It definitely does! Likewise, I always love meeting fellow travellers my age! 😀

  • ada

    wow this is so well organised! Well done! I ve been in NY many times, but luckily I have a family there so I dont need to worry about accommodation or food. The only problem is getting there as unfortunately I won’t find 2$ deals to fly overseas :)) Seems like you had amazing time in the city 🙂

    • Hope Chen

      The best thing is when you have family in cool places! Thanks for reading!

  • Janine

    How inspiring! It is great to learn of ways to travel on such low budgets. I am not sure I could do the couchsurfing thing, but for some travellers this would definitely be the way to go. I enjoy window shopping too and got engaged on the Brooklyn bridge! It is true that travelling doesn’t need to cost a fortune.

    • Hope Chen

      The Brooklyn Bridge is gorgeous! So true – it’s a pretty common misconception that travelling has to be expensive!

  • Aireona- Nightborn Travel

    First of all, congrats! This is an accomplishment! I have been to NYC multiple times, and I can’t believe that you managed this. It is awesome. Also, this is such great info for budget travelers. Great post.

    • Hope Chen

      Thanks so much! I hope it helped 🙂

  • Asia

    I am so impressed! I had no idea there were $1-5 bus tickets. I wonder if it’s the same for deals from NYC to D.C. or vice versa? Do you know? 🙂 I want to combine both of those spot in 1 trip. Also, I’m scared of Couchsurfing but glad you had a safe experience. Luckily my cousin lives in NYC so I have a free spot as well.

    • Hope Chen

      I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is! Please be safe if you do decide to couchsurf. Awesome that you have family to stay with there though 🙂

  • Melissa

    This post is a testament to the fact that traveling doesn’t have to cost a ton of money. While I’m past the couch surfing stage in life, I still love finding cheap eats, and visiting free attractions when I travel.

    • Hope Chen

      Thank you so much! Those are the best things when travelling 😀

  • Karen

    Nice finds! It’s great that you still explore on the cheap… do the expensive side of NYC another time 🙂

    • Hope Chen

      Exactly! Maybe one day I’ll have enough money to explore the expensive side of NYC but for now, I’m more than happy seeing the cheaper side 🙂

  • Bhushavali

    Wow!!! That’s awesome! I agree with the flexibility that’s imperative when it comes to finding the cheapest bus tickets! I’ve been on a couple of 9 GBP tickets when travelling to/fro Paris London or Amsterdam London. Couchsurfing does sound a bit risky! I generally even avoid AirBnb when travelling alone!!! I prefer Hostels when going on budget trips.

    • Hope Chen

      That’s amazing! I’ll keep that in mind for when I go to Europe this summer! Airbnb is good too – hostels in Europe are my favourite thing!

  • Birthe (from Wandering the World)

    We’re from Belgium and visited New York in May last year, but I wouldn’t say we did it on a budget! Or at least not on the tight budget you manage to stick too. 😉 We tried to keep costs down by renting an AirBnB apartment, buying breakfast in a grocery store, and walking a lot. Although taking the metro isn’t too expensive either. We did a lot of free things (visiting parks, public buildings, wandering around), but just couldn’t skip some of the touristy things you simply MUST do when visiting New York just once. 😉 Soaking in the view from Top of the Rock or One World Observatory, watching a musical (bought discount tickets from tkts though), visiting the 9/11 Memorial Museum, and having dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, to name a few. Can’t blame us, right? 😉

    • Hope Chen

      I totally get where you’re coming from! When I go to places in Europe I tend to overindulge a bit too, especially with more popular sites 🙂 I think in my mind NYC has always been pretty close so if I ever want to go back and do the touristy things that cost money, I can just go back another time 😛

  • Carola

    Well done! And chapeau for getting Couchsurfing hosts in NYC – I know bigs cities are always tough to convince anybody to host you (I guess you are an avid host as well…).

    Happy continued travels!

    • Hope Chen

      I’ve actually never hosted because ever since I started using it, I’ve been living in dorms at school! But one day when I have my own place I’d love to host 🙂

  • Carmen Baguio

    These are such good tips! I love Chinatown and always find the cheapest, most delicious meals there! Pinning this for later.

    • Hope Chen

      Thank you so much!! I’m glad it helped 🙂

  • Kiara

    That’s so cheap!!! I’m definitely thinking of doing the Boston – NYC route you’re talking about next time I’m in the States! Thanks!

    • Hope Chen

      Yay glad I could help! That line is really affordable and efficient 🙂

  • Brianna

    Nice job! Travel does not always have to take a lot of money! I would struggle not spending money on food in NYC though. There’s just so much goodness to injest!!

    • Hope Chen

      Yes that’s always the hardest part!! One day I’ll go back and try allll the food I want 😂

  • Siddharth and Shruti

    Wow! Didn’t know you could do a trip for only $20! Thanks for sharing. The pork buns sound delicious.

    • Hope Chen

      They are SO delicious! Trips can really range anywhere from $20-$2000 for the same exact place, you’re in complete control over how much you spend 🙂

  • Erin Southerland

    This looks like such a fun weekend in NYC! Travel really doesn’t need to be expensive. For more cheap eats, I really like Fried Dumpling on Mosco Street in Chinatown. Five pork dumplings for $1.25, homemade to order. 🙂

    • Hope Chen

      That sounds amazing!! I can’t believe I haven’t been there before! Will definitely check it out next time I’m there 😀

  • Ava Meena

    This is really an incredible budget for your trip! I’m very impressed that you are willing and able to use these budget friendly methods to travel – you’ll certainly be able to go further on less.

    • Hope Chen

      Haha thank you! I am a struggling college student so I guess I don’t have much choice in the matter 😜

  • ThriftyTrails

    Great post, Hope! I had an inkling that you were couchsurfing in NYC. We were only successful for two nights in Paris during our entire 6 months trip. I was either reaching out too early or too late – I must find the sweet spot.

    • Hope Chen

      Haha yes! It’s hard to find people to host in large cities sometimes – my hosts told me that they’d receive 20+ requests every day so obviously, they can’t accept all of them! The trick is messaging a lottt of people haha 😛

  • Anna

    This is awesome! I haven’t been to NYC but would love to go someday, but obviously know that somewhere like that is out of my budget range. It’s nice to read that you can do it for so cheap! I’ve thought about couchsurfing (in expensive cities), but I’m afraid of getting creeps. It’s good to know that you’ve only had positive experiences!

  • Annalise

    Great post! I’ve always wanted to visit both NYC and Boston and now I’m thinking that I could possibly do it all in one trip! I had no idea buses in America could be so cheap! Thank you for the information x

  • Scarlett Begonias

    This post was legit! The last time we traveled into NYC, I remember the toll being $20 and we spent hundreds of dollars after that. I never knew that you could take those buses for $1, that’s insane. We will be rethinking how we spend on our NY trips, that’s for sure.

  • wayfaringsarah

    When I read this title I was like ‘this has to be clickbait, there’s no way this is possible!’ So colour me amazed that you can genuinely doing it! If I’m ever in America I’m definitely going to be using every step of this 😀

  • Lisa

    Glad you still had an enjoyable weekend and didn’t let the money part bog you down. Your right, if you have visited a place many times before you can still do things with out all the extra expenses. Not sure I am brave enough to try the couch surfing…..will stick to my hotels for now. Thanks for all the tips!

  • Alissa

    Wow, that’s crazy that you can find a $1 bus ticket… I use Bolt bus all the time between DC/Baltimore and New York and I’ve only ever seen in the $20-30+ range. How far in advance do you book your tickets? Otherwise, though, thanks for sharing this guide! Props to you for being able to visit NY on 20 bucks!

  • Shona

    Well done, Hope! $20 in NYC, I really thought there was going to be a disclaimer but you’ve covered all bases.

  • Stephanie (1AdventureTraveler)

    Great travel tips on traveling to NYC for $20 USD. I have heard recently of couchsurfing maybe one of your blogs and thought what a great idea. Better yet your tips on meeting first in a public place is a good idea. Great food recommendations, thanks for sharing 🙂 #feetodotraveling

  • Travel Lexx

    Fantastic post – you got some incredibly good tips for saving money that can apply not just to New York, but many other locations worldwide. I am not sure one bun would even get close to filling me up and I would prefer my own accommodation but there is no way anyone can say that travel has to be expensive! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Paul and Carole

    Wow just $20, you have proved it is possible. Have heard of couchsurfing but not done it. Safety is a concern but like you say follow your gut. Great post. #feetdotravel

  • Rob+Ann @TravelLatte(.net)

    Even without the couchsurfing, solid tips to enjoy NYC. You really don’t have to spend a lot to have a good time, especially when you know you can always come back for more! Glad you included window shopping – New York is one of the great window cities still.

  • Barry

    Great stuff – you guys have shown that you can do an expensive city and the cheap. I’ve found there are always cheaper ways to travel places I’ve visited but they are not always widely advertised. Sometimes you have to do a little more research or get some advice from locals. I’m a fan of Couchsurfing and have been using it to host and surf for about 5 years now.

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