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.
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.
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.
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!!).
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.
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.
Have you traveled to NYC on a budget? What were some of the ways you were able to keep costs low in this expensive city? Let us know in the comments below!
Author: Hope Chen
Student at the University of Michigan with an insatiable desire to travel. I blog about budget travel for students, my spontaneous adventures, and occasionally an outburst about global politics as it relates to travel. Currently planning for another summer in Germany – this time in Berlin.
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