In late August/early September we took two weeks to visit the USA and New York City was our first stop (we also visited Washington DC and Vermont but I will write about those at a later date). There were a number of reasons why New York was on the itinerary such as the huge amount of things to see, everyone seems to love it, flights into JFK are pretty reasonably priced from the UK, the food, the shopping and the US Open tennis tournament. It’s an iconic city and one that I have always wanted to explore. There are a lot of guides and reviews of NYC out there are I am confident that 99% of them just tell you how amazing everything is without really delving into any negatives, the costs involved and things to look out for. I had a number of questions prior to visiting New York and hopefully this post will help those who have similar questions.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
I have seen so many posts about how people flew into JFK and then explored New York, posts that make no mention of how they even got there and posts that just don’t seem to offer enough information to people who are considering going. We can all figure out how to get to JFK from home but how do I get to my hotel from JFK? How much does a flight cost? How do I get around New York? Is the Subway expensive? Is it all walkable? The list goes on.
We flew from Manchester to JFK in late August with our return flight in early September. The flights cost £513 per person for a return and allowed us a 23kg baggage allowance. We flew with Virgin Atlantic and would happily recommend them. As you would expect from a long haul flight every seat had a personal screen which housed more than 100 films as well as TV programmes, music and games. As a piece of useless information, I watched Lady Bird on one of the flights and really enjoyed it! The food was ok with three options to choose from, I had a curry on the way out and meatballs on the return journey. All drinks were free including alcohol.
For getting to our hotel in mid-Manhattan from JFK, people on Trip Advisor had talked about figures such as $60 in a taxi and so I wanted to find a cheaper option. That cheaper option is the AirTrain and Subway which can get you from the terminal to Manhattan for just $7.75 and arguably takes no longer than a taxi would judging by New York traffic. Whatever terminal you arrive into at JFK, the AirTrain stops there. Simply follow the AirTrain signs in the terminal and board the train when you reach the platform. You will need to exit the train at Jamaica Station so make sure you board that train.
Once you are at Jamaica you will need to buy a MetroCard to get through the gates and access the subway. The self-service machines are simple enough and take cash or card as payment. As the MetroCard costs $1 you will want to pay at least $10 to ensure you have enough for the full journey. Once you have your MetroCard you can make your way to the MTA NYC Transit E Subway platform and board a train to Penn Station. The whole journey will take around an hour. Penn Station is very central in Manhattan and is just a few blocks from Times Square. Our hotel was six blocks away from Penn and so we walked from there. If your hotel is further afield you can always catch another subway in Penn as it really is a huge station and has great connections to anywhere in the city.
Keep hold of your MetroCard too as that will definitely come in handy for exploring NYC. Each ride costs $2.75 whether your journey takes 2 minutes or 20 minutes so bear that in mind if you are only travelling a few blocks. We generally didn’t walk more than about 20-25 blocks at once because the heat was just too much.
WHERE TO STAY
I really wanted to stay in Manhattan because although we had heard good things about certain parts of Brooklyn, I didn’t want to be messing around with the subway too much as I do like to explore on foot and most of what we wanted to see was in Manhattan. If you want to stay in Brooklyn, as you would expect, it is really easy to get to Manhattan but just keep in mind the $2.75 per person subway fare. This would have cost us around $11 per day each with the back and forth trips for day time and evening.
In my opinion if you are looking to stay in Manhattan you have three choices for location. You can either stay up near the south side of Central Park where there are some lavish hotels such as The Plaza, you can stay further south in Mid-Manhattan closer to the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden or you can stay in Lower Manhattan closer to Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial. All three have their merits but if money was no option for me then I would be staying on that south side of Central Park because you are in walking distance, not only of the park, but of Times Square, 5th Avenue’s designer shops, Museums, Hell’s Kitchen and Broadway.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Manhattan-Chelsea which is located on West 28th Street. The cost of the hotel was $1,076 for 5 nights in late August which on today’s exchange rate works out at £819 (£163.80 per night). For Mid-Manhattan this seemed to be a very reasonable price for the time of year and whilst many people seem to mention how small New York hotel rooms are we didn’t feel that our room was small at all. There was free access to the onsite gym and all the staff were really friendly and helpful. The room had a brilliant air conditioning unit which was an absolute dream considering it was 35 degrees outside and the whole place felt clean and well kept. I guess you kind of know what you are getting with a Hilton though!
We opted for this hotel because of the generally positive reputation that the Hilton brand has, the good price, the good reviews and the good location. We were just a few blocks from the Empire State Building and importantly only a few blocks from Penn Station which is where we would arrive into and where we would depart New York from at the end of the 5 nights. We used the subway to get to Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn during our stay but for Central Park and Times Square we did it all on foot. We also ate out every night and never needed to catch the subway to find a good restaurant.
There are hostels and cheaper hotels in Manhattan that you can get for less than £100 per night but I struggled to find one at that price point that ticked my boxes. If you are on that kind of budget then you may want to check out Hotel Edison. It is located very close to Times Square so you are right in the heart of the action and from more than 11,000 reviews on Trip Advisor, 88% of them are rated at average or better. I found dates in 2019 where double rooms were just £97 per night. Please understand that I have not stayed at this hotel, I am just pointing it out as a possibility for a traveller on a tighter budget.
I was advised against Airbnb for New York City as most listings are likely to be people illegally sub-letting their apartment. As I am no expert on US law, here is a recent article around the subject from the New York Times. A google search will also give you lots of information but the general theme that I got from locals was to avoid Airbnb for NYC.
IS IT EXPENSIVE?
The simple answer to this is “yes”. If you are travelling from a country with a relatively low cost of living then you may find it a shock to the system (and the bank balance) but if you are travelling from somewhere like London or Paris then it probably won’t feel much different to home. Hotels, as I have already mentioned, can be very pricey but it is food and attractions where your expenditure will really start to add up. For two people breakfast generally set us back between $16 and $45 per day depending on whether we just grabbed a bagel and some juice or went for pancakes or waffles at a diner. Our evening meals ranged from $50 to $85 for two people and we generally only had one course each and no more than one alcoholic drink each. If you are big drinkers or want a couple of courses your bill will easily topple $100 for two people.
Museums generally cost us around $25 per adult ticket and the cafés inside could be pricey, charging around $10-12 for a sandwich. The One World Observatory was a great experience but a ticket plus taxes will cost you around $41 each so it is not a particularly cheap experience if your budget is tight. There are of course lots of museums and art galleries in New York and with the size of them and the cost of them, you may want to prioritise two or three.
Another cost you will need to factor in that you may not be prepared for is tipping. The standard tip that you pay on a food bill is around 20% so if your bill comes to $70 you will be paying more like $84. You will also need to tip taxi drivers, hotel cleaning staff and anyone else who may provide you with a service during your stay.
Having said all that there are many great things to do that are free and there are savings to be had when it comes to shopping. I will be writing a post soon about what to do in NYC but the free activities that we enjoyed included strolling around Central Park, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, experiencing Times Square, seeing the famous apartment block from the TV series ‘Friends’ and taking a look inside St Patrick’s Cathedral. Also if you are a fan of fashion brands then names such as Calvin Klein and Levi’s are significantly cheaper here than in Europe. I picked up a Levi’s t-shirt in Macy’s for just $16!
Generally speaking around $100 per day is a good rule of thumb to work to. This should get you three meals per day and entry to a museum. If you like fancy restaurants, lots of alcohol, take taxis everywhere and want to shop until your heart is content, you will need to revise that figure upwards.
AM I GOING TO BE SAFE?
Of course you hear stories about New York crime and we have all seen at least one episode of CSI:NY so you would be forgiven for questioning how safe New York is, especially if you are a solo traveller. It’s only natural when you are going somewhere new to wonder how safe you will be. For the 5 nights that we spent in NYC we had absolutely no issues at all and never felt threatened or uneasy. You will see quite a few homeless people and one or two people may approach you asking if you can spare a couple of dollars for some food but I didn’t see anyone become threatening or abusive towards people.
There is a large police presence in New York and so unless you stray off the beaten path to an unsavoury part of town you should be fine. Even walking around at night there was still a high volume of people and I didn’t feel any less safe. Any scam artists will likely hang out in more touristy areas and it is always good to keep your eyes open to things but you can say that about any town or city in the world. To be quite honest I felt like there were just that many people walking around in New York that if you were to be the victim of crime it would be extremely unlucky that they picked you and there would certainly be witnesses and a police officer not too far away.
My only piece of advice would be that because Times Square can get very busy, to the point where we discovered how the sardines must feel! It is probably advisable with so many people bumping into each other and walking past each other to make sure that your bag is zipped up and your phone is to hand. Other than that relax and just enjoy everything that this city has to offer!