New York is expensive, but it’s still one of the greatest cities on earth, so here is some advice on how to get the most of the Big Apple on the pitiful rand.
If you plan well, and prioritize carefully, you can save lots of dollars, which translates into lots and lots of rand, but will need to start planning before your departure.
You don’t get cheaper than free, and I am lucky to have friends and family in New York so I divided my time between a couch in the Bronx and a couch in Astoria. Bring lots of great inexpensive presents rooibos tea, beaded flowers, Jacob Zuma stress ball heads, etc. But, if you don’t have connections, Airbnb is a no-brainer. Couch surfing is also great but you will need to plan quite far ahead for that as it’s a lot easier to find a couch if you have already hosted a few surfers. See www.couchsurfing.com and www.airbnb.com
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Choosing where to stay
Because I was focusing more on people than on neighbourhoods, I didn’t have a lot of choice but in retrospect I would probably return to Astoria even if there wasn’t a free couch there. It’s pretty close to both airports and, while it is a bit of a subway ride into Manhattan, I had a metro pass so that’s no biggy. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood with a variety of great restaurants. Also, as it’s not as fashionable as, say, Williamsburg, it’s not too outrageously priced. Sadly there are no Citi Bike stations, but that’s likely to change.
Buy a seven-day unlimited metro pass for $31 (R389). That’s about R400 but you can go almost anywhere on the buses and trains. This is another no-brainer. But if you want to really have fun while you’re getting around, Citi Bike is a great bike-sharing initiative.
You can get a day pass for $12 or a three-day pass for $24 but make sure you have enough balance on your credit card to cover the $101 deposit. And be clever. You can do as many rides a day as you like as long as each one is under 30 minutes.
If you go over 30 minutes, you will be charged, and your $101 deposit will start eroding. You swipe your card to release the bike from the stand, from which point the clock starts. When you return the bike to a stand (either the same one, or another one) the timer registers and, if it’s less than 30 minutes, there’s no charge. You can then immediately take another bike for another 30 minutes if you like, but you probably want to go into a museum or something. If you’re worried about finding the bike stations, there’s a seriously well designed app. See www.citibikenyc.com, http://web.mta.info/nyct/fare/FaresatAGlance.htm
Staying in touch
But you can’t use some of these great apps without data, and we have all heard horror stories about data roaming charges. You’d be amazed how many people in the US don’t use cellphones and/or WhatsApp so you will need voice airtime as well. There may be a better option somewhere (or one may have emerged since I was there) but I think the very best data and voice deal is with T-Mobile. For $30, you get a SIM card (normal, micro or nano) 2G data, unlimited international and local SMS, and 1000 minutes of talk time within the US valid for up to three weeks. Take a small plastic box to keep your SIM card in until you are ready to put it back in your phone. And, hey presto, no scary unexpected data roaming charges! See https://prepaid-phones.t-mobile.com/prepaid-international-tourist-plan
Restaurants are expensive and, unless food is your reason for travelling, steer clear of anything that looks trendy. In Manhattan, I opted for the unfashionable little neighbourhood deli-cum-grocery stores, where you can find edible food at a reasonable price but really not the sort of thing you would photograph and tweet before eating.
Bear in mind that in New York cappuccinos and lattes are not coffee, they are conspicuous consumption.
Have you ever wondered why in American movies after the romantic lead takes someone home for the night, and he or she will leave the apartment in the morning to get coffee? It’s because there is coffee which you drink for the caffeine, the taste and the warmth and then there is status in a paper cup. At Starbucks, a barely potable burnt-roast latte with scalded milk will cost you in excess of R50.
If, like me, you need an intravenous shot of caffeine to get going in the morning, rather buy a simple filter coffee from a corner shop it tastes no worse and costs maybe a $1 to $1.50 at the most.
Experience New York
But even if, like me, your main aim in visiting New York is to see some of your favourite people, you will want to enjoy what this awesome city has to offer. If you plan to do the regular sightseeing circuit, the New York CityPASS is a good idea. But check carefully before you buy. For $122, you can see six attractions but some of them are either/or so you may miss out on one you really want to see.
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I think the C3 pass at $74 for three attractions is a much better buy, especially as you can choose any three. So, if you really like boat trips you can do the Liberty Island Cruise and the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise, whereas on the six-attraction CityPASS you have to choose between them. You can buy these online before you get there.
But, even more important, find the free stuff. There are more than 20 free museums in New York, and most of the other museums have free days, or free times. There’s something free almost every day of the week, but Friday seems to offer the biggest choice.
And there’s so much cool free stuff happening in Central Park, you should really plan ahead. And the High Line is another great place to see New York on foot.
The Staten Island Ferry is also free and, even though it doesn’t take you to Liberty Island, you do get a good view of Lady Lib. Even better, though, is the free kayaking. Yes, there are a number of community kayak clubs where you can take a short, free paddle on the Hudson, or one of the other many waterways in summer. (Remember, summer in New York starts in May). And there’s lots more free stuff too, much of which you’ll find on Time Out.