Exploring New York City on a Student Budget
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Reyt let's set the scene.
There's 6 days in New York City,
5 inexperienced students,
4 modes of transport,
3 unforgettable restaurants,
(only) 2 major disasters and
1 unforgettable trip!
There is no denying that New York is one of the most expensive cities in America. That however, doesn't mean to say it can't be explored properly by students on a budget. Yes, there's a fair bit of walking involved and you definitely can't stay in a hotel or eat at a fancy restaurant every night BUT it is all completely worth it. NYC is hands down one of the most beautiful and exciting places I've ever visited. Everything is huge and bright and flashy! Around every corner there's a film set or a celebrity in a blacked out car. And the food, oh my gosh don't get me started on the food! Anyway, for those of you that are wondering, look no further. Here's exactly what I did, back in my student days, with a cost break down. There's also a few cheeky tips thrown in there to help anyone planning this kind of holiday.
Day 1- Arriving to New York and our hostel
Now, the key to a great trip is always your accommodation. For us, a hotel in New York was unfortunately out of the question. However, there are hundreds of fabulous hostels dotted across the city. After some research we ended up going with 'The Local NYC' in Queens. It was simple and student friendly but most importantly it was safe at just $64 a night. It also had a beautiful rooftop view, lit up with fairy lights, which was great for chilling on in the evening.
On our first evening we decided to go to the 'Sugar Factory', a restaurant/bar that serves everything sweet. It was kind of like being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory but an 18+ version where there's shots and fish-bowls and Pitbull. Of course we didn't try any of that stuff (all unfortunately being under 21 back then) but we were perfectly happy with burgers and Milkshakes. We even managed to bag ourselves a couple of free boxes full of classic American candy! Tip No.1 Always make it known you are British. American's love the Brits and it seemed to get us free stuff.
After that, we left for Times Square and Broadway. This is an obvious must see and was probably one of my favourite places in the entire city. Tip No.2 The best and most cost-effective way to travel is by the subway. Don't buy single rides for $6 (it adds up quickly). Get a weekly pass for $30 that you can use any time across the whole city. Even if you're only there for a few days you can still get your moneys worth.
Disaster number 1- While checking our friend Jade into a separate hotel near our hostel, we found that she was unable to stay there because she was under 21. (Ridiculous I know.) After an unpleasant row with the manager and a visit from the police, which was completely unnecessary, we managed to secure her a room for the next 5 days. This was only under the condition that her Dad vouch for her if anything went wrong. Tip No.3 If you're under 21, be careful while booking accommodation. Many places in America don't accept unsupervised 'minors' and often don't make it clear on their websites. Always call them and double check.
Day 2- 9/11 Memorial, World Trade Centre and Brooklyn Bridge
On our second day we decided to tick off a lot of the free touristy places. This involved a fair amount of walking but that's the best way of gathering your bearings while exploring a new place. Our first stop was the 9/11 memorial and World Trade Centre to pay tribute to the lives tragically lost there. As we walked around the memorial it was very emotional seeing all of their names engraved in stone. Above some victims names there were roses. We later found out that they are placed there on their birthdays.
After that, we walked across Brooklyn Bridge which provides some insane views of the city. It also gives the perfect opportunity for a risky photoshoot on the ledge (sorry Mum, it had to be done.) On the way back to the hostel we took our third mode of transport for the day, the Roosevelt Island Tram. Tip No.4 With your subway pass you can also use the tram. These cable car type tram things give you an excellent view of the city and switches it up from constantly travelling underground.
Day 3- Brunch in West Village, Central Park and the Mets game
My favourite morning that week had to be the day we went for brunch in West Village. The whole place was much quieter and became a nice break from the madness of Manhattan, with it's quaint little cobblestoned streets and town houses. We decided to eat at a small restaurant called 'Jack's Wife Freda' which I highly recommend. From my bright green shakshuka to Char's florescent pink eggs Benedict we were truly satisfied with both the food and the service. (Plus if you're wanting a nice aesthetically pleasing spot for your Instagram posts, this is your place!) From there we managed to stumble across 'Milk' a little dessert bar where the ice-cream tastes just like the milk from the bottom of a cornflakes bowl. (Unusual I know but definitely worth a try!) Tip No.5 When it comes to food, share what you can. Wherever you go, most menus are pretty pricey so sharing meals splits the cost. Even shared, the portion sizes, for us, were definitely more than enough!
From there we caught the metro to central park and explored the place via tandem (a bucket list experience I'm now delighted to tick off.) In the evening we attended our first professional league baseball game. San Francisco Giants Vs New York Mets (tickets were only $6 online!)
Day 4- Coney Island
On day 4 we planned a trip to Coney Island, the world famous amusement park, known for it's big wheel and 91 year old 'Cyclone' roller coaster. The park was way bigger than we'd first anticipated so we were able to spend all day there and even had picnic on the beach, surrounded by a bunch of fearless seagulls. It was also here that I learnt to never forget my suncream ever again. (Ouch!) By booking tickets online on a fixed date, our tickets went from $69 to $45.
Day 5- Rainbow Bagel, Empire State and Stardust Diner
We were now coming towards the end of our trip but, as the famous expression goes, 'there is no rest for the wicked'. Day 5 was just as action packed as all the others, starting with a rainbow bagel breakfast from 'The Original Bagel Store' in Brooklyn. I'm not lying when I say that this is probably one of the most magical things I've ever eaten, even the cream cheese was multicoloured!
Next came the Empire State Building. Having seen mixed reviews online, I was unsure whether or not the giant queue and a whopping $40 to the top would be worth it. In the end I decided there was no cheaping out on this one. After all, you haven't really been to NYC if you've not done the Empire State. Looking back I'm really glad I made that decision. There ended up being no queue at all and the views were just astonishing. My little iPhone camera did none of it justice, but being up that high was absolutely breathtaking.
Then, our third and final restaurant of the week. (We definitely saved the best till last!) Introducing 'Ellen's Stardust Diner', your original 50's themed all singing all dancing restaurant. If you're a musical theatre fan like me, then this place is your heaven. Real life performers from Broadway are your waiters and they sing and dance whilst you eat. I never wanted to leave! Check out 'Ellen's Stardust Diner' on YouTube to get a flavour of what I mean. Tip No.6 In any restaurant, if you're ordering a burger and chips, be sure to order a 'burger with fries'. Not to say that my cheeseburger and ready salted crisps weren't enjoyable!
Day 6- Grand Central Station, Urban Space Vanderbilt and Statue of Liberty
Finally, our last day in the Big Apple, we decided to play Blair and Serena with our own mini Gossip Girl tour. You can pay for a proper tour, but why spend $59 when you can see most of the attractions for free? In the end we saw Chuck's Empire Hotel, walked down 5th Avenue, sat on the Met steps and visited Grand Central Station- success! A stone's throw away from Grand Central we found 'Urban Space Vanderbilt' which is definitely worth a visit. The small urban deli is full of local business vendors selling all kinds of wonderful food- from Mexican to America, Mediterranean to Vegan. It is a little pricey but if you've got any extra cash it's nice to help out a local business. (I recommend the doughnuts!)
The only thing we had left to see was of course, the Statue of Liberty. Tip No.7 Instead of spending $25.50 on a tour ticket, you can actually catch the Staten Island ferry (which drives right past the statue) for free! This is exactly what we did and got some really great views of Lady Liberty all lit up at night. The perfect finish to a truly unbelievable trip!
And here it comes, disaster number 2- Whilst experiencing the best of America we were also unfortunate enough to experience a much darker side. On the coach to our next destination we were witnesses to a verbal racial attack upon a group of innocent passengers. It was disgusting to hear these hateful words come out of such an uneducated and bigoted racist. It wasn't until one of the girls who was travelling with me reported the abuse, that anything was done about the horror on-board. Tragically, racism doesn't just happen in America, it happens everywhere , which inspires my next tip. Tip No.8 Stay safe by being aware of those around you. You never know who you're going to meet. If you witness anything suspicious, dangerous or hateful, report it straight away.
As always, thank you for reading. I hope at least some of this information was useful, if not a little entertaining. To anyone planning a trip to New York, I hope you have a fabulous time! Stay safe x