New York City on a Budget: Travel Tips for Backpackers

New York City is a diverse landscape full of urban grit and high-end art, all packed into the five boroughs. From the top of the Empire State Building to the 840 acres of Central Park, there is something to explore in every corner of the city. Of course, it is also one of the most expensive cities in the world, so exploring on a budget can be a challenge.
Before planning your backpacking trip to the city, take a few minutes to set a reasonable budget. Yes, you might be able to visit New York on $25 a day, but only if you have a free place to stay. For most visitors, estimate somewhere in the $100-150 range if you need to include accommodations.

Where to Stay

Having a safe place to leave your stuff is the priority when you first arrive in the city. Whether a relative dropped you off, you took a shuttle from the airport, or you just made your way out of the immense Grand Central Station, you need a place to go. For budget travelers, hotels are out. Even the most affordable hotels would eat almost your entire daily budget. But, there are some great options, from room shares to hostels. If you’re traveling alone, there are several friendly hostels right in the heart of the city. Here are a few great options.

Jazz on the Park Youth Hotel

In the center of the Upper West Side, the Jazz on the Park Youth Hotel offers affordable housing and a location you can’t beat. Right outside the doors are the Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Riverside Park, and Grant’s Tomb. If you’re combining this trip with some college research, Columbia University is also nearby. With spots in dorm-style rooms available at $57 per night, it’s super affordable for the location.

Chelsea International Hostel

When you think hostel, you might imagine endless rows of bunk beds and long lines for the bathroom, but that is not what you get at the Chelsea International Hostel. For around $56 per night, you can enjoy a room that sleeps two, in two single beds, no bunk beds in sight. Plus, every floor has a bathroom. Combine that with the air conditioning and free continental breakfast, and you have a first-class hostel, before signing in to the free Wi-Fi.

What to Do

Once you’ve got your accommodation sorted out, what next? There’s so much to do in NYC that picking and choosing is tough. But, if you’re staying in Chelsea, you’ll want to start by exploring Manhattan. Times Square is always worth a look, and it’s free to explore. Spend some time in High Line Park, snapping shots of the city. Then, plan the rest of your stay. Here are a few top attractions and experiences.

1. Central Park

With 840 acres of green space, Central Park hosts more than 25 million visitors each year. Along the paths, street performers make it a fun place to people-watch and soak up some sun. Plus, there are plenty of food carts around so that you can grab a cheap lunch.
places to visit in New York City

Credit: Shutterstock

2. The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the most extensive collections in the world, and admission is reasonable for students at just $12. Students from anywhere in New York state, Connecticut, or New Jersey can choose the amount to pay for a ticket. If you’re a New York state resident, entry is also free. That makes this a must-see and an affordable afternoon of entertainment.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Credit: Shutterstock

3. The Staten Island Ferry

The best things to do in NYC don’t cost an arm and a leg. A ride on the Staten Island ferry is completely free. See great views of the Statue of Liberty all rolled up into a fun ride across the harbor.
Staten Island Ferry NY

Getting Around in the Big Apple

You’ve got a bed. You’ve made a list of your must-see attractions. But, how do you get from your hostel to the places on your itinerary? Well, in New York, you’ll want to strap on a comfortable pair of shoes and hit the pavement. Traffic is often gridlocked, so walking is the best way to get around. If something is a little too far to be a comfortable walk, public transit is the best way to navigate. The subway runs regularly, and on time, so you can cross the city in an hour or less. If a car is a necessity for a particular destination, pull up a rideshare app. These taxi alternatives offer a much more affordable fare when navigating New York.

Where to Eat

When exploring New York City on a budget, one of your most significant expenses is likely to be food. If you’re booked at the Chelsea, you’ve got breakfast covered, but where do you go for lunch and dinner? Street food, Asian storefronts, and plenty of fast casual options make it easy to grab a quick bite for $15 or less. You can even hit up a grocery store and do some cooking. Most hostels offer at least one kitchen, and even sandwich fixin’s can be an affordable option to help avoid an impulsive dive into a new foodie experience.
During dinner, shop Happy Hour specials. The New York bar scene is a fantastic experience, but it’s also crazy expensive. Happy Hour specials let you enjoy upscale dining and drinks at prices that don’t break the budget. 169 Bar on the Lower East Side is one great spot for happy hour, particularly since it extends the “hour” until 7:30 p.m. At Verlaine Bar and Lounge, happy hour continues until 10 p.m., and the food menu is surprisingly affordable. And, don’t forget to grab a slice at one of the many New York City pizzerias. There’s nothing like a grab-and-go meal at any time of the day or night.

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