(Photo: Marc P. Demoz)
OK, I’ve had a few short posts recently.
Now it’s time for my favorite: a post you will want to print out, refer to often, and take with you on adventures. In this case, we’ll explore budget travel that is luxury travel.
But what does that mean? It means that traveling inexpensively is a decision for creativity, not simply a decision against excessive spending. Throwing money at a trip means you are ordering from the normal, plain-vanilla menu (e.g. Marriott or Four Seasons hotels). This often means physically changing locations without changing your perspective or worldview at all.
In contrast, looking at how locals live — and find hidden gems — ensures you have amazing experiences that no guidebook can capture. This post is written by Matt Kepnes, better known as “Nomadic Matt.” He didn’t have his first overseas trip until age 23, and now he’s traveled to more than 70 countries.
His specialty is engineering first-class trips from economy-class budgets… Perhaps it’s time for that trip you’ve been putting off?
Enjoy, and please share your own tips in the comments! Matt will be responding to questions there as well.
Enter Nomadic Matt
When I ask people why they don’t travel as much as they would like, the most common answer is “because of money.” This is also the saddest and most frustrating answer.
There is an illusion perpetrated by luxury resorts, travel magazines, and travel agencies, that the wonders of some of the greatest cities in the world are out of reach for ordinary folks.
When I started traveling the world in 2006, I made many rookie and costly mistakes. More than 70 countries later, I’ve developed a handful of strategies and tips that can be applied to any destination, no matter how expensive.
Thanks to this handful, I’ve relaxed in the fanciest hotels in the world and stayed in hundreds of hostels. I’ve flown first-class, flown economy class, and hitchhiked through Central America. I’ve eaten at luxury restaurants and street stalls. Seven years of traveling the world on a budget has shown me that you can enjoy the best the world has to offer without sitting in your room eating instant pasta. “Budget travel” doesn’t mean you can’t have some luxury.
Think about your dream destination. For that matter, think of the three most expensive and sought after cities: Paris, New York or Hong Kong. Wouldn’t it be great to spend a week in any of these cities while only spending $50 a day?
I’m going to show you how to hack these cities from top to bottom: what to do, where to eat, and where you can stay. In reading this post, you’ll also learn flexible principles that can be applied to any city you choose.
Before we get to the specifics on each city, here are a few tips that will make flight, hotel, and bank fees vanish.
If this stuff bores you, feel free to skip directly to “City #1: Hacking Paris.”
Flights and Airline Points – I normally fly about 40,000 to 50,000 miles per year, which earns me enough frequent flier miles for a free flight in economy almost anywhere but you don’t need to have to fly to get a free flight – you can use branded travel credit cards and their sign up bonuses to fly free. I’ve accumulated close to a million miles by taking advantages of credit card bonuses.
If you really want to nerd out and get obsessed like I am, the links below will help turn you into a point hacker pro.
If you want to keep it simple, it’s best to just get one to two travel credit cards. Here’s what you do:
1. Sign up for a branded airline credit card: All U.S. airlines have a branded travel credit card that gives you 25,000-50,000 points when you sign up and meet their minimum spending requirements (which is sometimes just one purchase). Airline credit cards are the best way to jump-start your mileage balance. You can gain a lot of points really quickly. Personally, I use American Airlines Citi Card but for someone just starting out, I would consider getting two cards: one for your favorite airline—whatever it is–and a second card that has flexible points, i.e. points that can be used on any airline. Probably the best beginner card the second card is the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it’s easy to get, has a lower annual fee, and a larger sign up bonus.
2. Sign up for a non-airline credit card: Sign up for a non-airline credit card like a Chase or American Express card. You can use the points earned from these cards and transfer them to your preferred airline. Used in conjunction with step 1, you earn a lot of points very quickly. I recently got two Chase Ink cards and received 120,000 points, which I can transfer to a variety of different airlines.
3. Watch out for special promotions: I sign up for all the airline email lists on the airlines website. I always watch out for special 2-for-1 mile deals, or when they have special card offers to earn extra miles. American Airlines gave me 1,000 miles for watching a demo on their new shopping toolbar. I once got 5,000 miles for joining Netflix! Often times you get miles for filling out surveys or they will give you a 100% bonus on purchasing miles. Promotions help big time, and airlines seem to always be offering them. Utilizing promotions over the course of a few months can yield big results.
Words of caution: While it’s true that “churning and burning” (i.e. opening an closing a lot of credit cards at once) can hurt your credit, opening a few accounts over a year won’t kill your credit rating. I’ve been opening and closing accounts for years and I still have a credit score close to 800 and have never been denied a card. [Of course, be sure to pay off the balance/debt on the cards so you don’t pay fees, but I hope that goes without saying.] (A complete guide to the ins and outs of travel credit cards can be found here)
Accommodation: Hotel points are just as good as airline miles. I usually sign up for one or two hotel cards to get points for a couple of free night stays in any destination I visit (Recommendation: Starwood American Express). Hotels are not my first accommodation option but in case I can’t find budget accommodation or just want to pamper myself, these points are a good back up.
Bank fees: Don’t give banks your hard earn money via needless fees. If you’re American, you can avoid all ATMs fees by getting a Charles Schwab ATM card (no fees and they reimburse you for other bank’s fees). For non-Americans, join a bank in the Global ATM alliance. This is a group of banks that have come together to waive each other’s fees. Additionally, use one of these credit cards that don’t have any overseas transaction fees:
Now, let’s get specific with our cities…
City #1: Hacking Paris
(Photo: Express Monorail)
The first time I stepped out of the metro and onto the Champs-Elysees, I feel in love with Paris. The lights, the ambience, the people. I was in love for life. Every subsequent trip has only deepened that love. All those movies about how wonderful Paris is aren’t lying to you. Paris exudes culture, sophistication, and style. Its museums and monuments are among some of the best in the world, especially if you love art. The food, the music, the wine, the women! (OK, for me, the French woman).
There is so much history in Paris, and the magic I see in movies like Midnight in Paris come alive every time I wander the streets, turn down cobblestone alleys and stumble upon a little café on a plaza where I can sit, drink some wine, and just enjoy the city’s magical energy.
However, Paris is not one of the cheaper cities in the world and a visit here can be expensive if you don’t plan right. It’s what turns most people off from visiting. They search on Expedia or Hotels.com and see $1,000 USD flights and $250 a night hotel rooms and think “no way”! But Paris has its secrets and as always there’s myriad of ways to reduce your expenses.
Lodging is the biggest barrier to doing Paris on a budget. The single best decision you can make is to avoid Paris in July and August when rates are there highest. (Also, Paris is crazy crowded and hot then too! Go in the spring or fall to get better rates)
No matter when you go, there are five ways to avoid breaking the bank on accommodation:
- Use Eurocheapo.com – This is the most comprehensive budget accommodation website for Europe and lists tons of properties not usually found on websites like Hotels.com or Expedia. When I’m looking for budget hotels, this is where I go. You’ll find small, family owned guesthouses they personally review not found anywhere else. Double rooms can start at $50 a night (i.e. only $25 per person).
- Rent an apartment – In Paris, hotels are the most expensive place to stay. Enterprising Parisians have used this to rent out expensive space in their apartments to help pay their high rent. You can find a lot of guest rooms and apartments on sites like Airbnb, Wimdu, and Roomorama. Private double rooms begin at $40 USD per night ($20 per person). Single rooms or shared rooms start at around $30. Book at least a month in advance as these bargains book up fast and last minute spots are closer to $100.
- Hostels – Hostels aren’t just for young kids – people of all ages stay in them. My favorite is St. Christopher’s Inn. Hostels in Paris are the cheapest option for single travelers with dorm rooms starting at $20 per night. You can book hostels on either Hostelworld or Hostelbookers.
- Couchsurfing – Couchsurfing is a site that allows people to stay with locals for free. It’s a wonderful site – you not only get free accommodation but also get a local guide to give you the inside track on a destination. Through the site, I’ve learned about Aussie politics, Danish culture, and saw a German rock shows in Munich. Tim has a comprehensive guide to Couchsurfing here.
Accommodation is going to take up a large portion of your budget no matter but the more you save using these tips, the more you can splurge on food and activities.
The city of lights has some of the best and most expensive food in the world. Moving from market stall to market stall, sampling rich French food, and buying picnic supplies for lunch in front of the Eiffel Tower is an ideal morning for me. If you really want to try some truly amazing (and affordable) French food, skip any place listed in a guidebook, and do what the locals do, and visit the small cafes and markets.
Delicious market food meals can cost as little as $5. In my opinion the best markets in Paris: (This page lists all the markets in Paris:)
- Rue Cler – Located near the Eiffel Tower, this street is filled with good Parisian eateries. You’ll find cheese, meat, bread, vegetables, and chocolate stores to explore. It’s one of my favorite streets in the city. Due to its location, it’s one of the more touristy markets, with slightly higher prices than others. Stick to the breads, meats, and cheeses here.
- Rue Montorgueil – Half market, half foodie-paradise-shopping street, the pedestrianized Rue Montorgueil is filled with flower vendors, rotisseries, tempting bakers and fragrant cheese shops. Here your delicious and cheap options include hot chocolate at Charles Chocolatier, a pastry at Stohrer (the oldest pastry shop in Paris), and fruit and vegetables from the stalls. You can walk away from here with a large meal for 2-3 people for around $13 USD.
- Monge – In Place Monge, not far from the Jardin des Plantes, the Arènes de Lutèce and the Panthéon, this little open-air market is one of the most well known markets in the city center. This market is open from Wednesday and Friday from 7.00 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. and Sunday between 7.00 a.m. and 3.00 p.m. It’s a popular market with locals and prices here tend to be the cheapest. Visit early to get the best selections. By the time lunch has rolled around, the freshest food is already gone.
Markets are going to be the most economical way to eat – and the most delicious. Markets survive and thrive in Paris because Parisians don’t have large kitchens and do their shopping every few days which means markets are always a hive of activity and deals.
Beyond just the markets, Paris offers many affordable meals. Just south of Notre Dame, Rue Dauphine has some worthwhile eateries. The place gets crowded with folks relaxing for drinks after dinner. Pull up a chair, grab a glass of wine, and people watch.
Two of my favorite restaurants are Jeanne A and Le Patio Provencal. Both offer delicious, rich, and inexpensive French food. Both are very off the beaten path but the staff does speak enough English where you can order without knowing French.
Jeanne A is also located near one of my favorite drinking spots, Josephine, in the Ménilmontant area, an area that is filled with affordable bars serving well priced drinks and often with live bands. While in Paris, avoid going clubbing. They are incredibly overpriced and often have a cover charge.
The first thing any visitor needs to do is to get a Paris Museum Pass. This is a pre-paid pass that gets you access to over 60 museums and monuments around Paris. A 2-day PASS is only $51 USD, a 4-day pass is only $70 USD, and a 6-day pass is only $90 USD. And while this takes a big bit out of your daily budget, this pass will more than pay for itself. Without this pass, admission to the Louvre and Versailles alone are $40 USD!. Admission to those establishments plus the top museums in Paris would run something like $150 USD. Since most people visit lots of museums in the city, this pass is a great way to keep yourself to your $50 a day budget.
Crowds swarm the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral, creating long queues that wrap around each structure and can last for hours. Head there early in the morning or very late in the afternoon to avoid the rush. Lines start to form about an hour after opening.
The Latin Quarter is one of my favorite areas in Paris, and is less crowded than the touristy areas around the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame. It is a calm and beautiful place to wander around. Head deep into the heart of it for tiny winding streets and cheap cafes that look out into little plazas. Be aware that the cafes get crowded with Parisians during lunch time. Come around noon (Parisians eat late) and you’ll find plenty of space.
The Louvre is the biggest museum in the world with thousands of square feet of space and millions of exhibits. Most people don’t know that the Louvre has discounted admission after 6pm on Fridays and free on Sundays. During the low season, it is also closed on Tuesdays. If you buy the Paris Museum Pass, you get free admission.
Be prepared to spend hours here and not even see it all. To see it all, you’ll need at least two full days. But for those without the desire or time to see it all, the best way to optimize your time is to go early, see the Mona Lisa first before the crowds, and then wander around seeing everything else in relative quiet as crowds overtake the Mona Lisa. When I visit the Louvre, I head straight there (also the Marriage of Cana right behind it is also pretty spectacular), and then wander around the museum. The crowds go right for the main course so while they jockey for space at the world’s most overrated painting, you get to stroll through the museum before the crowds disperse.
Additionally, to skip the long lines, use one of two entrances that most people have no idea exist. Enter via the side entrance in the Richelieu Wing, just across from where you exit the Louvre-Palais Royale metro.
For this entrance, you’ll need a ticket already. You can use your Paris Museum Pass will work or you can buy a ticket at one of the Paris tourist centers that dot the city. Additionally, you can also find short lines at the Porte des Lions entrance in the south western wing.
The Louvre and the impressionist museums (Musee D’Orsay and Musee D’Orangie) might get most of the attention but there are plenty of other great museums in the city – the amazing Rodin museum see a surprising dearth of visitors, the Holocaust museum is one of the best I’ve seen around the world, and the Paris Sewer museum gives you particularly interesting insight into one of the oldest and largest sewer systems in the world. All national museums are free admission on the first Sunday of every month. If you happen visit this day, be aware of potentially large crowds and long lines.
If you want a good view of the city but don’t want to wait to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, head to Montmartre. I like coming up here, sitting near the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur for the view, and eating all the good food I found at one of the markets.
A visit to the Palace of Versailles (free with your Paris pass) requires a whole day. It gets very crowded, especially when all the tour groups arrive. To avoid the crowds, I trying to see the actual palace at the end of the day. People tend to move from the palace to the gardens so I work in the opposite direction. I start at Marie Antoinette’s home and then the gardens and then the palace. By mid-afternoon, there are fewer crowds and your pass gets you into everything all day. Otherwise, you can also get to the palace when it opens to avoid the long lines and stream of people.
Potential visitors often think Paris is expensive and that all those museums are just going to add up. Not necessarily. If you get the museum pass, the four-day pass only costs $17.5 USD. To maximize your time seeing the city, here is a five day itinerary for sightseeing Paris.
Paris is a huge and expensive city but like all places, there are ways to make it affordable. Once you skip the big hotels and don’t eat near the tourist attractions, you’ve pretty much lowered your big costs, allowing you to enjoy Paris more and worry less about money. The markets are cheap, drinks in Ménilmontant affordable, and the Paris pass saves hundreds.
You may not want to visit on only $50 a day, but there’s no reason need to spend hundreds here.
City #2: Hacking Hong Kong
Hong Kong is the like the New York City of the East–big, dense, hectic, multi-cultural, and open all hours.
But imagine New York City tucked into rolling green hills with towering crème and brown and pink skyscrapers that blend into one. When looking out at the city from the water, it looks as though someone photoshopped it into the mountains; this teeming metropolis set against a nature park.
Hong Kong: I can’t get enough of it.
I can eat at tiny dumpling shops while drinking dollar beers next to a seven-star hotel. How many cities can you do that in? And when you head out at night, you meet people from around the world. Hong Kong fascinated me before I visited – and then I went there and, ate there, and wandered its streets – and my fascination turned into love.
People think Hong Kong is expensive due to the massive high rises, banking industry, and expensive hotels. But the city located in Asia, a region of the world where those on the tiniest of budgets can make due thanks to guesthouses and an inexpensive street food culture that refuses to go away.
In Hong Kong there are a few keys ways to not have accommodation eat your budget.
First, stay in Chungking Mansion. This dilapidated but interesting 17 story building on Kowloon island is home to cheap food stalls, markets (with goods that fall off the back of a truck), and plenty of cheap guesthouses where beds start at $15 USD a night. There’s nothing cheaper in the city.
Secondly, avoid staying on Hong Kong Island. Accommodation – from cheap guesthouses to expensive hotels – is much more expensive on this island (just like the island of Manhattan as we’ll see later). The other islands have much cheaper accommodation.
Your other options are slim but available. Airbnb and hostels all start around $20 a night for a dorm bed and go up to $40 for a private. You can Couchsurf but Hong Kong is a city where those free hotel points should be redeemed. All the major hotel chains are represented here and if you aren’t in the mood to share a room, redeem the points here.
While accommodation will eat a good chunk your budget, luckily food doesn’t have too. And it will be some of the best food in your life. Asia has a very pronounced street culture and all the major cities in the region have delicious meals (eaten by the locals en masse) served from street stalls. Hong Kong is no different.
To eat cheaply:
First, visit the local markets. Most locals shop at markets as they offer the cheapest and freshest foods, at times up to 50% cheaper than grocery stores. The Chun Yeung Street market in North Point, Hong Kong Island is one of the best. Many of the outdoor shopping markets also have small food vendors near them for quick, cheap and delicious eats. Meals will start at around a dollar.
Skip the fancy restaurants and instead go for the tiny little shops without the glitzy lights. You’ll find the best food there. In fact, Hong Kong boosts a dumpling shop called Tim Ho Wan that has a Michelin star. Get there when they open or the line is usually about two hours long. Some of my other favorite cheap eats include Mr. Wong’s (located right next to Tim Ho Wan), which has all you can eat and drink for only $8 USD. Mr. Wong is a character. He’ll joke around and keep serving you food until you can’t burst. Additional, the string of restaurants on Jardin’s Bazaar road at Causeway Bay has tons of tiny little vendors.
For cheap drinks, experience the nightlife at Lan Kwai Fong. LKF is the main nightlife and party area in Hong Kong and is filled with tons of bars, clubs, shisha bars, and cheap drinks. It’s where all the young folks go to party, so the drinks are pretty cheap.
Hong Kong, except for the outlying areas, is pretty walkable. You can even walk up Victoria Peak if you don’t want to shell out for the tram. The city’s many walkways and skyways make for fascinating sightseeing in and of themselves, with steep stairs and glass-enclosed paths a city within a city. Additionally, take the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong island. It’s only .30 USD cents and the cheapest way to get between the islands (plus the view of the skyline is great!). I especially enjoy taking it at night when the city high rises are all light up.
Taxis in Hong Kong are very expensive and should be general avoided by anyone on a budget. The train in Hong Kong can add up quickly as fares are based on distance. If you’re traveling fair in Hong Kong, getting a day pass for the train will be much more economical.
Hong Kong has many cheap and free sights that will fill your days without emptying your wallet.
The Hong Kong Tourism office offers free cultural tours. Advance sign up is required but if you are interested in learning more about the local culture, this program is the best. Recently, a private company also started to do free walking tours of Hong Kong. This National Geographic article has a list of many free activities.
There are a large number of traditional temples and heritage sites throughout the city. You can visit the Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery, Lo Pan Temple, Sha Tin Che Kung Temple or the Yuen Yuen Institute. All are free.
Head out into the new territories – want to get off the beaten track? Visit the New Territories where you can avoid the crowds that is central Hong Kong, find inexpensive food, tiny villages, and more open space. Do the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, which is a small village walk that passes through historic museums and buildings. The walk isn’t that long, taking only about an hour.
The Peak Tram – This tram takes you to the top of the Peak, Hong Kong Island’s largest mountain, standing at 522 meters. This is an absolutely spectacular way to view the skyscape of Victoria Harbor and Kowloon and marvel upon the encompassing beauty of the surrounding hills. The tram costs $10 round trip but as I said above, you can walk this route if you don’t want to take the tram, looping up on narrow roads to the top of the Peak.
Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront – Stroll along the Tsim Sha Tsui Waterfront and take in the breathtaking skyline view of Hong Kong island. While you’re here, make sure to visit the Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s answer to the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”. At 8 p.m., there is a fireworks and light show over the harbor and the waterfront is the best place to see it.
360 Ngong Ping – This is a cable car runs a little over 3.5 miles long, spanning from Tung Chung, across the bay, to Airport Island. The view gives you a panoramic view of the whole area and goes through the mountains. The ride lasts about 25 minutes long. It’s an expensive $20 USD gondola ride but on a clear day, the pictures you get are worth the money.
Hong Kong is thoughts to be a hard city to do a very tight budget. But between all the cheap food stalls, tiny local restaurants, and free temples and monuments, it’s definitely not impossible.
Not only can you visit this beautiful city without breaking the bank, it’s also worth every penny you spend.
City #3: Hacking New York City
NYC is one of the most amazing places in the world and certainly within America (it eventually got me as a full-time resident). Sometimes though, it feels like you can’t step out onto the street without spending $50.
I never thought I would enjoy living in such a metropolis but–as a traveler–NYC is the closest I can get to being everywhere in the world at once. On any given day, I’ll hear a dozen languages and be able to eat Bhutanese for breakfast, Chinese for lunch, and Jamaican for dinner. If I want to see a movie at 2 am, I can do that too.
The prices of New York City are intimidating, but once you look past, through and around them, you realize that New York is a city filled with a plethora of ethnic enclaves, cheap meals, and free attractions.
The hardest part about coming to New York City is finding cheap accommodation. Hotels have been pushing out hostels and trying to get the city to crack down on apartment rental services for a number of years now and they are succeeding – to our loss. Luckily, New Yorkers are creative and there are a number of ways you can still stay for cheap or free:
- Choose Your Own Price – Hotwire and Priceline feature amazing deals for those willing to be given a random hotel. Using their blind booking feature, I have found hotels in Times Square for $80. And that’s Times Square, one of the most famous locations in the world. You can find rates cheaper than $50 if you expand your search outside Manhattan.
- Jazz Hostels – One of the best hostels in Manhattan features some of the cheapest rates. Dorms start at $30 USD.
- Couchsurfing – NYC features millions of hosts who are happy to show guests their city. Since hosts get inundated with tons of requests, ask early for the highest chance of success.
- Airbnb – Despite the news, Airbnb is still alive and well in the city. Rooms start at $30 a night. Places outside Manhattan’s downtown area will be the cheapest.
- Stay out of Manhattan – Like Hong Kong, Manhattan has the most expensive accommodation in the city, but boroughs such as Brooklyn and Queens have much cheaper food and lodging and are just a quick subway ride into the city.
The reason why people say, “New York is so expensive” is because they most look at hotel prices in Manhattan. But the NYC subway system is extensive and runs 24 hours a day. Lower your accommodation costs by staying outside Manhattan. It’s what most of the residents do, that’s for sure.
I get it. You want to come to NYC and eat well. The city has some of the best restaurants in the world but they take a huge bite out of your wallet. Save them for when you can afford them. For now, do what the rest of us do, and eat this way:
- Eat at the food carts – You’ll find a million food cars in the city offers lots od different types of delicious and very inexpensive filling food. Check http://newyorkstreetfood.com/ to search by type of food to find locations.
- Hot Dogs – Hot dog carts are everywhere, and a typical dog usually costs $2. For gourmet dogs, try Bark or Asia Dog. They cost around $5.00.
- Pizza – Pizza is a staple food here in New York – there are more pizza shops than Starbucks. A single-topping slice is usually $2.50-$3.50 (historically, slices stay commensurate with the cost of a subway ride), but many offer plain cheese slices for only a buck. Look for shops clustered together as they get into price wars and offer the cheapest slices.
- Chinatown Street food – Food carts on Canal Street (between Broadway and the Bowery) sell steamed, grilled, and fried Chinese food for $1-$2. Neighborhood dumpling stands offer 5 dumplings for a dollar. Prosperity Dumplings is my favorite. For the more intense Chinatown (what locals call the “Real Chinatown”, take the 7 train from Grand Central to the end of the line, Main Street in Flushing. Right next to the subway stop are dozens of stalls selling delicious eats for a dollar, roast duck and pork belly carts and basement food stalls with more cheap eats than you will know what to do with.
- Falafel Stands – Tons of food trucks and stands sell quick and cheap falafel. For something a bit more established, visit Mamoun’s, which offers Baba Ganoush, falafel and kebabs for under $6. It’s located near Washington Square Park. There’s usually a line.
- Great cheap tacos – Fabulous tacos around town, and more are opening every day. For authentic recipes in a great setting, try LES Taqueria on Orchard. Another great option is La Esquina on Kenmare, right in the middle of shopping districts. Don’t miss their elote either.
Some of my favorite places to eat are:
Chelsea Market (food stalls, local eats, farm-to-table)
Num Pang (Vietnamese sandwiches)
[NOTE FROM TIM: For a ton of my favorite spots in NYC, check this out — The New York City Food Marathon: 26.2 Iconic Dishes in One 24-Hour Walking Tour.]
One of the virtues of NYC is that you can sightsee some of its greatest attractions without spending anything.
To see the statue of liberty, take the Staten Island Ferry – That two-hour long line to see the Statue of Liberty not appealing? Well, walk a few blocks to the Staten Island ferry. The free ferry will take you across the harbor and give you a good view of both the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline. The ride takes about 20 minutes. In other words, you can see it for free and with no line!
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge – Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to experience an interesting view of the New York skyline and harbor. It’s a long walk but good food and drinks (like the brewery) await you on the other side. Again—free.
Museum hop for free – NYC is littered with some of the best museums in the world, from the Met to the MoMa to the Guggenheim. Many museums offer free entry certain days of the week. The Whitney Museum of American Art is free on Fridays after 6 p.m., the Solomon R. Guggenheim has “suggested” donations after 5 p.m. on Saturdays, the Museum of American Folk Art is free, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design is free on Tuesday evenings free, the American Museum of Natural History is free, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) is also free (suggested donation is $20). The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa)– free admission Friday nights, 4 – 8pm (be warned, it’s a mob scene on Fridays).
Get Discounted Theater Tickets – You can’t come to NYC and not see a Broadway show. Tickets though can run hundreds of dollars, especially for the new and popular shows. Luckily, there’s a way to get discount tickets. The TKTS stand in Times Square offers 40-50% off select shows. You need to arrive at the counter the same day to see what they have but it’s usually a widespread and good selection. Be prepared to wait in line for about an hour. TKTS also have offices at the South Street Seaport and in Brooklyn.
Many shows offer cheap “rush” tickets (i.e. first come, first served tickets) on the day of the show. These are for tickets that often don’t sell well, like partially obstructed views or the last row of the balcony. So you get cheap tickets ($25-40) but not great seats. However, for sold-out hit shows, these are sometimes the only tickets to be found. The best resource for rush ticket information is Studentrush.org.
Top of the Rock – Right in Rockefeller center, you can head to the top of the building to see panoramic views of the city. This is better than going up to the Empire State building because with the top of the rock, you can get the Empire State building in your photos. While there are only slightly fewer tourists at the Top of the Rock, it’s a vastly less clichéd experience with a much shorter line.
Take a free tour – New York is a great place to walk around. However, only seeing New York from the outside is half the story. Take some of the free tours to see learn about the history of the city. The best tours:
- The Central Park Conservancy offers several park tours each day based around certain themes: history, design, ecology, and horticulture.
- The Grand Central Partnership gives tours of the famous terminal every Fridays at 12:30pm.
- The Village Alliance leads walking tours of Greenwich Village, June – October.
- The Lower East Side BID offers walking tours every Sunday at 11am, April – November. The tours last three hours.
- Free Tours By Foot offers walking, food, and bike tours of NYC’s neighborhoods for free (though you should tip the guide!). There are multiple tours throughout the day making them easy to schedule.
- Big Apple Greeter provides free walking tours, lead by locals, as part of a city tourism initiative. You’ll need to make reservations about a month in advance.
Federal Hall – Right next to Wall Street is an often-missed museum. Federal Hall is where George Washington, first president of the United States, was inaugurated in 1789. The hall, which is free and open to the public, showcases life in the city at that time as well as some information about the early founding of our government.
New York City may be famous as one of the most expensive cities in the world but sightseeing, eating, and drinking can all be done on a budget if you know where to look and how to navigate the system.***
If you can take three of the most expensive cities in the world and turn them into an affordable destinations, you can turn any dream destination into a reality. Just a few universal travel principles make travel to anywhere possible. Budget travel isn’t about being cheap; it’s about not being wasteful.
The tactics we’ve covered–using hotel and flight points, searching out alternatives to hotels, eating at tinier stalls, morning markets and less glitzy places, and using attraction passes – can work in any city. Traveling the world on $50 is more than just traveling by a simple number, it’s about being a smarter traveler. It’s about training yourself to look for deals in unknown places, to travel like locals live.
Matthew Kepnes runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. He got the travel bug after a trip to Costa Rica in 2004, and decided to quit his job, finish his MBA and travel the world. His book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day–a guide for traveling cheaper, better, and longer–is now available.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.