The Sydney Morning Herald
January 15-16, 2005
Section: Weekend 5: Travel
Don't let the cost of cocktails intimidate you - New York can be done on the cheap.
"Money, money, money, money." So goes the theme to The Apprentice, a show that revels in New York's status as the Mecca of materialism. Wall Street, stretch limos, Manolo Blahniks and $US99 ($130) hamburgers (it's the truffles, apparently). A city so expensive, all but the filthy rich and homeless have fled to the other boroughs.
But a holiday to New York needn't blow the budget, especially with the Australian dollar above US70 cents. You won't live like Donald Trump or party like Paris Hilton, but you can still have a great time in one of the world's great cities.
The first and most expensive thing you'll need to sort out is accommodation. Unless you're willing to stay in a dormitory, you'll be lucky to find a hotel room for less than $US100 a night. And there are hidden costs. A 15.25 per cent tax plus a $US2-a-night levy means that, even if you manage to find that bargain $US100 room, it will actually cost more than $US117.
A cheaper alternative is to sublet an apartment. There are no hidden costs, you have complete privacy and you can do your own cooking, which also saves money. There's no room service, of course, and you have to take out the garbage, but that's a small price to pay for your own New York pad.
There are several websites through which you can sublet an apartment, even for short stays. Some are simply bulletin boards; others, such as www.sublet.com, charge a fee before providing details, which others take a percentage of the rent (and are more expensive).
My wife and I took the last option and booked a place through New York Habitat (www.nyhabitat.com). You search by price and area until you find something suitable, then the company emails you the paperwork. Once you've paid the 35 per cent agent fee as a deposit, you've given the owner's details so you can make contact with them and tell them when you've arriving. The owner meets you with the keys, you pay the balance (and sometimes a bond) and the place is yours. (The website also covers Paris, Tokyo, Rome, London, and the south of France.)
In New York, there's a huge range to choose from, so think about where you want to stay and what you can afford. With two-bedroom downtown apartments selling for more than $US1 million, a place in SoHo, Tribeca or Greenwich Village won't come cheap. But if your heart's set on a downtown address (for the terminally hip, New York ends at 14th street), East Village has some cheaper options.
We settled on a small, perfectly comfortable apartment on 48th and Ninth for $US107 a night - a lot cheaper than any comparable hotel. The area, Hell's Kitchen, is undergoing a renaissance, with countless bars and restaurants catering to the theatre crowd. It's within walking distance of Central Park and lots of midtown attractions and everything else is just a bus or subway ride away.
There are cheaper options. If you avoid the agencies and use an internet bulletin board, such as Craig's List (newyork.craigslist.org/vac/), you'll find apartments for less than $US500 a week. You might also think about staying outside Manhattan. Moving to Brooklyn might have seemed like the end of the world for Sex and the City's Miranda, but it's only a few subway stops from downtown bars and restaurants and rent is cheaper.
If you're on a really tight budget, or traveling alone, another option is to take room in a shared apartment. There are plenty available through the same websites, particularly the bulletin boards, and you can end up paying as little as $US550 a night.
You've got your room, now it's time to explore the city. Fortunately, it's public transport nirvana; cheap and easy to get around. It's so good you might never need to catch a taxi unless you're clubbing into the wee hours.
The layout of Manhattan follows a numbered grid so logical it's almost impossible to get lost. Avenues one to 10 run north-south while streets one to 200 or so run east-west, although it's a bit more complicated downtown. For short distances, do as New Yorkers do and walk (or, rather, strut). Walking 20 blocks north or south is a breeze, but the avenues are further apart, so you'll know about a walk between, say, Fifth and Eighth avenues.
For longer distances, you'll need public transport, so if you're staying more than a few days buy a weekly Metro Card. Just $US21 ($US24 from February 27) and covering all bus and subway routes, it will save you money after 11 trips. The card also works on the 59th Street cable car to Roosevelt Island, a tranquil place with views of the midtown skyline.
Buses are perfect for shortish distances, or if you're not in a hurry, and the cross-town bus buses are particularly handy. Buses are also a great way to sightsee for nothing. The most scenic routes are the M1 (from Central Park to Manhattan's southern tip, along Fifth and Madison avenues), M5 (from Washington Square to the George Washington Bridge, with views of the Hudson River) and M104 (from the United Nations Building to Times Square, then north to 125th street).
For longer journeys, or if you're in a hurry, use the subway. The stations are hot as hell in summer but the trains are air-conditioned and perfectly safe these days, even at night. The elaborate subway system will get you all over Manhattan and the outer boroughs in no time.
The great thing about sightseeing in New York is that so much happens on the streets (not surprising, given the size of the average apartment). It's also a remarkably open city, despite having borne the brunt of the 2001 terrorist attacks. With the exception of the stock exchange, you can go pretty much anywhere. Even the Statue of Liberty has reopened.
If you want a close-up view of this famous landmark, but don't want to shell out $US10 for the Ellis Island ferry, jump aboard the Staten Island ferry instead. It's free and takes you right past the statue, with fantastic views of lower Manhattan.
On a nice day, there's nowhere like Central Park. This sprawling oasis between 59th and 110th streets offers sweet relief from the relentless buzz of the city. Crash out in sheep Meadow with a book, get lost in the Rambles or jog around the reservoir like Jackie O used to do.
A great walk is to cross the glorious Gothic span of the Brooklyn Bridge. Pedestrians walk on a wide platform above the traffic, so it's a relatively tranquil experience. Be sure to catch the subway to Brooklyn and walk back to Manhattan; the view is much better.
If you're into architecture, the city boasts an unrivalled collection of early skyscrapers. The Woolworths Building, Rockefeller Centre, Chrysler Building, Empire State and Flatiron Building are all breathtaking. And all you have to do is look up.
So many of the city's landmarks have been incorporated into songs, movies and TV shows that you can take your own pop-culture tour by simply pounding the pavements. The apartment building from Friends? It's on the corner of Bedford and Grove in the West Village. The restaurant from Seinfeld? On the corner of 112th and Broadway. You can stand over the grate that blew up Marilyn Monroe's skirt (northwest corner of Lexington and 52nd street) or sit where Meg Ryan did when she faked that orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (Katz's Deli, corned of Ludlow and East Houston streets).
For high culture, New York's museums and galleries are among the world's best, but that comes at a price - between $US12 and $US20 a visit, which soon adds up. You can lighten the load, however, with a CityPass ($US53, valid for nine days), which gets you into the American Museum of Natural History, Guggenheim Museum, Empire State Building and the Museum of Modern Art and includes a two-hour harbour cruise. You'd pay almost twice as much if you bought tickets individually and you'll avoid the queues (you can wait for hours at the Empire State). Buy it online (www.citypass.net) or at any of the attractions. (The $US49 New York Pass lets you into more sights, but is valid for only one day).
If you visit in summer, go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday afternoon when the rooftop cocktail bar is open. To watch the sun set over Central Park while sipping away is worth the price of admission alone.
Most visitors to New York try to see at least one Broadway show, but they're not cheap. You can, however, get a half-price ticket by buying it on the day of the show at the TKTS booth in Times Square (47th and Broadway) between 3pm and 8pm (11am - 7:30pm on Sundays; 10am - 2pm for Wednesday and Saturday Matinees). The queues can be scary on weekends, but there's plenty to look at while you wait.
New York is shopping heaven and a bonus for Australians is that clothes and shoes are generally cheaper than at home. Jeans are particularly good value, with Levis selling for little as $US20 and designer jeans for less than $US100.
If you're patient and feeling lucky, you can find incredible bargains at Century 21, a department store opposite the site of the World Trade Center. This store is famous for its markdowns on designer gear, but you've got to know what you're looking for and not to be afraid of the crowds. And it's amazing how a Prada skirt or an Armani Jacket loses it allure when sagging off a cheap hanger on a crowded rack. More bargains can be found at Macy's, which offers 11 per cent off overseas tourists (bring your passport).
Bear in mind when shopping that everything costs more than you think because of an 8.625 per cent sales tax that's not included in the ticketed price. So don't bother carefully counting our correct change - it'll only make the shopkeepers grumpier than usual. If you visit during September, however, everything less than $US100 is tax-free.
Food is another bargain. New York is endearingly free of bland supermarket franchises; rather, there are delis serving cheap food on just about every street corner. They range from merely good to heavenly and at the top of the heap is the legendary Zabar's, on Broadway and 80th in the Upper West Side. With its walls of cheeses and meats, it's worth a sightseeing trip even if you're not hungry, but you'd be mad not to stock up for a picnic in nearby Central Park.
Eating out is all part of the fun and fortunately the city is full of cheap restaurants, particularly Italian. It's hard to get bad pasta in New York, which makes the absence of good coffee all the more baffling. Many bars also serve great, cheap food.
Ah, yes, the bars. New York is justifiably famous for its cocktails and, thanks to a smoking ban, its bars are very pleasant places (for unrepentant gaspers, there are plenty of rooftops bars). Drinks are not expensive, although you wouldn't want to shout a large round at one of the more fashionable places. Cocktails can cost $US14 and more at upmarket bars.
Most bars have a generous happy hour, many lasting much longer than that. With a bit of planning, you can bar hop for many very happy hours. But check the fine print. Reduced prices many only apply to certain drinks or if you sit at the bar, not at tables.
Saving money is great, but refusing to tip is no way to do it. Most Australians maintain the right not to tip lousy service, but in the US a 15 per cent tip is almost mandatory (just doubles the sales tax). There's good reason to tip. With no minimum wage, many staff rely on tips. Some bar staff receive no wage from the employers. Instead, their tax liability is covered and they live off the tips. So, no tip means no income. And it's amazing how generous that bartender will become after a decent tip.
So when that complimentary cocktail comes your way, raise the glass to Donald Trump in his Fifth Avenue penthouse and remember: all the money in the world couldn't buy the guy a decent haircut.
By Greg Hassall
The Sydney Morning Herald