Hello Faithful Readers! (If there are any of you left…) Over a year ago, I started this blog to track my three month long European adventure. I’ve since been back and have been dealing with other things, namely a year of underemployment and struggle as I begin my new career as a teacher in Chicago. If you would like to know more about my non-globe-trotting life, check me out here.
As far as this blog goes, I’ve been thinking for a while about turning it into a general travel blog, however, due to monetary constraints, I haven’t really gone anywhere. That is, until now.
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge
Recently I turned 28 (LOVIN’ IT!) and I thought to myself, where does a broke 28 year old go for their birthday? The most expensive city on this side of the pond: NEW YORK! (Duh, right?)
In June when I made my plans, I looked at my finances and decided that I could make the trip under certain conditions:
- I had to find a super cheap flight. Like, super duper cheap.
- I had to find cheap Broadway tickets. Really, this was the whole purpose for the trip. I wanted to see The Newsies for my birthday.
- I needed free lodging.
So, I went online and found a cheap ticket to the play with seats at the back of the orchestra section (SWEET!) and, then, I checked to see if I could get a flight for the day before and the day after as I decided that a three day trip would make it all worth it. Spirit airlines came to my rescue…and then later they screwed me (more on that further on).
Confident that I could meet the third condition as I know quite a few folks in NYC, I booked my reservations. It was done and a week or so later, I had a spot on a friend’s couch.
Now, any body ‘n’ their mama can grab themselves free lodging, a cheap flight and show tickets with Lady Luck and a little help from their friends in the modern digital age. That’s not what this post is about. No, friend. What I tried to figure out and then wonderfully executed is this: How does one visit the Big Apple, one of the priciest cities in the world, when they ain’t got no monies AND not be disappointed?
First, I want to say that my tips, as they are, are not just for NYC, but for any trip. The first time I traveled abroad I had very little money and I spent 1.5 weeks in London (which, I’m certain is the most expensive city in the world) without spending hardly any money (future post anyone…?). In fact, I’ve gone through most of my life as a proud member of the working poor. The past few years and last summer were pretty much the first time in my life where I didn’t need to worry (too much) about finances. I am a pro at getting around and doing it on the cheap. Trust.
So, some things to consider:
- What do you want to do/see on your trip? When mulling this over, keep some things in mind: famous locales cost money. Are you able to go to a city like NYC and not see the Statue of Liberty up close and not be disappointed? Do you need to ride all the rides at Coney Island? Must you get front row seats at the latest and greatest Broadway show? If you’ve answered “yes”, then traveling on a shoestring is not for you. If you’re like me and like to explore off the beaten path locales, then read on.
- What are all the free things that interest you? Here is where I usually figure out where are all the historic/interesting spots that I can visit from a street or can get in for free/cheap. This includes museums. While many museums charge, places like DC have free admission and in NYC the museum price is actually a suggested donation. You can pay the full price or not. Special exhibits will cost you, but general admission is open. Also, if you’re like me and still carry around your student ID (and still look the part), see if you can get the student rates on any place charging admission that you want to go.
- Where do you want to eat? Hint: not in a restaurant. When I travel, it’s all about convenience stores and cheap sandwich joints. When I was in the UK this past year, almost all my lunches were from TESCO. They had this lunch special: a sandwich, fruit, and a canned soda/bottled water for £2.50. Also, street food. Tamales, kielbasa, hot dogs, all for a couple of bucks. It’s much more flexible as you can pick up these things almost anywhere and don’t have to worry about being somewhere specific for a meal. Traveling with healthy snacks helps you stay on your meal plan and away from temptation. I brought a container of trail mix with me to NYC and I nibbled on it for three days. Road food isn’t all that healthy to begin with and you don’t want to make yourself sick from too much garbage. Don’t forget to eat your fruits and veggies!
- How are you getting around the city? On the cheap, public transport is a must. NYC has an awesome subway system. But still, it’s a money suck. Sometimes, it can’t be helped. This trip I stayed in Brooklyn, so I had to ride the train back and forth, however, while in the city, I walked as much as possible to balance it out. In general, whenever I travel, I tend to walk as much as possible. It’s freeing to not have to depend on public transport, you get to see a lot of stuff off the beaten path and every time you walk from point A to point B, you save.
- Where are you staying? This is a biggie. After the to and fro of arrival and departure at your chosen vacation spot, this is often the next biggest expense. My personal policy? Don’t pay for lodging if you don’t have to. Simple as that. If you know someone in the area with a couch or spare bed or even a floor, why pay for a hotel or even a motel? Now, I recognize that I’m a young-ish person without kids or spouse and not everyone can pull this off, but I say if you don’t need to get your own room(s) and you can live without amenities, you can go anywhere.
- Are you flexible with your plans? I find that flexibility is always a must. You can’t see everything in one trip due to time and cost. Sometimes, you get lost while on foot and lose part of a day. Sometimes, shit just happens. I’ve experienced lots of set backs while on vacation. Frankly, a certain amount of flexibility is needed for a great travel experience in order to not be disappointed. Let go and have a good time. You’re on vacation, remember? Don’t be so concerned about getting up early and arriving at your various destinations by a certain time. Sleep in, take your time and feel the joy of the trip.
- What do you want to buy? Souvenirs are the enemy of traveling on a shoestring. It’s tempting, but you have to say no most of the time. I try to take as many pictures as I can for mementos instead of buying crap. Also, I have a few rules for souvenirs: It can’t be anything that I can get at home for cheaper or same price. I have to know the reason why I want it (i.e. knick knack, practical, decorative, etc.). If I can’t think of any legitimate reason why I want it (it can be a shallow reason, but there has to be a reason besides just wanting it), then I can’t have it. Small knick-knacks have to be under $20, but preferably closer to $10. No single item should be over $30, unless the nature of the thing (e.g. imported, size, precious stones, gold, etc.) gives it extra expense. Usually, I don’t buy these things, but there are a few exceptions to the rule, like when I bought my kilt in my family’s tartan in Scotland. There was no getting around the price for something like that. Generally, I try not to buy souvenirs unless I really, really want whatever it is. And, in all honesty, there are very few things in this world that I really, really want or can legitimately convince myself that I need.
These are my big guidelines and, I promise you, if you follow them, you will not only have a great time, but you will not be broke(r) when you get home.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention anything about getting there and back. Frankly, that’s a personal choice and I have taken everything from plane, train and bus. I don’t drive, so that’s never an option for me unless I’m traveling with someone else who is willing to do all the driving. I’ve never taken a boat long distance, so I can’t speak to that. In the past, I’ve always made the choice of how to get there based on my personal economic situation and what I’m willing to deal with at the time. It’s so very personal and most people know what’s best for them. My thing is, if you can’t at least afford to get where ever it is you’re going, then you shouldn’t be going there. Period. Once you get to your destination, it’s relatively easy to save money and have fun cheaply if you keep the above questions in mind. That said…
So, what did I do for my three days in New York?
At the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn
Day 1: Brooklyn
My first day, I decided to stick close to home, as it were. My host lives in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I spent my first day in the borough. I met up with another friend at the Brooklyn Museum and paid the student price for admission ($4). It was a cute little museum, but not the most exciting. I enjoyed the Egyptian and Greco-Roman artifacts as well as the section on African tribal art (primarily Yoruba and Congo). There was definitely some good art there. There was also some weird art. Mostly, I just enjoyed hanging with my friend for a couple hours and commenting on the pieces.
After, I made my way to Park Slope. I was meeting another friend there later and wanted to make sure I knew where we were meeting. I had a bad stomach ache, so I grabbed a natural ginger drink and then made my way to the Greenwood Cemetery.
If you’ve been following my adventures, then you know I enjoy visiting cemeteries and Greenwood promised to be amazing. It was definitely worth it.
I spent about 2 hrs wandering around. This place is huge. There are really big hills and a gorgeous landscape. I enjoyed just wandering around. The chapel on the grounds was lovely. There was a big koi pond near some of the above ground vaults. I was sad to leave, but the cemetery was closing.
Eventually, I met up with my friend, we got dinner and spent a couple hours just chilling on a church stoop talking and eating and catching up. All in all, a good day.
I started this day by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. I, then, walked to Chinatown and spent a couple hours just looking in shops and seeing what there was to see. I found a cheap lunch special and got some cashew chicken ($6) and rice which I ate in a nearby park. Of course, there was so much food that I was able to eat the rest for dinner (double meal score!).
I left Chinatown and went up to 51st Street. I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Should you ever go to NYC, the cathedral is worth the visit. Seriously, even if you aren’t Catholic (which I’m not). If you can appreciate good architecture or just beauty, then you should go.
It was an interesting experience for me. I’ve been in plenty of churches before, but this is the first time that I felt compelled to light candles and pray. I lit a candle at St. Joseph’s shrine and another at the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochawa, who I fell in love with while in Poland.
Upon leaving the cathedral, I went to Rockefeller Plaza and took pictures of the iconic spot and hoped to catch a glimpse of Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. No such luck.
By this time I was running late to see another friend and I raced to Wall Street. After a bit of confusion, I found my friend and she showed me around the block and then I stuffed my face while we got caught up in each other’s lives. I had to leave all too soon, though, because I didn’t want to be late for The Newsies. My friend and I made lunch plans for the following day and I raced back uptown to W. 41st Street.
A block from Times Square
I’m not going to bore you with details about the show (IT WAS AWESOME!). I’d recommend it to anyone. They changed some stuff from the movie, but that was to be expected. It was still good.
Afterwards, I returned a birthday phone call from a friend, sat on a bit of scaffolding and talked for over an hour. I love how at no point, did I worry about my personal safety while in NY. People are on the streets at all times of day and night and at no point did any scary folks show up. It was great. When my phone died, I got on the train back to Brooklyn.
Front of the Stonewall Inn
My final day in the city, I said goodbye to Brooklyn and headed to Greenwich Village. I ate a scone on a bench on Bleeker Street. I took a gander at all the cutesy shops and stopped at one that sold Tibetan goods. I loved that little shop and wanted to walk away with tons of stuff, but settled for a wooden beaded necklace and a Ganesh pendant.
As I was on my way to catch the train back to the financial district, I found myself on Christopher Street and standing in front of the famous Stonewall Inn. I took a moment to bask in the history before heading down into the subway.
I met my friend, S, who I had to dip out on in order to make the show, for lunch down in Battery Park. She surprised me by lighting two candles in my turkey wrap and singing “Happy Birthday”. It was so sweet.
My birthday sandwich!
S had to go back to work, so we took our leave and I headed towards Central Park. I got lost for about an hour or so. I was carrying my luggage, a duffel, and though it was light, the weight started to…well…weigh on me.
I was looking for the Balto statue commemorating the bravery of sled dogs during a diphtheria outbreak in Alaska. After wandering around for, like, ever, I finally found it. Then, I went to the MET gift shop. By this time it was around 4 and I still wanted to see Harlem before taking the bus to the airport. So, I just looked in the gift shop didn’t see anything I liked, so then I crossed the park and went to the Natural History Museum gift shop. Still, didn’t buy anything (good on me), but I had my look around.
On the corner of African Square and MLK, Jr. Blvd
Without further ado, I took my leave and headed further uptown to central Harlem. I exited the subway at 125th Street and soaked in the sights and sounds. By this time I was exhausted and didn’t want to spend a lot of money. Also, it was after 5pm, so I didn’t really “do” anything in Harlem besides what I had been doing. I walked up the street, enjoyed the sight of my beautiful Africana sisters and brothers. I did my part to stimulate the local Black economy by purchasing a dashiki dress from a small shop where the African men sewed the shirts and dresses by hand. They even did custom work.
Finally, I decided it was dinner time. For the first time on my trip, I ate at a fast food restaurant, Wendy’s. I took the opportunity of being a paying, sit-in customer and camped there with a book and rested and read until it was time to catch the bus. The awesome thing? My bus to LaGuardia picked up on 125th Street, so when it was time to go, I just grabbed my bag, crossed the street and got on the bus.
Thus ended my three-day NYC get-away on the cheap with minimal money spent. Overall, I was quite satisfied and I can’t wait until my next trip. As previously mentioned, I have a rant about Spirit airlines, but I’m going save that for my next post. Yes, I will indeed post here again.
While, I don’t have any upcoming travel adventures planned, I realized while writing this post that, though, I’ve never had a lot of money, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling and I think I have some info to share in this regard. So, I think there will be a couple of upcoming posts on my various travel experiences and getting around on the cheap. I hope old readers and new will enjoy my ramblings. If not, well, :P.