See New York City on a Budget

John M. Dabbs

Image by Pierre Blaché from Pixabay

Planning, research, and laying the groundwork are fundamental chores. We traveled as a family to one of the greatest cities on earth.

Even the thought of going to New York City intimidated me before I had been there. A small fire service article left me a wee bit of work that would require a trip we’d talked about for a couple of years. This trip taught me I’d been putting the trip off way too long, as New York is a great place not just to visit, but an experience!

A few fun facts about NYC

  1. There are a lot of free things to do — see the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Sony Wonder & Technology Lab. — and much more
  2. It’s home to some of the world’s most famous museums — The American Museum of Natural History, The Met, and the Guggenheim Museum, just to name a few.
  3. New York City is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
  4. It’s a big city but has three small villages — East Village, West Village, Greenwich Village.
“Once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.” — John Steinbeck

Our adventure began

We checked the rates, our savings, and our budget. We chose to drive to the city after work on a Friday evening. From northeastern Tennessee, it was around 12 hours of interstate travel, arriving in the dawn at a Super 8 hotel in Jersey City. We would be catching a shuttle from the front of the hotel to-and-from the city each morning. by 19dulce91 from Pixabay

The price was right, but our accommodations sucked. The hotel staff was very polite despite not being able to put us in the non-smoking room we’d reserved. It stank. A quick trip to the local dollar store left us spraying Febreeze until the air was cloudy. From there, we went to explore while the vapors settled.

We were early, managed to store our bags in our room, and still made it out the door in time to catch the shuttle in front of the hotel that morning.

Traveling with a pro helps

My fiance traveled to the city many times, as her father is from the Bronx, and her grandparents lived in Manhattan when she was young. (They died many years ago.) Her parents would bring her to visit a few times each year, and she’d taken her son a couple of times on her own.

Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay

The architecture and design of the station made it a National Historic Landmark. Its Beaux-Arts design incorporates numerous works of art. It is one of the world’s ten most visited tourist attractions (excluding train and subway passengers). I couldn’t keep myself from looking around and admiring the art and design as we walked through the terminal.

As we left the station, we found the nearest MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) office. We purchased a Metrocard which, allowed us unlimited rides on any of the MTA buses and subways within the city. Our calculations showed just two rides per day during our trip would cost more than the Metrocard. We each had our cards in hand. I promptly stored mine and my sons’ cards in my wallet.

Poor impressions

We were getting hungry. We left the MTA and made our way along the streets in search of a quick bite for breakfast. With not much open at this hour, we popped into a convenience store and bought drinks, snack cakes, and such. It would tide us over until lunch. As we exited the store and walked a bit, I couldn’t believe how dirty the city appeared. There were bags of trash piled nearly everywhere. I wasn’t sure what to think. Maybe this was the norm in the “big city.”

We made our way through different streets in Manhattan, mesmerized by the skyscrapers and architecture. A few people sleeping on benches and huddled in doorways. We stopped at an open pharmacy to purchase batteries for one of the cameras. -No, we didn’t just use our phones for everything. We sat and wondered where to begin our adventure. While sitting to ponder our options, at least two peddlers approached us trying to sell us knock-off sunglasses and luggage. My fiance warned me not to buy from these operations — and I didn’t.

Image by Brent Connelly from Pixabay

We decided to make our way to the USS Intrepid, a naval museum featuring the aircraft carrier Intrepid, a submarine, and other military relics. I’ve always been fascinated by ships and planes, so this was right up my alley.

We spent at least three hours on the vessels, admiring their size and construction before making our way toward the exits. The cost was very reasonable.


As we made our way to our next destination, I noticed how clean the streets looked. When I mentioned it to my fiance, she told me we had arrived in the city before the trash had run for the day. I was quite relieved and noticed there weren’t people sleeping in doorways or on benches now either. The city appeared more eloquent and inviting with the welcome mat out.

We were famished by this point and were determined to sit and eat a quick bite of lunch. Not sure exactly where would be best, we opted for the iconic.

Image by Shutterbug75 from Pixabay

New York Style Pizza! We found a place on the corner; the name may have even been The Corner Slice. I don’t recall now. We ordered a large pepperoni pie and drinks and went upstairs to the dining area to wait and rest. Within a few short minutes, we had the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. I’m not sure if it was because I was so hungry, or it was just that good. It didn’t last long enough to ponder the subject — but we each left full and not wanting more. If our trip had ended there, it would have been a great trip.

As the day grew long, we made our way north, along Central Park. I wanted to see at least one or two large churches in the area. We made our way to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. It was a long walk. I’d prefer to take a bus or subway, but my fiance wanted us to walk. She said it was the “New York way.” I couldn’t help but give thanks that I was a Tennesseean at that moment, but wasn’t about to voice my opinion.

We arrived at the Cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful churches in the city, if not the world. The architecture and furnishings appear more at home in a museum. I read the church can hold 3,000 in the main sanctuary. They often host concerts and invite all people, celebrating the winter and summer solstice, and bless pets and bicycles at services during the year.


By the time we’d finished at the Cathedral, and viewed most all it had to offer, we were tired. We walked a couple of blocks and hopped an MTA bus to the nearest subway. I’d never been on a bus so spacious and comfortable. It even had air conditioning. It’s times like these I felt like a hillbilly.

We made our stop and found the nearest subway station, my guide and fiance managed to point out the entrance, and we followed her to the right platform and waited until she let us know which one to get on. These underground trains were pretty neat, I thought to myself. It wasn’t nearly as dirty and grimy as I had expected. She told me Rudy Guliani had cleaned the city up when he took over as mayor years before.

It was a relaxing ride back to the Grand Central’ where we’d find a shuttle back to our hotel. Did I mention the MTA buses and subway had air conditioning? It was a hot June day, and the A/C was so inviting, I didn’t want our ride to end!

Day Two

Had it only been one day? We had seen and experienced so much already. The city that never sleeps was about to get back into high gear. We scarfed down as much of the free continental breakfast as we dared at the hotel, and made for the shuttle.

I was enjoying the shuttle ride through the tunnel and into Manhattan. It was a 16 passenger shuttle van and comfortable. After arriving at Grand Central’, it struck me that I’d not noticed the New York Times building across the way. We made our way to a few landmarks. Saw the Chrysler Building, and made our way to the Whitehall Ferry Terminal.

Ferry Rides

The Staten Island Ferry takes you from Lower Manhattan to Staten Island. The half-hour ride provides excellent views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

The ride is worthy of your time. The ferries depart every 30 minutes normally. I would avoid rush-hour commuters to enjoy the view and avoid the crowds.

Time to Wonder

After leaving the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in lower Manhattan, we made our way North via MTA to East 56th & Madison — The Sony Wonder & Technolgy Lab.

This free excursion is a hands-on type setting, where children of all ages are introduced to the technological advances in use today. I was a TV anchor and weatherman during our visit, as we played with the exhibits.

Although admission is free, there is high demand. You’ll need to make reservations (quickly done online) to accommodate your visit. Plan your schedule accordingly. Although our family was aged 17 and up, we all enjoyed the experience.

Our shoes were made for walkin’

After leaving the Sony Wonder and Technolgy Labs (maybe they should just call it the Sony Experience?), we dug in our heels. We walked a bit, exploring the area. We took in the marvelous architecture, saw the Museum of Modern Art, Radio City Music Hall, Rockafeller Center, and stopped in at the NBC store to look around.

As the afternoon said goodbye and evening approached, we spied the Hard Rock Cafe. Our oldest son looked as though he’d seen the promised land, and guided us to our destination for an evening meal.

Image by Ralf Genge from Pixabay

The Hard Rock Cafe — NYC was as expected. It was fun, exciting, and delicious! I’m not sure what we ate, but I remember it was delicious, and our feet had a chance to rest!

After our meal, we shuttled back to the hotel and died for the night. Our feet were sore.

Day 3 - The dog day of our trip

Our dogs were tired and beginning to hurt. I looked at the kids’ shoes and saw they wore through their insoles. We did the only thing a parent can do. We went to K-Mart!

It was at K-Mart that we bought shoes, insoles, and a new bladder for a leaking hydration pack, a pair of fresh socks, batteries for the camera, and sunscreen. Our essentials refreshed, we made our way back to Grand Central Station and hopped a train to the New York Aquarium.

We managed to get in a much-needed nap, and still enjoy the train ride. Arriving refreshed and ready to walk again. The aquarium admission was reasonable but left me wanting a bit more. The facility was smaller than I had expected. Still, it was a nice facility with many beautiful animals on display.


From the aquarium, it was a short walk to Coney Island. The amusement park wasn’t open, but the shops nearby were. We enjoyed the beach, sun, and wind in our hair as we homed in Nathan’s Famous for a hotdog, or two, or three…

Image by hummelltime from Pixabay

The costs were more than I had anticipated, but they were good. I savored each bite as we sat at the picnic tables, enjoying the view.

Our trip was exceeding all of my expectations. I only had a few items left on my list of things to do!

Oh, and do the research for the article I was supposed to be here to write. It was an excuse for the whole trip. I should remember to fit that in, as it seems there was a firehouse just up from where I’d seen another place to check out.

Day 4

We arrived at Grand Central’ and hopped a train to the Bronx Zoo. The three-hour ride was again, quite refreshing. The views quite fascinating, and the experience worthy of its own story.

We arrived on Wednesday, Donation Day. The price of admission is whatever we chose to donate. Being on a limited budget, we gave less than the standard admission fee. The person taking our money didn’t bat an eye and thanked us as she let us in.

The zoo is one of the largest zoos in the United States (by area) and is the largest metropolitan zoo in the country. Full of amenities, we enjoyed them all — shade, benches, tram, restrooms, and lots of wildlife.

Image by reneecporter from Pixabay

We try to visit zoos and/or aquariums on vacations every year, and this was one of the better facilities we’ve seen. I highly recommend it! The new shoes and insoles came in quite handy during this trip, as there was quite a bit of walking involved, even after taking the tram.

We concluded our trip and relaxed during our ride back to Manhattan. Did I mention I enjoy riding on air-conditioned trains?

Day 5

As we made our daily trek into the city, we ventured through Central Park once again, enjoying the sights and sounds. We made our way to the American Museum of Natural History, where we made the most of the few hours we spent there.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

The building itself was very ornate and worthy of photography. We waited a short while in line to purchase our tickets. The wait was well worthwhile.

I’m not sure exactly how long we explored the museum, but there is no way we couldn’t have seen everything it had to offer. We should have allowed a whole day to explore here — hindsight being 20/20. This is another attraction I highly recommend.

Image by Adam Evertsson from Pixabay

As we departed the museum, went to the Empire State Building. Stopping at a street vendor for a hotdog lunch, we ate on the steps of the New York Public Library — Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. The place reeked of elegance and knowledge, with the two lion statues in front. I wish we’d had time to explore here too.

Finishing lunch, we finished the short walk to the Empire State Building. We were going to take the tour and look out from the observation deck, but the lines turned me off. The building itself was another matter. I was not prepared for the immense mass of the structure. The virtual rock could surely survive most anything!

The marble, concrete, and steel of the structure gave a surreal feeling of protection. I was filled with a new appreciation for the iconic structure and how it was a true symbol of the city. I would look out from its observation deck on another trip. It would be on my list for a return trip for sure.

Experience the existence

From there, we chose to just enjoy the NYC experience. We made our way through the Apple store, the toy store, checked out the Waldorf Astoria, Macy’s, and several souvenir shops.

As our day concluded, we hung out in Time Square, watching people, the billboards, and artists painting body art on models. by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

I totally get it now, why people call New York the greatest city on earth! For those who don’t mind walking and like to explore and see the ethnic villages, this place is worthy of many vacations.

Our trip didn’t break the bank or even stretch us thin. We just had a plan and stuck to our budget. There is much to see and do that’ll leave you with plenty of fond memories and stories to share.

When will you take your bite out of the Big Apple?

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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