5 hacks to see the best of NYC for cheap or free!

5 hacks to see the best of NYC for cheap or free

It’s no secret that NYC is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But it sure is a place worth forking out a few extra dollars for. According to Alicia Keys, this concrete jungle is where dreams are made of. One walk through midtown Manhattan and you’ll feel that same sense of opportunity that inspired so many others who have wandered these streets.

So is it possible to visit this city on a budget? Absolutely. But there’s more than just a small selection of free attractions you can visit if you’re doing this city on the cheap.

You can get up to an observation deck, see the Statue of Liberty, enter museums, get broadway tickets, and make your way around Manhattan for a fraction of the price others are paying.

Want to know how? Here are my top 5 hacks to see the best of NYC for cheap or free!

Drinking wine in Manhattan, New York City, 2015

1. Top of the Rock

The observation deck at Rockerfeller Center has arguably the best views of NYC. You can see the Empire State and One World Trade Center to the south and Central Park to the north, but it’ll set you back a fair chunk of cash.

For tricksy sightseeing hackers like us, there’s another way up. Head through the main entrance (not the tourist entrance) of Rockerfeller Center then take the elevators up to level 65. Here you’ll find a bar (appropriately named SixtyFive) a mere 5 floors below the observation deck, where you get 270 degree views.

This place opens at 5:00 PM daily and is rather fancy, so don’t expect that you can just go up after sightseeing on a sweaty NYC summers day in your shorts and ‘I heart NY’ t-shirt. You will be denied entry. Collared shirts and pants for men, and dresses (plus heels if you’ve got them) for the ladies.

If you’re like me and feel weird about going up and not paying for a drink at the bar, then you can order the cheapest thing on the menu – a $14 glass of Rosé. It might sound steep, but you’ve literally just saved $16 by not paying for Top of the Rock, and you got a glass of wine to enjoy with the sunset. You tell me which you think is the better deal.

Statue of Liberty, NYC

2. Statue of Liberty

We all know that Lady Liberty is an essential attraction for any first-time visit to NYC, but a trip to Liberty Island will set you back a minimum of $18.

For a free option, head down to Battery Park and jump in line for the Staten Island Ferry which departs approximately every half hour. Don’t be deterred by the masses of crowds around the entrance, it’s a very large ferry and there’ll be plenty of room for you all on board.

This ferry takes you to Staten Island… and directly past the Statue of Liberty on the way. Stick to the right-hand side for the best views, and then move to the back of the boat for some fab views of the Manhattan skyline.

If this option won’t get you as close as you like, here’s how to see the Statue of Liberty from Manhattan.

New York City, Manhattan skyline

3. Entry to museums

There are about a gazillion museums in NYC, and believe me, you’ll want to visit about half of them. Now if you went to them all the admission prices might add up to a lot… unless of course you take advantage of free museum days.

Little do most people know, you can enter many of NYC’s museums for no charge. Both the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of the Moving Image are free to enter on Fridays between 4:00-8:00 PM, the Guggenheim has ‘pay what you wish’ on Saturdays from 5:45-7:15 PM, and the 9/11 Memorial Museum gives out some free admission tickets on Tuesdays after 4:00 PM.

Crazy, right! For more, see Time Out’s list of Free museum days in New York, and take a look at these Art Museums in New York City.

Times Square, New York City

4. Broadway tickets

Who could say no to seeing a bunch of people in flamboyant costumes dancing and singing for a few hours? Not me. I can’t get enough of it!

There’s no way of getting free broadway tickets, but you’re a sucker if you pay full price. First off, choose a show that you’d like to see that day, then head the TKTS vendor (located in the middle of Times Square) around 9:00-10:00 AM or 2:00-3:00 PM. You’ll have to line up for a bit, but as a reward you’ll likely get your same-day broadway tickets heavily discounted!

For a super comprehensive guide to getting cheap tickets, see Mary in Manhattan’s Ultimate Cheapo Guide to Broadway Shows.

New York City subway

5. Getting around

Now we all know that public transport is usually the cheapest way to get around any large city, but in NYC there’s a few ways to twist the system to work best for you.

First of all, if you’re flying into NYC, don’t catch a taxi from any of the airports. You’ll probably end up paying an entire night of accommodation on the cab fare alone. From Newark Airport you can catch the New Jersey Transit to Manhattan for only $12.50, from JFK Airport catch the AirTrain to Jamaica Station and then the Long Island Rail Road to Manhattan for $12-$14.50 depending on the time of day, and from LaGuardia Airport catch the M60 bus for $2.50.

Once you get to the city, grab a Metro Card. It only costs $1 and is essential for a few days of sightseeing in New York, but the suggested top up amounts (which include ‘bonuses’ for topping up certain amounts) will always leave you with a sneaky remainder once you’ve used your fares. To avoid this, select ‘other amount’ on the ticket machine screen, and type in $19.05 for 8 fares or $9.55 for 4 fares. No wasted cash!

Another way to get about the city for cheap (and avoid the stuffy subway stations) is using the Citibike stations. Cycling around is an awesome way to see all the pretty Manhattan buildings and make your way around Central Park, but is also cheap at $10 per day or $25 per week for unlimited 30-minute rides.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Other free attractions:

There are a million things you can do for free in NYC, but here are just some of them:

  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Times Square
  • Central Park
  • 9/11 Memorial
  • The High Line
  • Chelsea Market
  • Wall Street
  • Flatiron Building

More resources on cheap travel in NYC:

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21 Responses to “5 hacks to see the best of NYC for cheap or free!”

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      The High Line is great! I did it a few weeks ago and it was getting much more crowded than the last time I did it (a few years ago), so would recommend going early in the morning!

  1. Hayley

    I didn’t know about that bar when I visited last year, but I did do the free museums and the Staten Island ferry. There is also a TKTS office in Brooklyn and if you get there before it opens you don’t have to wait long at all compared to the office in Times Square!

  2. Heather

    As a native NYer let me make some additions to your advice above –
    -Entry to Museums – the Met, the Natural History Museum and a few others offer “suggested pricing” at all times. Keep an eye out for these signs when you enter museums because this means they might “suggest” you pay $20 and you can “suggest” you’ll only pay $5 (or less). Keep in mind the Met in particular has a lot of very wealthy donors and they are not losing sleep over you only paying $1 for admission.

    -Broadway tickets – Skip the tkts line and go directly to a show’s box office when it opens. Enter the ticket lottery that day and you can get tickets for as low as $20. You can also download the today tix app to enter the lottery virtually.

    -From JFK you can also take the Airtrain to the subway. The E, J and Z trains are available at Jamaica station for less than the LIRR.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ah I remember reading your post on NYC! Some very good suggestions there, I love the flatiron district, and Chelsea Market is the best 😀 It’s amazing how much money people spend visiting NYC when it’s totally unnecessary! The city can be super cheap if you’re smart about it!

  3. Anna

    I second Heather’s tip about the MET…I’ve paid full price last time I went as it was super crowded (Christmas you see) and we opted to pay with a credit card, but when my mum visited she paid just $10, because the full admission price is “recommended”!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Nice one! It’s always good to know these tricks from the perspective of someone who’s gone through it. Thanks Anna!

  4. DeJavieur

    By far some of the best tips I’ve heard yet. Will come in handy as going to NYC in November.

  5. Lauren

    There are tons of free plays and performances in New York especially during the summer months. My favorite is Shakespeare in the Park. You have to line up in the morning for tickets, but still get to spend the day in Central Park.

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ahh yes, I heard that you had to line up for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park. Lining up for tickets is not really my thing, but if you think it’s worth it then it might be another good option for free things to do in NYC 🙂 Thanks Lauren!


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