The #FCL New York City Survival Guide

[Disclosure: At the time of this writing, I have no direct affiliation with any of the businesses whose services I mention in this post. Everything you read is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.]

Ok, with two amazing sensual bachata weekenders coming up in NYC soon and another one happening next month I think now is as good a time as any to write a survival guide for NYC in general that can be applied to most weekenders, congresses, or events in the city.

To an even greater degree than even any of the east coast’s other metropolitan cities including my home city of Washington DC, NYC is an E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E city all around, and most dance events take place in Manhattan, the most expensive part of NYC.  Even I get shocked by NYC’s prices sometimes and I am hardened to an expensive cost of living by DC already.  It all adds up and being in NYC for any period of time longer than a few hours can cost more money than you would think. However, fear not, because your #FrugalCongressLife practitioner is here once again to help you and your wallet weather the costs of being in NYC and maximize your experience.

Brief NYC geography lesson:

Native New Yorkers and anyone who has been to New York in their life are going to roll their eyes at this basic geography lesson but I’m including it for the benefit of people who are getting ready to go to NYC for the first time ever for a dance event or any other reason, some of whom may be reading this blog.

New York city is made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.  Usually when people say they’re going to NYC for the first time at least, they mean that they’re going to Manhattan specifically.  Manhattan is the smallest but most densely populated borough and the location of many of NYC’s major tourist attractions, such as Times Square and Broadway.  The various neighborhoods of the other four boroughs have also made seismic contributions to American culture – most fans of hip hop are aware that hip hop had its beginnings at block parties in the Bronx, just to name one example — but most people visiting NYC from other parts of the country, particularly for the first time, will be spending most if not all of their time in Manhattan, unless they are visiting friends or seeing a specific landmark in the other boroughs (such as Coney Island in Brooklyn).

Manhattan is further divided into uptown Manhattan, midtown Manhattan, and downtown Manhattan.  Each of these areas has distinct neighborhoods with their own flavor and feel.  Uptown and downtown, as the beginner’s guide to the subway linked further down in this article points out, are also directional designations, with uptown being north and downtown being south.

The vast majority of NYC’s dance events that I have heard about so far take place in Manhattan, so this survival guide will largely be focused on Manhattan.  Should a dance event in one of the other four boroughs cross my radar, I will write a specific survival guide for that event that covers the particulars of both that event and the surrounding area.

With the basic geography out of the way, on to the meat of this article, weathering the three parts of the Quadforce Of Dance Congress Expenses not specific to any one event.

TRAVEL:

Do.  Not.  Even.  Bother.  Driving.  To.  Or.  In.  NYC.  Unless you absolutely have to, of course (because you’re transporting equipment or some other reason).  I am in my 30s and have been driving for over 15 years and have never driven in NYC in my life despite having been there countless times… I have simply never needed to.  Of course, I have ridden in cars of all types in NYC (including a limo and an old-school Cadillac), and my native New Yorker father, who spent the first part of his adult life driving in NYC, described it in much detail.  Driving in NYC is an exercise in nerves and patience to the highest degree.  NYC’s gridlock is infamous, and walking is frequently faster than driving in NYC depending on where you are going.  NYC’s drivers (both professional and otherwise) are fearless — they will fill any gap in traffic any way possible regardless of viability or safety — and many drivers in NYC are also very impatient and aggressive — the symphonies of extended seconds-long blaring car horns echoing up and down NYC’s streets will be something your ears just get used to the longer you’re in NYC.  Parking on the street in NYC is a virtual impossibility and parking garages are ghastly expensive beyond your wildest imagination.  Do your wallet and your nerves a favor and don’t drive in NYC unless you really REALLY have to.

[Fun bit of trivia for those who don’t know already: the famous “I’m walkin’ here!” moment in the movie Midnight Cowboy was completely unscripted… they were filming on-location on NYC streets open to the public and the iconic line was Dustin Hoffman’s actual on-the-spot (in-character) reaction to actually almost being hit by an actual NYC taxicab on camera.]

Luckily for those not driving, New York City is the single most walkable city in America and has the best public transportation system in America, so the need to drive to or in NYC is virtually non-existent unless you do it for a living or are transporting a lot of heavy equipment.  The famous New York City Subway (MTA) runs 24 hours a day and goes virtually anywhere in the city and much of the surrounding areas and can take you anywhere you need to go for a very low price.

Info on New York’s Subway here: http://web.mta.info/nyct/subway/

If for whatever reason you can’t walk or take the subway somewhere in NYC one of NYC’s equally iconic taxicabs or an UBER will get you there.

Sitting down and figuring the subway out before you get to NYC is worth it though, as the cost of cabs or UBER will add up quickly and the subway is a much better frugal option. The biggest thing to remember about the subway is to take an uptown route if going north and a downtown route if going south. A complete beginner guide to the NYC Subway can be found here.

If an app is more your speed, there are several apps available for both iPhone and Android for navigating NYC transit. Also, Citymapper is a very promising new app that I have just discovered that helps with navigating transit in a variety of cities including DC and NYC. I will be profiling Citymapper in a future post after I have used it more.

The thing that is most mind boggling about NYC is that frequently, walking to your destination will take only a few minutes more than the subway and, as I have pointed out, even less time than driving at times.

Your best frugal option for traveling to NYC is the bus.  Greyhound will go straight to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan and you can take the subway anywhere in the city from there, and Greyhound picks up from the Port Authority too.  The two budget bus lines, Megabus and Bolt Bus, also go to NYC, but they go to and pick up from various outdoor street corners in Manhattan (specified on your ticket), so be prepared for this if you go that route… dress for the weather, have your phone charged and/or have a backup battery, etc.  I have had to wait for Megabus on a freezing outdoor street corner at 5am in the dead of winter after an NYC dance social with my phone on 10% before… thank heaven I was dressed warmly for that and my phone stayed charged long enough for me to show my ticket and get on the bus.

Depending on the time of your outbound trip, you can get a Bolt Bus to NYC from points within 4-5 hours of NYC on the east coast for as little as $15 one way… that price point will largely be available in the mid-afternoon if you can leave then.  Keep in mind also that if you are going the route of returning home from NYC right after the social lets out (see below), that BoltBus’ earliest bus leaves NYC at 7:00am, whereas MegaBus has buses out of NYC at 5 and 6am.  Taking Bolt Bus there in the mid afternoon (around $15 one way) and taking Mega Bus back in the early morning (around $22 one way) is your best frugal option in that case.

If you do not have a train or bus station near you, driving to your nearest train or bus station and parking there is worth it.

Pack for the bus as if you were packing for Spirit Airlines.  Spirit bag (or an even smaller backpack), compression cubes, all that.  Room for your bag, indeed, room in general, will be very scarce.  The budget buses in particular are short on legroom, especially if you are riding a packed bus and need to have a seat mate, which is bothersome to me as a big dude, but something I can put up with for a few hours.  Compression travel socks are good for preserving your circulation in these situations, as I have said before.

The Amtrak Northeast Regional train is also a good option for those on the east coast who want to ball out a little bit, and it goes straight to New York Penn Station on 34th Street in Manhattan, which also has a subway station of its own.  Sometimes I will go this route when times are good, money is less of an object, and I want a bit more comfort.  You get a lot more legroom, there’s a dining car and the views are almost always gorgeous.  As the old commercials used to say, there truly is something about a train that’s magic.  This will also of course be the default option for those who need to bring a bit more than a Spirit bag’s worth of luggage for whatever reason.  Train tickets average around $100 one way from points within a 4-5 hour radius of NYC.

I have never had to fly to NYC since I am within bus and train distance, but I’ve looked into it for you my readers. Good old Spirit Airlines goes right to LaGuardia Airport (LGA) in Queens, and you take the Q48 bus to the 7 train which takes you right into Manhattan.  That’s about a 45-50 minute trip. The non-Spirit airlines go to either JFK Airport (JFK), Newark Liberty International (EWR) or LGA.  There’s an air train from JFK which goes to the E train which you can take into Manhattan from there, about an hour trip for $7.75.  If flying into EWR, you’ll have to take the Northeast Regional to 34th Street/Penn Station, which is extra $$$, so try to avoid flying into EWR if you can help it.

LODGING:

Honestly, my personal #1 frugal strategy for lodging in NYC is to not do it.  If I am only going up for one night for a Friday or Saturday night dance social or one night of a weekender or congress (which is frequently the move for me for NYC due to me being a four-hour bus ride away and NYC being expensive af to be in for an extended period of time), I’ll schedule my return bus trip an hour or two after the social ends, find something to do in the two hours or so before my bus leaves (there’s always something to do in the City That Never Sleeps at any time of the day or night), then catch a nap on the bus and crash out hard when I get home.

However, many of you will want to stay in NYC for more than one night, and if you are attending multiple days of a festival at the full pass level or live further than 4-5 hours away, you pretty much have to.  I really don’t know how frugal you can get here… hotels in NYC are as expensive as you would imagine.  Expect to pay around $175-250 a night for an average hotel room in the city, as much as $400-600 a night if you want to get really fancy and stay in a luxury hotel, and even as high as $845 a night (!!!!) if you want to recreate Home Alone 2 in real life and stay at The Plaza.  If you’re reading a blog called #FrugalCongressLife, I’m assuming that this is definitely not the route you want to go.

Only real way you can mitigate these hotel prices is room share, room share, room share.  Four people in a room.  Even with these conditions, expect to pay around $50-70 per night for four people in an average hotel room.  Not much you can do about that.

If the event you’re going to NYC for is at a hotel, I will publicly encourage you to support the event hotel as I always do, and if the organizer has somehow reserved a room block it will be the best hotel deal in NYC period, but many NYC dance events, such as the two sensual bachata weekenders this month, are held at dance studios and other non-hotel locations, so I do feel comfortable discussing all lodging options in this post. Going offsite makes little if any difference in Manhattan unless you want to go much further out from your event location.

The closest thing to budget motels you will find around Manhattan are out in Queens or Long Island City, which will put you around half an hour on the subway one way from a dance event in Manhattan on average, considerably outside the #FCL optimal commute time window of 15 minutes one way, but if you are willing to deal with this, it is an option.  Budget motels in Queens average around $130-160 per night. As always, check online reviews thoroughly if you go this route.

AirBNB is scarcely an option in NYC as AirBNBs are subject to some very strict laws specific to New York regarding short term rentals, and it is against New York state laws outright for tenants to operate AirBNBs out of rented apartments.  If you go the AirBNB route, make sure your host owns their listing and is on the up and up.  I can not advocate any illegal activity on this blog.

Hostels can be a good budget option if you can withstand often loud, cramped, and sometimes less-than-perfectly-clean hostel conditions.  Some hostels are located right in Manhattan and can be had for as low as $30-70 per night, an almost unheard of price in NYC. The Broke Backpacker wrote a very comprehensive guide to NYC’s hostels here.

FOOD:

All I can really say is buy as much food outside of NYC for your staples as you can beforehand.  Any grocery store in NYC is going to be more expensive than you are used to anywhere else.  Bring as many nonperishables purchased elsewhere as you can fit into your bag comfortably.  Protein bars and tuna packets are very good options here as they don’t take up much space in a bag.  If you have a Smoothie King or Jamba Juice near your airport, train station, or bus station (we have the latter at Union Station in DC), buying a large meal replacement smoothie right before your train or bus leaves to work on on the ride up is a good frugal eating strategy for that particular day (the Hulk smoothie from Smoothie King in particular is a large super-high-calorie meal replacement smoothie that will knock out a good chunk of most people’s daily calorie and macronutrient requirements in one fell swoop for about $10).

As for your one meal out… food options in NYC are at least two separate articles by themselves.  NYC’s food options are famously comprehensive… no matter what you like, you WILL be able to find something you like in the Big Apple.  Diners are a good choice late at night (most diners in Manhattan are open 24/7) or if you are trying to be somewhat frugal with your night out.

If you go to NYC and eat at a chain restaurant of any kind… well, I’ll reserve judgement, at least publicly anyway.  Do you, I guess, but in my opinion there is such a staggering level of good unique local options in NYC that you really shouldn’t even give chain restaurants a second look until well after you leave NYC.

Anyone else got any good strategies for going to dance in NYC and leaving with your wallet’s screams for mercy as minimal as possible?  Can you fill in any informational gaps left behind by my own personal experience and research?  You know what to do already, sound off in the comments.  For anyone going to the New York Loves Bachata Weekender at the end of July, I’ll see you Saturday night!

– Owen

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