New York on a budget: cheap flights, cheap hotels and attractions

How to do the Big Apple for less. From low-cost accommodation to bargain flights, free museums and cheap eats

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New York is notoriously expensive, and it isn't getting any cheaper as the dollar gets stronger. But if you plan ahead and take some smart steps, you can still take a bite out of The Big Apple on a budget - tracking down cheap flights, hotel bargains, and insider tips on the best attractions for less.

A traditional three-night stay in New York would probably set you back around £1,000. These steps can bring the price down to £500 - without you having sacrifice a second of fun in the city that never sleeps.

Getting there

Generally if you can travel outside of the school holidays - and major US holidays - flights will be cheaper. The cheapest time to travel is in the depths of winter - from mid-January to March - so think carefully whether you really need to be there for the Thanksgiving Parade. The usual advice also applies about travelling on a weekday rather than the weekend, and considering a flight at an anti-social time of day to bring the cost down.

The price of the flight will also depend on when you book it, with cheaper tickets available up to a year in advance, and becoming more expensive as the departure date approaches. A Skyscanner.net survey found that on average the best time to book is 21 weeks in advance, but your best bet is to sign up to emails from the airline a year before you are due to fly, then when cheap seats and deals are released, you'll get an email alert and you can snap them up before they sell out.

The price of return flights can be as much as £500 per head - or £600 if you're traveling at the worst possible times. However, if you're flexible and dedicated to the search, you should get a ticket for a fraction over £300.

Where to stay

Accommodation is notoriously pricey in New York, with the average room costing $200 a night, If you go for a cut-price hotel, like in any big city, you run the risk of showing up somewhere unpleasant. However, there are some useful ways to get a decent place to stay for less. You can track down the most recommended affordable hotels in New York on Trip Advisor, so other people have checked them out for you. This should give you somewhere to sleep for around £125 a night.

It's also worth considering a 'secret hotel', where you get a major discount and only find out the name of the hotel after you have booked. This will offer anything up to 40 per cent off, although the discounts are best if you can leave booking until just before you travel. Alternatively you can bid for a cheap hotel room using Priceline.

Another option is to stay just outside Manhattan, somewhere on the Metro, where for the sake of a 15 minute journey into the city you can save a fortune. Long Island City in Queens, for example, offers hotels for around half the price of Manhattan rooms.

An increasingly common approach in the city is Airbnb - which has more properties in the city than almost anywhere else. You can rent a room in someone's home or a studio in Manhattan from around £50 a night, and a larger apartment sleeping four people from £100 a night. If you are prepared to go further out, you can get a three bedroom apartment sleeping up to nine people for £122 a night in Queens (12 minutes to midtown).

Eating out

New York is one of the main beneficiaries of the Food Truck movement, which has seen a huge explosion in the variety and quality of food you can buy from vans on the street. So, for example, the Sweetery Truck is an incredible mobile bakery, while the Bistro Truck serves up North African and Mediterranean food, Eddie's Pizza Truck serves Bar Pies (so called because they are light enough to eat and still have room for a beer), the Morris Truck elevates grilled cheese sandwiches to an art form, and Tacos Morelos specialises in cheap and tasty Mexican food. You'll need to sign up to their Twitter feeds to find out where to find them while you're there.

If you want to sit down without spending a fortune, areas such as Chinatown, Little India and Little Italy for great meals at low prices. One popular option is early Sunday morning dim sum in Chinatown, where tourists are hugely outnumbered by locals. You can also try student areas like the East Village near New York University, for restaurants catering to students on a budget.

Getting around

The Metro and buses cost $2.50 per ride, and are a great way to get around different districts. Alternatively you can buy a seven day unlimited ride card for $30, so if you're going to make more than 12 trips, this is your best bet.

Manhattan is very walkable, and once you are in a specific area, you may want to walk the city so you can see more of it. However, when you're travelling between areas, the Metro will be worth every penny.

Attractions

Any trip ought to include some of the many free attractions. If you're a window-shopping fan, that alone could keep you entertained for a few days - especially if you visit FAO Schwartz - the toy shop where Tom Hanks played the keyboard in Big, or linger outside Tiffany's eating your breakfast and feeling like Audrey Hepburn.

There are also a huge number of freebies, including Central Park - where kids can take part in a free Basketball Clinic or enjoy 20 different playgrounds, while adults can visit the John Lennon memorial in Strawberry Fields. After that, there's Times Square, the New York Public Library and the Rockefeller Centre. Alternatively, there's the High Line - an abandoned section of elevated railway in West Manhattan for a fantastic view of trendy Chelsea and the Meatpacking district. And rather than being tempted by expensive harbour boat tours, you can opt for the free Staten Island Ferry - which offers great views of the harbour.

You can get free entry to attractions that normally charge - by being careful when you visit. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, is free every Friday from 4pm and 8pm, while the Frick Collection lets you 'pay what you want' between 11am and 1pm on Sundays, and the Guggenheim operates a 'pay what you like' policy between 5.45 and 7.45 on a Saturday evening.

Depending on how long you go for, and how many attractions you want to take in, you can consider discount pass, which gets you into a number of attractions for free. The New York CityPass offers six of the top attractions: the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) plus three others (you have to choose between Top of The Rock observation deck or the Guggenheim Museum; the status of Liberty and Ellis Island or a Circle Line sightseeing cruise; and the 9/11 Memorial or the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum). It's valid for nine days, and costs $144.

If you want to see more, the New York Pass includes 90 different attractions - including all those covered by the CityPass, and is valid for 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. Two days cost $130, three days $180, five days $210 and seven days for $230. It includes all the big ticket items, plus bike tours of Central Park, a huge number of different walking tours, Luna Park at Coney Island, Madame Tussauds, and the Botanical Gardens. This will appeal to the frenetic sightseer - and those who are very keen to skip the queue and see as much as possible - because in order to make this work, you need to see anything up to $70 worth of attractions a day. In some cases this means doing a couple of big attractions a day, but in others it could mean speeding round three, four or even five.

Your best bet is decide what you want to see, price it up (including discounts for buying online before you go) and then measure that against the appropriate pass. It's important to bear in mind that some of the best attractions are not as pricey as you might think. The Met, for example, costs just $25, and is easily a day's entertainment in itself.

Shopping
Of course, the best budget option is to shop with your eyes and leave your wallet in your pocket. However, if you cannot resist, then in the major department stores, visit the customer services department and show your passport and you'll usually get a visitor's discount.

Sample sales are also a great New York tradition - where everything is hugely reduced for a limited time. It's worth planning ahead and visiting the insider guide before you travel to see if there are any sales that catch your eye.

For bargains, try Century 21 (Downtown, between Church and Broadway) and Gabay's Outlet on the Lower East Side.

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