How Much Does A Budget-Friendly New York City Trip Cost?

“Budget-friendly” and “New York City” can hardly be put in the same sentence. Still, you’re wondering how much a New York City trip would cost. What would it look like to see the city on a tighter budget?

We visited New York City for 4 days in December to see the Christmas Lights and had a blast! It was also almost the peak period for travelling to New York, so we had to pay slightly higher prices for flights and hotels.

Although we wanted the classic New York City Christmas experience, we didn’t want to spend too much on city attractions. Our style of travel in the city is usually quite laid-back, and we’re not hung up on going to all the must-see places. On the other hand, I can get quite ambitious when it comes to outdoor adventures.

If you’re planning a trip to New York City and want to budget for 4 days, read on for the breakdown. It’s not the cheapest place to visit, but you can definitely do a lot even without spending too much.

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How much does a New York City trip cost?

For this trip we had 2 objectives – see the Christmas lights and eat good food. There is a lot to do in New York City, and hopefully this article helps you to find out your estimated cost based on what you like.

Flights

Planning a budget trip to the Big Apple? The journey begins with finding affordable flights that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. Sure, snagging a great deal on airfare requires some detective work, but it’s totally doable.

How to find cheaper flights to New York City

Start your adventure by scouring flight comparison websites, such as Skyscanner or Google Flights. These tools help you find the best deals by comparing prices across multiple airlines. It’s also great for comparing prices across different days, so that you can optimize your travel dates.

I really like Google Flights as it has a feature that tells you if prices are considered cheap, typical, or expensive compared to historical rates.

If time is not a constraint, you can also consider lower cost flights that have layovers. Do note that you might need to pay extra for check-in baggage depending on the fare class you chose.

How much we paid: $490 each

We found that flights to and from New York in December were the most expensive over Christmas. On the other hand, if you’re visiting just before Christmas it tends to be cheaper.

We paid $492 each for non-stop return flights on American Airlines between SFO to JFK, and flew back a few days before Christmas on Dec 21. Essentially this was what we found to be the sweet spot for cost savings. We did not pay to check-in our bags and only brought carry-on items.

Needless to say, spending New Year’s Eve in New York will be expensive as well. However, anecdotally people have gotten huge savings by leaving New York on Dec 31.

Hotel accommodation

How much does a New York City trip cost

Now that you’ve touched down in the city that never sleeps, the next step is finding a cozy spot to rest your tired feet. New York City offers a wide range of accommodation options, ranging from swanky hotels to budget-friendly hostels.

Staying in hostels

If you’re all about soaking in the local vibes and meeting fellow travelers, consider staying in a hostel. Hostels like HI NYC Hostel and The Local NY offer affordable stays with an added benefit of the lively atmosphere.

Did Airbnb get banned in New York City?

People have recommended us to stay in Airbnbs when visiting New York City as they can be much cheaper.

However, since end of 2023, the New York City has implemented new restrictions – basically resulting in a ban on the prevalent business model in the Airbnb business.

This is mainly due to short term rentals pushing up the price of housing in the city, and now only live-in residents with spare rooms can rent out their space via Airbnb. You also won’t be seeing a lot of options to rent an entire apartment from non-hotel operators if it’s less than 30 days, and this disincentives many of the existing hosts.

In short, there’s still Airbnb in New York City, but they’re not as widely available as before which might lead to higher demand for hotels. If you’re planning to visit during peak periods, make sure to book your accommodations in advance to avoid paying high prices.

Should you stay in Manhattan?

Manhattan is definitely the heart of all the tourist attractions – such as Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and great connectivity to all other parts of New York City. It’s one of the best places to stay especially during Christmas because that’s the place to be for the lights and decorations.

While staying in midtown Manhattan can be more expensive, it might be worth paying more for a convenient location compared to spending 1 extra day to cater for time taken to get around from somewhere further.

Personally, that’s what we chose to do since it was the Christmas season and it was our first time in New York City. However, if this is not your first time and you’re always used to getting around via subway, I think it’s worth staying in other areas in New York.

Macy's Christmas lights - how much does New York City trip cost
Macy’s Christmas lights in New York City

What is the destination fee in New York City?

I was very confused to see daily destination fees being charged by almost all the hotels I was browsing through in New York City. It didn’t help that most places charge it on top of the room rate, and its essentially an additional fee you need to pay. At this point it has become an industry standard, where tourists eventually bear the cost of lower accommodation supply resulting from the Airbnb ban.

This makes comparing prices a little bit trickier because each hotel’s destination fee differs. Sometimes you’ll find hotels that offer you dining credits in exchange for the destination fee, which does help a bit.

How much we paid: $840 for 3 nights

We booked our stay in Moxy NYC Times Square, a boutique hotel by Marriott that’s walking distance to most of the Christmas attractions we wanted to see. It’s also located right next to Korea Town and we got to enjoy the many food options around us. The daily destination fee of $30 could be used as credits at the hotel cafe and bar. Although we would rather head out for a New York bagels-type breakfast, we treated the credits as “free breakfast” provided by the hotel.

All in, it cost $840 for their smallest room for 3 nights. That means it’s $280 per night during the busy Christmas season.

Food

Speaking of food, New York City is definitely a food lover’s paradise. Thankfully, you don’t need to spend much to indulge in these culinary delights. It almost seemed like there was a good restaurant on every street.

Filaga in Chelsea Market
Filaga in Chelsea Market

Where to eat in New York City

For the quintessential New York experience, grab a hot dog from a street vendor or indulge in a $1 pizza slice. It smelled so good every time we passed a food truck! If you like tacos, definitely check out Los Tacos No.1 which is available in various locations within Manhattan.

Since we were in Korea Town, we went to the popular Cho Dang Gol for Tofu Soup. Another place that was really fun to check out for food was Chelsea Market. We tried food from so many stores including mini donuts at Doughnuttery, pizza at Filaga, sushi at Lobster Place, and asian noodles at Very Fresh Noodles.

Very Fresh Noodles in Chelsea Market
Very Fresh Noodles in Chelsea Market

If you’re visiting in winter, don’t forget to try hot chocolate! The popular chain you’ll see along many streets is Wafels & Dinges where they’re even famous for their Belgian waffles. Another place that really blew my mind was Venchi – their hot chocolate is unbelievably rich and creamy.

We also visited 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar which has a view of the Empire State Building. I was surprised by how big the rooftop area was, and there were photo booths on all sides. Since we went in winter, they also provided red-colored robes for you to use as you sit outside below the heaters. We tried their cocktail and a mulled wine, which cost less than $20 each.

230 Fifth Rooftop Bar
230 Fifth Rooftop Bar

Last but not least – do try New York bagels! We got our bagel breakfast at Best Bagel & Coffee which already had a long line when we got there. They had so many types of bagel bread and filling combinations to choose from. We tried their Salmon Lox and of their Best Bagel Specials which was a breakfast-y one with scrambled eggs and bacon.

Best Bagel & Coffee
Best Bagel & Coffee

How much we paid: $210 each for 4 days

We had the benefit of using our $30 ($15/person) daily destination fee vouchers as credit in the hotel’s cafes, so this lowered our food cost a bit. You could add back $45 if you want to account for this – such that the total is $255.

Dining at restaurants generally cost about $80 in total after tax and tips (without drinks), since we picked places that are rated “$$” on Google Maps. Our total damage came just under $200 each per person for 4 days, which wasn’t as much as we expected. Looking back, we probably could have ordered a half-dozen more oysters.

Attractions

New York City is a treasure trove of iconic landmarks and cultural gems. Fortunately, you can explore many of them without breaking the bank.

Free and low-cost attractions

New York City has numerous free attractions, including Central Park, Times Square, Hudson Yards and the High Line. You can also sometimes find baskers performing, who will appreciate a small tip if you enjoyed it. When we were at Central Park, there were 3 baskers performing around Bethesda Terrace.

Wollman Rink in Central Park - how much does New York City trip cost
Wollman Rink in Central Park

During Christmas, many of the shopping streets come alive with lights and decoration at night. Rockefeller Center as well as several other locations have ice skating rinks that cost about $20-30 to try. Winter Christmas markets like the one in Bryant Park and Central Park are free to walk into and explore as well. They sell souvenirs and gifts which you’ll have to bring extra cash for though!

Explore neighbourhoods

New York City’s charms can also be found in its diverse neighborhoods. You have fashionable SoHo, vibrant Chinatown, the charging bull and Wall Street in the Financial District, and so on. I know that even as we visit for a second time, we’ll never run out of places to explore in New York City.

If you’re up for a long walk, you can also walk along Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge to get to Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighbourhood. There’s a gorgeous waterfront walkway as well as an opportunity to photograph Manhattan Bridge against the backdrop of cobblestone paths and red brick buildings.

New York City Pass

If you know you’ll be visiting many different paid attractions, do check out the various New York City Pass options. They can significantly reduce the total amount you pay for eligible attractions, and you’ll enjoy a wide range of options. One good thing about this is that you won’t have to worry about the cost of individual tickets since you’ve paid for the pass.

How much we paid: $50 each for 2 museums

Many people also look forward to visiting the Natural History Museum. We absolutely had to see the T-Rex skeleton and animal exhibits in the Africa section when we went there. If you’ve watched Night at the Museum, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re an art enthusiasts, I don’t even need to tell you that you should visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The great news is that students can enjoy a discounted rate for both of these museums.

The MET Museum - how much does New York City trip cost

Going up to observation decks is also another classic New York City activity. If you enjoy admiring the skyline from the tallest buildings, Summit One Vanderbilt is a trendy place to visit. Other classic spots include the Top of The Rock and the Empire State Building. They cost about $47 per person.

Transportation

Getting around New York City is a breeze, thanks to its extensive public transportation system. It runs through the night, which we really appreciate since we didn’t have to worry about the time. Most of the places we wanted to visit are easily connected by subway. Even though we walked around to explore most of the time, it was good to know that we could always hop on the nearest subway to get back to our hotel.

Mastering the subway system

The New York City subway is not only an iconic experience but also a budget-friendly mode of transportation. You don’t even need to download any apps – simply use your mobile wallet for contactless payment at the gantries. Google Maps also provides very clear instructions about which platform and direction to look out for at the subway station. Each time you tap into the subway station it costs $2.90.

How much does a trip to New York City cost

How to get to Manhattan from JFK airport?

The fastest way to use public transit to get to Manhattan is via AirTrain and then Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). First, board the AirTrain that takes you to Jamaica Station. This ticket will cost $8.25.

Next, purchase a single trip ticket at Jamaica Station by specifying your destination. For example, we chose to get off at Penn Station. Do hold on to this ticket as a conductor will come around to verify you’ve paid for your ride. It will normally cost $8.25 or $11.25 during peak timings.

In total, it only takes about 1 hour to get from JFK airport to Manhattan. I was quite impressed, given that a taxi will take about 50 minutes (depending on traffic) at a much higher cost.

Walking and biking

NYC is a pedestrian-friendly city, and walking can be one of the best ways to explore. Near Times Square, it didn’t take too long for us to understand the grid structure of the street and avenue names. This way, we could take our eyes off Google Maps, and just follow the numbers on the signs until we reached our destination.

In addition, you can rent bikes for a day to cycle through Central Park. I imagine this would be really pretty during fall.

How much does a New York City trip cost

Did we feel safe in New York?

Overall it felt quite safe as most of the places we visited are very touristy. I didn’t bring my camera along this time, but I think you’ll be fine walking around with a camera. To stay safe though, I would be more vigilant in crowded places and make sure I know where my phone is at all times.

I was glad to know that there were police officers on standby along 5th Avenue even during the busy Christmas season. They helped to guide the human traffic and also reminded people to take care of their belongings.

Our subway rides around Manhattan were a little less entertaining than I expected. I’ve probably watched too many videos on social media that made me expect subway rides to be a certain way. I’m actually thankful for all the uneventful rides, and it felt quite safe overall.

SAKS Christmas light show on 5th Ave - how much does New York City trip cost
SAKS Christmas light show on 5th Ave

How much we paid: $65 each for 4 days

Since we were only traveling within Manhattan and DUMBO, our transportation costs were kept low. We also walked a lot as we wanted to enjoy the festive Christmas Christmas decorations, and because the streets were easy to navigate. Hence, it only cost $65 per person for 4 days.

Entertainment

No trip to NYC is complete without a taste of its world-renowned entertainment scene. Broadway shows, concerts, and performances are aplenty, and you can enjoy them on a budget if you have a flexible schedule.

You can try to look out for same-day discounted tickets, or enter a lottery system for last-minute shows. We didn’t try this during our trip but it would be such a steal if we could watch The Lion King for just $35, or Wicked at $54.

Another popular thing to watch is the Christmas Spectacular performed by the Radio City Rockettes. Tickets cost at least $100, but is often sold out even for matinee shows. Do make advance ticket purchases if you’re keen to watch this during the holidays.

How much we paid: $0

We skipped on entertainment this time so our expense here was $0. However, we will definitely come back and try getting same-day discounted Broadway show tickets during off-peak seasons.

How much to budget for a 4-day trip to New York City?

T-Rex from Natural History Museum - how much does New York City trip cost
T-Rex from the Natural History Museum

Finally, how much does a budget-friendly trip to New York City cost? To summarise, here’s how much each of us spent for 4 days during our Christmas trip.

  • Flights: $490
  • Hotel (split between 2 of us): $420
  • Food: $210
  • Attractions: $50
  • Transportation: $65
  • Entertainment: $0

In total, we spent $1,235 per person for 4 days including flights and hotel.

If we exclude flights, each day costs about $190 per person – of which more than half goes to the hotel. Otherwise, daily expenses are really only $80 per person.

Final thoughts about how much a New York City trip costs

Overall, it looks like New York City can be quite affordable to visit, especially if you manage to find cheaper flights and hotels.

In the low seasons from January to March, non-stop flights can range around $230, and you can also find hotels or Airbnbs that cost about $120 per night even in Manhattan. If we had those prices, our cost would instantly drop by 25%!

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