Can you get a decent hotel room in Manhattan for under $150 a night?
In most cities, a visitor would have plenty of options. Just pop onto booking.com or hotels.com and look toward the low end of the results.
Do that same search for New York, and you will find $129-a-night chain hotels near Kennedy and La Guardia airports in Queens and budget motels across the Hudson in New Jersey. In Manhattan, though, such offerings rarely appear. But a precious few do exist, even if they do not surface on all search engines.
I spent seven September nights sleeping my way around Manhattan (hmm, not sure that came out right) and can report that some of these low-cost places are actually clean, decent and occasionally delightful. I did, however, have to make some sacrifices, sometimes by tolerating what the hospitality industry refers to as “European-style” accommodations. That means I had to share a bathroom.
Of the seven places I tried, two were relatively hotel-like; three were inn-like bed-and-breakfasts, or bed-and-coffees; and one was a solo guest room at the good old YMCA. For the seventh night, I booked a hotel by bidding on Priceline. All cost me under $150, except in one case where taxes pushed the price to $157.
Here is how I rank them, putting the first six in order of preference, and No. 7, the Priceline booking, in a category by itself. All prices include taxes and fees (often not mentioned on websites but disclosed at checkout) and are standard rates for the cheapest rooms in the establishments.
Anne Edris’ extraordinary guesthouse is part loft (tall ceilings, exposed brick), part garage (tools and bikes) and part art gallery (decor that includes a wall-size mural made from torn-up pages of her grandmother’s travel diaries). Each guest room has a different theme; there are the Dutch and Afghani rooms, for example. I stayed in the Observatory, which overlooked the street; it had double windows to keep city noise at bay, a startlingly thoughtful touch.
Common spaces on each floor have well-equipped kitchens, homey lounges and even jars of free earplugs. An encyclopedic binder of neighborhood delivery menus is organized by cuisine. Bikes and helmets are free to borrow, especially useful since the nearest subway is a 15-minute walk away. The common bathrooms are clean and full of toiletries.
But the best part of all is Edris’ dog, Mango, a street rescue from Puerto Rico now in his second incarnation as a lovable and well-behaved East Village mutt, available for unlimited petting.
I miscalculated on the taxes on this one but decided to reserve anyway when it topped $150, and I’m glad I did. Housed in an 1892 Italianate building on a low-slung, low-key residential block of West 20th Street, the Chelsea Lodge has a warm wooden interior decorated with old globes, prints of steamships and other bric-a-brac purchased by the owner, Paul Weisenfeld, on a flea market shopping spree. It looks a bit like a cozy bed-and-breakfast that took a wrong turn on the way to the Hudson Valley — except that there’s no breakfast, just coffee.
I was charmed enough by Chelsea Lodge to ask a staff member how it was so cheap.
“We don’t have the best Wi-Fi,” the guy said, adding a few other irrelevances, like the lack of cable. Of course, the shared bathrooms are the biggest reason. But, surprise — each room has its own glassed-in shower and sink, so exposure is limited. I’d add that the rooms aren’t very soundproof.
The Larchmont is in a terrific location for the price: a leafy side street in Greenwich Village, not far from New York University and Union Square. This one operates like a hotel — a bellhop even brings your bag up to the room, requiring a tip that unnecessarily bumps up the price.
With 66 rooms carved out from what used to be sizable apartments, it’s not precisely homey. But it reminded me of every Manhattan apartment I’d ever rented, down to the once-stylish moldings painted over repeatedly and to oblivion.
The Larchmont deserves kudos for making its shared-bath experience as pleasant as possible, providing guests with bathrobes and slippers, and satchels of soap and shampoo that make coming and going from your room as convenient as possible.
The free breakfast is a communal affair in a cramped but otherwise pleasant basement room. An employee whose sole job seemed to be to make toast upon request stood behind the counter and took orders as two copies of a newspaper floated around and young couples drank ice-cold orange juice and spoke to each other in European languages.
Harlem Bed & Breakfast is in a brownstone four blocks from the 116th Street stop of the 2 and 3 express trains, right in the middle of semi-gentrified Central Harlem.
The rooms, whose beds have seen better days, come with kitchenettes, and the generous continental breakfast of high-quality croissants, bagels and muffins are left out all day, as is the pod-style coffee and tea machine. The reception desk is staffed until midnight. My room was dark, but complaining about a lack of natural light in a first-floor room in Manhattan is like complaining about the wind in Chicago.
I did have another complaint: Someone, probably a guest, left the front door open after midnight, enabling another guest to come knock at my door at 1:30 a.m. He asked if I could call the owner’s cellphone so he could get his key. I said he could, but I wasn’t happy about the situation.
One hundred and thirty dollars for a room one block from Central Park? With a private bathroom? Sounds too good to be true.
It’s true, but it’s not that good.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the Park Savoy, except that it’s cramped, dreary and free of style. Ah, and that the sole window in my room looked across a narrow alley at a dark dirty window of a building that seemed equally depressing. And there’s no lobby to speak of, just a reception booth. In addition, the Park Savoy is the only place in this list without free Wi-Fi.
No, the place was relatively clean and seemingly safe, but if I were an out-of-town visitor, it would confirm suspicions that New York was an isolating, anonymous place where human beings stay in drab cells and live harried, joyless lives.
Admittedly, that’s inside. Outside, you just cross 58th Street, stroll in the back of the J.W. Marriott Essex House — rooms there, by the way, start at $633, taxes included — walk out the front, and you’re staring at Central Park.
If you’re a young man, it’s conceivably still fun to stay at the YMCA. But in this case, not so much to “hang out with all the boys” as to flirt with the huge group of European au pairs-to-be who were checking in at the same time I was.
Sure, there was also a small, somewhat older crowd, seemingly looking for a bargain. Did they (and I) find one?
For the price — especially for the double rooms — it’s hard to say no. Sure, the rooms are cell-like, with electrical wiring and air-conditioners that looked as if they had been there since before electricity and air-conditioning were invented. And the shared bathrooms were old and cranky.
But my bed — a cot on wheels — was actually quite comfortable. And better, the place was a beehive of activity, like a hostel on steroids. The staff was friendly (if harried), staying there allows access to the excellent gym, and it was located practically next to Central Park, and just blocks off Lincoln Center and Columbus Circle. It’s not for me. But it’s not terrible.
Besides Nos. 1 through 6, there are other options for getting lodging for under $150 in Manhattan, including finding hostels and occasional bargain apartment rentals on Airbnb.com. But if you want something more upscale, the sites Priceline and Hotwire are good places to start. Priceline allows you to bid on a room, specifying which neighborhoods and star levels are acceptable, but forcing you to close the deal before you find out the specific hotel where you’ll be spending the night. Hotwire is the same, except that it gives you the price of the mystery hotel room instead of asking you to bid on it.
I use the two sites together, checking the going rate on Hotwire, before underbidding it slightly on Priceline; if my bid fails, I go back and purchase the room on Hotwire. That system landed me a four-star hotel in TriBeCa that was available on Hotwire for $108 (or $139 with tax and fees) and for which I subsequently bid $102 (or $131 total) on Priceline.
My bid was accepted, and I was soon staying in a room at the Sheraton Tribeca, at 370 Canal St., for about $100 less than I could get directly from the hotel online. Since both Priceline and Hotwire had been offering such a great bargain in the same neighborhood, I suspected that they both had also been trying to draw me to the same Sheraton. (Note that the room was for a Sunday; on other nights Priceline and Hotwire may require you to go down a few star levels to get a similar rate.)
The Sheraton Tribeca may be nothing out of the ordinary for a business traveler, but for a budget traveler the luxurious pillows and flat-screen TVs were startling novelties.
I wouldn’t make a habit of staying in such places though. Hotel chains almost always feel generic, and in the Sheraton Tribeca, the mini-Starbucks cafe and huge Diet Coke ads in the lobby made me a bit queasy. I’d give up the luxury pillows and private bathroom for a dog named Mango and a binder of East Village delivery menus any day.