My family eagerly waited for the curtain to rise on our first Broadway show. We were about to see the Tony Award-winning Newsies. Our plush red-velvet seats were on the main floor with clear views of the stage. And the price? Probably less than others in the same row paid.
It was the 13th birthday of our younger daughter, a budding actress who’d pined for New York City for years.
I, on the other hand, dreaded the idea of planning — and paying for — a trip to the heart of Manhattan. But this year, my husband, Jeff; our actress, Talia; our 16-year-old, Anya, and I finally took the plunge, booking a six-day vacation that was heavy on the city’s free attractions but left room for some splurges, too.
With careful planning, a smattering of credit card points, MetroCards good for unlimited rides and a sense of adventure, our family of four managed to take on Manhattan without breaking the bank.
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The money-crunching began with our theater tickets. I’d bought them months before we ever left Minneapolis with a discount code I found on TheaterMania. We skipped the great deals on same-day tickets people can nab at TKTS Discount Booths because we didn’t want to waste time in line — or risk coming up empty on such an important part of the trip.
Then, the day of the show, we continued to limit the damage that Broadway can do to a budget. Keeping to our splurge-and-save plan, we skipped the fancy sit-down restaurants so many attend before a show. Instead, we grabbed tasty falafel sandwiches, taking advantage of the stellar people-watching near Times Square. The bill came in at just $42.
A family our size could spend nearly twice that amount on another New York City institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, if we paid the posted price (adults $25, children $12). Faced with cashiers and large signs, many tourists don’t realize that the prices are merely “recommended” fees, thanks to an 1893 state law. You can pay what you want, and we did, offering up $20 for the whole family during each of two visits.
Prices for Manhattan hotel rooms are notoriously high — which is why we worked so diligently to get a deal.
By travel hacking to amass credit card points, we sliced our hotel costs to $40 per night at the Holiday Inn Express, a comfortable, centrally located hotel with free, hot breakfast (See story XJ). And, yes, we all stayed in one room and it was a tight fit, but we were rarely there. So what if the breakfast area was chaotic? The free breakfasts and free all-day coffee saved us at least $50 a day.
The Midtown location was important, too, because it put us near two subway stops and within easy walking distance of the Empire State Building, Penn Station — and N.Y. Pizza Suprema, where you can find some of the best slices in town for only $4 a piece.
When it came to getting around the city, we went hard-core for the subway. The seven-day unlimited ride MetroCards ($30, good for buses and subway) were our tickets to everywhere and anywhere we wanted to go, saving us hundreds of dollars in transportation costs. We even used it to connect to the AirTrain ($5), which brought us to and from JFK. The NYT transit mobile app was our constant guide, and we had few missteps. By the end of the week, the whole family felt like subway experts, with the kids reading, listening to music — and averting their eyes — like natives.
On the day we arrived, we barely set down our bags before jumping on the subway for a quick ride to the southern tip of Manhattan, where we caught the Staten Island Ferry. Such a good call. The weather was perfection and the views of the city skyline unmatched. As we pulled away from the dock, we sat in the back of the ferry and watched the metropolis recede. The ferry ride also offered great, free views of the Statue of Liberty.
After the ferry ride, we headed to nearby ground zero. Although construction around the September 11 Memorial is still in progress and work continues near the base of One World Trade Center, the building near the site of the 9/11 attacks has risen to its full, impressive height.
We skipped the relatively pricey Memorial Museum ($24 adult, $15 youth), instead spending quiet time at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, which has small displays of letters, photos and memorabilia from 9/11. The chapel, where many first responders sought refuge and took breaks after the attacks, is open to the public (free, donations accepted). Some of the pews still bear the gouges made by their heavy equipment.
Two other Manhattan freebies competed for highlights of the trip: walking the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring the High Line, an unusual elevated greenway on Manhattan’s west side.
For the bridge walk, we took the subway to Brooklyn so we could stroll with Manhattan in our sights. The outing provided some of the best photos from the trip and although the bridge was fairly crowded, the atmosphere was celebratory. Just remember to stay on the pedestrian side of the stripe; fast-moving bicyclists aren’t shy about their space.
Walking the High Line, way up on an elevated freight rail line, provided a more relaxed experience. The 1.45-mile-long pedestrian walkway offers amazing views of sunset over the Hudson — and into the back windows of apartment dwellers. We walked it on a Sunday night, using it to connect for an evening stroll in Greenwich Village.
After strolling the length of the High Line, we went in search of a coffeehouse — at nearly 9 p.m. on a Sunday. Alas, we discovered that bohemians abandon the coffeehouses when the sun goes down. Instead, we discovered a rather garishly lit tea house, selling not cups of tea but a bewildering range of loose teas and infusions.
The girls were enchanted, falling down an Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole, spending 40 minutes just before — and slightly after — closing as a saleswoman at David’s Tea pulled tin after tin from the seemingly endless shelves, insisting that they smell this one, that one, carefully explaining the differences.
When we finally left, having purchased $10 worth of tea more out of a sense of decency than need, the key turned quietly in the door. The shopkeeper had clearly relished an audience. And we had enjoyed another great show.
There was Newsies, of course. But also the drum-line performance on the High Line, the mime in Central Park, the man playing an ancient Chinese instrument in the subway — and the city itself.
We all agree that this is the best trip we’ve ever taken.
For me, one of the best parts came after we returned home. My email pinged with an alert that my credit card statement was ready. I hopped online and clicked “pay now” as easily as swiping an NYC MetroCard.
New York City cheap, with kids
Holiday Inn Express Madison Square Garden: Free breakfast. Clean, small rooms. Aim for a higher floor. 232 W. 29th St.; 212-695-7200; www.madisonsquaregardenhotel.com. Rooms from $260.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge: We took the subway to Brooklyn to walk with Manhattan in our sights. It takes less than an hour, depending on crowds.
September 11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel: We skipped the September 11 Memorial Museum ($24 adult, $15 youth), instead spending time at the memorial and exhibits at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, which first responders used as a refuge and resting place after the attacks (free; donations accepted).
Staten Island Ferry: Sit in back when leaving Manhattan for great views of the Statue of Liberty and city skyline. You have to get off and re-board for the return trip.
The High Line: Built along no-longer-used 1.45-mile section of elevated rail line on the West Side, this park is an unusual, tranquil oasis with views over the Hudson River.
Central Park and more: In addition to New York City’s crown jewel, we enjoyed Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and Bryant Park near Times Square. Find free events: www.nycgovparks.org/events.
MetroCard: 7-day unlimited MetroCard, ($30 per person) covers all subway and bus travel. Add a $5 AirTrain ticket to connect from JFK. (Taxis are flat rate from JFK to Manhattan, $54 plus tolls and tip).