How to Take a Budget Vacation to Manhattan

Take a frugal trip to New York, one of America's most expensive cities. © Flickr user David NikonvsCanon

How could you afford a one-month trip to New York?

Here's my response. I hope this advice helps you budget for your own dream vacation.

For free personalized help in creating a vacation budget, use this budgeting for your goals worksheet.

First: I assume that this vacation won't interrupt your income. (I assume you'll earn just as much while you're in New York as you will when you're at home -- either because you are using paid vacation time, or because you're self-employed and you can work "from home" during your trip.

If that's the case, then budgeting for this trip requires focusing on the "expense" side, not on the income side. Major expenses include:

  • The Hotel. (See my detailed note below)
  • Dining Out. Ideally, you should pack a lunch while you're in your hotel room (a sandwich, an apple, a bottle of water) and eat it on a park bench. Even doing that once or twice a week will save some money. But regardless of how good your intentions are, you WILL probably be eating out more. Don't worry -- "casual lunch" type places (the places where office workers eat during their lunch break) are prolific and cheap. Five to six dollars can get you two slices of New York pizza, or a burrito, or a plate of hummus/falafel or a burger at Five Guys. (Learn more about saving on dining and entertainment.)
  • Things to Do -- I opted for free or cheap local activities. I attended some free lectures. I spent a lot of time in Central Park and at The Strand bookstore (not buying books, just browsing). I went to a free arts-and-crafts night at a crafting shop in Alphabet City. I also turned walking into a full-day activity: I'd pick one district on the map (like the Financial District + Brooklyn Bridge) and spend 6+ hours just walking it. (This is also a great way to exercise while traveling.)
  • Transportation - I took the subway constantly. I generally avoided cabs.

(Learn more about How to Travel Without Spending a Fortune)

Hotel: Here's where I'm going to catch some flack from some of my readers. I stayed in a hotel in New Jersey for $35 per night. The hotel was close to the commuter train, so every morning around 9 a.m., I'd join the herd of commuters who were taking the train into Manhattan to go to work.

I'd spend the full day in Manhattan, and catch the commuter train back to New Jersey in the evening. I'd work in my hotel room at night.

A purist might say that I wasn't "in" New York since I didn't physically sleep north of the state line. My response is -- what difference does it make where I sleep? I can sleep in New Jersey for $35 per night, or in New York for $85-$125 per night minimum. Either way, I spend the full day in Manhattan.

Perhaps if I lived there, I'd feel differently -- but my goal was to take an affordable extended visit to New York.

(​More tips on​ How to Make the Most of Your (Limited!) Money.)

The main drawbacks to staying far away from your desired vacation spot are:

  1. Commute time -- getting to/from Manhattan took about one hour each way. I read books during that time, so I didn't mind.
  2. "Curfew" -- the last train back to my stop in New Jersey left from Grand Central Station around midnight, so I couldn't stay out past 11 p.m. That was fine with me, since I wasn't planning on staying out late anyway. (If you really want a "late night out," you could always get a hotel in Manhattan for just one night.)
  3. Inability to Go Home Mid-Day -- I couldn't go home in the middle of the day to "freshen up" in my room. I dealt with this by finding nice places to sit down and relax, such as parks and bookstores and cafes. My biggest annoyance was having to haul a jacket around with me constantly, even on warm days, so that I could be prepared just in case the weather turned cold. But then again, I was there in March/April -- a transitional temperature season.

    (Do you and your spouse disagree on living/traveling standards? Learn how to talk about money with your spouse.)

    To be clear: I'm not saying you should follow my recipe precisely. I'm just listing one example of how one person (myself) managed to take a month-long budget vacation to one of America's most expensive cities.