NYC Travel & Packing Guide: Things to Know Before You Go

nyc destination guide

New York City is one of the most visited destinations in the United States and for good reason. It’s home to attractions like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building as well as some of the world’s best restaurants. It also hosts one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, but the rest of the year is also a great time to visit the “city that never sleeps.”

Be sure to wander beyond downtown Manhattan to neighborhoods like Harlem and Brooklyn to learn even more about the area. If you’re planning a trip to the city or just dreaming about it, we’ll show you what to know before you go!

If we’ve left anything out or you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave comments below!

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New York City Travel Expenses Tips

New York City is expensive in comparison with other American cities, but not against major destinations around the world. It’s easy to visit fairly cheaply if you know what to avoid overspending on.

new york public transport
Save money in NYC by taking public transportation.

Opt for Public Transportation

New York City is very easy to get around on public transportation. Grab a Metro card as soon as you get to the city and top it up throughout your trip as needed. It’s often cheaper to buy a 7 day pass if you’ll be visiting for that amount of time, but if you’re not sure how much you’ll use it, you can simply put money on it as you go. Use your card to take the subway and buses.

Taxis tend to be more expensive, especially getting to and from the airport, so look for other options to save money. Lyft and Uber are cheap options, as are airport shuttles. But also consider how long it will take you to get into the city versus how much money you’ll be saving. The $3 bus can take an hour but the $20 shuttle might only be 30 minutes!

NYC Street Food is the Cheapest Way to Eat

The term street food is applied loosely, as it’s not like you’ll find in other cities. I mostly use it to mean any place that doesn’t have standard table service. Carts on the street sell everything from hot dogs and pretzels to halal-friendly gyros. Delis are also a great place to grab a meal and have just about everything you could need. Pop in for a breakfast sandwich or an afternoon snack.

Stay in Neighborhoods Outside of Tourist Zones Like Times Square

Hotels close to tourist attractions are much higher in price than in other neighborhoods. You won’t be hanging out in Times Square during your entire trip, so make it more of a priority to be close to the subway rather than close to attractions. Try looking for accommodation in the Financial District, the Upper West Side and even across the bridge in Brooklyn or Queens.

Travel in the Off Season

Expect to pay about double for everything from accommodation to attractions and food. Apart from the holidays, not many people want to visit in the winter, so go in February and March if you can. Hotels offer bonuses and deals this time of year like free breakfast, one night free or upgraded rooms.

Visit the Free Museums

New York City has so many museums worth checking out, but you don’t have to spend all your money on them. Not only are there plenty of free museums, but even the main museums have one day out of every month where you can either go for free or pay by donation. Some also offer temporary free entry. For example, I recently visited the Neue Galerie and since they were doing work on one of their main galleries, entry was by donation. Do your research and you might be able to sightsee for nothing!

Packing for NYC
Packing for NYC

Essential Gear to Pack for New York City

Packing for New York City depends mostly on when you’re visiting. Summertime can be brutal and you might want to wear only shorts and dresses, but winter in New York requires lots of layers. But there are a few things to add to your bag, no matter what the season.

Comfortable shoes– Most travelers do lots of walking while visiting New York City, even if it’s simply walking to and from the subway station. In the winter, pack worn-in, waterproof boots and in the summer, wear walking shoes.

Smartphone Full of Apps– Getting around is much simpler with a smartphone full of helpful NYC travel apps. Download Uber and Lyft as well as a taxi app to hail a cab. A subway map app is also helpful, as is Google Maps. Looking up directions on your phone looks less touristy than holding a full map.

Cross body bag– Deter potential pickpockets by carrying around a cross body purse or messenger bag. A zipper is a good item to have as well. I personally recommend Manhattan Portage bags, and not just because they’re made here!

Hand sanitizer or baby wipes– Between the railings in the subway, cab handles and everything in between, keep your hands clean with a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer or baby wipes.

Cash– While ATMs are readily available and almost everywhere takes cards, you’ll usually want to tip in cash. Also, cash comes in handy for those street hot dog stands.

Sex and the City Tour
Sex and the City Tour in NYC

Books to Read Before Visiting New York City

New York City has been a place where writers find inspiration since the early days of its founding. Choose a genre and there is at least one book set in the city. These are just a few of our favorited that create the city as an additional character.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald– While most of this great American novel takes place in a fictional suburb in Long Island, some of the memorable scenes take place in Manhattan. Readers are transported to the wild parties of the “Roaring 20s.” Grab on Amazon.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith– Francine Nolan is a sensitive young girl coming of age in the slums of Williamsburg in the 1940s. She finds comfort in books, despite the poverty she lives in with her family. Grab on Amazon.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger– Called an American classic since its first publishing, this story tells of Holden Caufield, a cynical teenager who travels to New York after being kicked out of school. Grab on Amazon.

Sex in the City by Candice Bushnell– The book that inspired a successful television series and movie franchise is about Carrie, a writer dating and making friends in New York City. But be warned, there are lots of differences between the book and show! Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg– A favorite of young adult readers, a brother and sister decide to run away and choose the Metropolitan Museum of Art as their new home. They soon investigate the mystery of a statue and the woman who sold it. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer– Many books have sought to tell of September 11, but this novel is the only one, in my opinion, that captures it well. A young boy loses his father in the Twin Towers and finds a key that he runs around town trying to learn more about it. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann– In a similar style, this novel is actually a story of different people who all witness tightrope walker Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers in 1974. The stories weave together with the one event in common. Grab a copy on Amazon.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo– Read the first installment of the trilogy of Don Corleone and his family. The definitive work of gangster and mafia literature starts with Don Vito’s life in New York City. Grab a copy on Amazon.

NYC Brownstones

Movies to Watch Before Visiting New York City

New York City is perhaps the most well-known city when it comes to television and movies. Many travelers add the itinerary based on what they’ve seen alone! This list could be an entire post, but here are a few favorites of ours with locations you can visit on your trip.

Annie Hall– Woody Allen is a New York City legend and this film is perhaps his most beloved. The director plays a comedian who falls for flighty Midwesterner Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton in her most iconic role. Christopher Walken, Paul Simon and Carol Kane also make appearances. Grab on Amazon.

Ghostbusters– Who you gonna call? Watch this film, which stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Sigourney Weaver, before visiting the Hook and Ladder #8, where the headquarters were filmed. In the movie, scientists are fired and seek work as hunters of the occult. Grab on Amazon.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York– In the follow up to this family favorite, Macaulay Culkin’s character is reunited with the bumbling burglars who tried to break into his house. This time, they’re taking on a toy store at Christmas and he’s stuck at a hotel after his family forgets him again. Grab on Amazon.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s– The film adaptation of Truman Capote’s book stars Audrey Hepburn in her career-defining role as a society girl with a secret. She meets an aspiring writer who lives in her building. Grab on Amazon.

When Harry Met Sally– The ultimate romantic comedy showcases New York City with filming locations like Central Park and Katz’s Delicatessen. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are unlikely friends who fall in love. Grab on Amazon.

Big– Despite the fact that you can no longer play the big piano at FAO Schwarz, catch this film where Tom Hanks plays a boy who wishes he was an adult and wakes up as one. But not everything as exciting as it seems. Grab on Amazon.

Taxi Driver– While a darker film, Taxi Driver made celebrities of Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. In it, a mentally unstable Vietnam veteran works as a cab driver on the night shift in New York City. Grab on Amazon.

Gangs of New York– Set in 1800s New York City, a man in Five Points seeks out the man who murdered his father. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day Lewis all star in the film. Grab on Amazon.

Champagne with a View in NYC
Champagne with a View in NYC

Top Things to Do in New York City

You can visit New York City dozens of times and still not see everything. On your first trip, it’s likely you’ll want to hit all the major tourist attractions, but if some don’t interest you, don’t feel bad skipping them. Also consider the lines during high season and research package tickets like CityPass.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island– Perhaps the country’s most iconic landmark, “Lady Liberty” has welcomed the huddled masses for generations. You can take the ferry to Liberty Island from Battery Park and Jersey City. Visitors are now able to go to the crown, after many years of being closed. Ellis Island is the next island over, where you can see where immigrants first arrived into America.

Central Park– The over 800-acre public park spans most of the island of Manhattan. Spend a few hours wandering around, searching out statues of Balto and Alice and Wonderland, sailing model boats on the lake and watching buskers.

The High Line– Another favorite green space is this former elevated rail line. While it runs less than 2 miles, it provides great views of the city and features public art and plant life. Arts and food vendors also set up along the way.

World Trade Center– The former World Trade Center site, known for years as Ground Zero, is now home to the 9/11 Memorial, the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the new One World Trade Center observation deck. Advance tickets are recommended to all three to avoid long lines.

New York City Public Library– One of the city’s best free museums is the exhibits at the public library’s branch in Bryant Park. Be sure to check out the Rose Reading Room, a stunning place with lavish murals which will soon reopen after renovations.

Bryant Park
Bryant Park

Brooklyn Bridge– See the city from its most iconic bridge, which resembles the arches of a cathedral. You can walk from the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall subway station over the bridge. But stay on the pedestrian side or risk being run over by cyclists!

Best Views– Some of the best views of New York City are from its iconic skyscrapers. These include the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center. Consider visiting at night for short lines and city lights.

Museums– Museums are in a league of their own in the city. Art lovers should check out The Guggenheim, MOMA, Met, Neue Galerie and The Cloisters. History buffs will love The Tenement Museum and the Morgan Library.

Additional activities include seeing a Broadway show or sports game and tours. You can go on a tour for just about anything, including food tours, movie and television tours and history tours.

Room at The Row NYC
Room at The Row NYC

Where to Stay in New York City

Staying in New York City can quickly eat away at your budget, so factor accommodation into your plans early. Also consider going during the low season to save money. Check out alternative neighborhoods and stay as far from Times Square as possible.

NYC hostels are a dime a dozen in the city, but that doesn’t mean they’re all good. Some give hostels a bad name, while others provide hotel-style amenities.

Budget-friendly hotels that offer great amenities include The Row, The Ace, The Jane, Yotel and the Pod Hotels. Rooms are small, but you can take advantage of in-house restaurants, WiFi and more.

And, of course, you can also rent an apartment. But keep in mind that local laws make it very difficult for websites like AirBnB to operate. You’re likely to only be able to find a place to stay outside of Manhattan. Consider this before booking.

Brooklyn Brewery

Food and Drink in New York City

Dining out in New York City is an experience difficult to describe. There are some of the world’s best restaurants as well as cheap eats. Even restaurants you don’t read about in your guidebook might surprise you. The city is also known for a few dishes in particular, which we’ve highlighted below.

Hot dogs– Far from what you’ll find back home, hot dogs range from the basic “dirty water” cart variety to beloved stands like Gray’s Papaya, Crif Dogs and Nathan’s Famous. Add yellow mustard, raw onions, relish or even chili, depending on your taste.

Bagels– Every New Yorker will disagree with the best bagel in the city, each with their own pick. Among those you might hear are H&H, Zabar’s and Ess-A-Bagel. Grab the crusty but soft bagel with cream cheese or as a sandwich.

Jewish deli– If you’ve never dined at a traditional Jewish delicatessen, New York City is the place to do it. Katz’s is the most well known for its association with When Harry Met Sally, but the pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup are worth a visit. Neighboring Russ and Daughters is another favorite.

Pizza– You’ll find signs for $1 slices on practically every corner of the city. Like bagels, each local has their own pick for best pizza. They’re typically thin, large and best folded. Try Roberta’s, Grimaldi’s and Famous Original Ray’s.

Burgers– What’s so special about New York City burgers? It’s their exclusivity, made with high priced ingredients, on secret menus or only available during certain times of day. Shake Shack is a favorite, as is Corner Bistro and Burger Joint.

Ethnic– And, of course, the melting pot that is New York means you should try all sorts of food, namely Chinese, Indian and Thai. Xian Famous Foods comes recommended, as do Momofuku Noodle Bar and Prosperity Dumplings.

NYC Travel & Packing Guide

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

Add your voice & leave a comment!

Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Kaci says

    I spent about 30 hours in NYC a few years ago (arrived early in the AM, attended a book signing that evening, flew out the next morning). My biggest tip is that even the “big” museums may operate on donations. First thing I did when I arrived was take a cab straight to the MET (taking public transport is better as you say, but I wasn’t concerned about that). Admission to get in went something like this: “Admission to the museum is by donation. The standard donation is $25. Is that comfortable for you?” And then you could ask for it to be lower if you couldn’t afford that, or offer more if you wanted to donate more for it.

    Also, if you enjoy live singing, head to one of the singing diners. All that amazing talent that’s living in NYC hoping to make it on Broadway performs live every night while waiting tables. The one I went to was Ellen’s Stardust Diner and everyone there was so talented, and the food was great. They also occasionally during the night will pass around a hat for donations that are used for the staff to pay for their acting classes/headshots/etc etc. If you appreciate their talent in addition to their service, toss in an extra tip to help them on their way to the big stage!

    Pack as light as you can, since you’ll be carrying your luggage until you get to where you’re staying. That’s an even bigger deal if you’re taking public transport. Oh, and if you do take a taxi from the airport, there’s an attendant at the line for cabs who hands out a sheet of paper with a crash course in the laws that apply in NYC wrt taxis. Be sure to read it so that you know your rights!

  2. Svenja says

    NYC is one of the places I keep returning to, just like Las Vegas. Wouldn’t want to stay for more than 2 or 3 days in a row, but would love to return every year… So much to see and do, but oh so many people!

  3. Marlene R. says

    As someone who was born & raised in NYC, and still lives and works here, I can attest that this article contains sound advice. I would like to add my two cents. Apologies in advance for the long post. 🙂

    The taxi fare from JFK airport into Manhattan is a flat fare of $52 + tolls/fees. If you’re flying into LGA the fare will be metered. More info here on the rates: http://www.nyc.gov/html/tlc/html/passenger/taxicab_rate.shtml.

    That being said, I would recommend just taking a cab from the airport rather than trying to figure out how to get into the city by public transportation. While our transport is good, connections to/from the airport leave much to be desired. If you can, avoid arriving during evening rush hour so you don’t get stuck in traffic with everyone else traveling west.

    Regarding the 9/11 Memorial… no tickets are necessary to visit the memorial. It is an open plaza that is free to the public daily from 7:30AM – 9PM. Of course, if you would like to visit the 9/11 Museum or the One World Observatory, heed advice and buy tickets in advance. Check out the offers & promotions page for potential savings to the Observatory. Currently, MasterCard cardholders get 20% off Standard Admission tickets purchased online. https://oneworldobservatory.com/promotions/

    Insider tip: If want to see the Statue of Liberty but don’t really want to climb up to the crown – or you just want to save a few bucks – take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free to ride, has free wifi, runs 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week, and you get amazing views of the Statue, Ellis Island, and the downtown skyline. More info here: http://www.siferry.com/index.html

    I will echo the advice to find a place to stay as far away from Times Sq as possible. Even chain & fast food restaurants (if that’s your thing) will be more expensive in this area than other parts of the city. Added to that is the non-stop activity here. Personally, I avoid Times Sq at all costs – but I see why those new to the city would want to see such an iconic part of town.

    About public transportation… The fare is currently $2.75 for either a single subway or bus ride. If you pay your fare with MetroCard, you may transfer free from bus-to-subway, subway-to-bus or bus-to-bus within two hours of the time you first paid your fare. You must buy a MetroCard in order to ride the subway. On buses you have the option of paying with exact change – no pennies or dollar bills. If you pay your bus fare with coins, you may transfer free between buses with intersecting routes. Ask the bus driver for a transfer when you pay your fare.

    When riding the subway, a few things to keep in mind for your safety and as a courtesy to other riders (especially if you’re on the subway during rush hour and/or new to big cities):

    (1) Do step back from the platform edge when the train is approaching or leaving the station. Someone was fatally hurt earlier this week when his clothing got stuck on the closing train doors and he was dragged for several feet.
    (2) Avoid changing train cars while the train is in motion. Especially when you’re not used to the movement of the cars, this can be very dangerous. Again, people have been hurt in the past doing this. Some of the older trains have the connecting doors locked so you won’t be able to open the door anyway.
    (3) Please step aside and allow people to exit the train before attempting to board. You’re not going to get far while people are still trying to get off the train.
    (4) Please step all the way into the middle of the train car. Standing by the doors when you’re not planning on getting off at the next stop just slows down the entry/exit process. And I won’t lie, if you’re blocking the exit path while in a crowded train you’re likely to get shoved – don’t say I didn’t warn you.
    (5) Some stations have escalators to take people from the platform to street levels. When using the escalators, if you’re going to stand step to the right. The left side is commonly used by people who want to walk up/down.

    *Please note that not all subway stations are equipped with elevators, so if you require wheelchair access you’ll need to check up on the stations that have accessibility. http://web.mta.info/accessibility/stations.htm

    NYC is an amazing city with lots to do ans I hope you enjoy your visit. Happy travels!

  4. Shawn says

    There are so many great tips and ideas here! As a Brooklyn transplant, I want to say thanks to Caroline for putting together such a clear intro to New York, and also to Marlene, above, for her spot-on additions about public transportation and getting around.

    One of the great things about the subway is that the fare is always the same, no matter how far you ride. So Caroline is so right that it’s more important to stay close to a subway station than to stay close to attractions! Queens and Brooklyn are great places to find accommodation. It will take a little longer to get places, but New Yorkers do it every day and the people-watching is amazing!

    A small piece of advice: If you can possibly do it, avoid using the subway during rush hour. It will be packed with commuters and hard to navigate if you don’t know exactly where you’re going. If you really want to be somewhere by 9, then look up your route ahead of time so you’ll know where you have to get off or transfer. In general, New Yorkers are happy to help you out if you’re lost, so don’t be afraid to ask someone who looks friendly if you can’t figure out if you’re on the right platform or whether you can transfer to the 6 train at the next station. We may not strike up a long conversation, but we’ll help you figure out where you’re going.

    For more cheap eats, keep an eye out for the Greek and Halal food carts that are all over in neighborhoods where there are lots of office workers. You’ll know which are the “good” ones because they’ll have a long queue of construction workers and suits around lunchtime! At most pizza places a good slice of cheese pizza should be less than $3 (there’s a pattern where pretty reliably a slice costs about the same as one ride on the subway) and will be huge! It’s a great option for a quick, cheap lunch.

    If you’re in the Times Square area and interested in grabbing a bite, head into the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. It’s west of midtown, 9th and 10th Ave.s around 42nd St. to 57th St. or so. There are great, affordable, small restaurants and bars all over the place there, and not nearly as crowded as midtown. It’s the perfect area to have dinner before you see a show.

    And finally, really do get out of Manhattan. There is so much more to New York than just the big landmarks. Those things are great! See them! And then come to Brooklyn for Smorgasburg, walk along the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront (great skyline pictures), go see a local band perform, eat at a cool new restaurant or a classic local staple.

    Have an amazing visit! I hope you enjoy NYC as much as I do!

  5. Dianne W. says

    Marlene had excellent tips. I will add a few for winter travel, I go to NYC every year in January or February due to low hotel rates.

    There are several necessities for winter travel to NYC. Most important, be sure you have a really warm winter coat, thick scarves (your scarf should cover your nose and mouth on the coldest days), at least one warm hat, and warm gloves (the kind that have a small pocket for chemical hand warmers would be best). I wear a warm knee-length down coat with a hood that fits over a warm hat. Watch the weather reports and bring warm WATERPROOF boots if snow is in the forecast.

    If you’re going to take more than 13 subway and/or bus rides (very easy to do in only a 3-4 day visit), purchase a weekly Metro ticket which is good for unlimited rides for 7 full days. The ticket can only be used by one person. The cost is $31 plus $1 for the card itself, which can be refilled again within about 2 years.

    When visiting NYC in the winter I think it’s essential to stay in a hotel very near a subway stop. Visitors want to visit many areas and riding the subways keeps one out of the freezing weather. Some of my favorite hotels are the Library, Boutique Hotel, Fitzpatrick Grand Central and Affinia Shelburne – all near Grand Central. There are several fairly inexpensive hotels near Herald Square: Hyatt Place, Holiday Inn Express, and a Best Western – all on 36th St. near 6th Ave. The Park South is another well-located hotel half a block from the 28th St. subway station for line 6.

    If you take public transportation from an airport into Manhattan be sure you can carry your entire complement of luggage for several blocks, up and down several flights of stairs, and through inclement weather. There are private buses into the city for about $14 per person, that can be a good option if your hotel is near Penn Station, Bryant Park, or Grand Central.

    The tripadvisor.com NYC travel forum is one excellent resources for questions about visiting NYC. Thank you for the article and the comments above are helpful.

  6. Megan Blom says

    Great tips!! I definitely recommend traveling on the off season, but don’t do what I did and go the week before Christmas….. 😀 It was a wonderful time, but if you want to check out the “tourist” spots, you’re gonna have a bad time (literally, there are thousands of people and it is crowded and just not very fun, at least in my opinion).

  7. Sandy says

    Appreciate all the advice. Going to NYC very soon on a mother/daughter/granddaughter trip. Flying into LaGuardia and my research indicates that taxi will be best. I have taken Super Shuttle in other cities, but the reviews were bad for NYC. Staying near Times Square and plan to do a lot of walking.

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