Even with Google at your fingertips, a Lonely Planet in your back pocket, and oodles of research there are still mistakes to be made, or at least lessons to be learnt, in every new adventure. While nothing disastrous happened on my first Big Apple visit, there were a few things that would have saved time and made the trip go a little smoother. That’s why I’m sharing these 10 mistakes to avoid when visiting New York City for the first time, with you.
1. Finding a public bathroom
Public toilets are basically non-existent except in Central Park and Grand Central. If you think you’re just going to pop into the local food establishment and use their loo, you will often find the bathrooms under lock and key unless you make a purchase – fair enough! It boggles my mind how a world-class city, whose residents pay ridiculously high taxes, can’t provide some decent public facilities. So besides being strategic with your liquid intake, here are a few resources to help you find relief when nature calls:
2. Uptown or Downtown choose your own adventure
Some subway station entrances are not always obvious and the same line may have different entrances depending on the direction you are travelling. For instance, we entered the station, paid the fare and only when we reached the platform realised we had the right train in the wrong direction (uptown instead of downtown).
However, it wasn’t a simple case of switching to the correct platform. There was direct no access from where we were, so we had to forfeit the fare we just paid to exit the station and re-enter on the correct side. The lesson here is to decide your line AND direction – uptown or downtown – before you enter the station and walk through the turnstile. Also carry a subway map at all times, an old school hard copy version, but don’t rely on it to navigate the city.
3. Where NOT to stay in New York City the first time
Brooklyn is a long way away! Not all of Brooklyn, but if like us you choose to cut the cost of your trip by booking an Airbnb in a suburb like Crown Heights, expect a good hour commute to much of where you’ll want to spend time in Manhattan. The upside is you’ll explore Brooklyn much more than the usual NYC traveller and the borough has a lot to offer! I would advise first time New York City visitors to find accommodation in a more central location, somewhere around Midtown is most convenient.
4. Accommodation on a budget (that isn’t a hostel)
If you really want to find more cost-effective accommodation, consider that the nearest part of Queens, Long Island City (L.I.C), is only one stop from Manhattan on the subway. The train will take you into a more central part of the island, rather than travelling from one end as you do with Brooklyn. So if you’re looking for a cheaper place to stay, L.I.C is worth checking out.
5. Empire State Observation Deck versus Top of the Rock
Pre-purchase your Top of the Rock tickets. While there’s no limit to your time at the top, access to the Rockefeller Centre Observation Deck is arranged in time slots (unlike Empire State where you just stand in a queue for an hour or more). To avoid waiting in a long queue just to find out that it’s booked out for the rest of the day, drop into the box office or jump online to buy a ticket for your desired session time in advance.
6. Museum money-saver
Check museums and galleries for their “pay as you wish” entrance times, and save a bundle.
7. Multi-attraction passes: yay or nay?
There are several multi-attraction passes available for tourists to purchase entrance fees to major attractions at discounted rates: New York CityPASS, New York City Explorer Pass, New York Pass and Build Your Own Pass by Smart Destinations. However, be sure to compare the passes and make sure they are worth it for what you want to see.
I had every intention of buying a New York Explorer Pass, but when I sat down and did the maths, it wasn’t going to save me enough for what I wanted to experience. This was mostly due to tip number 6, making use of the pay-as-you-wish times at museums and galleries.
8. To be guided or not to be guided that is the question
We combined self-guided tours and guided tours throughout our travels and I can say hands down, that there’s no comparison. Especially if you go somewhere like the Lower East Side, where there aren’t obvious “sights.” What you are seeing has so many stories behind it, and reading facts from a printed guide doesn’t give you the same insight as a local who lives and breathes the place. Besides, having your nose stuck in a book is no way to see NYC and is hard to juggle with a camera.
9. Dressing for Broadway
I imagined getting dressed up in my finery for a Broadway show. Disappointingly, it’s fairly casual. I saw tracksuit pants walk out of the theatre. The upside is that you don’t need to be concerned if you look like a wreck after exploring all day long, or if it’s too cold to part with your layers – no one cares. See more New York City packing advice in this seasonal guide.
10. Getting around on foot
Take two pairs of walking shoes so you can rotate them day-to-day. I walked over 20-km per day my first 10-days in NYC, and I had an ugly black toenail as evidence. Of course, walking isn’t the only way to get around, but it is great for seeing the City, working off delicious meals and its the cheapest mode of transport.
Thanks to my travel buddies Susie and Roz for sharing an amazing first NYC experience, and contributing to this list of lessons that we laughed and lamented over along the way. I hope these tips for visiting New York City for the first time will save you time, money and frustration along the way.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,