Even with Google at your fingertips, a Lonely Planet in your back pocket, and oodles of research there are still mistakes or at least lessons to be learnt in travel – that is part of its charm. Though nothing disastrous happened on my first Big Apple adventure, there were a few tips that would have saved time and made things go a little smoother, that I thought were worth sharing.
Tips for visiting New York City for the first time
1. 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 a relief when nature calls:
2. 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 got caught out entering a station, paying our fare and then standing on the platform only to realise that we had the right train in the wrong direction. There was no access at all to the correct platform from where we were, so we had to forfeit a fare exiting the station and re-entering from the correct entrance. 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. 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 for first timers to find accommodation in a more central location.
4. The nearest part of Queens, Long Island City (L.I.C), is only one stop from Manhattan on the subway which 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. 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 plus waiting). 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. Check museums and galleries for their “pay as you wish” entrance times, and save a bundle.
7. There are several 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. That combined with the fact that the only way to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty is to buy a separate ticket not offered on the passes.
8. 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. I imagined getting dressed up in my finery for a Broadway show. Disappointingly its fairly casual, I saw tracksuit pants walk out of the theatre. So don’t be concerned if you look like a wreck after exploring all day, or if it’s too cold to part with your layers – no one cares.
10. Take two pairs of walking shoes so you can rotate them day to day. Here is a snapshot of the kilometres (1km=0.62miles) I walked over 10 days in NYC, and I have an ugly black toenail as further evidence.
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,