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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Travel Free and Easy in New York City

When you tell friends you heading to the Big Apple you usually get one of two (and in many cases both) responses.

The first is that New York is an awesome city. This statement is virtually unanimous and something quite unique in the world of travel. Few cities on Earth live up to or exceed their expectations and when those expectations are as large as those heaped upon New York, that is no mean feat. There are lots of cities where you really don't know what to expect and they pleasantly surprise you (Damascus and Melbourne are two that spring to mind) and there are those where the expectations come high are they are by and large big let downs (LA). Finally those with big raps on them that deliver and deliver big. Paris and Istanbul are two in this category but New York is king.

The second statement you generally here is how expensive it is going to be. This entry is to debunk that myth, particularly for traveler. There is one caveat to this statement and that is the issue of accommodation. If you are having to rely on paying for your accommodation then yes it is going to be expensive. Land is of a premium and where demand exceeds supply prices are high. This goes for renting and hotel accommodation alike.

A couple of tricks to get around this problem would be to firstly tap your own network of friends and colleagues. The beauty of New York is that it attracts people from everywhere to make their home (to see if they can make it there....). You shouldn't require too many of your 6 degrees of separation to find someone you know not too distantly acquainted from you. Post a message up on your Facebook account and see what comes back. Every New York apartment I've been in is by and large the same - small with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and lounge room but without fail in that lounge room, the couch is a fold out bed. Ex pats know if they want anyone to come and visit them, this is a requirement. Put it out there and see what happens. It cant hurt to ask and usually comes at the cost of bringing over what they crave from home - their Mum's cookies, a magazine they can't obtain etc.

If this doesn't work then consider Couchsurfing NYC even if you wouldn't do so normally elsewhere. Take the time to cultivate a relationship with your host so that by the time you arrive it is like staying with a friend as above.

Moving into the pay realm try Air BnB or iStopover. We prefer to stick to free in this blog but you can find lots of articles on the web about these spare room rental businesses.

Once you are sorted for a bed it is time to get out and get the best of free New York. No city comes close to giving the casual travel the best of their city without dipping into your pocket. The following is all the things we did and saw for free on a couple of trips to NYC.

Day one get yourself a New York Greeter. This amazing program now being replicated around the world is GOLD. A real New Yorker to show you around and share their tips on the best places to visit, eat and shop. In their own words "Big Apple Greeter’s services are available FREE OF CHARGE, and there is a NO TIPPING POLICY." Wow. You need to request about a month in advance of your stay. Personally I went for Harlem as it was an area my host could tell me the least about and where wandering the streets with a local added a huge level to the comfort zone. My Greeter's family was from Ethiopia although they were born and bred in Harlem and it provided an amazing insight on many levels to what the fabric of New York is really all about. It was actually the best thing I did in New York and my Greeter invited me to a party later in the week with his friends. We are still friends and catch up via Facebook. I look forward to repaying the favor one day. It must be said it doesn't always work out this way and there is no obligation on the Greeter to go the extra mile as mine did but it will always be a positive way to start a journey through the great city and get some insider tips.

Downtown or Lower Manhattan is another amazing place for those who like their travel free. The Staten Island ferry is the number one must do. It takes you right past the Statue of Liberty for the must have photo opportunity as well as fabulous water views of the Lower Manhattan skyline. It is of course free. Most people get off the ferry at Staten Island and then get straight back on and head back to Manhattan. The island is one of the five boroughs of New York and worth a wander around. Next time I go I might get a greeter for the Island to get under the skin this least popular borough.

Back in Lower Manhattan, it hard to pass up a wander across the Brooklyn Bridge and back on a fine day. Again the views and photo opportunities are magnificent of a skyline that is familiar to most. On the Brooklyn side of the bridge is the wonderfully named DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass). This post industrial neighborhood has numerous cutting edge art galleries that are free to wander around to see what is happening in the world of art. As it would now be around lunchtime - checkout Grimaldi's Coal Fired pizza down by the water - an institution and arguably (and plenty like to argue!) New York's best. Whilst not free, sitting in the park by the water's edge opposite the Manhattan skyline eating it is.

Back in Manhattan you stroll into the scene of the defining moment for all generations born after the Kennedy assassination - the site of the old World Trade Center. There was surprisingly little in the way of information or memorial when I was there. That may have changed now? Whilst possibly a little macabre I found myself a spot on a park bench at the site and fired up the free travelers favorite tool - my iPhone. I listened to some of the phone calls recorded from the day.
It was a real Lest we Forget moment. This may not be everyone's cup of tea but for me a poignant way to remember what happened here. There is free wifi at 7 World Trade Center to download - no need to use your own roaming!

Whilst the main body of tourists to the city will find themselves at the top of the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller building to get those Manhattan Island views from up high. The free version is to go to the New York Academy of Sciences at Level 40 7 World Trade Center. Amazing views!

My other favorite in this area is to go and hang out at Union Square for a spot of people watching. This is a meeting place for friends and great to soak up some of the color and fashion of the city. Personally I popped on a bit of my favorite NYC tunes (Guru's Jazzmatazz - there is free wifi in the park if you want to download it) and stayed until sunset. I didn't do it but the Union Square partnership does a free walking tour as does the Greenich Village Alliance and the Times Square Alliance. The Union tour is generally on a Saturday afternoon which unfortunately clashed with the Chelsea Brewing Companies free tour with FREE BEER!

On another day I headed to the Downtown Alliance (are you picking up a theme here). At the time I was there they had a free bike program happening where you could take a bike for 2.5 hours absolutely free. I'm not sure if that is still happening but they do have a free hop on and off bus around downtown. Over the summer on Governors Island you can get a one hour free bike rental from Bike and Roll every Friday. On one of my trips to NYC I actually got a bike for free on day 1 off Craig's List. Just checking today's Free posts and sure enough here is one. New York by bike was awesome. It is especially good for Central Park. When I was finished I dropped it off at a great community project in DUMBO called Recycle A Bicycle.

Wednesday is a big day for the Free New York traveler to head to the Bronx. Today the Bronx Zoo is free to enter! Well worth a look at New York's famous zoo and whilst up in the Bronx it is worth swinging by Yankee Stadium (both the old and the new). Sports fans might want to break with the free travel plan and spring to go see a game of the American National Sport if it is on. The Bronx Museum of the Arts has a pay as much as you wish day on Wednesday.

Many of New York's Museum's have a pay as much as you wish time slot. You can see a full list here. Essentially you can spend a whole week checking out museums for free if that is to your tastes. My favorites were the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Guggenheim. The MOMA on a Friday evening is also a must.

When night falls is when New York starts to get a little expensive. With the entertainment scene always in flux it is difficult for me to say exactly what is going to be going on during your visit. I highly recommend you sign up for the feeds of the Village Voice, Time Out New York (TONY) and the New York Press free newsletters to keep your finger on the pulse of nightly activity. There is always a band on somewhere for the cost of a beer.

You will probably notice if you are regular reader of this blog that I rarely mention free places to eat. Its not because they don't exist - a brief sweep of the net came up with some free Malaysian food if you are in NYC right now - but that is because what I save on travel experiences I personally am happy to spend on eating well. I'm of the live to eat variety as opposed to the eat to live.

I especially like the underground supper club scene of NYC. It's not free so I won't go on too much about it here but if you want to meet people as well as eat some great food at a bargain price you can check out the links here to a number of home based eateries or social dinners.

If you are looking to cut some corners on the eating front then I suggest you get yourself familiar with the latest in social media, if you are not already. Businesses are always trying to get the edge using the cutting edge and when they first start out they generally offer something free. You will find free food on Twitter (#NYC, #free - see the free beer with free circus sideshow or free burger), Foursquare and in the future Scvngr will be the next front of dining for free.

There are so many other things you can for free in NYC. Join free improv classes, watch some street basketball, seek out Graffiti or public art. It is all FREE.

Remember the favor your host is doing you and be sure to reciprocate when they come to your home town and bring them something they couldn't get without you coming. That will keep the magic door ajar for the next lover of free travel to visit the great NYC.

Happy Free Travels in the Big Apple.

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