New York on a College Budget

It’s incredible to me that I live two hours from major cities like New York (my home is in Hawaii). Mainland trips used to always be rare family or sports travel team events with at least a year’s worth of planning and several seven-hour flights. Now, I can pack on the day of departure using a single duffel bag and head to the city with no more planning than a Facebook message invite sent a week in advance. This is how my spring break trip to NYC came about.

My friends and I headed out Friday afternoon on the SEPTA train to Philly with a backpack and duffel each. From the station, it was a short walk to the bus stop for Megabus, the best transportation for broke and car-less college students. Buses run between major cities all along the east coast for as little as $1, depending on how early you book your tickets. We spent around $15 each way from Philly to NYC. Once in New York, the quickest and cheapest way to travel is a combination of subways and walking. Find friends willing to walk up to three miles between planned stops, and you will see a lot of the best bookstores, coffee shops, and music stores between destinations.

Another great way to travel is to spend $12 on a Citi Bike day pass. In one drizzly, overcast day of our spring break trip, we biked well over ten miles up the Hudson River Greenway (a perfect walking/biking path with a view of the river), through Central Park, and back down again. Bonus: you get an adrenaline rush trying to make it between docking stations every 30 minutes to avoid extra fees (but the city is packed with stations, so they’re not hard to find). Central Park is fun to bike or walk, and it’s the perfect free activity nestled right in the heart of the concrete jungle.  It’s amazing to get away from the constant blare of cabs, fast-walking people, and walls of industrial gray and enter a vast maze of trails, lakes, and hidden castles (yes, Central Park has a castle).

We made a snowman in Central Park and named him “Lumpy.”

Our most frequented activity, however, were museums. We visited three in a week: the Met, Museum of Natural History, and the Whitney. The Met and the Museum of Natural History are both pay what you want, so they’re quite affordable! The Whitney is right next to part of the High Line, a 1.45-mile walk elevated above the streets on an old railroad. This is another free activity, and a great way to see the city and enjoy various site-specific art sculptures along the path.

Seeing a Broadway show is often considered a must when visiting NYC, and even this can be an affordable activity for college students. My friends and I found the theater for Waitress (a musical written by Sara Bareilles) while we were in Times Square for lunch, and with little to no planning we were able to get rush tickets for the show that night for $30. We didn’t even have to wake up early or wait in any lines. You won’t be able to do this for all shows (forget Hamilton), but you can still have a great time and enjoy a high-quality performance for a reasonable price.

One cheap and nerdy way to spend a relaxing afternoon is to visit the Uncommons, a board game cafe in Manhattan. For $5, you can hang out in a cafe for hours with every board game imaginable at your fingertips. They also sell drinks and pastries for $2-$5, so you can feasibly survive several meal periods and marathon all the expansions of Catan.

The Uncommons Cafe (Picture credit:

Eating in NYC doesn’t have to be pricey either. We happily ate $3 bagels most days for breakfast and stuck to reasonably priced restaurants and cafes for lunch and dinner, averaging $8-$15 per meal. We bought groceries and cooked half our meals, which significantly brought down the costs and was a lot of fun (and everything was delicious and edible!). We even baked a plum pie after being inspired by Waitress. This was made possible because one of our friends had an apartment for us to stay in, which is definitely the way to go for cheap (or free) housing. We were very fortunate to have a free place to stay, because having a friend in or near NYC is really the only low-cost way to spend the night in the city.

plum pie!

The food and activities add up, but my trip was comparatively much cheaper than flying home to Hawaii for spring break, and I can’t put a price on the value of the new experiences I had and memories I made with my friends in NYC. Some of the best moments of the trip were completely free, like having snowball fights on the playgrounds of Central Park and playing $5000 guitars in music stores (we did not purchase the guitars), and I will definitely be saving to go again at the next chance I get. I’m starting a Google Doc titled “NYC Fall Break 2017” now.

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