First Timer's Guide to NYC

by - 8:50 AM

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We spent a Friday through Sunday weekend in New York City and it was amazing (read about Day 1 and Day 2). The NYC experience was everything and more for me because I honestly didn't think I'd fall in love with New York! The prospect of traveling there was exciting but daunting. We all had a list of everything we wanted to see (Central Park, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, 9/11 Memorial, Chinatown, etc) and another list of foods we wanted to try, but we were also overwhelmed because we had no clue where to even begin to plan!

We had so many questions that a lot of the online guides to New York City just didn't explain. How exactly far apart were all of the sights? How will we get around? Where exactly can you go each day and which routes should you take to get there so you're not going in circles?

I'm going to try and share as many details as I can about our trip, how we figured things out, how we got around, and our entire itinerary so that anyone (especially other first timers) can plan their own!

First, where we stayed was in the heart of Times Square. Literally, one block away from Times Square. Any and every hotel in Manhattan (which is where you want to be) is going to be very pricey! Be on the look out for any deals but be prepared to spend the most on hotel and airfare. I HIGHLY recommend staying in Times Square because the location puts you at easy access to all of the sightseeing and restaurants. Not only that, but if you do have to use the subway or public transportation system then you will always be able to find your way back to your hotel (just follow all the signs that point to Times Square).

Choosing Where to Stay
Our hotel: The Milford Plaza Hotel in Times Square. $800 booked for Friday-Monday. When occupied by four people, it's cheaper to split! $200/person for the entire weekend. We stayed here solely for the location, but there were many other hotels I would have preferred to stay at such as the Marriott or Hilton. This hotel was under construction at the time, so it was difficult to enjoy.  In the end, I was glad just to have a place to settle in for the night that was close to where we were exploring.

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The view from our room, on the 17th floor.

Getting to the Hotel From the Airport:
Every online guide told me that a taxi cab was the way to go. So we didn't plan anything and just decided to try and obtain a taxi once we landed. We flew into La Guardia, so as our plane flew around Manhattan into the Bronx area (30 min East of Manhattan) we got a bird's eye view of the city, which gave us an idea of how truly HUGE the city is, and the traffic!! I was worried that our 30 minute taxi ride would turn into a meter-ticking-by-every-minute-stuck-in-traffic fiasco. Once we grabbed our bags, we asked an airport employee where to go to get into a cab. He directed us to the exit but told us if we were interested then another popular option would be to call for a car service. He explained that, as a local, he's not a fan of taxis and that a car service charged a flat rate regardless of traffic or how long you're in the car. He gave us a number to dial, we called and were quoted $34 for four people with all of our luggage and a town car was sent to us in less than 10 minutes. Our driver was very friendly, giving us advice as he drove, showing us landmarks and interesting things as we passed them. We called the same car service (Dial 7 Car Service) for our return trips. They operate nearly 24/7! Who knew renting a private town car to pick you up would be so cheap! And it made us feel like a million bucks. Tip nor tolls are included in the price.

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Photo of us driving through the tunnel from the Bronx to Manhattan, it goes underwater!

Getting Around the City:
Walk, walk, and walk some more! Your phone's map will come in handy for all of the walking directions you will need. If you'd rather not drain your battery, I suggest printing out your walking directions on paper before the travel dates.

Download CrossWalk NYC app for detailed map and routes of MTA – NYC’s Public Transit System. Transit System is much similar to Chicago’s. You must buy a Metro Pass at a kiosk at a station, then load the pass with money. You can swipe the pass at every station entry and it will allow 1 person per swipe through the turnstile. All fare for buses and trains is $2.50. 

The four of us used the subway to get to Lower Manhattan (Ferry, 9/11 Memorial/Wall Street/ Chinatown/ Little Italy) and back to Times Square at the end of the day. Each couple got 1 Metro card and loaded it with $10. The first person swiped the card, went through the turnstile, then passed the card back to the second person to swipe. Subway entrances with GREEN lights in front of them are indicators that there is an employee-manned kiosk inside along with automated machines where you can get/reload metro cards.

**Tip** Do NOT purchase the unlimited/all-day/weekly subway pass. With the regular Metro Card you can swipe as many times, perfect for multi-person use. With the Unlimited Pass, you can only swipe once then have to wait 20 mins before you can swipe again. 

If you have trouble swiping the card, like we did, make sure the black strip on the card is facing the right way and also try swiping faster. We swiped too slow and it always read ERROR. When we swiped faster, it worked.

Plan An Itinerary:
Our itinerary helped us stay on track. It's easy to get caught up in sightseeing and lose track of what's next. We planned our itinerary using Google Maps to see where everything was in relation to each other. You can download the full itinerary of our trip here. The itinerary is 4 pages long. Note that we originally were also supposed to visit the Empire State Building so we could get daytime views of the city but we decided not to go. We were super satisfied with the experience at the Rockefeller Observation Deck and, thus, saved $50!

What to Be Careful Of:
Practice common sense just like with any other unfamiliar city you would travel to. Do not keep money, cards, or wallets in your pockets as these can be easily pick-pocketed in the crowds you'll be walking in.  We carried a backpack and kept most of our valuables all the way at the bottom of the backpack. I also carried a purse that was slung over my shoulders and around my waist so my purse was always in front of me. I also carried pepper spray with me because I normally carry it anyways. (Pepper spray can be in your checked luggage).

When buying souvenirs from one of the street vendors, prepare to be haggled. Know your limit and if you simply say, "No, Thank you" they won't push too hard. Also, when buying things from street vendors, make sure the cash they give back to you is the correct amount. I bought two paintings as souvenirs that were $5 each. I gave the guy a $20 bill and he handed me $5 hoping I would not notice or say anything. I told him I gave him $20 politely but loudly, and he paused, then laughed it off and said "Oh, you right, you right!" Reluctantly, he gave me a $10 and I gave him the $5 back.

When walking towards the vicinity of Central Park, prepare to be approached by MANY hustlers trying to sell you their services for guided tours around the park or rent bicycles to you. Just simply say, No, thank you. We're not interested. Sorry. They will talk for a LONG time. Then when you say No, they will try and give you discounts. (ie. "You know what I can do for you. I'm not supposed to, but I can give you a discount.") They will do a very good job convincing people by saying things like, "It will take you 5 hours to walk around the whole park, the park is too big for you to walk." Say No, thank you. Sorry, we are not interested. We were approached by 4 different people. Two of whom would not take no for an answer. They even followed us into the park. We had to eventually ignore them and continue walking while they shouted, "Aw, c'mon. Listen to me for one sec. I will give you a better discount!" Stay firm.

Pay attention to all of the signs of where a train is heading when using the Subway. For example, the app told us to get on "Train 1". We thought were on the right train but little did we know there was a Train 1 and a Track 1. Both are completely different things. The second time we messed up, we were trying to get back to Times Square and nearly ended up on a train going to Brooklyn. We asked a local how to find the right train and it was on the opposite side of the track. So we had to go back up to street level, cross the street, and go back down into the subway entrance on the opposite side. Luckily, there was a kiosk where we told the employee what happened and he let us through the turnstile without us having to pay again.

Safety was never an issue while we were in New York. There are NYPD officers present everywhere. Even in every subway area, which made us feel better because the subway can be sketchy at night.

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With an NYPD officer! 

Other Tips

  • Bring a backpack. Makes it easier for everyone to bring things (water bottles, light jackets, maps, phone chargers, cameras, etc). Everyone can take turns carrying the backpack. Also makes it easier for you to get through security checkpoints at certain places (Rockefeller, 9/11 memorial)
  • Bring an umbrella. My local friends tell me that all New Yorkers carry umbrellas. The weather can change quickly. We brought one and are glad we did. While walking through Central Park, it rained briefly for about 20 minutes.
  • Carrying CASH is easier.
  • If you get lost, ask a local.
  • Be polite to everyone! NYC is a worldwide tourist destination. You are basically representing wherever you are from, so be kind and polite to everyone you meet! Everywhere we went, we offered to take photos for families, couples, etc. People were really grateful and even offered to take photos for us in return. 
  • Remember to TIP in all restaurants, bellhops, drivers who help you with your luggage!
  • Help the homeless. It's good karma.

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We asked a woman if she wanted a picture in this same spot with her husband, she was so glad we helped her that she returned the favor for us!

Total Cost of Trip:
Here's a budget breakdown of our entire trip per 2 persons, not including airfare.
$20 - Transport from Airport ($40 split between 4 people = $10/person)
$30 - Lunch at Shake Shack (for two)
$2   - Chocolate Covered Strawberries
$0   - Central Park
$54 - Top of the Rock Observation Deck @ Rockefeller Center ($27/person)
$18 - Souvenir Photo ($35 for two photos)
$6   - Halal Dinner
$30 - Brunch at Juniors (We split 1 entree, had OJ, coffee, dessert, fresh fruit)
$10 - Metro Card
$0   - Staten Island Ferry
$0   - 9/11 Memorial
$4   - Dumplings and Sandwich @ Prosperity Dumplings
$5   - Ice Cream @ Big Gay Ice Cream Shop
$40 - Souvenirs
$25 - Bar Bites and Cocktails @ R Lounge
$20 - Miscellaneous snacks, bottled water, slices of pizza, toiletries.
$40 - Return Transfer to Airport (including gratuity and toll)
Total: $284

If you add the $400 from our hotel costs, it adds up to $684. Not bad at all considering that IS for two people. Chhally and I only stayed for Friday and Saturday, then we were back home Sunday morning. If we were to stay another day, I think the price would be up another $80-100 or so.

I hope my guide will help you in planning your trip to NYC. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to comment or e-mail me. If you have already been to NYC and would like to add your own word of advice, feel free to do the same!

Be sure to check out my reviews of all the places we visited in New York City on!

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