I went on vacation to New York City for the very first time.
The land of Hamilton, Annie, HIMYM and Friends — I tell ya, dreams do come true!
My only expectations were to see great architecture and eat great food — and a bonus if I got to see a Broadway musical too.
Traveling has its unexpected costs. And when you’re traveling to a more expensive part of the country or world than you’re used to, it’s hard to estimate how much your trip will cost you.
Truth be told: You can only account for so much. You may have no clue about what a trip to New York City or Los Angeles might cost, but there are ways you can keep expenses low while still crossing a big trip off of your bucket list!
To be prepared:
- Save up what you can before the trip
- Watch your spending carefully during the trip
As with anything, be sure your spending aligns with what you value most (we call this Mindful Spending in the Real Life Money Guide).
Related: Choose Your Own Adulthood
Since I have some real-life experiences to share with you, and everyone’s experiences are different, here’s the low-down from my trip:
- I traveled with a friend from Nebraska, so we got to split a lot of expenses.
- We stayed with a friend in Manhattan (for free!).
- I saved money on certain things (re: black coffee).
- I totally splurged on other things (re: $150 Lion King on Broadway).
We had ourselves a grand ‘ol time.
Saving Up for Vacation
I had some savings from a windfall earlier this year (a “windfall” is unexpected income), so I decided that a trip to NYC with one of my very best friends was worth spending that money on.
I was going to use the windfall savings to pay for:
- My flight
- Any expenses more than what I could save up for in the two months leading up to the trip
I didn’t want the whole trip to come from my savings. I knew I could save up a little cash beforehand, so that way I could take less from my windfall and keep that cash in my savings account.
In May, I purchased my flight for $371 for the trip in July.
In June, I budgeted $60 for travel.
In July, I saved $130 for travel.
In total, I saved $190 in spending money before leaving for New York City. I decided that anything spent more than $190 would come from my windfall savings.
- I had realistic expectations that NYC would cost me more than $190 for four days.
- I had a plan for where the money would come from when I spent more than $190.
I honestly wasn’t sure how much the trip would cost me, but I went anyway.
Note: No expenses go on my credit card that I wouldn’t be able to pay for immediately. If the money isn’t in my possession (whether in checking or savings), then that expense does not go on a credit card. There are fewer ways to lose the money game than using credit cards absentmindedly.
Traveling is its own sort of inflated expense, right? Vacations are when you want to treat yo’self. Much of our travel expenses are based on preferences, like which restaurants we go to, whether we get appetizers, how many drinks we get at the bar, what percentage we choose to tip for service.
That being said, I knew that my naturally-frugal lifestyle would come in handy to keep costs low.
What I Learned When Traveling to New York City (But It Also Applies to Any Trip)
It helps if you plan your itinerary beforehand.
There’s no need to go crazy and map out every minute, but having an idea of what you’ll be doing each day helps set reasonable expectations for spending, what to pack for the day and where you’ll be eating and drinking.
Avoid the “I’m on vacation so I can do what I want” mentality.
Meals weren’t that much more expensive than home, but it’s easy to go for the more expensive thing because “you’re on vacation.” For me, eating out in New York at all is great; I don’t need to spend $45 on an entree to enjoy my time on vacation.
Also, things add up simple because eating out is more frequent. You’re not at home and can pack a sack lunch like you’re used to, so expect to spend an average of $15-20 per meal.
You’re on vacation for an experience, not for what stuff you can bring home with you.
So, I’m a minimalist. I’d rather own a few nice things than a house full of kitschy New York City souvenirs (except I would have totally been down for a tie-dye I <3 NYC shirt — because that’s my love language).
Really weigh if buying souvenirs for others back home is important to you — some people really love giving gifts! But if you’re buying souvenirs because others are expecting them, perhaps it’s worth reevaluating your obligatory spending.
I bought souvenirs for myself, my boyfriend, a gift for our hostess and a t-shirt for my sister’s birthday in August.
But really, they’ll want you to spend money on anything. You’re a tourist, remember?
Buying a $150 ticket to see Lion King is one thing, but the venue selling a $16 slushie at the concessions is just downright outrageous. You can go to the show and buy nothing else — that’s an option too.
You still need to tip.
It’s America and people depend on those tips, so now’s not the time to skimp on that expense just because you're watching your spending.
Tip your waitress, tip the bartender, tip the cab driver.
There’s no need to tip 25%, if 15% will do — as long as you don’t skimp completely.
However, if there’s no one serving you food and you’re just going to pick it up at the counter when it’s done, I don’t tip. They literally did nothing more than when I go to McDonalds, so that’s where I draw the line.
Travel Expenses When Visiting New York City
Lodging in Manhattan
Staying with a friend: Free *praise hands*
- Broadway tickets: $150
- Sightseeing: $54
- Flight: $371
- Cabs/Uber/Lyft/Gett: $85
- Metro: $11
- Parking: $32
- Dramamine: $9 (motion sickness makes this purchase inevitable. ugh.)
- Food, Drink, Coffee: $138
- For others: $80
- For myself: $85
Total Expenses: $1016
The Final Tally
I kept a pretty frugal cap on things during the trip, since we really didn’t know how things would add up — it was better to be on the safe side.
I went into it knowing I wasn’t going to spend more than I would normally spend on meals and drinks. Just because I’m on vacation doesn’t mean I need to throw my money at bartenders.
So in total, the whole trip cost me $1016. I had budgeted for $190 leading up to the trip, so $826 actually came from my windfall savings.
Yikes! That’s a pretty penny. Like, $1016 dollars.
When you’re not used to spending money on vacations, anything can seem like a large sum. However, many people have told me that around $1000 for a trip to New York City is really a great accomplishment!
Even though we didn’t pay for a hotel while staying in Manhattan, the baseline expenses can all really add up! Now I know what to expect when visiting New York City, even if I’m not buying worthless souvenirs or partying all night.
Was it worth it? Yes.
- I went to New York because childhood dreams for big city lights are real.
- I got to go to New York with my best friend and now we have memories (and photos!) to carry with us.
- I ate all the food I could have hoped to, getting a full palette of what makes New York so amazing.
- I paid $150 for tickets to see Lion King on Broadway, because YOLO.
Sometimes you’ve got to live your best life.
What would you prioritize during a trip to New York City?
P.S. I’m very aware that no one says YOLO anymore. Sue me.
Want to keep reading? Check out some related posts
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- How To Use Mint To Manage Your Budget Better
- Get the Real Life Money Guide to understand common money terms