NYC with Kids on the Cheap (General Info)

This article is the first part in a series about visiting New York with children:
Part 2 | Uptown & Midtown
Part 3 | Downtown & Beyond

To wrap up our two jam-packed years of raising children in New York City, I wanted to share some of the ways we had fun in the Big Apple, without dipping into the kids’ college funds.

Of course low-cost living is different from budget travel, but some of the same frugal principles apply.  Such as:  think public. As in schools and free.  How does this apply to visitors?

Milk the Playgrounds and Libraries

To me, experiencing New York is so much about wandering down streets and tooling around neighborhoods.  When you need to plop yourself down, tuck into one of the City’s state-of-the-art playgrounds or cozy, old-world libraries.

Both have entertainment for kids, seats for mommies and daddies, and perhaps most importantly, bathrooms.  If you time it right, you can even enjoy some free programming like story time, concerts, or special activities like yoga classes or ping-pong matches.

The silver lining of this no-frills approach is that you get to mingle with New Yorkers instead of gaggles of tourists.  When I think back on my vacations over the years, the most memorable moments are when I am able to enter the world of the locals and see life through their eyes.

Check out locations and events ahead of time at  New York City Public Libraries and New York City Parks and Recreation.

Get Around for Cheap Thrills

Everyone thinks of the subway when they imagine New York, but buses have been our friends since we’ve had children and lived off the subway grid.

Buses cost the same as the subway ($2.25, payable by MetroCard or coins), there’s no schlepping up and down stairs, and you get a free tour of the city.  (If you have a long way to go, note that there are some “limited” buses which act like subways, stopping every ten blocks or so, instead of every two.)

Whether you take the bus or the subway, children under 44″ tall ride free. If you have to transfer to a subway to complete your journey, make sure you swipe the same MetroCard to get your free transfer.  (Look at the readout on the turnstile:  for example “2 XFERS OK means you only have to swipe once for two free transfers.  If you swipe twice, you’ll pay another fare.)

While you can’t buy a MetroCard on the bus (as you can in subway stations), you can find them at many newstands (look for the yellow and blue Metrocard sign in the window).

Maps and Schedules

Bus maps are available at tourist spots, but if you have access to the internet, you can use the MTA Trip Planner to figure out the best route (often a combo of walking, subway and bus).  This handy online tool will tell you exactly how to get from point to point (and back) and how long it will take you.

Otherwise, you can check out or print maps online.

Eating Out on a Budget

All right, let’s face it.  Beyond lodging, this is probably going to be your biggest expense.  In the next two posts, I’ll mention specific places that we like, but here are some general strategies to rein in the check:

  • Eat lunch instead of dinner at restaurants with midday specials.
  • Seek out small, ethnic restaurants.  (You can always find something on the menu to please little people).
  • Find high-quality, lower-priced restaurants in the New York Times Dining Section online where you can search for restaurants by type, location, and price.
  • Pack your own food (or cook up your own room service) by patronizing a local supermarket (you’ll be shocked at the prices, but do-it-yourself is still cheaper than being served).

Hitting the Hay

Since our three-bedroom functioned as a hotel of sorts these past two years, I don’t have a lot of recent experience recommending cheap places to stay in the city.

However, the New York Times Frugal Traveler suggests Hotel Chelsea. After taking a look at the room sizes and prices, I don’t think you’ll find a  better hotel deal.  The cheapest rooms have a shared bathroom, but there are plenty of options with private bathrooms and even kitchenettes.  The location is pretty central and well-connected to public transportation.

By the way, the newly refurbished sailor residence, the Jane hotel, is hip and has a chic West Village address, but the cabin-like rooms are mini and only allow for one child per room.  For more hotels in this genre (with a bit more space), see the New York Times’ recent article, Six New (and Affordable) Boutique Hotels in New York City.

I’ve known friends to have good luck bedding down cheap in real New York apartments by searching short-term “vacation rentals” on Craigslist.  If you want to be super thrifty and cook, this option is even more attractive.

If you’re not thrilled with the idea of dealing with cash and strangers, the Frugal Traveler suggests, “which takes credit cards, offers automated booking and is more organized than Craigslist.  Still, as in all New York real estate transactions, buyer beware.”

Finally bed and breakfasts are another budget-minded option.  Found in all the boroughs and starting as low as $100 per night, they fill up fast so book early.  Here are some websites with extensive listings recommended by the Frugal Traveler: and

Finding the Freebies

There is an overwhelming number of free activities and events for families going on in the City every day.

For up-to-the-minute event listings and activity ideas (many gratis), see:

I’ll mention some specific museums and their free times in the following posts, but for a comprehensive listing of when New York City museums open their doors gratis, see Time Out New York Kids’ recent Free Times at NYC Museums.

For more ideas on budget travel in New York City, peruse these articles by the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler.

This article is the first part in a series about visiting New York with children:
Part 2 | Uptown & Midtown
Part 3 | Downtown & Beyond

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  • Monica DiNatale February 18, 2014, 3:44 pm

    I am always searching for deals. For NYC try my guide book 365 Guide New York City. It lists 365 restaurant deals and bar specials. I want everyone to enjoy the city that I love at a fraction of the price.

  • mary rodowicz June 21, 2010, 9:13 pm

    Fan on Facebook as “Mary Rodowicz” shared giveaway….Mary ;0)

  • mary rodowicz June 21, 2010, 9:10 pm

    ty for the chance to win !! My 12 yr old daughter would absolutely love this!! We have been to most of the museums here in Ct where we live and also in Springfield<ma where they have a wonderful, art science and childrens museum…she has never been to NY and to go and see all the museums would be a dream and she would be in her glory…I am a follower on twitter as "alongcamemary1"..Im also a blog follower "Mary Rodowicz",,Mary ;0)

  • Rebecca June 21, 2010, 1:05 pm

    We live downtown and Battery Park City has a jam packed schedule of free things daily from May 1 – October 31. Kids can take basketball & soccer lessons, make crafts, fish, garden and more for FREE! We take full advantage of what they offer. I love this city…..

  • Teresa June 21, 2010, 12:30 pm

    We’ve been meaning to go to this museum. Please put me on the list!

  • Jude Saltzman June 21, 2010, 12:28 pm

    Great information. I just posted about Frugal Mama in Facebook. Thanks!

  • Karen June 21, 2010, 12:27 pm

    I’m a subscriber now. Please enter me!

  • Jane Roberts June 17, 2010, 9:30 pm

    I sent this out to two of my friends, great post as usual. I had forgotten about the NYTimes search! Sign me up!