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Room kitchens take heat off the wallet

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New York City makes everyone's Top 10 list of the most expensive cities in the U.S. to visit. Our problem was compounded by the fact that we are a family of four: Where could we find a hotel room in the Big Apple that not only fit our budget of less than $200 a night but also fit us?

New York City has 72,500 hotel rooms, says NYCvisit.com, the city's official visitors' website. Most are the size of matchboxes and barely fit two adults, let alone the four of us. This was our dilemma over New Year's week.

Finding the Hotel Milburn was our "Miracle on 34th Street," except that it's on West 76th -- which, let's face it, is a better neighborhood anyhow. And with the discovery of this great family-friendly hotel came an even greater revelation: Having a kitchen is not only convenient but also saves money.

The Milburn is an apartment-conversion hotel in a trendy Upper West Side neighborhood. It has 120 rooms and suites, and for $179 a night -- booked over the Internet from the hotel's website -- we were given a sixth-floor, two-room apartment with almost 500 square feet and facing West 76th Street, a block of residential apartments and condominiums. No street noise, no honking taxis, no garbage trucks waking us up. With Caswell-Massey toiletries in the bathroom, count me there. (Internet rates for late August have jumped to $254 -- still below New York's average daily hotel room rate of $267, according to http://www.nycvisit.com.)

The bedroom had a large king-size bed; the living room, a sofa bed for the kids. Two TVs with free cable and HBO, free high-speed Internet in the lobby, free use of a 25-meter indoor swimming pool a block away, free PlayStation 2 for our children and free movie rentals for us. They also gave us a "Milburn dining card," which offered discounts including free desserts, 10% off and free wine with dinner at about a dozen neighborhood eateries.

But best of all was the kitchen, which came equipped with a sink, microwave, refrigerator, coffee-maker, dishes and flatware. The housekeeping staff replenished the coffee and accouterments daily.

Having the kitchen enabled my husband to fetch fresh bagels each morning from H&H Bagels -- featured in "Seinfeld" and known to have served Bill Clinton, Cher and Madonna -- just four blocks away. We picked up the cream cheese and lox at the incredible Fairway Market (just around the corner) along with fresh fruit, milk and cereal.

Price of four freshly baked bagels and a tub of cream cheese: $6.15. The price of the average breakfast in NYC for four -- $51.48 -- according to Runzheimer International, which keeps travel statistics. Do the math and throw in the bonus of being able to eat in your pajamas.

Having the kitchen also allowed us to engage in pastrami-gorging, that famed New York pastime you can partake in when your hotel is just a slice of rye bread away from the world-renowned Zabar's. We got hot pastrami sandwiches to go for lunch almost daily -- there is probably a 12-step program for this -- and on a few late afternoons we did succumb to the "we just need another pastrami sandwich" urge.

One night, when the prospect of going out for dinner was more than my exhausted feet and children could bear, we were able to get takeout and share two ample meals of chicken kebabs, rice and Greek salads from Niko's Mediterranean Grill, right across the street, for less than $30.

Someone wise once told me that the difference between a traveler and a tourist was where they ate. Experiencing a city's cuisine is experiencing a city. Doing it on the cheap is just more challenging, not less important.

The Milburn is within walking distance of Central Park, where we took a carriage ride and went ice skating at Wollman Rink and frequented the playground. We also walked to the Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaurs. And on the day it rained, we could walk to the Children's Museum of Manhattan on West 83rd Street, an educational indoor playground where the kids could get some exercise, while Mom exercised her credit card at the Filene's Basement on Broadway.

Heck, with all the money we saved with our kitchen. . . .

Milburn Hotel: 242 W. 76th St.; (212) 362-1006, http://www.milburnhotel.com .

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