Fly back with me to the year 2000. The average hotel rate in New York is $237 plus tax, or about $270. Three nights' lodging, two plane tickets from L.A., museum admissions, modest meals, cabs — suddenly a long weekend is $1,500. And you haven't even seen "Cats."
Here's the good news: Times have changed. The average room rate in New York has declined 18.6% since its peak in 2000, according to NYC & Co., the city's convention and visitors bureau. Competition from low-cost airlines is keeping fares down too, as low as $198 round trip — mile for mile, one of the best buys in travel.
Which raises the question: Is it possible to spend a four-day weekend in New York without breaking the bank? I set out last month with my partner, Todd, to find out. Our goal: to spend less than $500 per person. Our modus operandi: to travel economically but comfortably. No hostels, no hitchhiking, no hot dogs. This was vacation, after all.
Hurdle No. 1: plane tickets
Multiple airlines fly nonstop to JFK airport, but La Guardia is closer to Manhattan and can save about $50 in cab fares. Among its carriers is Frontier, which had a Thursday morning departure and a Sunday evening return. A bonus: Frontier's Airbus planes are similar to the ones that have won JetBlue so many fans. Each seat has a TV and, for $5 extra, 24 channels of satellite programming. The tab: $201.70 per person, plus $5 for Todd's DirecTV. (I slept.)
Hurdle No. 2: a budget hotel
Economizing on hotels in Manhattan is a grim task. My demoralizing search began with a self-imposed nightly limit of $125. Rates are lowest in January and February, but we wanted the fair weather of fall. On the weekend of our trip, midlevel chains such as Holiday Inn were charging $180 to $250 a night.
A friend in New York suggested the Gershwin Hotel, but it was booked. The Comfort Inn Midtown was in my price range and highly rated on http://www.tripadvisor.com , but it was sold out too. (A good thing: A peek at the rooms revealed them to be tiny and depressing.)
I turned to http://www.priceline.com , where rooms are steeply discounted but come with an encyclopedic list of caveats. Chief among them: no cancellations, no itinerary changes and no refunds. The site isn't for everyone. Keep expectations low, know the rules and seek strategic counseling first at http://www.biddingfortravel.com and http://www.betterbidding.com . That's where I learned that Priceliners had won rooms at the Westin Times Square, Marriott Marquis and Waldorf Astoria with bids of $100 to $130 a night.
I aimed lower, bidding $85 for a three-star Midtown lodging. Priceline assigned me to the Hotel 5A, formerly the Clarion Fifth Avenue. Given that a nearby Howard Johnson was asking $199, I shuddered to think what $85 was buying me. But here came the biggest surprise of the trip: Hotel 5A was OK.
Our room seemed to be about 10 feet square — small but no smaller than half a dozen other budget hotel rooms I later inspected. Soft goods such as towels and the shower curtain looked new. We had free Internet access and, ridiculously, three phones. Cheap, chipped wood veneers and a scuffed bed skirt were less objectionable at $85 a night than they would have been at $155, the hotel's standard rate.
We had only a double bed — a rare but real possibility when booking through Priceline. But given the rock-bottom rate, we were content. We passed when the desk clerk offered a larger room with a queen bed for $105 a night.
My main complaint was the carpeting. It was an alarming olive green, like Army fatigues that had seen too much action. I gave it my WTT, or white towel test, rubbing a dry washcloth over a bedside swath for 10 seconds. The result? I wore socks all weekend.
In the hotel's defense, a $3-million renovation is slated to begin in January. Even in its current state, it was cleaner overall and more pleasant than almost every other budget hotel I looked at. Only the $125-a-night La Quinta hotel on West 32nd Street seemed a better value.
Hurdle No. 3: low-cost sights
Our goal was to mix new attractions with classic landmarks. We started by buying subway tickets for the No. 4 or 5 train from nearby Union Station to the Bowling Green stop, near Battery Park and the departure point for the ferry to Liberty and Ellis islands.
The Statue of Liberty reopened less than three months ago after closing Sept. 11, 2001. Tours are free but require a timed pass and $10 ferry ticket, both of which should be obtained at least a day in advance. (See budget box for contact information.)
Park Service guide Jessica Buzash led us by Lady Liberty's corroded old copper-and-glass torch, since replaced by a 24-karat gold-leafed "flame." After touring a small museum, we reached the tour's highlight: a redesigned observation platform that looks up into the statue's framework — the highest visitors can go now that stairs to the statue's crown have been closed because of security concerns.
It seems a miracle that the 305-foot landmark has withstood the winds of Upper New York Bay for more than a century. Three hundred sheets of Norwegian copper — each no thicker than two pennies — form Lady Liberty's famously patinated skin. The only thing keeping her from toppling over is a hodgepodge of steel supports designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, whose ingenuity beat the original plan to fill Lady Liberty with sand.
From here we went to the park service's cafeteria and joined the huddled masses yearning to break free from the lunch line. We ate something purported to be chicken, then boarded a ferry for the next stop on its route, Ellis Island.
One could spend an entire day at Ellis, tracing the footsteps of 12 million people who passed through its doors after the United States opened its largest immigration station here in 1892. We took a guided tour — also free — then high-tailed it back to lower Manhattan, hurrying past the World Trade Center site so we could see the Skyscraper Museum's 8-month-old gallery before it closed for the day.
The skyscraper exhibits held our interest for only half an hour. The most interesting display was the original 1/200th-scale architect's model of the World Trade Center, an amazingly detailed mass of wood, plastic, paper and brass.
Thai food and Times Square A leisurely walk back to our hotel that evening took us through Greenwich Village and Chelsea, with a stop at a good Thai restaurant called Lemongrass Grill. A fried tofu appetizer, sweet basil chicken and pad see ew noodles constituted our most expensive dining of the trip.
Most meals were quick stops at sandwich-and-salad eateries that have popped up across Manhattan — slick outfits such as Europa Cafe and Pax, where a panino, chips and a drink made for a convenient, under-$10 meal.
Sometimes we got the food to go and dined under the leafy canopy of Bryant Park, one of my favorite spots in the city (and only a block from our hotel). From there we made the obligatory trek to Rockefeller Center and then Times Square, a free circus unto itself.
Nearby, the International Center of Photography museum's "JFK for President" exhibit showcased Cornell Capa's photographs from Kennedy's presidential campaign and first five months in office. The most fascinating shots focus not on JFK but the mesmerized crowds turning out to see him in places including Merced and Richmond, Calif. Admiration and awe are apparent in hopeful eyes, outstretched hands and signs declaring, "Jack's Our Man."
Two tickets to the 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building cost $24, but the views were fine. We also got free theatrics courtesy of an Atlanta man who dropped to one knee and presented an engagement ring from Tiffany to his girlfriend, Tiffany, who said yes.
We soaked up one last freebie, a sunny Sunday afternoon in Central Park, with its horse-drawn carriages and gondoliers on the lake. The whirlwind weekend left us without enough time or cash for half-price theater tickets at the TKTS booth at Times Square. But by trip's end, Todd and I still had seen and spent plenty. We had $19 left — more than enough to buy clean socks.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Los Angeles to New York, with one DirecTV fee $408.40
Hotel 5A, three nights with taxes (booked through Priceline) $306.26
Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, with Internet ticketing fee $23.50
Skyscraper Museum admission $10.00
Lemongrass Grill $24.65
Europa Cafe $19.28
International Center of Photography
museum admission $20.00
Empire State Building admission $24.00
Other meals $53.04
Subway fares $16.00
Cabs to/from airport $58.00
Final tab $981.00
Hotel 5A, 3 E. 40th St., New York, NY 10016; (212) 447-1500, http://www.hotel5a.com . Booked through http://www.priceline.com with advice from http://www.biddingfortravel.com and http://www.betterbidding.com .
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island national monuments, information at (212) 363-3200, http://www.nps.gov/stli , http://www.nps.gov/elis ; ferry reservations at (866) 782-8834, http://www.statuereservations.com .
Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10118; (877) 692-8439, http://www.esbnyc.com .
International Center of Photography museum, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10036; (212) 857-0000, www.icp.org.