After traveling all over Europe last summer and fall, I guess you could say I got the “travel bug.” Unfortunately, because of responsibilities at home, I cannot take off to far and exotic places for months at a time as often as I would like. There is also the issue of cost. The amount I spent while backpacking in Europe was excessive, particularly because I participated in several tours; Contiki and Busabout. However, I do think it is possible to travel on a budget without foregoing adventures and a good time. Having participated in tours and also backpacking on my own, I have had the opportunity to assess both experiences. It was only after being exposed to both worlds that I realized that I was quite an adventurous and independent traveler. The questions that I get asked the most are, “don’t you get lonely?” and, “isn’t it scary to travel alone?” My answer to both these questions is a resounding, “no!”
In this post I will share with you why I vehemently answer no to these questions, how it is in fact possible to travel on a budget, and how an adventure can be waiting for you in your own backyard (well not literally, though I am sure that is possible too!)
I returned home in late November of 2011 and I immediately wanted to take off again. I refused to unpack and continued to live out of my backpack for the month of December and early January. Denial? Maybe. On my spare time I browsed flight deals and I carried my passport with me at all times. As much as I loved my family and friends, I knew I had changed and transitioning into my “regular” life was a challenge. After several months of being home things did begin to feel more “normal.” I am using quotations because in reality, nothing would ever be the same. I had changed in ways that I had never imagined. For example, I used to be very type A sort of individual, and I always needed to control every aspect of my life. Any deviation from my perfectly laid out plans would cause me a great deal of anxiety and frustration. While traveling I learned to let go, and enjoy every moment. “Living in the moment” and, “do not sweat the small stuff,” became mantras that I learned to live by. Inasmuch as I transitioned to my life in Toronto well, I still yearned to get out and explore. Then it hit me. An adventure does not have to take place in a different continent. So I pondered this and did a little research and learned that I could go to New York City (NYC) on a reasonable budget. I honestly did not expect too much from my visit to NYC, although I had never been there before. I mean, how different could it possibly be from my hometown? Well, let’s just say that I was pleasantly surprised. I should know better than to make assumptions.
So this is how my planning went….
I purchased my ticket online at http://www.greyhound.ca/ two weeks before my departure date. The cost of the ticket both ways was $80.50. The length of the trip was 10.5 hours each way. I chose to take an overnight bus because oddly enough, I have learned to sleep in awkward crammed spaces. But I am also small, so leg room and space is usually not a big issue for me. The American border was a problem for me however since they grilled me for about 30 minutes. I was asked questions like, “single?”, “you are traveling alone?”, “no boyfriend or husband?”, “and you can afford this how?” Are you for real? But I kept reminding myself of the line that my Constitutional Law professor grilled into us while in law school, “you have no rights at the border, so suck it up and don’t piss them off!” So I smiled through this process and finally it occurred to me to pull out my return ticket and my hostel reservation to show them that I was going to NYC as a tourist and that I had plans to return home. Needless to say, we were held at the border for 1.5 additional hours which in total delayed us about 2.5 hours because we entered NYC during rush hour. The original plan was to leave Toronto at 9:30pm and reach NYC at 7:30am. We ended reaching the NYC terminal after 10am. I was okay with this because, 1) I slept for 10 hours of this journey and, 2) I downloaded several of my favorite shows and watched them when not sleeping. Note, most Greyhound buses have power outlets and some have Wi-Fi. I would not depend on the Wi-Fi however since it is hardly every functional. Don’t bother bringing a book if you are doing an overnight trip because for most of the journey the lights are turned off. Instead, get the PDF or online version and save it on to your laptop or phone.
When traveling, I always stay in a hostel. I have stayed in hotels, bed and breakfasts and apartments, but ultimately I find that hostels suit my personality and traveling needs best. The reason I prefer hostels is because I like the option of either socializing or doing things on my own. When in NYC I chose to stay at Hostelling International New York and booked my room on their website: http://www.hinewyork.org/. I generally book using Hostel Bookers (http://www.hostelbookers.com/) since I find them to be more affordable than Hostel World (http://www.hostelworld.com/). However, when researching hostels, I skim through Hostel World’s reviews since often they are more thorough. The reason I booked through Hostelling International New York’s website is because through their site the rooms were cheaper. Do note that the Hostelling International chain offer a membership and usually the room rates you see advertized are the membership rates. If you are not a member you will have to add several dollars to the advertized rate. They do mention this on the rates page, but it is easy to miss. When choosing a room I always choose rooms that hold 6-10 people. In this case I chose a 8 bed dorm for $31 per bed for 4 nights.
When choosing a hostel I look for the activities the hostel has to offer, the events they hold weekly, the cost, and location. It is important for me to have easy access to transportation. The closer the hostel is to a train, the better. In this case, the hostel was located one block from the 103rd street west train station. In terms of activities, there were an array of tours offered daily, some free and some at a cost of $10. In addition, many social events were held in the evenings such as pub crawls, BBQ’s, movie nights, band performances, clubbing, etc. These social events are important to me because I tend to spend the day exploring the city often on my own and in the evening I like to meet people and socialize. On this trip specifically out of the 4 days I was in NYC, I participated in 2 tours, “The High Line and Meatpacking District Tour” and “Jerry’s Grand Tour” and one night I joined the “Pub Crawl.” As much as I wanted to go clubbing and party, walking around all day was exhausting and all I could accomplish by the end of my day was a swift dinner followed promptly by me crawling into bed.
NYC has an amazing transit system. You could literally go anywhere by train. The best purchase I made while in NYC (in addition to the $10 cashmere sweater worth $150 that I got at Beacon’s Closet, http://www.beaconscloset.com/) was the 7 day Unlimited Pass for $29 (http://www.mta.info/metrocard/mcgtreng.htm#unlimited). This pass allowed me the freedom to come and go whenever I wished. On occasion I would return to the hostel for a nap and then take off again to explore another part of the city. You could use this pass to go anywhere in the city either by bus or train. True the train system in NYC can be a little daunting at first, but the signs are clear and once you figure out whether you are going “Uptown” or “Downtown” and what number train you need to get on, it becomes pretty straightforward. I will admit that I got lost when I first arrived to NYC. There are 3, 103rd streets, and I learned this the hard way. But on a positive note, getting lost has always made me a connoisseur of the train system in every city I have visited (I always get lost when I first arrive to a city). If you are arriving to NYC by bus, you can purchase this pass at the bus station using cash or a credit card. The machine will ask you for your zip code, and this made me panic at first since I do not live there. I did have the address of the hostel however, so I put in their zip code (10025).
I love food. But then who doesn’t? Unfortunately I was a bit sick during my stay in NYC and I did not have much of an appetite. If you do not wish to spend too much money on food, hostels usually offer large kitchens where you can make your own food to save money. When I am in a city for a short time, I prefer to explore their culinary world, and I often research in advance what food the city is known for. I had heard a lot about NYC’s street foods and several popular restaurants and thus I made sure to check out these establishments first. Since I am a big fan of breakfast, I tend to eat a large morning meal and then snack throughout the day while exploring. The most I spent on food in a day was $25 which included breakfast $7 (3 eggs, bacon, coffee, juice, home fries), lunch $4 (pizza slice), dinner $10 (enchiladas in restaurant), snack $2 (pretzel at Staten Island Ferry stop) and coffee $2.
So how much did I spend on my trip to NYC for 4 days? **The prices since I posted this have changed, so these are the new numbers
Transportation cost me $90.50
Accommodation for 4 nights ($40 per night) is $160.00 + sales tax of 14.50% = total with taxes is $183 (if staying in Brooklyn). If you want to stay at Hostelling International they have jacked up their prices to $52+ per night. Double the cost from last year.
Transit pass $30.00
Tour (Grand Tour of NYC): $10.00 **There several tour companies in NYC that offer free tours, here is one example.
Total: $403.50 including all fees and taxes
I had an incredible time in NYC and I had the opportunity to meet other travelers whom I am still in touch with. But what resonated with me the most were the locals. I have never felt more at home and more comfortable than I did in NYC. I am not sure if it is because of my Hispanic roots or simply because I am a very social person and I love meeting people, but NYC was an experience I will never forget.
Next journey, Chicago.