Unless you follow me on Instagram, you will be unaware that I recently spent just under 2 weeks in the US. If you do follow me, I’m sorry for the constant photos and insta stories (I’m really not, I wanted to remember everything).
This was the first big holiday my boyfriend Matt and me did together on our own. (For a bit, we stayed with my family for a week). We usually just go with our families so going here was quite overwhelming. I can’t say that I was excited before I actually arrived, which sounds ridiculous. I’ve been to NYC a few times before with my family when I was younger. Back in a time when my dad booked, paid for and sorted everything for us and I didn’t have to worry about anything. Luckily, the flights were out 21st birthday presents, which helped us out a lot.
However, I still found everything a little more overwhelming this time. Therefore, I thought I’d write a bit of a guide about everything I learnt or found crucial to bring when travelling to the Big Apple for those who have never been or are going parent-less like us.
Honestly, I’d never heard of these before, despite visiting the US previously. They’re basically a short term holiday Visa waiver, and you can’t pass US customs without it. Having said that, they hardly checked ours, but better safe than sorry. (US Customs is a scary place). You should probably get them a few weeks before just to be even safer.
Ours only took a few hours to come through via email, but it says to allow a couple of weeks. They cost around £10 and it’s a huge form to fill in. Now Trump’s in, the Americans almost want blood from you to visit there. You need information about your job, and who or where you are staying in the US etc. PLEASE don’t forget to print all your documents and keep them in your carry on!
2. Bring an extension cable.
Sounds ridiculous, but it’s so good if you do it. I found that in our hotels, there were either not many plug sockets or they were in awkward places. Bringing an extension lead with 4 or more plugs gives you so much more freedom. It meant I could straighten my hair using a mirror and not be sat on a chair in the corner of the hotel room. You also usually need to charge more things than you initially think. Things such as Fitbits, cameras, kindles etc.
3. Get a New York Pass (or something similar).
When you go to New York, you kind of want to see everything. All the classic tourist sites. We bought the NY Passes for around £250 each, which seems like a lot, but they were so worth it. Other than One World Trade (book this before you go), you get in pretty much everywhere with these. You also get discounts in certain shops and restaurants, and tonnes of guided tours all over the city.
You get to skip a few queues, but a lot of people get these so you have to queue a bit. Especially for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. We went to all the classic buildings, did a bus tour and a boat tour using ours. They quickly save you a lot of money and faff buying individual tickets for everything.
4. Get an Unlimited Metrocard.
Buying a Metrocard can be pretty stressful because not a lot of the buttons on the machine make sense. You can’t really buy one for one day only unless you know exactly how many subway trips you will be making. Each Subway trip costs $2.75 each. We bought the 7 Day Unlimited card so we didn’t have to keep topping up the trips on our card.
However, we had an extra day in the city towards the end so we put $10.50 on our tickets and got 4 trips for example. When we were staying in the city at the start of our holiday, the 7 day passes obviously just meant we could go on the subway as many times as we liked until they expired. They cost us around $30 each, which is so worth it for the amount of times a day we used it.
If, like us, your Metrocard runs out and you need an extra day, keep your old card. You can top them up with extra money for trips. If you lose it and need a new one, it’s $1 for a new one. (Not a big deal, but you may as well keep your original one in your purse).
5. Know what you want to see, but don’t plan each hour.
Trust me, no matter how many times you have been on holiday, you will never be prepared for New York weather. If it’s hot, there is no wind or anywhere for the air to escape because the buildings are so high. The rays also bounce off all the glass skyscrapers and make everywhere even hotter. The subway heat is also something else entirely.
If it’s raining, it rains HARD and practically every street corner floods. DON’T TRUST THE PUDDLES IN NYC. Just don’t decide for definite what to do until the day. Walking round the city all day is honestly the most exhausting thing, your whole body aches and you are most likely covered in sweat by the end of it. Give yourself a break when you can.
6. Use the toilet when you can!
New York has no public toilets. If you see any, DON’T use them. (Unless it’s the really nice ones next to Bryant Park). The ones in Central Park were all taken over by homeless people washing. You obviously can’t blame them, but it’s an uncomfortable experience and they won’t be in a rush to leave.
You’ll find that you need to stop several times to buy water throughout the day, so whenever you pop into a cafe just make sure you go. CHECK IF THEY HAVE THEM FIRST! Toilets are even hard to find in Starbucks, they don’t all have them! There is nothing worse than being desperate for a wee and having no idea where you are, or where the nearest toilet is. Leading on from this point, everywhere in the city is dirty so bring hand sanitiser EVERYWHERE.
7. Avoid empty Subway cars.
Getting a seat on the Subway is a blessing, and you might think you’ve hit the jackpot if you see an empty car as it approaches the station. Trust me, DON’T USE IT. Standing up in a cool but packed car is so much better than sitting in one where the aircon is broken. Or, one that absolutely stinks.
8. Know what to tip!
My American family pretty much gave me the low down on tipping. You don’t have to tip when you buy something at a counter, whatever it may be, pizza/coffee etc. (Also expect slightly ruder staff here as they don’t work for tips). At restaurants, tip between 17-20%. Before I arrived, I thought it was only 10%. Waiting staff earn so little in the USA that they rely on tips, but they are also lovely and good at their jobs 99% of the time. They really work for their tips!
In the UK it’s very much based on service only, and not a requirement. In the US it is also not technically a requirement, but if you can deal with leaving and everyone glaring and thinking you’re a dick then go ahead and save your money. You also don’t have to tip the guys who fill your car up if you rent one (yes, they have people who put petrol in your car – why don’t we have this?!). Also, a lot of museums are Pay What You Like, so just a suggested donation, save where you can!
9. Know how to get from the airport!
Unless you have family or a taxi picking you up, you’ll be lugging your case around. There are fewer things in life less enjoyable than this, so be prepared. If you fly to JFK, you need to get the Airtrain to Jamaica Station. You just walk straight on to the Airtrain from arrivals and pay when you get off at the other end. Here is also where you can buy your Metrocard for however long. The Airtrain only costs $5, plus the $2.75 MTA Subway access fee. From Jamaica, we got a train to Penn Station. Here is where you either walk, or get on the Subway to wherever you are staying in the city. Yes, a faff, but a lot cheaper than a taxi and a more authentic New Yorker experience.
10. Bring comfy shoes.
Sorry to be a mum, but this is absolutely CRUCIAL. DON’T bring brand new converse or trainers that you haven’t broken in yet. Don’t wear anything heeled or completely flat, as flats all day can really hurt the balls of your feet. I lived in my Nikes that I have had for a year, and my CK Sliders that are quite padded. My entire body ached after a day of walking, but I didn’t get one blister. You will walk MILES, despite the Subway. Our average was 25,000 steps a day.
11. Be prepared to spend.
You can do it cheap I’m sure, but you don’t want to be stressing out about what you’ve spent. We didn’t go mad and had a lot of single pizza slices for meals, but there are so many cool restaurants in the city that we didn’t just eat cheap crap the whole time. It’s also a city full of amazing shops that we don’t have in the UK. As well as the “I Heart NYC” shops which are addictive. I went with the mindset that all of my money would go on food and sights… but then I saw Sephora… For many people, NYC is a once in a lifetime holiday, so enjoy yourself!
12. Central Park is HUGE
You could spend a day there, so don’t restrict yourself to an hour walk on your timetable. We got bikes one day then went back on another day. (We don’t speak of the bikes.. I hate bikes). There is so much entertainment just in a park and it’s so easy to underestimate it’s size. Make sure you check out the Loeb Boathouse for a G&T and the Alice in Wonderland Statue for some good insta’s!
(Recognise this part from Home Alone 2?)
13. There are a lot of ways to see NYC from above.
We went up pretty much every tall building you can go up. Whilst you get different views of the city, it’s not that much different. (Unless you do One World and the Empire State – different ends of the city). Rooftop bars are also in abundance and you get a similar view, with a drink! (21’s only)
14. Get a US sim!
In NYC, you need Google Maps a LOT. We bought a T-Mobile Tourist plan for $50 that had 10GB data to help us. There is an even cheaper one too, but with a lot less data. Just check if your phone is unlocked before you go! It worked with my phone and I’m on EE, as EE and T-Mobile are kind of the same thing. I don’t know what we would have done without this. It’s probably the main reason we got to do as much as we did because we could find exactly where everything was, and what trains to get to it.
I also had my hotspot on for Matt most of the time and we still barely used 6GB by the end of the trip. This was an essential for us, but a lot of places also have WiFi so you can live without it if you don’t mind looking at a map or downloading a subway map app.
15. BRING A CHARGER
Either an actual charger (with a plug adaptor) or a portable charger. You use A LOT of battery taking pictures or using maps. I used my big camera for a lot of the time and I still found myself trying to get home on 1-4% the couple of days I left my charger at the hotel. Save yourself the stress of potentially being stuck somewhere in the city and just bring something.
16. Use Travel Money cards.
It really depends on who you bank with, but most banks charge you for withdrawing money in a foreign country. I know that Santander is particularly expensive. We used Thomas Cook LYK cards (put £350 on it and get £15 FeelUnique voucher), and a Post Office Travel Money card. It means you’re not walking round with copious amounts of cash (and New Yorkers can smell tourists). The LYK card is identical to having cash because your home currency is converted to USD at the time of purchase and therefore cannot vary during your trip. You can also track your money on LYK and Post Office apps. Other travel cards (FairFX) are different in that the currency is converted using realtime exchange rates which can be both advantageous or detrimental in terms of ‘value for money’.
17. Luggage Storage
We all know how awkward check-in/out times can be. If you arrive in the city and can’t check in for a couple of hours, or, if you have to check out in the morning and you have some time to kill in the city, there are plenty of short term luggage places. We used Pennsylvania 6 several times, it’s less than 5 minutes walk from Penn Station. It’s $6 per bag, per day, totally worth it. It’s a big restaurant with a luggage room.
There is also Schwartz Luggage which is more expensive, $10 a day. It depends on how paranoid you are about losing you case. It’s a little further, still around Penn Station. It’s just a proper place dedicated to luggage storage rather than just a cupboard in a restaurant.
18. Subway Map App
Even with Google Maps, this can be very handy.
If you’re planning on going to a Broadway show, wait until you get there to get the tickets. There’s a big shop in Times Square called TKTS that sells last minute tickets, but that might not be the best place to go. All the theatres sell them their most expensive tickets that they were unable to sell, and they sell them on.
If money isn’t a problem, then this is fine, but if you want to get ones a bit cheaper you should actually just go to the theatre direct. (Unless you want to see The Cursed Child which will never be cheap). Most Broadway shows have a theatre dedicated only to that show, and they have tickets for all budgets. We got good tickets for Phantom of the Opera for $59 each, 2 days before we watched it. Absolute bargain, and I would have paid a lot more since I’ve wanted to see it since I was 10.
I think that’s everything I would recommend doing and knowing before you go. It’s really helpful to be fully prepared before you go in terms of trains and currency more than what sights you want to see. You can decide that on the day really. I would encourage anyone to visit NYC. It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on, and I cry everytime I leave. Being in such a huge city surrounded by skyscrapers, history, fashion, everyone running around, really puts life in perspective. There are endless things to see, things to do. There is a certain buzz that you seem to only get there, excitement and determination. It’s magnetising. New York City really is a concrete jungle where dreams are made of, thanks Alicia Keyes. I miss it terribly.