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As a world traveler and native New Yorker, I understand what it’s like visiting a new big city and not knowing your way around. It can be confusing, stressful, and expensive. You don’t want that - and neither do I! Let’s dive into what you should know before coming to NYC if you’re not from the United States. We’ll cover everything from easy (cheap) transportation to getting a local SIM card. After you're done reading this article, don't miss my New York tab above where I talk about my favorite things to do in NYC!
Also, check out my New York YouTube series to get even more insider tips and suggestions on awesome things you can do, eat, and drink all around the city. I also have a video on tourist traps so don't miss that one! You don't want to get scammed, do you?
Before I dive in though, let’s quickly go over how to find things to do. While traveling the world, I always used Marco Polo guide books in all destinations. I’m pretty much obsessed with them! If you’ve never been to NYC, I recommend picking up a Marco Polo guidebook before you arrive. In addition to good suggestions on entertainment, food & drink, shopping, and sightseeing, they also come with a great interactive app, and a pull out map. Plus, the photography in the book is stunning!
1. Use the subway (it's cheap!)
You've seen the movies showing yellow taxi's zooming down streets and dream of hopping in one yourself. It sounds intriguing, right? Well, the reality is that taxi’s aren’t always the best option because they are very expensive and traffic in NYC is HORRIBLE. For example, a 20 minute taxi ride costs about $40. It's just not worth it, especially since the subway can often get you there in almost the same amount of time for under $3.
The first step in using the subway is buying a metro card. Watch this video to learn how to do that. To navigate your way around, I recommend using Google maps. All you need to do is download the app, type in your directions, and select the transit option (it's a train icon right next to the car icon). Google Maps is pretty up to date when it comes to subway changes. If there are other changes, there will be flyers pinned in the metro station explaining the changes.
Here are a few tips to navigating the subway:
It's common for trains to run on tracks other than the ones that they normally run on. For example, a 2 train might be running on a 4 train line. When this happens, just listen carefully to the train conductor or follow the stops on the subway map located in each car. You can tell which stop your at by looking at the sign on the subway platform.
On the weekends, it is common for trains to be under construction, so on these days there are often train changes and delays.
Uptown is towards the Bronx.
Downtown is towards Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn, or Whitehall.
Before swiping your card through the metro, make sure that the entrance you entered is going the direction you are traveling to. For example, there are entrances that give you access to both Uptown and Downtown trains, and entrances that only do one or the other. If you swipe on an "uptown only" station but want to go downtown, you will need to exit the station and pay again to enter the downtown side.
Overall, carefully read all of the signs and if you have questions just ask someone and they can normally help!
2. Be Aware of your surroundings when taking photos
If you want to take a photo, don’t stop in the middle of the street. Instead, step to the side so people can pass and then you can take your photo. Tourist stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take a photo is one of New Yorkers biggest annoyance. This is because the sidewalks are normally crowded and stopping in the middle slows down all the busy people.
3. Don't Be Afraid to Ask for help
If you need help, ask for it! Though New Yorkers often get a bad rep for being unfriendly, you’ll find that most of us will help you if you need directions to get around. Cops are great to ask because they are on most corners and in the subway. They know the city better than most locals!
4. Beware of Times Square
Times Square is a massive tourist trap. Go there for a quick photo or a Broadway show, other than that avoid it at all costs.
5. Go to Local Restaurants not chain restaurants
Looking for a great place to eat? New Yorkers use Google Maps, and Yelp the most to find restaurant, cafe, and bar suggestions. Download those apps and you’ll find some tasty food. The great thing about both of these apps are that they let you choose the price range you are looking for. If you don't want to spend more than $15 per person, select the single $ option. The $$ option is for places over $20 per person and the $$$ option is for places over $50 per person.
6. It’s expensive
In case you didn’t already know, New York is expensive. Expect to pay an average of $12 per alcoholic drink, and $4 for a non-alcoholic drink. Lunch will be around $15 for one plate, and dinner averages around $25 per plate. However, there are places to get a cheap meal, such as $1 pizza (located on many street corners), $2 noodles at Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine Restaurant, or $6 Latin-American dishes at El Sabroso.
7. Be street smart and aware of your surroundings always
There are certain areas that you should be careful when visiting. In general, it is good to always be aware of your surroundings. Most places are safe, however, there are certain places I don't recommend tourists visiting. For example, I don’t recommend visiting the Bronx because it is quite dangerous in certain locations. No matter where you are, make sure that the bag you bring is secured with a zipper and keep it within eyesight.
8. Pick up a guidebook
I always like to have a guidebook with me when I explore a city. I’ve used Marco Polo all around the world. They are fantastic and come with an app that helps your tour the city. In addition to that, they also have great suggestions on sightseeing, food & drink, entertainment, shopping, and helpful advice on planning your trip to NYC.
9. Avoid anyone dressed in costumes
This is especially true in Times Square. When you visit the area you'll notice a lot of Elmo's, Mickey's, and other iconic characters dressed in bootleg costumes. If you take a photo with them, they will demand a payment even though they did not tell you in advance that the photo would cost money. I've seen them ask for around $5 a photo, which is outrageous, especially since the costume is often dirty and poorly made. Watch out for them jumping into your photo as well. They will also ask payment for this even though you did not ask them to take a photo with you. It is terrible!
On a similar note, in Times Square there are guys that will try to sell you their "mix CD". This is also a scam. Do not buy it from them as it could be a blank CD.
10. Visit the other boroughs!
Manhattan is just the tip of the iceberg in NYC. You should also visit Brooklyn and Queens. In particular, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and Long Island City and Astoria in Queens are lovely. If you are visiting Astoria, I recommend having a meal at Queens Comfort. This award winning restaurant has been on several TV shows though from the outside it doesn't look like much. Avoid going on weekends when lines can be up to an hour and a half.
11. Tip 15% - 20% always
In NYC, tipping is essential. This is because waiters get paid very little and rely almost entirely on tips to afford living in this expensive city. You should never tip less than 15%, unless the service or meal was absolutely terrible. In general, I always tip 20%, as do many New Yorkers.
You will also need to tip the taxi driver, anyone at a spa, nail salon, or hair salon,or any tour guides. Be careful with taxi’s though, the first option on the checkout screen is to tip them 30%, which is a way for them to get extra money out of you. In order to tip less than this, you need to manually enter the tip during the checkout process.
12. To save money, don't exchange $$ at airports or $$ exchange places
If you need to exchange your money, I recommend just taking cash out of an ATM instead of using a currency exchange location. These often have the best rates, but first check with your home bank to see if they have a partnership with any banks in NYC. Do not under any circumstances, exchange your money at the airport or at currency exchange location near hotels or Times Square. The rates are terrible.
13. But in reality, you probably won't use cash that much
The reality is that you will probably not need to use cash, unless you’re buying something off the street. Everywhere in NYC takes credit cards, so check with your credit card company about their foreign transaction fees. If there are none, then use your credit card everywhere. Always ask to be charged in USD (the local currency), this will save you money from a conversion fee.
14. Get a local sim card to use your phone anywhere
You’ll want to be able to use your phone when in NYC, mainly for getting around. I recommend purchasing the T-mobile Tourist plan. This plan is $30 and gives you unlimited data for 3 weeks. To get it, head to a T-Mobile store when you arrive, and they will set it up for you. Before you leave your home country, make sure to call your cell phone provider and ask them to temporarily unlock your phone for the duration that you will be in the US. This is essential for making the SIM card work. Get the plan here.
Or use the Skyroam Solis. This mobile wifi hotspot gives you fast 4G speeds in over 200 countries, and you can connect up to six devices.
15. public restrooms (toilets)
It’s hard to find public bathrooms in New York. The best way to handle this is to always go to the bathroom before you leave your hotel, or restaurant. If you’re walking around and have to go, you can either look for a Starbucks, or visit Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station. Or you could use my special trick that never fails. Normally what I do is walk confidently into a popular bar and go straight to their restroom. It works every time!
Those are my essential pieces of advice on what you need to know before visiting NYC. Make sure to pick up a Marco Polo guidebook before you arrive so that you can easily find things to do while you're out exploring. Also, make head over to my New York tab for my top suggestions.
Enjoy your visit to the Big Apple!
This article was sponsored by Marco Polo, however, the opinions of the guidebook are my own.
Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.