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New York: A winter (and wallet-friendly) travel survival guide

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NYC snowy streets
Snowy scenes like this can make NYC a challenge to explore in winter. Photo: Roman Kruglov

When it comes to hotel deals in New York, winter is a hard season to beat. And yet winter can be the most expensive time to visit in a number of other ways.

Let me explain: Exploring New York, especially on the cheap, involves a lot of outdoor time—a stroll through Central Park, myriad free summer extravaganzas, gazing up at the Chrysler Building… Even walking briskly among the throngs is an essential New york experience. Of course all of these free activities become difficult, even unbearable, when the temps drop, but you don’t have to shell out all of your hotel savings on taxis and indoor activities. Here are some tips for winter travel in New York.

Getting Around

Like any New Yorker worth my salt, I tend to get around by walking. I walk a lot, often favoring my own two feet over the subway. But I’m also a “winter wimp.” Come the cold, I am far less likely to want to be outside for any length of time, and it becomes much more tempting to take a taxi. But here is the secret: Even if it’s 10 degrees out, you should seldom have to take a taxi!

Winter subways

Even on the coldest days, the subways still run 24/7. Photo: MTA

New York has one of the best transportation systems in the world, and while cold weather can sometimes affect the way the trains and buses are running, they are still convenient, cheap and often even faster than cabs. Various (free!) apps will help you easily navigate the subways and buses so that you can minimize the time spent waiting outside in the cold. All three of the below apps give real-time data on train and bus schedules (when you’re above ground), but each has other elements for various types of travelers.

For those who need a little extra motivation.  In addition to giving Citymapper tells you how many calories you burn for each route and how much (more) as taxi will cost.

For the navigationally challenged. Transitapp is helpfully color-coded like the trains themselves to make picking the right line easy. The app also shows when the next train or bus is coming and allows you to easily see schedules so that you can map your day.

For the claustrophobic. Moovit is a fun app with a social element. Not only does it give you routes and schedules, but it also records the data of anyone riding with the app open. This gives an idea of how crowded the bus will be, and also helps keep to-the-minute on delays and possible alternative routes.

Winter activities on the cheap

It might be hard to spend a day wandering through Central Park in the cold, but before you shell out for one museum and indoor attraction after another, consider the following tips for indoor activities.

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian is always free to visit. Wally Gobetz

Make the most of free museum days. Almost every museum in New York has a regular chunk of time—be it a free-admission day or a pay-what-you-wish evening—during which it offers deals. Visiting a different museum every day for a week could save one adult around $100. Check out our guide to free museum days to see what’s available each day.

Visit always-free attractions. If determining free museum days seems to complicated, never fear. New York is chock-full of free attractions too. The Main Branch of the New York Public Library (5th Avenue and 42nd Street) is free to visit and stunning to behold. Wander around its storied halls, and be sure to check out the magnificent Map Room. Also free is the National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green), worth visiting as much for the gorgeous Alexander Hamilton Custom House as for the fascinating exhibits therein.

Brooklyn Brewery is a great place to escape the winter chill. Photo: Ian Westscott

Brooklyn Brewery is a great place to escape the winter chill on the weekend. Photo: Ian Westscott

Take a tour. You won’t want to do a self-guided walking tour of any neighborhoods, but there are unique (and indoor) free tours to be had. Get a peek into the workings of the national economy on a tour of the Federal Reserve (33 Liberty Street), or (equally important) learn about beer making at the Brooklyn Brewery (79 N 11th Street, Williamsburg). Be sure to book at least a week in advance for the Fed. The Brewery runs regular tours on Saturdays and Sundays, but it’s a good place to wile away some indoor hours any day of the week. The beers are inexpensive, and the vibe is convivial.

Bryant Park skating rink

Glide through Midtown at the Bryant Park skating rink. Photo: Grace Tomkins

Embrace the chill. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it, but as miserable as the cold can be, New York makes it easy to enjoy it to. Take a spin around the Bryant Park skating rink (free admission, $14 skate rentals), or take the plunge with the Polar Bear Club, who invite brave souls to join them for a guest “swim” off Coney Island any Sunday November through April (talk about street cred!).

That’s entertainment. In this city of culture, entertainment abounds, and though much of it will cost you, there are a variety of options to be had for a song. Spend a Friday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the free entertainment at BAMcafé Live (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn) could be anything from rock to pop to jazz, or hit up the famed Marie’s Crisis (59 Grove Street), where you can enjoy musical stylings of friendly regulars who gather round the piano to belt out show tunes. If it’s comedy you’re after, there is plenty for free as well (check out this list for ideas).

About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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