10 NYC tips

 

 
 
Gah, it's another power-list, the last resort of the travel writer. You're probably expecting one reasonable tip for visiting NYC and a lot of flimsy drivel to make up the numbers, or subjective recommendations based on limited research and passed off as objective facts. Fortunately, this list encapsulates some of the lessons I've learnt and gleaned from other travellers, as well as wisdom passed on by locals from across the five boroughs. 
 
1. Get ahead at US Immigrations at JFK

How long it takes to clear US Immigration at JFK varies between five minutes on a good day, and 90 minutes on a bad one. Obviously queues are an issue at most airports, but JFK is a popular place; its international terminals land big planes and lots of them. The terminal you land at can make a big difference too: terminal 4's immigration hall is bright, spacious and usually well-manned, while terminal 7 is a dull and oppressive bunker - hot, cramped and far fewer desks. If a couple of full 747s land just before your flight, you're in for a miserable wait.

To cut down your waiting time, simply get to the front of the queue. It sounds like blindingly common sense but the fact is most passengers don't follow it. The walk between the plane and the immigration hall can take several minutes but the corridors at JFK are usually nice and broad, so march quickly and with purpose all the way. If those ahead are slow, a polite 'excuse me' will see you through. Do it. Several times I've sat at rear of the plane and ended up in the first couple of dozen through the desks. Reaching the immigration hall 30 seconds earlier can make a massive difference if another flight arrives at the same time, and it can mean another hour spent in the city instead of a queue.

2. Choose the right airport transfer from JFK

roundtheworldflights.com has an in-depth guide to transfers from JFK airport to NYC - you can save a lot of money and plenty of time by choosing the right transfer options for your party here

3. Stay where the bargains are

The most popular tourist hotels are in Manhattan's Midtown area, while the likes of Soho, Tribeca and Chelsea have no trouble with charging hundreds of dollars per night. These neighbourhoods are preferred by most visitors because they fear unfamiliar place names and streets they consider out the way. 

There are nearly 13,000 cabs in New York, plus the subway network is cheap, extensive and pretty fast for the most part. In other words, if you find a better deal in another part of the city, don’t dismiss it. Check out the Upper West Side and Brooklyn in particular; popular neighbourhoods in Queens are just 10 minutes from Midtown by subway.

4. Check in with hotel websites before you book

They may be expensive, but there's still healthy competition between hotels in NYC. Many will publish exclusive deals and prices on their websites that aren't necessarily featured on sites like Hotels.com or Travelocity. For example, hotels have offered packages for three night's accommodation, and booking two of these direct has saved money compared to booking a six night stay through a third party website.

If it's your first time travelling to NYC then you won't know which hotel websites to look at - fortunately you can still use the search tools and maps on the likes of Hotels.com to find hotels you'd consider booking, then search for the hotel name online and check their site direct. One word of caution - prices displayed on hotel websites probably won't include taxes in their initial quotes, so check the final total before deciding to book. roundtheworldflights.com also have pretty good tour and hotel deals here

5. If breakfast isn’t included in the room price, don’t pay for it

There are good local diners, delis and cafes everywhere in New York City, and you’ll always pay less than the price on the hotel menu.

6. Buy your 7 day unlimited Metrocard early in the day

If you’re in the city for longer than a few days, a 7 day unlimited Metrocard is a godsend. It costs $29 for unlimited rides on the subway and local buses (and even the Roosevelt Island tramway) for seven days. 

Well, almost. The 7 day expiry is a little too literal; your card isn’t valid for 7 x 24 hours, but on seven consecutive days. In other words, if you buy and use your card at 11pm on a Monday, it’ll expire at midnight the following Sunday – 6 days and one hour later. To get the best value for your money, consider buying a single fare if it means you can then buy your Metrocard after midnight, or early the next morning.

7. Save time sightseeing

Queues for the big attractions in NYC are stupidly long. Want to hit the Statue of Liberty? You can be stood in line for two or three hours. If you’re going to visit, get there early – before 9am. The same is true of the Empire State Building - arrive before 9am and you'll breeze through. The ESB is also very quiet after 8pm so there'll be no long queues and you'll enjoy outstanding nighttime views.

While they're not ticketed attractions, the same is also true of popular locations such as Brooklyn Bridge or the increasingly popular High Line. Start your day early and you're guaranteed to avoid the crowds every time. Again, it might seem like common sense stuff to you but nearly every visitor will ignore it and then complain about the queues. 

8. 'Pre-walk' the subway

Because of NYC's grid system of streets and avenues, it's easy to save time while waiting for a subway train, even if it's your first time in the city. Two facts you need to know:

- subway trains and platforms are four blocks long, i.e. a single train will cover four blocks underground from, say, 2nd St to 6th St

- many subway stations (though not all) tend to have exits in the middle of the platform and at either end

Knowing this means you can often walk to the correct end of the platform while you wait. For example, if you're heading to a restaurant on 31st St and taking the subway to a station on 34th St, the platform will stretch from 32nd St to 36th St. Walking to the correct end of the platform means you'll likely step off the train at an exit on 32nd St. 

9. See NYC for less (and free)

Want to visit the Guggenheim for just a couple of dollars? Nearly all museums in New York charge for entry, but it's a little known fact that many operate pay-what-you-want hours at specific times of the week. 

10. Catch cabs in the right direction

The majority of streets and avenues of NYC are one-way, so if you catch a cab facing the wrong direction, your driver may have to travel up, around, down and across a block before you get any closer to your destination. Bear in mind where you're heading and hail a cab that's already heading the right way; just crossing the street beforehand could save you money.


   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.

Chinatown

 


 

When a you buy a stranger a beer and in return he offers a gastronomic tour of Manhattan's Chinatown, you can't say no. Well you could, but you'd be an idiot. There are other Asian communities in NYC such as Koreatown and Little Tokyo, and there are neighbourhoods in Queens that look like scenes straight out of Shanghai, but most visitors think of the swathe of streets and avenues in the east of Manhattan, south of the Lower East Side and north of the Financial District. New York City has the largest ethnic Chinese population outside the native continent, and Manhattan's Chinatown is a sprawling mess of city blocks that can intimidate the first time visitor.


So at the invite of a Chinese American called Erik that I met in a Hell's Kitchen bar, we took an afternoon out to explore the sights and tastes of Chinatown. We started at Joe's Shanghai on Pell St, a popular call for locals and visitors alike. Give your party name to the waitress and expect a wait on the sidewalk for your table. It's nothing special in terms of decor with bad lighting and scrappy furniture, but the reviews are consistently good. Their speciality is the soup dumplings; we tried two types, one with filled with pork, the other with crab. The meats are wrapped in a thin dumpling wrapper so wrestling them onto your plate with the spoon requires a delicate touch. The meats are good, but what makes them moreish is the savory 'soup' (the fat) that oozes down your chin when you take a bite and burst the wrapper.

We also tried other traditional dishes: drunken chicken (chicken marinated in a white wine sauce), fake duck (a soy bean wrapper filled with mushrooms, then braised in a soy based sauce), and Shanghainese green beans (dry fried in spices). Perfection to a mouthful. 

From Joe's Shanghai we turned left towards Mott Street and walked past Doyers Street
 , one of the more unusual streets you'll see in New York City. Aside from the low-rise buildings with side, what catches your eye is that this street has a tight curve - you don't see too many of them in Manhattan. This is the “"Bloody Angle", the site of many street battles and gang murders in the dark days of the late 19th and early 20th century - behind the store fronts are said to be a network of tunnels where gang members could make a quick getaway. Take a moment to look at the trinkets and oddities in the window of Ting’s Gift Shop on the corner of Doyers and Pell.

Our stomachs still wanting, we walked on to Ping's Seafood on Mott St for dim sum. This would traditionally involve elderly Chinese ladies pushing steel carts around the restaurant, shouting out what each cart has to offer. With space being limited, Ping's does this with tray service instead. We tried traditional dim sum staples including har gow (shrimp dumplings) and shui mai (pork, shrimp, and mushroom dumplings, as well as zha leung (Chinese fried doughnut wrapped in rice noodles and dipped in oyster sauce & scallions) and Chinese sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves (you don't eat the leaves, as I was informed after the first attempt to). Everything is tender and fresh, nothing is overpowering; courses aren't served in a jacuzzi of sauce as seems mandatory for the British palette.
 

I wasn't sure about the next stop. Ping's Famous Beef Jerkey
 on Mulberry St isn't much more than a hole in the wall behind which is a junkyard of knackered televisions and furniture, something that might have once blow-dried hair in a salon and oh yes, a lot of raw meat. "You're a good sport to check out this," said Erik. It turned my stomach over more than once. The jerkey here is made from a family recipe and offered in several different flavors. "It's so popular, they're usually completely sold out before 3pm," said Erik. 

Our final stop is Fried Dumpling
 on Mosco St. A tiny waiting area overlooks two very hot and bothered Chinese ladies hand-making and frying dumplings. Their English isn't good, but it's infinitely better than your Chinese, so don't ask questions or be difficult - it's $1 for 5 pork dumplings with optional hot sauce, take it or leave it. It's not the only place you can eat street food for a dollar in Manhattan, but it's probably the tastiest.

 

 



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

Halloween

 

 

 

 

Halloween is a half-hearted affair in the UK. Students will mix concoctions in punchbowls, couples will revel in the novelty of a fancy-dress party next door, while parents guide small children from house to house where people like me sit in darkness and fail to acknowledge the existence of their front door.

Meanwhile in New York City, the world's biggest party is kicking off and blowing away the cobwebs. Halloween in the US is more than trick-or-treating and a smear of fake blood, and the centuries old Gaelic tradition is a big deal in the Big Apple. You may be passing through at the end of October or you may consider making a trip solely to see the city explode in costume and colour, so here's what you can expect from Halloween in New York City: 


NYC Halloween Parade 

There are few official parades where the public can turn up unannounced and participate, but if you're in costume then join up to 60,000 others as well as dozens of bands, puppets, dancers and floats. If you're not part of it, make sure you're a spectator - it's wild, unpredictable, loud and fantastical. 2012 is the 40th annual Halloween Parade in NYC, and takes place on Wednesday 31st from 7pm to 11pm, up Manhattan's 6th Avenue from Spring Street to 16th Street.

Hit the underworld
 
There'll be a maze of road closures throughout Soho, Greenwich and the West Village before and during the Halloween Parade and traffic will be at a standstill in nearby neighbourhoods, as oppose to its usual gnat's pace. Skip the cabs and jump on the subway - chances are you'll be straphanging with a zombie or two.

Party time! 

NYC will most likely be partying throughout the weekend before Halloween - Saturday 27th around Bleeker St and MacDougal St in Greenwich Village will be a fury of party-goers in costumes. Plenty of bars will capitalise on the good times and charge a cover; you'll find a handful that won't charge but expect a queue. Many restaurants and clubs will throw Halloween parties - these are usually ticketed events.

Costumes are mandatory 

Obviously costumes aren't mandatory, but you will be in the minority if you're in Greenwich Village and not wearing one. Costumes don't have to be Halloween-related; last year I spotted 33 Chilean miners in one bar and Spongebob Squarepants being felt up by Catwoman in another. If you're going to be part of Halloween in NYC, embrace it!

Family friendly 

Children can enjoy Halloween in New York City as much as the adults. Head to some of the more residential neighbourhoods such as Manhattan's Upper West Side or Astoria in Queens, and every store will have candy and treats to hand out to the miniature Spidermen and princesses that dot the sidewalks. Make sure you hit the stores with the kids before late afternoon - that's when window signs appear to report all the goodies have gone.

Scares everywhere
 
There are parties, cruises and tours for boozers across NYC on Halloween - you can take your pick from hundreds of events. If you want to indulge in another New York tradition, buy a ticket quick and head to the upper reaches of Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Cathedral Church of St John the Devine has a screening of Nosferatu accompanied by the church's Great Organ, followed by the Procession of the Ghouls on Friday 26th. You can also find details of Halloween tours and children's workshops on their website.



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published soon. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

NYC transfers

 

 

Wherever you’re staying in New York City, you usually have four options for transfers between JFK airport and NYC hotels; taxi, shuttle bus, train and subway. Choose your transport according to the number of people in your party and the amount of luggage you have, and you could save yourself plenty of both time and money. 

Your options (assuming you're transferring to Manhattan; info for other boroughs is below)

- Taking a yellow cab from outside the terminal means a fixed rate to Manhattan of $45 plus tolls (plus a tip), so $50 to $55 in total. A ride into central Manhattan usually takes 40 to 60 minutes; sometimes longer if expressway traffic is gnarly. 


Tip: if anybody in the terminal building asks if you need a taxi, ignore them – they’re an illegal (and therefore uninsured) cab driver. Follow the signs and head for the yellow cab rank outside.

- A shuttle bus can be arranged before you fly and usually costs about $20 per person. Transfer time depends on where the other bus passengers are staying; it can take over 90 minutes to reach your destination.
 

- There’s no subway service at the airport but there is 
the JFK Airtrain which links all the airport terminals to both Jamaica and Howard Beach stations. The Airtrain costs $5 per person and you pay at the end of the ride. The subway is currently $2.50 per ride (there are no zones on the NYC subway) but if you're intending to buy an unlimited subway pass for your trip, you can use it immediately - you’ll therefore only pay the $5 Airtrain fare. The Airtrain takes under 20 minutes to reach the subway, then it’s around 35 - 45 minutes into Manhattan, so can still beat a cab if traffic is bad.

- The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) also runs from Jamaica station to Penn Station in Manhattan's Midtown. It takes just 20 - 25 minutes for the LIRR to reach NYC. These services are very regular (you can check LIRR timetables 
here) though unless you're stopping in Midtown Manhattan, it may be impractical. This is a good option when returning to JFK since you can plan when you set off from Penn Station. 

Tip: tickets are cheap - $6.75 off-peak / $8.25 peak - but always buy them from the machines in the station; they can be bought on board but you'll pay nearly double.

With both the subway and LIRR, you're still likely to end up several blocks from your final destination. There'll be no danger if you want to walk, or you could hail a cab once you reach NYC and spend a few dollars; cab fares are reasonable so it’ll still be cheaper than the other options.

Which option is right for you?
 

Yellow cab
 
Best for: Groups of 3/4 people with checked luggage, families, couples on their first visit (the first view of the city through the cab windows is magical)
Pros: Door-to-door service
Cons: Expensive for single travellers or couples, not necessarily the fastest for transfers

Shuttle bus
 
Best for: Single travellers with checked luggage
Pros: Door-to-door service
Cons: Usually the longest transfer time of all options

Airtrain / Subway
Best for: The frugally minded, travellers with cabin luggage only
Pros: Cheapest option available, can be quicker than a cab
Cons: Usually means a walk / cab after reaching the city

Airtrain / LIRR
Best for: Affordable transfers from NYC to JFK, travellers with cabin luggage
Pros: Very cheap, can be quicker than a cab
Cons: Only suitable for transfer to addresses in Midtown Manhattan

Transfers from JFK to Brooklyn / Queens / Bronx / Staten Island

If you're staying in Brooklyn, you can expect to pay between $30 and $40 for a cab; from JFK to Queens it's likely to cost $20 to $25 (the airport is also in Queens, but it's a pretty big borough). If you're alone and travelling light then the Airtrain / subway option is a no-brainer. It probably won't be faster than a cab, but it'll be much cheaper.

Transfers to the Bronx (to the North of Manhattan) take an age by anything other than cab, which will cost between $40 and $55 depending on your destination. Connecting to the subway once you reach Manhattan is a possibility but it's painfully slow. It may be worth checking Metro-North maps and timetables since several train routes run through the borough; these depart from Grand Central Terminal. 

If you're one of the rare breed choosing to stay on Staten Island, a cab from JFK will cost at least $50. The cheaper alternative is to take the Airtrain to the LIRR, transfer to the 1 line on the subway from Penn Station to South Ferry station and hop on the Staten Island ferry (free, runs every half hour) and finally take a bus/cab if required. If you're travelling light, it's a serene and picturesque route once you reach the ferry but it'll take you at least two hours.

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

Brooklyn Markets

 

Car boot sales inevitably mean boxes of VHS videos and unwanted crapola spilling over a series of uneven pasting tables erected in the car parks of local rugby clubs; a mob of hoarders prepared to haggle over pennies; broiled burgers and the onset of hypothermia. Brooklyn's flea markets are similar, but with less risk of hypothermia, a more eclectic line in randorama and trinkets, and much better food.


Brooklyn Flea are the organisers of hugely popular events in the borough, drawing in visitors and residents from across the city. At one time their fleas could be found under the Brooklyn Bridge, but now there are two venues and events every weekend. One takes place every Saturday in Fort Greene at at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, and another every Sunday in Williamsburg by the East River - the later is definitely worth a visit, if not for the stalls then for the grandstanding views of Manhattan. The nearby East River State Park is nothing to write home about, sadly.

What will you find when you arrive? Local artists display and sell their latest work (a series of pen drawings on Post-It notes, anyone?), hipsters lounge about with their too-cool-for-school clothing lines and boxes of dollar records, but my favourite stalls are those dealing in pure Americana; elderly subway and street signs; the man with dozens of transistor radios in pristine condition. My best find on a recent trip were the guys selling antique signage and fairground games from Coney Island. Pure and unique nostalgia, but with a price tag to suit, of course. There's also a third event on Saturdays at the Williamsburg location - Smorgasburg - with over 100 food vendors serving up street food and ingredients, kitchenware and other paraphernalia. 


There are plenty of other independent fleas in the borough. If you're heading to Williamsburg, stop by the 
Artists and Fleas Indoor Market on North 7th Street. It's open every weekend and crammed full of stalls showcasing work by local artists, photographers and jewelry makers. Careful as you make your way round, though - the aisles are claustrophobic when it's busy and it's a little too easy to trip over a stall. Bedford Avenue, the main thorough of Williamsburg, is littered with second hand stores too - this neighbourhood is a mecca for lovers of bric-a-brac as well as damned good-looking hipsters.

Further afield, there's the more down-to-earth 
PS321 flea market every weekend in Brooklyn's Park Slope and several seasonal flea markets across Brooklyn. Bensonhurst is a neighbourhood far from the minds of tourists and most NYC residents, but during the warmer months you'll find the Church of the Holy Spirit flea market open for business and bargains from an altogether more local crowd. Still no broiled burgers though, which can only be a good thing.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.