Planning your first trip to New York? Read this.

For mums 60th birthday, I bought her a passport. She hadn’t been abroad in 15+ years, so we decided that if we both saved, we could go somewhere special.

After a bit of umming and arring, we decided that it doesn’t get more special than New York at Christmas. Luckily enough, I got a job as a travel agent which made planning New York that little bit easier, but it was still a minefield.

New York is an incredible city, with it being on top of most peoples travel wish-lists, but because there is so much to know, it can be hard to decide the best way to plan a trip; what airport to fly into, where to stay, how much money to take etc etc.

I wanted to write a post for those of you who are first-time planners of New York. I talk about when to go and how long for, budgets, the geography of the city and the best things you can do in advance to get prepared for a visit to New York.

Hopefully, you first-timer planners will find this guide useful and it will take away some of the stress of planning an amazing first time trip to New York!!

When to go and duration 

The first thing you need to decide about visiting New York is when you are going to visit New York. As it’s a city, you could visit New York in any season, so it depends on what your preferences are.

Jan-April would be a cheaper time to visit, but New York winters are very cold. The wind-chill makes New York absolutely baltic!

May-August will be hot (unbearably hot some would say!) but then you have events such as July 4th and almost guaranteed sunshine (but avoid summer holidays if you can – New York gets very crowded in the summer!).

September to December is a good time to visit, with September and October being cheaper as they are considered shoulder seasons. Not only that, but you have the magic of autumn and at the end of October, Halloween.

November and December would be more expensive, but then you have Thanksgiving (don’t forget about the Macy’s Day Parade!) and Christmas – which is iconic to New York.

The next thing to consider would be duration. The most common length of stay is 4-5 nights. Only three nights would be far too short – there is just so much to do in New York plus you have to factor in what time you land and jet-lag! New York is 5 hours behind the UK.

Some people who stay for a week also factor in Niagra Falls to their trip – this is something to consider if your budget can stretch!

Budget

Depending on when you go, New York can be hell’uva expensive. Peak times are summer and Christmas, so if you are on a strict budget, avoid these periods.

For first timers, you really want to stay in Manhatten (more on geography further down!). Times Square is where you’ll find the biggest concentration of hotels because it is pretty much slap bang in the middle of it all. However, due to its popularity, hotels around ‘mid-town’ are more expensive than hotels in upper or lower Manhatten.

If you are flexible with whatever time of year you would like to go, you can get a good bargain on flights if you regularly check sites such as Skyscanner or Kayak. However, if you know your dates, the best time to book flights is 11 months in advance when the flight’s schedule gets released – the cheapest seats of chartered flights always sell first and it only goes up the nearer you get to the date!

Spending money is something to consider when factoring costings for New York. New York is an expensive city, but take as much as is realistic to you. If you are only planning on eating and seeing the sites; you could get by on just £400-£500 per person. You can eat for cheap if you are savvy and you can book city-passes in advance which often come with great savings. Do double check that your hotel doesn’t require resort fees or taxes to be paid on arrival – if they do, you would need to factor this in as well. Also, factor in how you are getting to and from the airport – taxi’s can cost between $80-$100.

If the plan is to shop, you’ll need to take more money than that, but there are shopping outlets outside of the city (such as Jersey Gardens and Woodbury Common) which have good savings on designer clothes.

Mum and I visited at the beginning of December and we got flights plus hotel for £800 per person, staying at The Gallivant in Times Square for four nights. We booked our flights 11 months in advance (the best time to book flights!) and got a good rate as I am a travel agent. We took £500 spending money each, but we had already paid for our city-passes, Radio City Rockettes and a Broadway show in advance. The spending money was for food, taxi to and from the airport, travelling around the city and souvenir shopping.

How To Get There 

Flights to New York run multiple times daily, direct from London airports such as Gatwick and Heathrow but also indirect from regional airports. New York has two international airports, John F Kennady airport (JFK) located in Queens and Newark airport (EWR), which is actually located in New Jersey. There is also LaGuardia airport (LGA), but this is just for domestic flights.

Journey times from JFK and Newark to Manhatten are roughly the same averaging between 40-60 minutes depending on traffic, with taxi’s being roughly the same price too. While JFK is the more popular airport it would take longer to reach than Newark on the return home. We flew in and out for Newark and we ordered our taxi for one hour before we had to be at the airport (we actually got there in less than 40 minutes!). If you are flying back out of JFK it would be a good idea to give yourself at least two hours, simply because of the traffic up to JFK can be crazy in the afternoon.

A Little Bit of Geography 

New York is a city and a state. New York City is split into five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. They are all separate islands, with Manhattan being the main one that is considered iconic to New York. Manhattan is where you’ll find Central Park, Rockefeller, 5th Avenue, Empire State… the list goes on.

For first timers, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than Manhattan. While staying in Brooklyn or Staten Island may be cheaper, you will be able to cram far more in and get your bearings better if you were staying in the centre of it all.

Manhattan can be easily divided into three sections; upper Manhattan, mid-town and lower Manhattan. Places of interest in upper Manhattan include Central Park and the Natural History Museum. In mid-town, you have the cities most well-known tourist area, with landmarks that include; Times Square, Broadway, Rockefeller, Empire State and shopping avenues such as 5th avenue. Finally, in lower Manhattan, you have the financial district, 9/11 memorial and museums, Brooklyn Bridge and neighbourhoods such as Chelsea, Soho and the East Village.

Manhattan is very easy to navigate – with streets all divided into a grid-like system. Running east to west, the streets are numbered (e.g west 44th street or east 44th street) and running north to south the streets are ‘avenues’ (e.g 5th avenue, 6th avenue etc). 5th Avenue is the dividing line between east and west. Each street is considered a ‘block’. So for example, if your hotel is on west 48th street and you need to get to somewhere on west 44th  you would just walk four blocks. Looking at a map of Manhattan was a minefield but as soon as you are there, it all starts to make sense.

It doesn’t matter where you stay in Manhattan, as you’ll never be too far away from a place of interest. There are properties located all around Manhattan, but the biggest concentration of hotels will be found in and around Times Square as mid-town is in the middle of everything. Because of this, hotels in mid-town can come at a premium cost and the crowds around Times Square can be crazy. You certainly do not need to stay in Times Square, as long as you don’t mind doing a fair bit of walking or catching a subway to get to different areas (a weeks metro card is only $33!). My advice would be to just go for a hotel that suits your budget – as long as its clean and has good reviews!

We stayed at The Gallivant (on west 48th street) which was just around the corner from Times Square. We were very lucky to have been upgraded to the penthouse suite (perks of being a travel agent!) which was incredible. I’ve heard that the lead in rooms are quite small (which is true for most places in New York!), but from my experience, the hotel was very clean, the staff were friendly and the location was excellent.

What To Do In Advance 

ESTA’s The most important thing to do as soon as you’ve booked your holiday to New York is to organise your ESTA or ‘e-visa’. The official site can be found here. They cost $14 (the equivalent of about £11) and last for two years from the date of application. ESTA’s can take up to 72 hours to come back confirmed if everything is okay. If you have any criminal convictions, you may run into a problem, in which case you will need to speak to the US Embassy. Always consult the FCO website for any foreign travel advice.

City Passes Before you go it may be worth pre-booking a city pass if you are planning on visiting lots of different attractions. This pass-comparison site is a good tool to find out what pass is best for you. We opted for the freestyle pass which gave you entry to three attractions (can opt for the 5 attraction pass!), 48-hour hop-on-hop-off bus ticket and a discount card for certain restaurants (although admittedly we didn’t use this!).

Broadway shows Another thing that may be worth booking in advance is a Broadway show, especially if you want to see something specific. I wanted to see Anastasia so I booked the show directly on the supplier’s site. However, if you are not fussed about what show you want to see, you can often get same day RUSH tickets while in New York, a ticket booth located within Times Square. They often come with great discounts and is a good way for you to see a Broadway show for cheap!

Planning Planning holidays is half the fun for me, but even if you prefer to be spontaneous, it’s always good to have some insider tips and knowledge. I became a member of two great Facebook groups; NYC… The Page That Never Sleeps and NYC The Place To Be. Both of these groups have thousands of members who have been or are planning a trip and are so helpful with any questions you may have. I usually could find the answer if I used the search bar in the group – but if not, you could ask a question to the main page and someone is bound to know the answer!

Another tip would be to create a google map of places you want to visit and places you would want to eat – make the map as detailed as possible – and then download it for offline use. This way, even if your itinerary changes slightly (I made a detailed itinerary but it all went out the window when we got there!), you know how far away you are from the nearest landmark or place to eat!

I hope you have found this guide useful for planning your first trip to New York. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask – New York is FAB and a guide for what to do when you are there is coming soon!

Have you visited New York? Any tips that I forgot? 

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