After visiting New York City as a first time tourist and getting caught in some of the usual traps - and only seeing the usual sights - a second trip opened up a few new ideas
Getting into Manhattan
Forget the expensive limos, the cheap but agonisingly slow buses and the ubiquitous yellow cabs - it's all about the trains!
First visit to NYC: $20 for a three-hour bus ride from the airport to hotel.
Second visit: under $10 and under 30 minutes.
So if you want to save some money and a couple of hours in traffic, catch the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) from JFK to Penn Station. It costs just $4.25 (off peak), is far cleaner and less crowded than the subway, air conditioned for comfort and takes just over 20 minutes. Catch the Air Train from the Terminal to Jamaica Station ($5), pay for both tickets before you exit the Air Train and then simply walk downstairs to the LIRR platforms.
If you're going to splurge a little, make it on your accommodation.
First visit: $600 for three nights in a grimy hotel blocks from anywhere - including transport. Second visit: $800 for three nights in nice central hotel.
Location is the key, as well as trying to find somewhere reasonably nice that won't break the bank. We stayed at The New Yorker Hotel, which was more expensive than we'd pay anywhere else, but relatively cheap for Manhattan, surprisingly nice, and located across the road from Penn Station so ultra-convenient for getting around.
Getting around Manhattan
First visit: $59 for two days of guided commentary on a slow moving bus; Second visit: $18 for two days of subway rides all over the city, quickly and easily getting where we wanted to go.
The double-decker bus tours will take you to all the usual tourist highlights and are a fairly good deal, but again if you want to save some time and money and really get into the NY vibe, then you can't beat the subway. It costs $2.25 per trip, which includes changing trains. Study the subway map before you get there and then have fun with it!
From Penn Station you can catch the A, C or E trains - which follow 7th Avenue - north to Times Square, Central Park and beyond, or south downtown or across to Queens. The E train goes direct to the WTC site. Walk a couple of blocks over and catch the 1, 2 or 3 trains up or down 5th Avenue and beyond.
Alternatives to the main sights
First visit: spent hours in queues disappointed at the climbing credit card debt; Second Visit: saw more in less time and had more $ to shop with!
Rather than pay and queue for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty (where access is limited since 9/11 anyway) catch the free ferry to Staten Island. You'll get a nice view of Lady Liberty as you go past, and a walk around on the other side will show you a different side of the city that never sleeps.
Shorter queues, smaller price and arguably a better view: although going up the Empire State Building is the thing to do, why not head up to the Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) instead? You get a much better view of Central Park, and you get to look at the Empire State up high and up close. In the winter months you can take a spin around the ice rink down below, or in summer an extra $5 when you buy your ticket will get you your choice of cocktail at the Rink Bar down below.
Central Park is beautiful ... and huge. At 843 acres you're never going to see it all. Rather than head for the well known central fountain or ice rink, discover your own corner of the park and its people by taking a walk in from a nearby subway station. Try catching the subway to Lincoln Center (1 or 2 to 66th street) and look out for a possible free concert outside Juillard before heading into the Park.
New York has many world class museums, but if you're short on time they can eat up a whole day, and with some of the admission prices, you'll feel like you should stay that long to make it worth your while. But there are some free alternatives. The Native American Museum (Bowling Green, near ferry terminals to Staten Island) is free, and some of the other public museums (Met and Natural History) have "suggested" admissions so you can pay less or nothing if you can stand the possible looks of disdain!
First visit: saw the key sights like everyone else; Second Visit: discovered my own favourite places
Of course you have to see the famous sites once: Empire State Building, Times Square, Wall Street etc. But one of the most fascinating things about Manhattan is simply walking the streets and seeing the different neighbourhoods. Don't be afraid to walk, it's simply the best way to soak up the cool atmosphere of this ever changing city. Head down to Greenwich Village or Chelsea and just pound the pavement for an hour or two, you never know what you will see.
New York's ethnic neighbourhoods are the perfect place for some delicious food and a nice midpoint between cheap and nasty fast-food and over-priced fancy eateries. Try a pizza in Little Italy (south from Bleecker Street), Korean BBQ in Koreatown (32nd street between 5th Avenue and Broadway) or check out the great Thai restaurants including Yum Yum one (650 9 Ave), too (622 9 Ave) and three (658 9 Ave), not too far from the Broadway theatres.
First visit: $110 ticket to a show no one's ever heard of; Second visit: saw "Chicago" for less than $60 each.
Most people know that the best way to see a good show without breaking the bank is to visit TKTS and get a last minute ticket at up to 50% off. What many don't know is that there are two TKTS outlets on Manhattan Island: the main one in Times Square, and another across the road from the South Street Seaport (there's a third in Broooklyn but you may not have time to go that far out).
If you plan your day so that you're heading downtown to the water in the morning (it's worth a visit and has a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge), then you'll be set to visit the TKTS booth down there. It sells evening tickets from 11am (unlike the Times Square booth which opens at 3pm) and matinee tickets the day before (again unlike Times Square which is day-of-performance only). You'll still have to queue, but it should be much quicker - we arrived at 10.30 and had our tickets by 11.15am.