I am generally one of those people who are constantly leeching information off the interweb, and so I figured perhaps it’s time I gave back. After my trip to New York, coupled with my desire for my African brothers and sisters to get out and see more of the world, I hope that at least one person who lives in a country with a currency that is weaker than the US dollar will find this useful. Heck, if you are anything like my sister and me, and love a bargain, then as New Yorkers would say “I ghat’yu !!”.
Speaking of my sister, I have since made a deal with myself to never again go on vacation without her. While I admittedly am very organized and detail oriented, she takes it to a whole new level. Had we to be likened to items of clothing, I would be a peplum blouse and she would be a ruched one. We really are cut from the same cloth. I will elaborate some more on her ninja ways as I go along.
I have to say that we get a really raw deal in South Africa when it comes to air miles rewards programs. My little boy and I frequent Cape Town, and you would think that at this point we would at least have collected enough points to afford each of us a free flight. My sister, who lives in Canada literally got a free return ticket to New York through the rewards program run by Air Canada.
But since I am all about helping in this post, I shall move on from this, and just dispense the following advise in this regard. Google special occasions in the US (like Christmas) during which flights are potentially cheaper, watch the prices like a hawk, and pounce when you see a good deal. I flew Qatar Airways via Doha, both ways, and have to say that the times shown on the booking itinerary were generally an hour or so earlier or later than the actual advertised times on the airport notice boards. Whether this is something that has to do with the changes in time zones, and whether it is common to other airlines too, I cannot conclude,
but it helps to be aware of this fact. Also, when the layover in Doha will exceed 8 hours, then a transit visa is required.
We booked our flights towards the end of December, and my Qatar Airways return ticket to JFK airport via Doha cost approximately US$1000.
Where to stay
…But first, a mini tutorial on NYC. It encompasses five different county-level administrative divisions called boroughs, which have existed since the consolidation of the city in 1898. They are: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. All boroughs are part of New York City, and each of the boroughs is coextensive with a respective county, the primary administrative subdivision within New York State.
Shout out to my sister for recommending (based on extensive research) Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott New York Long Island. While there was much cheaper accommodation in Jamaica neighborhood, also in Queens, wherein is also located JFK airport, the hotel was close to the subway station, from which we were able to get to pretty much any place in the city with relative ease and speed.
Now in case you read in the previous paragraph “by Marriott” and got a little confused about how this could be consistent with the title of my post, let me balance you mzalwane, as Vusi Thembekwayo would say. Fairfield is not exactly like your Westin Cape Town (another Marriott hotel) but you know what, it works. What is really cool about it is the shuttle service they provide to the subway and a limited list of other places that one may request. This eliminates the need for Ubering each time to and from the subway station. Not to mention that if you are not data roaming and cannot access WiFi, then you would pretty much have to catch a cab if they are available in the area, assuming walking is not an option. In each instance, you would be spending more unnecessarily.
We also booked accommodation towards the end of December and paid US$792 for six nights for our king hotel room. This included complimentary breakfast, free WiFi, an exercise room and the shuttle service.
Getting around NYC
As already alluded, we used the subway to get around. Obviously not on our first trips to the hotel though, since we were both carrying luggage and were still unfamiliar with the subway operations at that point. I paid US$51.57 for my Uber ride to the hotel, quite a steep fare, because I did not fancy the Uberpool option, and it was peak period at the time.
From the our second day, we were dropped off at the subway station by the shuttle and would get around via the subway. I should warn you that one easily covers a distance of a kilometre just walking from one part of the subway to another, or when changing from one line to another. That hopefully gives you an idea of the size of some of the stations and complexity of the subway networks. To paint a better picture, there are 36 rail lines in NY, plus there was some construction happening while we were there, meaning that some boarding points were diverted from certain parts of the subways to others. It is no wonder then that even New Yorkers also didn’t quite know where to go to board half the time, and as nice as they were, a lot of them couldn’t help us. We also found that there was generally a lack of visibility of the staff who were supposed to help people out around the stations. Quite surprising, especially considering the amount of tourist traffic NY receives.
Before we would leave the hotel my sister would map out our routes. She would take screenshots of the directions we would need to take, and this proved to be very useful.
One really different (relative to transport operations in South Africa) and great thing is that the subway fare is standard, regardless of distance. It costs US$2,75 per trip, and unless you exit the subway, that is all the money you will pay. Sometimes when changing lines, one has to come out of the subway and back in across the block or further, so it is important to ascertain that a free transfer is afforded on the ticket.
There is also what is called the airtrain which transports to, from and around all six terminals at JFK airport. That one costs US$5 per trip.
It is ideal to purchase weekly passes or other such tickets, as they work out to be cheaper than singles.
Definitely opt for accommodation that comes with breakfast, as this will save on costs. Take along fruit and water to sustain you as you do your sightseeing. There are a plethora of eateries to try out, some of which include Jack’s Wife Freda, The Shake Shack and the Ethiopian vegan Spice Rack.
My sister and I would generally only spend on a late lunch meal, and would sometimes have snacks at night, if necessary. American food portions tend to be very generous, so do not worry about how you will survive on just two meals per day. And besides, you will generally find that simple meals in NY equate to what one could buy at fancy restaurants in SA. I imagine that this is enough of a deterrent to spend a lot on food.
US$20 per head was our limit on food per day, and in fact, we hardly ever spent more than US$15 per day.
And finally, free stuff to do in NYC
The business model whereby a lot of free things are offered up at sites as a means to lure crowds seems to have been employed quite extensively in NY. Mementos are sold for varying price ranges and numerous eateries and other shopping places are also found at these sites.
Some of the “free” stuff we got up to and places we visited include 5th Ave and Boulevard high street shopping, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Brooklyn Bridge, Staten Island (Statue of Liberty visible en-route to it), 911 Memorial Museum (admission free on Tuesdays from 5.00 pm).
A final word of caution: be careful not to try to do too many things as this may be more exhausting than it is relaxing, thereby defeating the purpose of vacationing.
Now go out there and see NY, and remember to always wear comfortable shoes!