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10 Necessary New York City Travel Tips for First-Timers

10 Necessary New York City Travel Tips for First-Timers

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Are you visiting New York City for the first time? Check out these amazing New York City travel tips for first-timers that will save you stress!
This list of New York City travel tips was written by family travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

Booked a trip to the Big Apple and need some New York City travel tips for first-timers? 

NYC is such a fun city break for couples, families, solo travelers, or friends. I had just as much fun on a romantic trip with my husband as I did trekking around with my oldest son!

Whether you’re into world-class museums, exploring parks, or eating as much incredible food as possible there is plenty for everyone.

Not to mention the number of iconic and historic landmarks in New York too!

That’s why you need all the tips for visiting NYC you can get before you go. What should be an exciting trip will quickly become expensive and overwhelming without knowing essential NYC tourist tips.

This guide provides all the tips for visiting New York City for the first time. You have such an exciting and memorable vacation, you will want to return again and again!

Don’t have time to read a bunch of New York City blog posts and reviews? Here are some of our top picks for visiting NYC with kids.

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Necessary New York City Travel Tips for First-Timers

Planning Your New York City Visit

One of the best New York City travel tips for first-timers is to not overstuff your itinerary. Yes, there is a lot to do in New York but even people who live there for years struggle to ‘do’ it all.

Let’s start with the can’t-misses on a first-time NYC trip. You have to see the Statue of Liberty, visit Central Park, head to Times Square at night, and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. You have to catch a Broadway show too!

Photo in front of the Brooklyn Bridge at a popular NYC instagram spot in Brooklyn's DUMBO neighborhood #dumbo #flytographer #brooklyn #nycphotographer #nycphotospot
Don’t miss the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo credit: Armondo from Flytographer

Put one museum and one viewpoint on your itinerary. You can always add more if you have time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum are both exceptional museums. Top of the Rock and One World Observatory are also great viewpoints for first-timers.

One of the best New York City tips and tricks is to fill out your itinerary with fun activities, pitstops, and eateries close to places you are already visiting. 

Image of a mom and boy in front of the Statue of Liberty
It’s totally worth seeing the Statue of Liberty up close! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

You might want to stop by New York City Public Library on your way to Grand Central. Or, you might want to check out the Ghostbusters Fire House if you’re paying the 9/11 Memorial a visit nearby.

How Long Do You Need in New York City?

You need to spend at least four days in New York City on a first-time visit. If you plan three days or fewer, you might miss big-ticket and iconic landmarks or have no downtime.

You can break it down like this:

  • 1st day – Midtown
  • 2nd day – Downtown
  • 3rd day – Villages
  • 4th day – Upper

If you have more time, you could also visit Brooklyn or Coney Island or even take a day trip.

New York City Subway Tips

Without a doubt, the best way to travel in New York City is the subway. 

Taking the subway is often faster than hailing a cab and it’s almost certainly cheaper. Currently, one single journey costs $2.75 for most users.

Image of a boy standing on a NYC subway
We found the NYC subways system easy to navigate. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

You can either use the OMNY system or use a Metrocard to pay for a subway ride. If you have a contactless debit or credit card, you can tap it on the OMNY screen to enter the gates. 

A Metrocard is basically a New York City travel pass. You can get one and fill it with as much money as you know you will use on the subway at the ticket machines. Refill it at the machines when you’ve spent the existing balance.

One of the best NYC travel tips for navigating the subway is to use Google Maps to find the best route. It’s not foolproof, but nine times out of ten you will get where you want to go.

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    Yellow Cabs and Ride Shares in NYC

    Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are widely available in New York City, but you should consider taking a ride in an iconic yellow taxi cab first!

    TAXI on the 5th avenue in NYC
    Taxis are an easy way to get around NYC.

    The base charge is $3.00 with a state tax surcharge of $0.50 and an improvement surcharge of $1.00. Taxi drivers accept credit cards and cash but will not usually accept notes over $20.

    There are usually flat airport fares and you should give a tip.

    If only the center light on the roof is lit, the taxi is available. If it isn’t lit at all or the entire panel is lit then it is unavailable. Raise your arm to hail a taxi and if you have a strong whistle then put it to good use here.

    Learn How New York City Streets Work

    You probably already know this from movies or friends, but one of the top things to know before going to New York that will help you get around is the New York City grid system.

    Most of the city is built on perfectly horizontal and vertical streets.

    Image of a mom and son in front of the Empire State Building
    Be prepared for lots of walking in NYC. Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

    The vertical streets are avenues and they are numbered 1st to 11th, east to west. The horizontal streets are numbered streets starting at 1st Street in the south and all the way up to 193rd Street in the north.

    For example, the Empire State Building’s address is 20 West 34th Street between avenues 5th and 6th.

    Of course, Manhattan isn’t an exact rectangle. Some streets, particularly Downtown, have regular names.

    Book a Family Photo Shoot

    Whenever we travel, we almost always book a family photo shoot with Flytographer. They are super easy, affordable, AND guarantee that I’ll be in some photos. You can get $25 off if you book through this link or use the code HAWAIITRAVEL.

    Cheap (or Free!) Alternatives to Big Attractions

    One of the key things to know before visiting New York for the first time is that it’s an expensive place to visit. Luckily, you can use these New York City tips to avoid extra costs.

    Nothing compares to visiting Liberty Island where you can see the Statue of Liberty up close and explore the Ellis Island museum.

    Photo of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, which is a free thing to do in NYC on a New York City 4 Day Itinerary #nyc #statueofliberty #freethingtodoinnyc #statenislandferry
    My husband took this photo of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry. Photo credit: Darren Cheung

    But if you’re short on funds, hop on the free Staten Island ferry which sails right passed Lady Liberty so you can take a closer look.

    Avoid visiting observation decks during their ‘peak’ hours when you might be hit with a $20 surcharge. The High Line Garden and Central Park’s Belvedere Castle are free, albeit less tall, alternatives.

    Rooftop bars like The Cantor Roof Garden Bar are perfect low-cost options for adults needing tips for going to New York City viewpoints.

    NYC has tons of great cheap eateries. Occasionally swap sit-down restaurants for diners like Tick Tock and pizza joints like Joe’s Pizza.

    Broadway Show Ticket Options

    Catching a Broadway show is an essential NYC experience. And there are so many New York City tips and tricks that will ensure you don’t have to buy tickets at full price.

    Image of a boy posing in front of signs for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
    We paid full price for our tickets, but it was totally worth it! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

    You can book discounted tickets through TKTS online, on the phone, or in person. Head to their booth in Time Square where they release heavily discounted tickets for performances that night (and the next day’s matinee performance, when applicable). 

    Discounted ‘rush’ tickets are sold for same-day performances when the theater’s box office opens in the morning. Hugely popular shows will have their own ‘lottery’ system where they award discounted tickets to a few lucky players and may not appear on TKTS.

    All of these tips for traveling to New York City on a budget will help you score much cheaper Broadway tickets.

    Alternatively, you can buy full-price tickets from the four official Broadway theater ticket vendors: Telecharge, Ticketmaster, ATG Tickets, and Roundabout Theatre Company. 

    Money in New York City

    Like all US cities, New York uses the dollar (USD) currency, and most if not all restaurants, hotels, and shops accept both cash and cards.

    Even street food trucks and taxis usually accept cards.

    man paying woman with dollars for the job
    We like to have cash on hand for tipping.

    However, it’s worth keeping a small amount of cash on you. One of the essential things to know before visiting NYC is that some souvenir stores will add a surcharge for card payments. They will often only accept cash for low-cost items e.g. postcards.

    Only withdraw cash from bank ATMs like Chase or Bank of America.

    Tipping is non-negotiable in all service transactions in NYC whether you’re ordering a smoothie to-go, a four-course meal at a restaurant, taking a taxi, or a walking tour.

    Amounts between $1 to 20% of the bill are acceptable as it really depends on the initial cost and level of service.

    Dining in New York City Tips

    These travel to New York City tips will help you enjoy the best of NYC’s cuisine no matter how long you have or your budget.

    We think that Chinatown has the best ice cream! Photo credit: Marcie Cheung

    You can probably find international cuisine from every single country in New York. But the classics are bagels, pizza slices, diner breakfasts, hot dogs, cheesecake, and pastrami deli sandwiches.

    Some of the best cheap places to eat these delicacies are Brooklyn Bagels, Joe’s Pizza, Tick Tock Diner, Gray’s Papaya, Junior’s, and Katz’s Deli. 

    Make a reservation at any restaurant you are really determined to visit or show up early expecting a wait.

    Safety and Awareness in New York City

    You will need some safety tips for traveling in New York City, but it’s surprisingly one of the top five safest large cities in the United States. Tourists are even safer than locals.

    An African American policewoman monitors traffic in a city environment, wearing a yellow vest and a white hat, her badge clearly showing on sleeve.
    Use common sense to keep yourself safe in NYC.

    Still, use your common sense. Leave your valuables in your hotel safe along with a spare credit card in case your wallet is stolen.

    You’re more likely to be a victim of crime on the subway. Never enter an empty subway carriage and keep a tighter hold of any bags. 

    Be wary of ticket touts and scams, and stick to well-lit streets at night.

    First-Timer’s Travel Tips for New York City FAQs

    Where are the best places to stay in New York City?

    Thanks to the subway system, one of the best New York City travel tips is to stay in the neighborhood that best suits your travel style and budget.

    The Upper West Side and East Side neighborhoods are quiet and close to Central Park so they are great for families. The Villages and Downtown are ideal for bars and nightlife, and Midtown has most of the best chain hotels and is in the heart of the city.

    Consider staying in one of the five boroughs aside from Manhattan like Queens or Brooklyn if you’re on a budget.

    When is the best time to visit New York City?

    For the perfect mix of pleasant weather, reasonable accommodation prices, and fewer tourists, the best time to visit New York City is in spring and fall.

    This may or may not be doable if you have school-age kids!

    Luckily, one of the key New York visit tips to know before you book is that there is never a bad time to travel to New York. Thanksgiving for the Macy’s Parade and the Christmas season for skating at Rockefeller Center, however, are top highlights.

    What to pack for a trip to New York City?

    Since you’re not going hiking, camping, or doing any strenuous physical activity, one of the best New York travel tips is to pack exactly what you would wear at home! Just pack a nicer outfit for watching Broadway shows.

    New York City is lucky enough to experience all four seasons. Pack your shorts in summer and gloves in winter.

    Another benefit of wearing your regular clothes in New York is that you’ll blend in and look less like a tourist. This will make you less of a target for scammers.

    No matter when you’re visiting, one of the most essential New York tips for tourists is to avoid open-toed and white shoes. It’s a beautiful city but the streets can be fairly filthy!

    New York City Travel Tips for First-Timers Wrap Up

    New York is a huge city with so many different neighborhoods to explore, activities to try, and food to eat. The right New York City travel advice can help you plan and navigate this often overwhelming place.

    Knowing these tips for visiting NYC for the first time will help you save money and stay safe.

    Ultimately, you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience in the City That Never Sleeps!

    Looking for more NYC travel resources? Check out my 4-day NYC itinerary, best NYC hotels for families, how to save money in New York City, NYC tours for families, best NYC day trips, and kid-friendly 7-day NYC itinerary!

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