It doesn’t come as a huge secret if I tell you that I love New York. I always did… or at least I always loved the thought of New York. It wasn’t until our honeymoon in 2012 that I actually manage to visit New York for the first time.
At the time the idea was to have an extended stay (we stayed 11 nights) to see it all and get it over and done with… been there, done that, got the T-shirt kinda thing.
But little did I know. Yes by the time we got back from our honeymoon we felt so overwhelmed and tired (I mean how many miles can you walk in a day for days on end without losing the will to live) that I would have totally subscribed to that ‘been there done that’ idea… but as time passed (and my muscles stopped hurting) I started longing for New York again. And the rest is history as they say. We have been back a few times since and are preparing for yet another trip in the New Year.
So what better time to share with you some tips for your first trip to New York.
Before you travel to New York
If you are a UK traveller (or from most other European countries), you don’t need to apply for a Visa before you travel to New York. However you will need to apply for your ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).
It is fairly straight forward to fill in the form online and you will have to complete your registration at least 72 hours before travelling. You will have to pay a small fee (around 14$), but it is then valid for two years, so should you travel again within this time, you don’t have to pay again (you should however log in and update your travel details if you go a second time). Make sure you have your ESTA number to hand when travelling.
It is no longer necessary to fill in a landing card, this was abolished in April 2019.
New York for the first time: Which airport for New York City
New York is served by three main airports: JFK, La Guardia and Newark.
Whilst JFK and La Guardia are both in Queens, Newark is actually in New Jersey (so across the bay). Personally I’ve always flown in and out of JFK, so I can’t really comment on the others.
When choosing your flight, make sure you also check how to get from the airport to your destination.
New York for the first time: How to get from JFK to Manhattan
During our first trip, we stayed bang in the middle of Manhattan, literally next door to Grand Central Terminal, so we opted for one of the shuttle busses from JFK. At the time this seemed the easiest option, in hindsight I wouldn’t use it again. You are stuck in traffic and it takes forever, but yes it seemed the easiest option. Nowadays I’d much rather use the Air Train from JFK to Jamaica Station or Howard Beach, then change into the subway (read on for more information on the subway and public transport in New York). The AirTrain costs you $7.75 per journey (it has gone up quite a bit recently, it used to be $5). So in combination with the subway (at $2.75 per ride) you’ll get to Manhattan for $10.50 a head (next to nothing if you ask me and certainly a lot less than a cab fare).
Best places to stay in New York
When visiting New York for the first time we booked a hotel bang in the middle of Manhattan, right next to Grand Central Terminal. We figured that most of the things we wanted to see were located in Manhattan and therefore staying somewhere central would cut down travel time and allow us to see it all. And to be honest, for the first trip, this was absolutely ideal. We could go in and out, be out early or late without having to worry about travel trips.
Whilst we enjoyed being so central for our first trip, we opted for more remote locations for the next two trips. On both occasions we rented flats via Airbnb, once in Brooklyn, just on the edge of Williamsburg and once in Queens. Downside was a longer travel to Manhattan, however it gave us a chance to see more rural areas of New York (and save some money by preparing some meals ourselves rather than going to restaurants three times a day).
However in recent years NYC has changed their laws and renting via Airbnb isn’t as easy any more. Unless your host ensures they hold the relevant licenses and obey the rules, chances are your host might be renting out illegally. So we decided not to chance it any more and book a hotel again (thanks to a really great offer, we will stay at the same 5 star hotel where we spent our honeymoon).
I am not telling you where best to stay, as this very much depends on your personal preferences and itinerary, but I would advise when planning your stay in New York, take into consideration what you want to see and which places you want to visit and pick your location wisely. As with every major city, the further out you go, the cheaper it will be. But then again you ‘pay’ by spending more time commuting.
One thing I would urge you to keep an eye for is the New York Destination Fee. Some hotels have recently started charging a daily amenity fee on top of the room fare. And if you get caught out, this could easily blow your budget.
Understanding New York addresses
When visiting New York for the first time, understanding street addresses can be very confusing.
Manhattan is mostly built on a straight grid, with the Avenues going vertical and the Streets going horizontal. And both Streets and Avenues being numbered rather than named, with the lowest Streets being down south and the lowest Avenues being East.
And Broadway cutting through it all at an angle. You see, easy peasy… well it will be, once you get the hang of it.
Fifth Avenue divides Manhattan into Eastside and Westside, so if your address is West 42nd Street, it means it will be West of Fifth Avenue with the lower house numbers being nearer to Fifth Avenue than the higher ones.
Easiest is to give the junction of Avenue and Street, as this will narrow it down considerably.
Uptown and downtown isn’t a fixed location, it always varies where you are. If you are going northwards (so towards the higher street numbers) you are going uptown, go down towards the lower street numbers and you’ll go downtown.
How to get around New York
I don’t know about you, but I do love public transport and I don’t mind using it wherever I go (provided there are decent transport links).
Getting around New York is fairly easy. There is a 24/7 subway system plus busses. To use those I’d advise to buy a Metrocard and load it with a 7 day unlimited travel pass (it currently costs $33 + $1 for the reloadable ticket).
Unfortunately MTA does not offer a daily pass or price cap, it is either a 7 day (or 30 day) ticket or you’ll have to pay single fares at $2.75 a pop (however each single fare is valid for 90 minutes, so you can change busses as often as you want within those 90 minutes).
So if you plan on exploring all of New York and are staying longer than a day or two, I would strongly recommend going for the 7 day pass.
You can buy your ticket at any subway station (including Jamaica and Howard Beach, making it easy to connect from the Air Train to the subway), but try and avoid rush hour, otherwise you might queue for a while.
Unlike London, New York does not have travel zones. It is a flat fare, regardless how far you go. Therefore, you will only need to swipe your pass when you enter the subway station, not when exiting.
Finding subway stations can be a little tricky at first. Look out for the green lanterns at street junctions, as most subway stations don’t have an over ground building, but are completely below ground. And have two separate entrances for the two platforms. So you are advised to check the destination before heading below ground, as you will have to go out one side, cross the street and go down the other side if you get it wrong.
Before you get on board of the subway, double check if it is a local or express train. They go the same way, but unlike the local train the express train will not stop at each station. Check the subway plan to see whether your destination is an express station or local station.
If you have a Metrocard ticket, this does also allow you to take the Roosevelt Island Tramway, an aerial tramway connecting Manhattan and Roosevelt Island.
Roosevelt Island is a narrow island in the East River, located underneath Queensboro Bridge (although with no direct access via the bridge). It used to house a hospital and prison, which have long closed. Nowadays there are a few thousand people living on the island and you can go for a nice walk (or have a BBQ in the park) and enjoy great views of Manhattan.
Entrance to the Roosevelt Island Tramway is at the corner East 60th Street / 2nd Avenue.
There are also a couple of water taxis / ferries that you can also take. The best known is probably the Staten Island Ferry, which you can take for free and which takes you – you guessed it – to Staten Island.
This is primarily a commuter ferry, but as long as you stay clear of the rush hour, no one will mind you taking it. It takes around half an hour to get to Staten Island and there isn’t a huge deal to do once you get there (unless you plan on actually going further inland), however it does give you a great view of Manhattan (and the Statue of Liberty whilst going past).
Another one of those ferries is the NYC Ferry, a water taxi with several routes along the East River. The route we’ve taken was from Wall Street (Pier 11) upriver to East 34th Street. This ferry isn’t for free, but at $2.75 per single ticket – less than a coffee at Starbucks and the same price as a standard subway ride – you get to see Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge from below.
Busses are fairly easy to use, although it helps to visualise how the Manhattan grid works (see above), before trying to figure out the bus system. It is important to remember that most of the Streets and Avenues are one way only, alternating from one to the other …for example 43rd Street goes from East to West, 44th Street from West to East, 5th Avenue goes North to South, 6th Avenue goes South to North.
In addition to the normal bus routes there are also Express Routes in operation (recognisable by the X in front of the route number), which skip several stops, allowing you to get to your destination quicker, however these require a special ticket and can’t be used with the normal Metrocard.
Have your ticket ready when getting onto the bus, as you will need it.
To get off, touch the yellow strip next to the windows to indicate that you would like to exit.
Of course you can also take a yellow taxi to get around New York. Not necessarily the cheapest option there is, but sometimes the most convenient (especially when travelling late at night). There are fixed prices, which are clearly displayed on the side of each taxi. During the day there is chance you get stuck in traffic for a while, meaning you spend a lot of money and might have been quicker just walking, but if you travel off-peak (i.e. late at night) a taxi ride isn’t going to break the bank.
If you are using a smart phone (and I assume most of us do nowadays), I would recommend you download a transport app like Citymapper to help you find the most convenient travel option for your destination. You can also download a MTA subway plan (or pick up a free paper copy at one of the stations if you want to go old school).
Must Sees when visiting New York for the first time
There are lot of things to do and see in New York and not everyone wants to see the same things. Also your ideal itinerary will vary whether you have just a day or two, a week or even longer. Therefore I would strongly recommend you get yourself a guidebook and have a read to see what interests you and what doesn’t.
If you have enough time, I would always recommend a walk through Central Park, a view from above (be it from the Empire State Building or from Top of the Rocks), window-shopping on 5th Avenue, the Guggenheim or MoMA, a visit to the Statue of Liberty and probably Ground Zero.
I hope you will find this helpful when planning your first trip to New York.
* All links are my own recommendations, no affiliate links used *