Bus tours, Applebee's, and other ways to needlessly burn through cash in NYC

When most people visit New York City for the first time, they blow through more cash than they thought possible. For starters, just about everything -- food, nightlife, museums, shopping -- costs more in Manhattan than it does in any other American city. In some instances, the splurges are worth it -- a Broadway show, for example. But time and again, visitors end up flushing their time and money right down the most hyped or most familiar crapper. As a follow-up to our previous post, “Don’t get scammed: 5 ways New York City’s tourists get swindled,” here’s a look at the most common ways in which travelers needlessly waste their time and money when visiting New York City, and what you can do to travel smarter.

If you can find the same restaurant in Leawood, Kansas, just keep walking...
If you can find the same restaurant in Leawood, Kansas, just keep walking...

Double-decker bus tours

Every day, two major companies dispatch a small fleet of double-decker buses to loop around Manhattan and Brooklyn, stopping at most major attractions so that tourists (only tourists) can “hop off” at the neighborhood of interest or “hop on” after waiting upwards of 30 minutes. While driving, a tour guide spouts barely audible common knowledge and a few bits of amusing, if erroneous, NYC trivia.

One of many tour bus vendors in Times Square
One of many tour bus vendors in Times Square

And how much does this semi-convenient, somewhat-annoying jaunt around the city cost? About $50+ for a 48-hour pass; over three times the price of an unlimited-ride subway and bus pass from the MTA. Of course, some travelers may be wary of public transportation. Rest assured: NYC’s public transit is more reliable, faster, safer, and easier to navigate than the frequently re-routing double-decker bus system. Plus, given the steady-stream of musicians in the subway, it’s often more interesting too.

Plus, if you want a guided tour, note that there are numerous free walking tours throughout the city, including those from the Village Alliance in the West Village, the Lower East Side Visitors Center, the Times Square Alliance, the Grand Central Station Visitors Center, and the Central Park Conservancy, among others.

Three-hour queue-up at the Empire State Building

No doubt, it’s a beautiful view. But you don’t have to pay $19 (per person) and wait two to three hours in line in order to see the skyline. One option is to go to the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center -- it’s just as expensive, but the view is arguably better (as you can see the Empire State Building in it) and the lines aren’t quite as brutal, most of the time. Alternatively, you can forego the cover-charge altogether and catch a cocktail at the swanky Salon De Ning on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel or check out our list of the best rooftop bars in New York. You’re not quite as elevated, but the view’s always better with a drink in hand.

A view from the Salon De Ning rooftop bar at the Peninsula Hotel
A view from the Salon De Ning rooftop bar at the Peninsula Hotel

Times Square’s franchise restaurants

In Manhattan, about the only place you’ll find an Applebee’s or a T.G.I. Friday’s is amidst the tourist crowds in Times Square. Whether the over-salted, mass-produced, largely homogenous cuisine is worth it in other towns is open to debate. But in New York City the menu prices at these restaurants skyrocket -- at $20 for a burger, you can do much better in the nation’s culinary capital. If you’re in Times Square, walk just five- to 10 minutes west to Ninth and Tenth avenues where you’ll find dozens of superior restaurants that often cost less (Gallo Nero, Eatery, and Hallo Berlin are some of our nearby favorites).

Access the Met for any donation, really

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of New York's finest (and freest) museums
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of New York's finest (and freest) museums

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) has arguably the greatest collection of priceless artifacts anywhere in North America, and yet it’s open to the public free of charge (they merely ask that everyone donate what they can upon entry). Of course, the museum doesn’t want to be too forthcoming about this fact; misleading signage at the entrance that reads “$26.50 adult admission” and most tourists pay up without a second thought. If you can afford the suggested donation, by all means dig deep -- preserving thousand-year-old tapestries is not cheap -- but if all you can budget is an extra $5, don’t let it stop you from seeing the famous relics. Don’t worry about cynical looks from staffers either; they’ll probably just assume you’re a local.

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