The Cowarts take Manhattan

How to tackle a family trip to NYC on a tight budget

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During the summer of 2015 our family embarked on a large-scale trip: a five-week, cross-country adventure in a camper we had owned for just three months. We were two adults, two tweens, one teen, a Shih Tzu and a frog, and we were new to camping. The trip was a huge success and we’ve had the travel bug ever since, but we haven’t taken on anything too challenging with our camper since then. We have camped locally and we traveled to New Hampshire last summer, which was a relatively easy trip.

Jump ahead two years, and our teen from 2015 is now a junior at Cranston High School West and is on the college exploration journey. Touring colleges is easy if the schools are local, but touring schools out of state can be a little bit more challenging and expensive when you start to add in travel costs. Our teen had several schools on her list in the New York City area and we earmarked the April Vacation week for heading down to visit them. As newlyweds just out of college more than 20 years ago, we lived and taught in central New Jersey for almost three years, and in that time we were in and out of New York City multiple times, but we hadn’t been back since then. New York City as a young couple versus New York City with three kids is two completely different things and there’s a lot to consider. For our family, considering a budget for a trip like this was important. We did not plan a big vacation for this year because we had other large-scale projects underway, so an expensive vacation wasn’t in the budget. However, the tours needed to be done, and this particular week seemed to be the best week to do it. We considered splitting the tours up over different one-day trips, but going to the same place three different times, driving seven or eight hours each time, round-trip, didn’t make sense. Leaving two of the three kids and one adult home while everyone else went to New York City also didn’t seem to make sense when this was such a high-interest travel spot for all of us. No one wanted to be left behind on a trip like this. With that in mind we started to consider camping, even though it was going to be very early in the season.

We knew we couldn’t camp right in New York City, clearly, but we began to explore camping outside of the city and found a spot close by that advertised being open all year: Liberty Harbor RV Park and Marina in Jersey City, New Jersey. As campgrounds go, it was nothing fancy: a large, open asphalt parking lot with lots of spaces and hookups for water and electric only, and with a dump station on the campgrounds. It was expensive at $95 a night when compared to other camping we had done, but it was a true bargain compared to five of us staying in a hotel, even a cheaper one in or near New York City. Having the camper meant we would be able to take the dog with us again, saving us on kennel charges for a week, and we were leaving the frog with a friend. It also meant we could eat our meals mostly in, saving money that way, and pack lunches to take with us into the city if we wanted to, utilizing our normal weekly grocery budget for that money. We would plan quick, easy meals to cook inside the camper kitchen while we were there as there were no outside cooking facilities. Towing a camper is like towing your house behind you and almost all the comforts of home along with you, including a refrigerator, freezer, oven and stovetop, and a pantry. It also meant I could work from the road, and not miss a deadline or a paycheck, typing all the way down and back, sending in my stories once we arrived on either end. Preparing for the trip

The next thing we had to consider was whether or not we could be ready for this trip at the start of April Vacation week. We had Easter the day before and just one day off, which was Good Friday, along with that weekend in between, in which we would need to get the camper un-winterized, cleaned, re-stocked and ready to go, in addition to preparing for the holiday weekend. It was going to be tight, but we thought we could do it. We booked the campground, checking in on Monday, April 16 and out on Friday, April 21, paying half the cost up front.

Once we were officially booked, I began researching “New York City on a budget,” and was pleasantly surprised. There was so much to see and do that was completely free. Because our kids had never been to the city before, we had a blank canvas to work with. They would be pretty happy no matter what we planned because it was all new and exciting, as first times always are. I began to screenshot free excursion ideas on my phone, and by the end, I had found pages and pages of things to do. We had the benefit of local public transportation on our side, too. The New Jersey PATH was within walking distance to the campground, just five blocks away, and the more we researched, the more we realized that was all we would need; that and our feet. We would be doing lots of walking, although we still would not realize just how much until the trip was over and done. That said, there was some wiggle room in our budget for something that cost money during this trip, whether it was an excursion or experiencing some local food, or both. I put aside $200 in cash specifically with that in mind. Two-hundred dollars for five people doesn’t allow for a lot, but the kids were each bringing their own money for souvenirs, and we were confident we could make it work. All the sights to see

Knowing that our campground’s location was on Liberty Harbor and within view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and knowing that these were two of the things on our kids’ wish lists of things to do on the trip, we opted to make that excursion one of our paid trips. At $18 per adult and $9 for our under 12 child which included both destinations and a ferry ride on New York Harbor, we felt it was worthwhile. We had already told our kids not to have their hearts set on any one thing, and to be prepared to go with the flow and be flexible on this trip, but this was definitely something we could do affordably.

Once we arrived in Jersey City, we were pleasantly surprised how beautiful the area was where the campground was located, and we also realized we were very close to Carlo’s Bakery, the original site of the popular TV show, “Cake Boss,” of which we were big fans. We put that on our short list of New Jersey destinations to explore and we planned to spend some of our cash on some special treats at the bakery on one of the days. We really loved the areas of Jersey City and Hoboken, and if we had more time on our trip, we would have loved to have seen more of the local area.

Two of the colleges we wanted to see were both in New York City, and one was in Brooklyn. When booking tours we were not able to get a spot on a tour for the Brooklyn school, and because it was a secure campus, closed to the public rather than an open campus, we made the decision to do that trip over the summer which meant we now had our entire first full day on Tuesday, for sightseeing. We made that our Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island day, treated the kids and ourselves to ice cream at the ferry site, ate dinner at home early in the evening, and planned to head back out for a few hours at night. We figured out that Ground Zero was near the Brooklyn Bridge, free to the public, and that on Tuesday nights the 9/11 National Museum was free from 5:00 p.m. until closing. I had read that one of the things people do is to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, something that was also free. We knew that the museum was a long-shot, but we opted to try, although we did not make it in before they ran out of tickets. Walking the bridge was something that completely fascinated me, and I wanted to try to do that for sure, knowing we would probably not get to do something like that again soon. One of our kids was very under the weather, (we’d be finding a local pharmacy for antibiotics the next day), so we decided to just walk to the middle of the bridge and back again. It was by far one of the coolest things we’ve gotten to do, and at sunset on Tuesday night it was both exhilarating and scenic. We got to the top, took our photos and headed down again, heading back to the PATH. By the time we got home that night, we had each walked approximately 16,000 steps.

Wednesday we had a college tour booked for 2:00 p.m. and wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to get into the city, get situated and eat our packed lunches prior to the tour starting. We had the pharmacy stop for antibiotics first thing in the morning at a local Target in Hoboken, and headed to Carlo’s Bakery after that. We loved everything about Carlo’s and Hoboken except that parking was very challenging. Although we thought we had found a legal spot, we ended up with a $45 parking ticket due to an alternate side of the street cleaning schedule which we didn’t realize when we parked. That was not in our budget, and we were frustrated and unhappy for a few minutes initially, but we chalked it up to being something we couldn’t do much about and we enjoyed our pastries, heading back to the camper to let the dog out, and pack some lunches before heading into the city. The kids loved the daily subway adventures and it was cheap transportation at $2.75 each person, each way, each day.

After our college tour, we headed back home to the camper for the night. We had a sick kid, a dog waiting at home, and we didn’t want to push it anymore that night. Flexibility on a trip like this is key, especially when traveling with kids. Nothing ever goes as planned, so we try not to be tied to too much of a plan. Total steps walked for each of us on Wednesday: over 8,000. Wrapping up

Thursday we had a full day planned for the last day of our whirlwind trip. We wanted to be in the city to see a little bit before the tour at 2:00 p.m. and we wanted to spend some time after the tour in the Times Square area afterwards, eating NY Style pizza for dinner with our extra cash before heading home. We exited the PATH at 33rd Street, and found ourselves at the famous Macy’s, where the parade takes place, not far from Madison Park and the Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue and several other fun spots. We had heard that Highline Park, old train tracks now repurposed for sightseeing, was not far, was free and was close to the Chelsea area, down by the water, so we planned on that for our lunch spot, and then we would head over to the school for the tour.

By 3 p.m. we’d already walked more than 10,000 steps and the day wasn’t over yet. We had so much fun that first part of the day, taking photos of scenic spots and famous spots, and eating our lunch on the old train tracks. After our tour, we headed towards Times Square, and to another one of the destinations we’d hoped to see: the Mood fabric store located in the Garment District which is featured on the “Project Runway” TV show. We found the store, which for three young seamstresses and designers was a huge highlight of the trip, went inside, snapped some photos and headed on out to Times Square. In addition to experiencing Times Square itself, we wanted to see the Theater District, but not actually see a show. We found our pizza at Two Brothers Pizza place, where we ate our dinner alongside all the other patrons, standing up. We were sure to eat it folded in half, just as the New Yorkers do. It was exciting and delicious. We were starving, and we inhaled our food. We spent just $12 on two slices of pizza each, plus two drinks. (Three of us had drinks with us that we wanted instead, although we had money for drinks for everyone if they wanted them.) We finished quickly and began to head back to the PATH. By the time we got back to the camper we had all walked about 20,000 steps that day for a total of nearly 50,000 steps in the three days’ time we’d been on our trip.

In total we spent just under $800 on this trip to NYC: $420 for the campground, $90 at for the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Ferry rides, $25 for ice cream, $83 on the PATH, $100 for gas, $30 at Carlo’s Bakery and $12 on pizza. We have an EZ Pass, so our toll money, estimated at about $50, was taken from that. We all went home with some cash left in our pockets.

We owe the city of Hoboken $45 for a parking ticket.

All in all, it was a fabulous, affordable trip. We would definitely camp at Liberty Harbor RV Park and Marina again, and we have so many things we didn’t get to see on this trip that we could do next time. New York City can seem like an overwhelming trip to plan, but I think we did well, seeing a little bit of everything and I think there’s something for all budgets, even a small one like ours.

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