A bucket list destination, and nowhere quite like it, New York attracts over 13 million visitors every year. A place with an unlimited amount of things to see, do, places to visit, places to eat, when it comes to planning your first time trip it can be totally overwhelming. I’ve been a good few times now, and still feel like there’s so much that I’ve yet to see, but have experienced enough to pull together this list of tips for first time visitors.
I’d say that it took me about three visits to no longer feel completely overwhelmed, and like a fish out of water, then my brief visit in 2017 was more of a refresher, with only 48 hours to explore and trying to see as much as possible was a challenge. My most recent trip Christmas 2018, gave us five days and in that time we made plenty mistakes, but overall I found it a lot easier.
So here’s my list of tips if you’re visiting New York for the first time. Just to make you aware this isn’t an itinerary, and it doesn’t list everything you should do or see. It’s the basics for navigating your way around this totally unique, hard going, fabulous city, and the more boring practical things to be aware of.
From the moment you board the plane reset your watch
All flights I’ve been on from the UK leave early, taking the full day to travel, but due to the 5 hour time difference you arrive around lunchtime New York time. Despite the excitement you’ll have, and the need to order champagne from the bar trolley, try to get as much rest as you can early in the flight. You’re going to need it.
Tackling jet lag
The best thing you can possibly do on day 1 of your trip is stay up as late as possible. Wear yourself out. Once you’re there and checked into your hotel, instead of lying down or ordering room service, get outside and discover your surroundings.
Keep going as late as you can even though you’ll be more than ready for bed by 6/7pm. Doing this will mean you should hopefully get a full night sleep and is the quickest way to ensure you sleep as late as possible to get on the right time zone – but I’ve never managed to ‘lie in’ in New York past 6am.
UK side check in
As well as the usual check in process, make sure you have the full address of your hotel or where you are staying, as there is an extra person at check in to take these details from you. They also check you have your ESTA so make sure you have that applied and been granted it well in advance – you can apply here, and its about £7-8.
Your ESTA is automatically added to your passport, so you don’t need to print it out, but you can if like me you’re paranoid there might be a problem. There never is, but for peace of mind!
The same with travel insurance – make sure you have it. You don’t want to be landed with hefty medical bills you need to pay up front should the worst happen.
Be prepared for getting through passport control
I’ve never known anything like passport control in New York. Massive lines and staff in absolutely no hurry mean you will be there at least an hour. The quicker you can get off the plane the better, go to the toilet before you land, and have your passport and traveler entry form that you will get on the plane to fill in.
They will often ask random questions, where you staying, what are you visiting for, when is your return flight, I’ve even had questions like do you know anyone in New York, what is their surname, do you have any tickets booked for events, what do you do for a living…
It can seem intimidating and like they’re trying to catch you out but it’s just their job, and they will throw them in while they check your passport, forms, and take your fingerprints.
From research a number of times I’ve found that booking private transfers actually isn’t the most cost effective way of getting from JFK or Newark airport to Manhattan. They are expensive and then with a tip added on they’re even more than the set fair the yellow cabs charge with tolls included.
The airport taxi systems are really good, monitored by staff and come with set fares with tolls of about $50-$60. And of course you’re in a traditional New York yellow cab.
When it comes to tipping taxi drivers, 20% is standard, and anything lower will probably result in them asking for more, or refusing to help you with your cases at the other end. You can pay by card, and tip options 20% and 25% appear on the screen, but I usually prefer cash.
A set fare from airports to Manhattan, plus tolls, plus tip, plus the initial charge and considering your baggage, you’re looking at a final cost of about $80.
Train to Manhattan
I’ve never got the train to Manhattan from JFK, but that is an option and it is significantly cheaper at about $8. It will take you to Penn Station, and from there you would need to either walk or get a cab from outside to your hotel.
This is the same for trains from Newark, which I have done. They also take you to Penn Station and are about $10-$12, followed by a cab.
I suppose it depends on preference, trains are cheaper, but take over an hour whereas cabs take about 40 minutes. Once you arrive at the station there is then the hassle of getting a cab and the journey from there to your hotel will add on more time.
It’s personal preference but I’d probably say get a cab, the Manhattan skyline view is not one you want to miss as you drive into New York for the first time.
Tipping at your hotel
When getting your money exchanged ask for low amounts, as from the moment you get there you need to factor in tipping. Taxi driver first, then when you pull up at your hotel there’s the concierge ($5), the receptionist if you fancy tipping them to see if you get an upgrade (not compulsory but always worked for me at $20) and the bell boy who will automatically take your luggage to your room ($5).
Most of this will just happen, it is unusual for people to do it themselves and whether you agree with tipping or not, it is the done thing in America. It’s expected and they will be offended if you don’t. They will make sure you know that as well.
Tipping in New York in general
Compared to other US cities I would say that tipping is even more expected in New York, and at a higher rate. 20% is the minimum, so factor this into your spending budgets. Even in fast food places and at street food vendors.
I do agree with tipping good service, but it goes way beyond that in the US, however you will get good service everywhere.
If you go to a bar, tip every round just by leaving a dollar on the bar, if someone in the subway helps you – tip them a couple of dollars, and you will also find that if homeless people see you looking lost they will offer their help and expect a tip even for directions.
If you want to avoid this its best to always look like you know where you’re going even if you don’t. Americans aren’t shy and I think for Brits first time in America it can catch you off guard. It’s always useful to have dollar notes and five dollar notes handy.
Use State side jet lag to your advantage
Waking up at 6am has it’s perks, we were pretty much up and out the hotel by 7:30 – 8am every day, and it can be a great time to see the city at a slightly quieter pace. Of course this is New York, nothing is ever quiet, but there is a big difference especially at the tourist spots like Rockefeller, 5th Avenue, Ground Zero etc.
Be aware that most shops don’t open until 10am, but if you’re just sightseeing and taking it all in early morning is the time to do it before the masses arrive.
Don’t get sucked into buying city passes – unless you want to!
I know some people swear by these, and I think if you’re aiming to actually go into museums then they are worth looking into to see if the ones you want are covered, however if you aren’t, and you want to make sure you fit as much as possible in without passing afternoons inside, then I really think you can see and do so much of New York without one. I’ve never paid for one yet.
The one museum I would recommend even if you aren’t a museum person, is the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It’s heartbreaking, but so worthwhile. Find out more here.
Pre book attractions that you do want to see
We pre booked Top of the Rock tickets, because we knew we wanted to be there at sunset, and we pre booked basketball tickets via Ticketmaster rather than risk them selling out.
I think for museums, or anything else like this then it is worth pre booking to be certain you get in, queues for everything are huge, so cutting them down even slightly will benefit you, especially if you have a specific time you want to go.
Statue of Liberty
If you just want to see the Statue of Liberty then opt for the free Staten Island ferry that sails right past and is free. It gives you an amazing view of both the Statue of Liberty and the lower downtown Manhattan skyline.
Of course if you want to actually go up to the Statue of Liberty then pre book, as mentioned above queues are enormous and you don’t want to waste valuable time.
Empire State of Top of the Rock?
I know people love to do the Empire State Building because it’s the Empire State building, but if you can only do one or the other I would without a doubt say do Top of the Rock instead, simply because in your incredible view of New York, the Empire State Building will be centre stage.
Here’s my full experience of it. It was incredible.
When it comes to bars and restaurants – don’t judge a book by its cover
New York dive bars, old bars and some of the most scruffy appearing places from the outside are the BEST bars you will ever go in. There’s simply too many to mention but I found this guide really helpful.
McSorley’s Old Ale House is a pub that was once a favourite spot of Abraham Lincoln – an Irish bar that serves light or dark beer and thats about it.
Rooftop bars are a thing too of course, and I found this guide to be really good.
Research your restaurants before you go
Choices are just unlimited, it would take a lot more than a blog post to go through them. I’ve found it completely overwhelming in the past so research the types of things you would like before you go. Book where you can, especially for popular spots. Again, there are way too many to mention and for so many different tastes, but I am going to do a post on the places I’ve ate at soon.
As a first timer an amazing New York steak can be found at Del Frisco’s, you have to try Joe’s Pizza (if its good enough for Leo?!), and for the best fast food burger you will ever have go to Shake Shack. After a long flight this is an absolute dream! Get a deli sandwich from Katz deli, and an ice cream from the Big Gay Ice Cream shop.
Just make sure you do a Manhattan brunch at some point in your trip. They are legendary and so many places offer good deals, bottomless options and huge all day weekend menus. More on these to come.
Where to stay
For a first time visit I would say accept the costs and stay in Manhattan, ideally midtown, or as central as possible. If not then somewhere near a subway for the days you just can’t walk anymore.
My favourite place to stay is Midtown/West – near Broadway, near Times Square, near Central Park, near 5th and 6th Avenue, but without being right in amongst the masses of people.
I’ve stayed at The London, the Wellington and The Time. The London was the most luxurious and pricey, The Time was my favourite.
Be prepared for how small the hotel rooms are. Standard rooms are pretty small, unless your splashing some serious cash for upgrades or a suite.
Getting about the city
For as much as possible its just easier to walk, and there’s so much to see I love walking the neighbourhoods. If you break down your trip into areas, you can reduce the need for the subway by targeting specific areas on each day, and using the subway to get to the ones further away.
The subway is easy to use, and it’s a set cost of $2.75 per ride wherever you go. You can buy metro cards for a one off fee of $1 and top them up with as much or little as you want for your stay.
I’d really recommend getting this subway app, as its really similar to the London tube map and it’s easy to use. When you’re using the subway make sure two things – a. you’re going in the right direction (uptown/downtown), that you’re not on the express train that doesn’t stop at loads of places. It’s all signed up and staff are also on hand to help if you get stuck.
Know your own limits is a big tip that I would give you. Stop for coffee breaks and to rest your feet. Try to resist the urge to cram as much as possible in and instead plan your days carefully. I have a 24 hour, a three day, and a five day itinerary coming soon with what I think are the best things to do in those time frames.
This is something that took me a while to get used to because you don’t even realise you’re doing it, but as well as driving on the right side of the road, they also walk that way too. We wondered why we were bumping into so many people and getting looks, but then we realised the unofficial fast lane on the pavement is opposite to in the UK.
Pay attention to the white man (not the green man) telling you when you can cross the road. Locals will stride out when they know it’s safe so follow suit or you will find yourself being herded anyway.
Essentials to pack
Whatever the weather or the season, comfy shoes are an absolute must. You will walk further than you’ve ever walked, you will be going up and down subway steps, standing in queues, dodging the crowds, getting lost trying to find short cuts and take twice as long, you just need to be comfortable.
I wore trainers every day except one, and lasted two hours less on my feet on the day I wore boots. Just be comfortable, and take blister kit.
You’ll need sunglasses year round, and a bag that’s easy to carry and that zips up. In winter take layers because it gets unbelievably cold, you will definitely need hat, gloves and scarves.
Take the best camera you own because some of the views are just incredible, and photos never do it justice. You might as well get as close to the highest quality picture you can.
Take paracetamol, because the first day you might get a headache with the jet lag and tiredness, and I’ve never yet figured out the equivalent in the US.
Plenty money! Whatever you think you will need, add 20% on for tipping, and then add at least half again. If you’re visiting New York you’re probably willing to spend, and are going to want to splash out, but be realistic and keep a check on your spending as you go.
Broadway Show tickets
Seeing a Broadway show is on many people’s first time in NYC lists, and it is pretty impressive. The choice is endless, and a tip you will often see is to purchase on the day itself from the TKTS booth. This is true, but queues can be huge. Locals tend to purchase just before the show starts, there’s almost always tickets left and they’re cheaper.
If you don’t want to risk it though, then still get them on the day. The TKTS app also lets you know which shows are discounted that day. The best bit of advice I can give you if you’re going to a show is to do it a few days in. With the jet lag and time difference you will be tired early, and even the most amazing show can be a struggle in a warm comfy theatre.
Views you shouldn’t miss
- Top of the Rock
- The skyline from the Staten Island ferry
- The view back from Brooklyn Bridge
- The view from Brooklyn Bridge Park
- The view from the cross section of Washington Street and Water Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Here you can see the Empire State Building framed by the Manhattan Bridge.
- The Empire State Building through the library room in the New York Public Library
- Times Square in the day and at night – but don’t hang around. See it once then spend your time more wisely. It’s tourist hell.
- If you’re there at Christmas – the Rockefeller Tree
Those are the key things I would advise anyone going to New York for the first time. Some of them are pretty obvious, but others you learn by trial and error. Like when you’re smashing into people and have no idea why they’re all in your way until you realise they walk on the other side. Tipping is definitely a big one, and using your time wisely is vital to getting the most from your time there. Unlike other cities New York isn’t one you can just turn up to and wander around. To get the most out of it it’s really worth researching and planning your trip.
If you’re yet to go on your first visit I’m very jealous, and hope you have an amazing time! Check back soon for itineraries and places to eat.
There is nothing like your first sight of New York as you fly in, and step out onto the Manhattan streets. It’s an incredible city, but you will absolutely need a holiday after to recover.
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