Tips for Your First Time in New York

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Manhattan

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Bloomingdales

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
5th Avenue

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Times Square

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Grand Central Station

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
View from the Highline

Airport taxis

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Upper East Side

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Penn Station

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
The Time Hotel

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
View from Brooklyn Bridge

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.

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Central Park

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
New York Public Library

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
9/11 Memorial

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.

The Rockefeller Center and Top of the Rock, New YorkPIN IT
Top of the Rock

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Lady Liberty

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.

The Rockefeller Center and Top of the Rock, New YorkPIN IT
New York at sunset

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Rooftop views

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Shake Shack

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. This blog post has info on my favourite three!

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Manhattan Brunch

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.

The London Hotel, NYCPIN IT
The London Hotel NYC

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
New York street view

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Flatiron

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Lower East Side

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Union Square

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Radio City

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Broadway

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
Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Empire State Building

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.

Tips for your first time in New YorkPIN IT
Brooklyn

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.

Other posts you might like:

Top of the Rock and the Rockefeller Center

Visiting New York at Christmas

A Luxury Stay at The London NYC

Winter City Breaks – 14 Cities

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Tips for first time visitors in New YorkPIN IT
Tips for first time visitors in New York



Comment

14 Comments

  • Chloe - New Girl in Toon
    12th January 2019

    It’s like you knew! We booked flights to NYC at the weekend, we fly in October neither of us have ever been before and I am SO EXCITED! I’ve already started researching and putting together a plan so this could not have been better timed – thank you so much!

    It definitely feels like a Bucket List destination for us, we’ve both always wanted to go and who knows if we’ll ever get there again so we definitely want to make sure we get the best out of our week there.

    I’m quite hopeful that I won’t lie in past 6:00 am in New York, everyone keeps telling me to get out early to see the crowded places first thing. Not sure how Simon will feel about this, he’s not great at getting out of bed!

    Not looking forward to passport control at all, it took us about 2.5 hours to get through in Miami – an absolute nightmare! We ended up missing our transfer!

    Love that you’ve included so much detail about tipping, thank you – definitely going to make notes about the amounts because I always end up wondering how much I’m supposed to leave everyone!

    The Londoner in me LOVES that they walk on the right side of the pavement, I wish we did this here! I used to get so frustrated when I was trying to get about London and tourists were bumping into me everywhere and stopping right in front of me – something tells me I’m going to love the fast pace of New York!

    So so excited for you to publish your itineraries!

    • sfox
      Chloe – New Girl in Toon
      12th January 2019

      I’m so excited for you I think you will love it! I’ve had all these New York posts in the pipeline for so long over so many trips and finally feel like I can write about it so at least they will benefit someone haha! I think even Simon will manage to get up early in NYC, and I always forget your London background so Im sure you’ll have no problems!

  • Lauren
    12th January 2019

    Amazingly insightful post. Thank you for all these great tips on NYC.

  • Lauryn
    12th January 2019

    This was so interesting to read because I’m American. I hate that everyone feels like they have to over-tip when they come here. I feel like our tipping culture is so misunderstood; you definitely don’t have to tip everyone. Fast food and food carts are rarely tipped here, bars and restaurants for sure. I always tell my friends from other countries just think about the service you’re getting. If someone is taking care of you, of course, tip. But if they are just handing you a hot dog on the street, nope 🙂 And NEVER tip someone 20% if they didn’t do a good job. 10 – 15% is just fine if someone doesn’t give you good service. Some people will tell you not to give them anything, but I always assume they are just having a bad day (unless it’s obvious they are just being rude).

    Oh and don’t forget about Uber as a means of transportation from the airport. It’s very safe in NYC. I’ve only had great experiences!

    I loved that you mention the 9/11 museum. I feel like a lot of people miss out on this. It’s so worthwhile to walk through (especially with the audio guide). I know I’m a little biased, but it was such a tragic day and I think the whole world needs to understand the events from start to finish. We went to the top of One World Trade too which was so beautiful!

    Also, waking up early is seriously the best thing to do!! Such a great tip!

    http://www.letravels.com

    • sfox
      Lauryn
      12th January 2019

      You’re literally the only American to ever tell me this about NYC tipping haha! Every option we were ever given was minimum 20% and thats so good to know! Thanks 🙂

  • Juli
    12th January 2019

    Super helpful post. I’ll be leaving for New York in a few weeks and will definitely keep this in mind. Being from mainland Europe I never even considered that besides the driving you would also consider the people walking on the wrong side. Thanks for the tips.

  • Nancie
    12th January 2019

    It’s been years since I’ve been to NYC and this post is very helpful. I would do Top of the Rock for sure, and the 9/11 museum. I live in Canada and tipping is big here, too. Normally when the server passes the card reader the tip will be set at 20% of the total bill. Not going to happen. We have a 17% sales tax here and I do not tip on tax (you’re not supposed to). So, I choose to add an amount instead of the percentage. Generally, I tip between 10 and 12%. I also felt pressured to tip more when I was in NYC. Then, when I thought about it, I realized how ridiculous! I followed my normal tipping routine and never had a complaint.

  • April
    12th January 2019

    Great post! After living the city for 11 years, I forget how overwhelming it can be for first timers. The city moves at high speed and never stops. If you’re arriving at Newark, another option to get into the city is the airport bus which drops you off at Port Authority on 42nd St. Whenever I go back to visit, I always take the bus. Much easier than the train and cheaper than a taxi. And, if you want to see a Broadway show, the TKTS booth is a great option. But, I always avoid the one in Times Square as the line is ridiculous. I prefer the one at South Street Seaport as there is hardly ever a line.

  • Rachel
    13th January 2019

    This is such a brilliant informative post, I’ve been a couple of times and the tipping can be so confusing. I’d also agree that getting a cab into the city is the best, especially if it’s your first time as there’s nothing like seeing the skyline on the approach. I’ve used the city passes a couple of times and they are really good, as long as you are actually going to use them and make them worthwhile! xo

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