Do you have a bucket list? Ever since we first heard the term, my wife and I started building ours. We have the typical goals, like skydiving, taking a cruise with the kids, and paragliding. But right at the top of the list was visiting New York City.
We dreamed of Broadway plays, ascending the long elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building, or just chilling in Central Park. But throughout our many trips and adventures, we never found the opportunity to get there, except for a quick meal and short layover stuck in the JFK airport.
Until this year. On a summer vacation trip in July, we found ourselves back in JFK airport, but this time with a long overnight layover. So being the spontaneous travelers we are, we jumped at the chance to get into the city. And we discovered it is possible to see New York and experience a bit of its culture, even in a few hours. And do it for less than the cost of a single hotel night. Here’s how we did it:
We knew we didn’t want to schlep (New York-ian for carry) our bags while we were sightseeing, so we checked our bags into the luggage storage in the Arrivals area of terminal 4 (storage is also available in terminals 1 and 8.) Depending on the size of the bag, it costs anywhere from $4-$16 a bag – we checked four for a total of $20. The attendant was pleasant, and took our picture to go along with the bags. It’s a security precaution, to ensure your bags are given back only to you upon your return. I was a little nervous, since we left some electronics in our bags, but everything was completely secure and fine when we retrieved them later.
We jumped on the JFK AirTrain, which can either shuttle you around the airport to different terminals, or take you out of the airport where you can transfer to other trains or subways on route to the city. The AirTrain is free around the airport, and costs just $5 to exit. We took a short 10 minute ride to the Jamaica Station, which is one of the stations where you can buy a transfer ticket to either the New York subway or railroad system.
(Picture: Jamaica Station, heading to Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad)
With a few options of different routes and no knowledge of New York geography, we were a bit confused. Fortunately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has very eager and willing attendants there to help. We were asked where we wanted to go, and with a blur of her hands, an attendant named Mary had the right ticket brought up on the ticket vending machine, and was telling us to “just pay here”. With blind trust, and an encouraging smile from Mary, we inserted our money and got our tickets.
We opted to take the Long Island Railroad, which is a faster and much more comfortable ride than the subway. It costs a bit more at $8.25 (in addition to the $5 MetroCard), but we shelled out the money and were repaid with two very comfortable seats on a smooth ride to Manhattan. We relaxed for the twenty minute ride, and got off at Penn Station, right at Madison Square Garden and about eight blocks shy of Times Square. We decided this was all part of our adventure, not having seen any of New York before, so instead of transferring to a subway or bus to get to Times Square, we exited the station and starting walking north on 7th Avenue (also known as Fashion Avenue).
As we walked each block, we got more and more excited as we saw street names we had only read or heard of in the movies – 36th Street, 42nd Street, Broadway. The Empire State building loomed in the background, and after a few shots with our camera and 15 minutes, we arrived at Times Square.
Even though it was getting close to 10pm, the energy and excitement on the street made it seem so much earlier. Times Square, I imagine, is always alive and bustling. Street vendors, living statues, the appeal of downtown shopping, taking turns with other travelers to take our picture – it all added to the energy and vitality you feel in Times Square. Times Square is the only neighborhood where the zoning ordinances require building owners to display illuminated signs – and the business owners meet that code with exuberance. The competing Coca-Cola, Chevrolet clock, and Dunk Tank signs, among so many others, only helped in making us feel wide awake and a part of the action.
The Dunk Tank was especially fun. It displayed a live video feed of the crowd, and allowed you to tweet your choice of whether to dunk the man or the woman. After a few minutes, the live feed changes to a video of the crowd’s choice being dunked and then swimming around for a bit, interacting with the crowd, before switching back to the live feed.
Even the policemen on horseback felt more like part of the attraction than like official peacekeepers, although they can spring into action if needed, their numbers having been increased in the mid-90’s by Mayor Giuliani for the safety of the pedestrians.
We even caught a glimpse of the Naked Cowboy, a Times Square regular who poses for pictures with the tourists and can often be seen on the Today Show in the crowd (don’t worry, he’s not quite completely naked.)
I’ve always loved street vendor food, and midtown Manhattan didn’t disappoint. I wanted to try it all, but settled for three different items from three different vendors. All totaled, the teriyaki chicken strips, chicken and lamb gyro, and bottle of water only cost $15! For two of us! I would have spent $5 more, but the sample taste of the chicken curry was a bit too spicy for my tastebuds.
We enjoyed Times Square for a while, marveling at the signs, being entertained by the street performers, and dropping into stores such as Toys-R-Us, Disney, and Aeropostale. On weekdays, most large stores close by 11pm, so if you want to do any shopping, be sure to get there early enough. We eventually wandered off the main square, and after meandering a couple blocks east, we stumbled upon Bryant Park.
I’ve never been to Central Park, but I began to get a sense of how important the Big Apple considers its parks. Bryant Park covered an entire city block and is made up of a large grass area, sidewalks and walkways, chairs and tables, and permanent ping-pong tables along its perimeter. The night we were there, several hundred people had gathered for a movie in the park, projected on a huge 40 foot high screen. The park was filled with easy-going, relaxing locals, taking the time to enjoy the cool evening weather and watch Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”. Others were playing table tennis, or sitting at tables eating, or slowly walking hand-in-hand. We tried it out – we sat at a table close to where we could see the jumbo screen, finished our gyros, and then walked slowly, leisurely, out of the park holding hands, completely satisfied with our quick trip into the city.
I began to get a sense of why so many people say they love living in New York. It’s instantly comfortable, yet exciting. It’s alive, and yet relaxing. And despite some perceptions, the people we met were all very friendly and helpful.
Eventually, regretfully, we had to head back to the airport. The security lines close around midnight, so we wanted to at least get back into the terminal before they shut down for the night.
Since we rode the train to Times Square, we thought we would try the subway on the return trip, getting on at the station at the intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. It’s a little cheaper, at only $2.25 per person, and then the $5 MetroCard again to transfer back to the AirTrain. The subway gives you a bit more insight into the New York experience, riding and interacting with more locals than were on the train, including students, young workers, families heading home from an evening with friends or shopping, and even a sleeping homeless man who looked tired but harmless. But I have to admit, I would splurge on the train ride – the subway is louder, slower with more stops (it’s about a 40 minute ride to the airport), and has harder seats. But we still enjoyed it – even when we realized we got on a train going the wrong direction!
One note of caution – if you have to change directions, make sure you get off at a station that has access to both sides of the platform. We got off after one stop, and realized we couldn’t get to the train going in the opposite direction without leaving the station (which would cost another $2.25 to enter.) So we got back on, rode two more stops until we could get to a station large enough to get to the right train. All part of the experience, right?
All told, for a fun evening of sight-seeing, dinner, and a bit of New York culture, we spent $77 for the two of us, including luggage storage. That is easily under $50 for one person! If you’re ever on a long enough layover at a New York airport, and want to get a bit more travel for your buck, visiting Times Square is a great way to do it. And if you have the time and are there early enough, you could even squeeze in a visit to the Empire State Building or Central Park.
Next on our bucket list…sky diving! (Oh boy…)