My Guide to Visiting New York City Solo!

There’s no denying that to a first timer visiting New York City, it can seem like a daunting place to navigate around and who wouldn’t think that! especially travelling solo! It’s one of the most densely packed cities on the planet and the most populated in North America with over 8.5 million people crammed into an area of just over 300 square miles!

I took a solo trip to New York city in September 2018, which was a brilliant experience and I enjoyed every minute I had in the city. It was my first trip to New York, the United States and the entire North American continent. The trip as a whole has given me a good impression of America and makes me want to go back!

The following is my advice and tips for the ultimate solo trip to the big apple, it does also contain some advice that can be used across the whole of the US as well, such as tipping.

Plan what you want to do before you travel and when you want to do it, it matters!

If like me you were only going for a short stay (I flew out Monday evening and flew back Friday evening) then you will want to make the most of the short time you have in NYC, which is why I recommend planning out on paper, day by day what you want to see. I would also recommend planning it (by using Google Maps) in a way that you do things that you want to do that are close together day by day. For example; explore lower Manhattan day one, explore West Side day two, explore East Side day three etc.

Essential Packing Items!

Im sure as hell not going to tell you what colour socks to pack in your luggage but a general idea for what to take depends on the season you travel in, I visited in early September and it will still very warm so I would recommend if you are travelling that time of the year to pack thin t-shirts, shirts and shorts mainly. A rain shower isn’t unheard of that time of year so also a thin waterproof would be a good idea.

Also take a small first aid kit, better overpacking with these kind of things that you could potentially need as a lot of it is very expensive in the US, as is overall health care in the country. For example I picked up a pack of Imodiums when I was over there and they were $15, significantly more expensive that what they would be in the UK, around £5 for a similar sized pack.

Don’t forget that in the US they use a flat pin style mains plug. One product I can recommend is the Apple International Plug Adapter kit, which comes with every plug extension in the world, including the US type. You can buy a pack here

Contact your mobile network provider or prepare to get a local sim when you get there!

My mobile network in the UK is EE, with their 4GEE max plan I can take advantage of inclusive data anywhere in the EU as well as a couple of other countries in the agreement, the USA being one of them! So I would recommend investing in a phone contract like this, alternatively another option if you do not want to get fixed to an expensive phone contract is buying a cheap handset (if you do not already own one) which comes unlocked and picking up a SIM card when you are in the airport or in the city.

Book your tickets in advance!

In a city like New York, there is an ever ending list of things to do, however they get busy, very quickly! 99% of tourist things to do in New York you can do with a pre-booked ticket! Beware of these New York City passes however depending on what you want to do they may not necessarily be the cheapest option when you work it out!

The view from the Top of the Rockefeller centre! – Theres a lot of people really wanting to see this view so make sure you don’t miss out and book your tickets in advance – © Lewis Pickthall – 2018

Get your ESTA or Visa!

You absolutely must ensure you have a valid ESTA if you are from one of the 38 countries that take part in the Visa waiver program. If you don’t qualify for the Visa Waiver you must ensure you have a tourist visa which you can get from one of the many US embassies across the globe. If you do not have either then good luck getting anywhere near the United States!

Another thing I found worthwhile to do is to print your ESTA confirmation off and present it with your passport to the US Border and Customs desk when you land. It speed things up when you are at the desk!

For more information on the ESTA – Visa Waiver Program go here!

Prepare for a grilling at US immigration!

The US Border and Protection operate a pretty rigorous procedure when you are trying to enter the country and one thing you should be ready for is to answer a few questions about your visit. Typically they will want to know;

  • The purpose of your visit to the US
  • Where you are staying (give a specific address of your hotel, hostel or house)
  • How long you plan to remain in the US

If you answer these questions truthfully and do not purposely disclose any information then you will find the process goes a lot quicker!

Get some USD before you travel!

With the US Dollar being the most commonly traded currency in the world, you will be able to acquire it from any Bureau de Change, it’s wise to get some before you arrive in the country as you will need to get some cash for pretty much any mode of transport you choose to get from the airport to your accommodation. If not for the fare, for the driver tip!

Arrange decent flight times!

Make the most of the time difference and arrange for an afternoon flight outbound and an evening flight inbound, don’t forget that the east coast of continental US is 5 hours behind the UK and GMT, so no matter what time you take off you will find your arrival day is a long 29 hour day for you! If you want to see as much as possible then with the time kind of working to your advantage you can even see stuff on the first day if you feel up to it!

Stay in a hostel NOT a hotel!

If you are travelling on your own I cannot express doing this enough, stay in a hostel! There are loads of them in Manhattan alone, they have all sorts of characters staying in them to meet from all over the world, some you might get really friendly with some of them and could also see some of the city with!

They are significantly cheaper than hotels, my hostel room in the HI NYC was something like $40 a night. For a hotel in Manhattan you will be lucky if you get something for under $100. But what makes getting a hotel worse in the big city is the additional taxes you have to pay on top that you do not have to pay on a hostel dorm room, which can be over $30 extra a night! More information on NYC hotel taxes can be found here, more information on where I stayed can be found below too!

Use the subway! – Get a MetroCard

Put simply the subway system works on a pay per use, gated network. To use the system you need to top up a MetroCard which is $1 stand alone, which you can get from the ticket booths, you then need to top up the card with credit. You can also get a single use train ticket at the ticket desk but for time and convenience get a MetroCard, start off by topping it up with around $20 and if you need to add more you can do!

With your credited MetroCard you walk up to one of the gates and put it in the way it instructs, the barrier opens and you enter, one entry of the subway system cost as the time of visiting $2.75, it then allows you to use the network as much as you can without exiting the system for as long as you want, when you go through the exit gate you have left the system and then to enter it again you need to put your MetroCard in and get charged another $2.75. In theory you could ride the network all day on one fare as long as you don’t go through any of the exit gates (which many of the homeless you see on the subway carriages often do)

One thing to be aware of is that some of trains are express trains that miss so many stations and some are local which stop at every station, the frequency of both can change depending on the line, day and time so keep an eye on the trains and the platforms, a general rule is that there is always a local train going southbound on Manhattan. To get from A – B it may involve getting a express train to ‘C’ and then getting a local train backwards to B.

For a full map of the network click here, one tip is to download this as a PDF and store it to your smartphone, its a super large image so you can zoom in on it and keep mental track of where you are when you are riding the system

The subway is really safe for a mass public transport system in a major city, but a couple of tips on staying safe using the subway;

  • When at the ticket machine or at the desk keep an eye on your bags and pockets, it only takes a split second for something to get something out of either!
  • When on the platform stand near to any staff or NYPD on the platform, alternatively stand in sight of one of the many visible CCTV cameras
  • When the train is pulling into the station keep an eye on the windows and see which one is open and has the guard in, get in that carriage as opposed to any of the other ones
  • When exiting the station, be mindful on anyone who could be potentially following you out and if this is the case, alert someone in the ticket booth or any passing authority.

Using the subway system to and from JFK airport.

Don’t spend a fortune on a taxi to and from the airport, in rush hour it takes just as much time as the subway but costs a ridiculous amount more!

When you land at JFK there is a sky train that connects all of the terminals with Howard Beach and Jamaica Street stations, the air train costs $5 on its own and then the regular subway costs $2.75. If you don’t have a MetroCard to start with you can pay for the airport skytrain and then get a card, plus top it up at one of the 2 stations.

From there to get from either Howard Beach or Jamaica Street station to Manhattan you need to get on the A or E line, there are about 20 stops and a 40 minute journey before you even reach Manhattan but it is totally worth doing and you save a fortune compared to taking taxis.

Walk everywhere!

Contradictory to the previous tip, its often quicker to walk to many places! Sure, take the subway to get you downtown if you are staying further up Manhattan or in another borough, but once you are in an area you will find that something in a 10 block square area, it is much quicker to actually walk there than take the Subway or even a cab/UBER. Especially with the New York traffic which can get crazy!

One thing that may surprise you is just the amount of star and stripes flags you see, literally everywhere, from the subway carriages, to the huge flag hanging in Grand Central station! –         © Lewis Pickthall – 2018

Forget to bring something? DuaneRead and 7Eleven to the rescue!

If like me you manage to forget something as simple as your toothbrush, look for a DuaneReade or a 7Eleven. To us Brits DuaneReade are a bit like Boots and they are everywhere in Manhattan! 7Elevens are a bit like your Shell Garage Shops, you won’t find these as much as DR’s but they still come plentiful, you can get everything you would need and potentially forget when packing by popping into one of these 2 stores.

Save money on a boat tour and use the Staten Island ferry!

You can get a pretty expensive tour on the Hudson River to see the NYC skyline, but one other option that is FREE and gives you just as good views is taking the Staten Island ferry. I boarded the ferry from the lowest point on Manhattan, the Staten Island ferry terminal, I crossed from Manhattan to Staten Island which took about 30 minutes, exited the ferry, did a U Turn in the Staten Island terminal and boarded the same ferry I had just got off back to Manhattan.

On a good day you can get some really good views of the Manhattan skyline, all for free! – Image © Lewis Pickthall – 2018

From my experience to get the best views of the Manhattan skyline as well as the Statue of Liberty. Board the ferry and situate yourself as soon as possible on the starboard side going and then on the portside on the return journey. That will give you the best vantage points to take them good shots!

Get friendly with people in your hostel and even go on a bar crawl!

If you travel to NYC alone and choose to stay in a hostel, get friendly with the people you are sharing a dorm room with and even go on one of the many nightly barcrawls that hostels organise, my hostel did a great bar crawl and even gave you 2 free beers at the hostel to get started! you may find that you make some good friends doing it and if you are both staying in the area for a while then you can always organise to do stuff together!

Another thing you can do to meet people is by joining on one of the countless free walking tours you will see around the city, chances are doing a walking tour together you will have a couple of common interests and can always potentially hang out after the tour.

Tip fairly, but challenge it if you think you should!

This isn’t really a NYC only kind of tip more the US in general, but tipping is absolutely everywhere and is expected on the whole. From my small experience I found that serving staff and bartenders actually went to an effort when dealing with you and your order and I didn’t have a bad meal at all when I was in New York. One other person I met did have a bad meal and as a result challenged the logic in tipping and didn’t tip at all, it was met with a ‘fair enough’ kind of response. The lesson to take from this is that don’t tip because you ‘have’ to tip, if your meal was poor don’t and challenge why you haven’t if and when asked! Don’t forget in a world of TripAdvisor and other online sites 1 bad review can make all the difference to a business, it may even work in your favour!

As a general rule though, if you believe the service was right. A tip added to a meal is genuinely 15-20% of the meal cost, however if your in a group and the meal total goes over a significant figure, check that the tip hasn’t actually be added already to the bill!

In bars its a lot easier just to round up the drink bill to the next whole note, $8? like a beer can well be in Manhattan, just call it $10, easy!

Don’t forget your ID!

One thing that I really wasn’t expecting was to be asked for ID so much, speaking to a local, unless ‘you look like 40’ you will be asked for it, its more of a ass-coverer for the bar staff so they can’t get in trouble for serving people underage (which as you will probably have heard, the legal drinking age in the US is 21!)

One issue I ran into, in one bar is that some barmen don’t recognise the UK/EU standardised driving license as a valid form of ID in the USA, mainly because they don’t really know if what they are looking at is authentic; they don’t know what they should be looking at to see if it is a copy or not. However you will find that your passport will never be refused, its just up to you if you want to take your only ticket out of the country out on a night out with you or not!

Expect security everywhere!

In a busy city like NYC, you will find that security is everywhere! Most tourist places like the Empire State Building, The WTC and Museum and the Rockafella Center don’t be surprised to see an airport style security checkpoint, including X-ray systems that you and your luggage have to go through. Some places like the Guggenheim Gallery have an open bag search table when you have to show your bag to an officer and then proceed to stow your bag in a locker room as opposed to carrying it around the building with you!

Also when you are walking around the streets of New York, regardless of the weather you will see NYPD everywhere! So don’t worry about walking down unfamiliar main streets in the dark as there will always be an officer close by to assist!

Shopping? Do your sums!

If you are going on a big shop in New York, before you get to the checkout be sure to factor in the sale tax cost to your predicted total bill. In the US the true amount that you pay is different from what is on the label, the sales tax that is added on at the end varies from state to state but when you are in New York the rate is a total of around 8% on top of whatever the cost of the product is, more information on sales tax can be found here. A general rule when in shopping in the big apple is to get the total cost of your spending form the labels, then multiply the figure by 0.08, this will get you your sales tax figure, then add the original total cost, that will get you your price including the sales tax!

Be wary of the crowds and protect your bubble!

It’s one busy city at all times of the day, so watch what you are doing and where you are doing it the chances are there will be someone watching for you to let your guard down and leave your phone/wallet or other valuables somewhere so they can swoop in and take them! Constantly check your pockets and bag when walking or queueing to ensure everything is still where it is supposed to be. One other tip for your bag is to carry it in front of you in congested places and also put a small padlock on the compartment with valuables to stop anyone from trying to get into your bag when you are walking etc.

Be ready to be harassed!

Following on from the previous topic, the city has got a serious divid in economic wealth, the city has the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, so expect homeless, traders and buskers to be asking for money for you on the street and on the subways/public transport systems – the best advice is to ignore them all, not out of harshness but rather if you give money to one they are either going to assume you have more money or potentially more are going to see and start begging to. Alert police or local authority if you feel harassed or remove yourself from the situation by clearing the area.

Don’t worry too much about guns!

One final note relating to safety and security is guns! They are seen as basic human right in the US to own one and the chances are that many people that you pass in the streets in the US will be packing one! But so are the NYPD are various private security companies!

In the tourist areas and the areas that most visitors to NYC visit you will find that there will be a significant presence of police officers, they are pretty much on every street corner and every major tourist attraction and if anything was to kick off you can guarantee that they would know before you!

I also found that they are often situated in and near neighbourhoods of a night too, such as the one that was right next to my hostel so you don’t have to worry about walking around in the evening either!

Have a good time!

It goes without saying really but enjoy the time that you have in big city, its a city like no other in the world and has something for everyone! One attraction that I really liked and encourage everyone to visit if they can is the High Line… its part of a disused overhead rail line that has been turned into a garden sanctuary, it has small cafes along the road as well as very clean public bathrooms. Its totally free to walk on and is so peaceful.

A section of the High Line in lower Manhattan, you can find the entry point to the line very clearly on maps, it is around a 2 mile walk from top to bottom of the line and on a day like this is so worth a visit – © Lewis Pickthall – 2018

Who I flew with…

I booked my air travel with Dial A Flight and they took care of my travel itinerary, the flights consisted of an afternoon flight from Manchester to London Heathrow with British Airways and then a evening to night flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK with American Airlines. Upon return my flight from JFK to London Heathrow was with British Airways as way my return domestic flight from London Heathrow back to Manchester. Due to reentering the UK through Heathrow and passing through the well equipped passport control there, when I landed back in Manchester it was like any other domestic flight and I was able to just simply walk out of the airport with no further passport checks. You can find out more about Dial A Flight here

Where I Stayed…

I stayed at the Hostel International (HI) on upper West Side. It was in a great location, despite being out of the main attraction area of the Manhattan and up on 103rd street, as it has 2 subway stations either side.

The rooms and shared bathrooms were very clean and being constantly cleaned, it had a great social area with plenty of events on and an outside area that was perfect when I visited for a BBQ, which we did have one night.

Inside by the reception area was a Deli, which served some seriously good breakfast. Had the best mozzarella, tomato and lettuce bagel I think I’ve ever had from there. All fairly priced for NYC!

Hostel Map
Map location of HI NYC on 103rd West. M icons indicate subway station entrances which are both a couple of streets away. Image courtesy of Apple Maps
Hostel Street View
Street view image of HI NYC up on 103rd Street west, NYC. Image courtesy of Google Street View

To read more about the Hostel, including reviews and book click here

What I got up to…

This is a list of most of the attractions I visited as well as some of the famous landmarks I visited, in no particular order…

  • American Natural History Museum
  • Guggenheim Museum
  • Central Park
  • United Nations
  • Chrysler Building
  • MetLife Building
  • Grand Central Station
  • Times Square
  • Flatiron Building
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Empire State Building
  • Rockefeller Centre/Top of the Rock
  • Wall Street
  • Ground Zero/World Trade Centre
  • 9/11 Memorial Museum
  • The High Line
  • Staten Island Ferry
  • Macys
  • Bar crawl of lower Manhattan

Further Information/Post Sources

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