THE BIG APPLE ISN'T MEANT to be experienced on a budget. A Saturday night at the Marriott Marquee in Times Square is $369 on hotels.com, and a modest dinner for two hovers near $100.
The recent surge in gas prices isn't helping. Round-trip airfare for two from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to LaGuardia International Airport is topping $600 this summer.
Just try to get side-by-side seats to Wicked on a weekend before Labor Day at anything less than the "premium" price of about $300 per ticket. And God forbid, you wander into Tiffany's or Bergdorf Goodman. Unless you plan to window shop in a straight jacket, you will drop the equivalent of your monthly mortgage on Fifth Avenue.
But as my boyfriend, Eric, and I recently discovered, a weekend in New York can be enjoyed for less, if planned well. Our assignment was to spend two days in New York on $500 combined -- at the last-minute.
(The last-minute part is more our modus operandi than a journalistic requirement, and since we're inside parenthesis here and the average reader is likely to skip over this, I have to confess that Eric and I went a little over budget. Not by much. Just a little.)
So here is a step-by-step guide to soaking up New York on (a little more than) $500 for two.
Get on the bus
The best way to get from Baltimore to New York on the cheap: the multiple Chinese bus lines that depart round-the-clock from the TravelCenters of America Truck Stop at the Baltimore Travel Plaza off Interstate 95.
Booked online, the trip costs $35 round-trip.
Sure, you could drive. But it will cost more to fill up, park and pay tolls. Southwest has always been a friend to budget travelers, but its flights only get you to Long Island. To reach Manhattan, you have to add a $90 taxi ride. Each way.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the Chinese bus lines on price, and all of them drop passengers off in the heart of Chinatown, a lower Manhattan enclave that should be experienced anyway.
However, I must warn you that the bus lines offer a level of comfort, reliability and convenience just a notch above hitchhiking.
Get a guide
If you are a Manhattan neophyte, travel guides are necessary if you want to avoid getting lost.
First rule on maps: six creases max, meaning do not buy one that unfolds to the size of a bus. Do buy one that is laminated, printed on cardboard-thick paper and can be carried in your back pocket. Also buy one that marks the colors, numbers and letters of the subway lines.
Unlike more manageable subway systems in Chicago and Washington, a New Yorker needs to know more than just the color of the line, and it has taken me several months and multiple visits to figure it out.
Silver Lining's Best Map of Manhattan ($5.95) and Red Maps NYC ($6.95) have saved us a lot of time in the past.
As for food, the 2006 Zagat Survey guide to New York restaurants ($13.95) is the only acceptable option.
Having dined at about a dozen Manhattan restaurants during the past six months, I can assure you that this 286-page, maroon-colored book is omniscient. (Divinely inspired, I swear.)
During our most recent trip, Zagat was off by less than five dollars on both dinners, including wine, appetizers and desserts. Its reviews of restaurants' cuisine, ambience and service were equally dead-on.
Get a hotel
Finding an affordable hotel was awful because we naively waited too long to start the search. Usually when I visit New York, I stay at Eric's apartment.
One of the most appealing Web sites was New York Magazine's "Cheap Guide NYC" and an article called "Best Hotels for $150 or Less."
After reading reviews on so many delightfully bohemian and affordable lodgings - the list included several bed-and-breakfasts - I thought that I had hit the jackpot and called for reservations: booked, booked, booked, answering machine, booked, booked and "I have one room available for $350 a night."
The search became so fruitless that I postponed the trip. But when I gave it one last go, I came upon the Wellington Hotel, one block south of Carnegie Hall and across the street from the Carnegie Deli.
I found it during an irritating search on Orbitz - the number of options in New York can make search engines unmanageable - but at $187.79 for a Saturday night stay and an unbeatable location, the Wellington was exactly what we needed.
If you walk across the street, you can stare straight at Times Square. Turn the other way, and there's Central Park.
This hotel isn't perfect - it's just perfect for the price and location. The front desk is smaller than a newsstand and was understaffed, causing us to wait in line to check-in, checkout and store and retrieve our luggage. (Check-in is after 3 p.m., and a room wasn't available earlier.)
Our room was small, the bathroom port-a-potty tight, and the hotel old. One of the shower nozzles leaked water, and the edges of the doors and walls were scuffed.