How to plan a trip to New York City

New York is probably the ultimate city break. It’s like no other place on the planet and it’s my favourite city I’ve been to so far. It’s incredible; a fast, vast, overwhelming, totally consuming, beautiful concrete jungle that you cannot help but fall in love with. I’ve been to New York twice: I went for the first time in December 2017 for a two day trip, then returned in October 2018. Despite the freezing temperatures during the first trip, I fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the city and knew I had to go back. NYC definitely has a very special place in my heart.

Once we started planning our four day trip, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed with how much there was to do and how many places I wanted to visit! I’ve already written posts on the must-dos and the must-eats in NYC, but decided that it was worth writing a very practical one: How to plan your trip and (mostly) everything you need to know before you go.

How to get there

If you haven’t already booked your flights, you have two options. Book them early to get a cheaper price or leave it until a few months before and find a cheap deal through somewhere like Jack’s Flight Club. We found £350 flights for October with Virgin Atlantic through Jack’s Flight Club. This included checked luggage and in-flight meals, so it was a bloody good deal!

The two main airports for NYC flights are John F Kennedy (JFK) and Newark. Virgin Atlantic and British Airways operate several flights a day to JFK. There are also several budget airlines that operate cheap flights there, though be wary. Charlie wrote this post about why she won’t be using Norwegian Air to fly to the USA again and it’s definitely made me think twice about budget airlines.

My main tip for travelling to NY would be to catch the earliest flight you can. The early start is pants, but it means you get an extra afternoon in the City. The 08:50 Virgin Atlantic from LHR to JFK lands about 13:00 local time, so you can settle in and get your bearings. Expect to be jet lagged when you get there – it’s a 5 hour time difference and the flight is 8 hours so make sure you try and catch some Zzz on the plane.

Once you’ve landed, you’ll need to get a cab to the City as Newark and JFK are about 10 – 15 miles outside of the city. Cabs from JFK are at a fixed rate of around $60, but with tips and toll charges, it is around $70 (about £55). JFK is only around 15 miles outside of the city, but because there are so many cars it can take up to an hour or more. All yellow cabs accept credit cards.

When to visit

Rockefeller Christmas Tree, Rockefeller centre, new york

I think everyone should visit New York at Christmas at some point! You genuinely feel like you’re in a Christmas movie and the decorations are amazing. You can tick a lot of festive things off your bucket list too: ice skating in Central Park, seeing the Rockefeller tree, seeing Saks on Fifth Avenue, frolicking around in the snow… You get the idea, it’s pure magic. But also very very very cold!

Read more: 8 things to add to your New York bucket list

We flew out on 31st October for my most recent trip which was the perfect time for exploring the City. There isn’t really a time when it’s not busy – people head there all year round – but it didn’t feel quite as manic in October as it did December! The shades of autumn in Central Park were stunning and the temperature was ideal as we could explore in just a jumper and light jacket.

I can’t vouch for spring or summer, but the general feedback I’ve had is that NYC in the summer is almost unbearable if you catch a heatwave with temperatures hitting the 30 degrees celsius mark.

Where to stay

There are hundreds, probably thousands of Hotels in New York. With 33 million tourists visiting the city each year, it’s big business! The first time I visited New York, I stayed at The Row which was just around the corner from Times Square. It was basic, but very well located for first-time visitors. If there was one thing I learned researching places to stay the second time around, it was that hotels are expensive in New York! You’re looking at about $250+ per night if it’s separate to your hotel. Even lots of the package deals were expensive and only covered a very basic room. Most hotels don’t include breakfast.

Dan and I stayed in an Airbnb in the end because it was a lot cheaper than hotels (around £600 for four nights). This was also just around the corner from Times Square and ideally located by several subway stations.

If you want somewhere quieter (nowhere in New York is silent – so take your earplugs!!) move away from the tourist traps of Times Square and Midtown, and stay in Williamsburg or the East Side if you want to stay away from the hustle and bustle. I know that Megan stayed at The Hoxton in Williamsburg (next time I go, I’d love to stay there!) so check out her city guide for her tips too.

Getting around

New York is vast, so be prepared to walk a lot. The city is very flat and easy to navigate as it’s on a grid system which Dan fully grasped – I did not! We walked most places as it meant we got to take in the sights of the city, but for when our feet hurt too much and when we needed to get to Brooklyn, we took a subway. The subway is really efficient and cheap – you can buy a Metro Card from most stations as top it up as you go. Each journey costs $2.95. The system isn’t quite as easy as the London Underground, but Google Maps told us exactly what stations we needed to be at for each line.

Yellow cabs are everywhere in the city, but because it is so busy, it can take you longer in a car than to walk or get a subway, so be wise about getting cabs to save your cash. 

Before you go

  • You must fill out an ESTA before your visit to the USA. This costs about $14 and must be filled out before you go through customs, otherwise, you could be waiting a while! If you’ve been to the US in the last two years, your previous ESTA should still be valid. Complete your ESTA here.
  • Do your research. New York is a city best visited with some prior knowledge so make sure you make a list of anything you want to see or do. I use My Places on Google Maps to plan all my trips abroad as I can see everything in one place. Katie has written this great blog post on how to use My Places! 
  • Pre-book tours and restaurants to avoid disappointment. If you are going over a weekend, booking tables is essential if you want to eat at popular times, so think about booking the popular spots a week before you go. Pre-book tours and museum tickets too, you can often save more online and it’s easier to find the official sites.
  • Get your US dollars. We allowed around $100 per person, per day plus extra for shopping. We also took credit cards and used those for expensive meals. In hindsight, it’s probably not the best idea to be walking the streets with hundreds of dollars in your wallet, so credit cards are probably the safest option but beware of exchange rate charges. 

Planning your itinerary

If it’s your first visit, make sure you get an idea of what you want to do before you go, but also save some time for just walking and wandering around. Each neighbourhood is completely unique so try and squeeze in as many as possible to get a feel for each one. Soho, Chelsea and East Village were my favourites.

Like any City Break, make the most of your time in New York! Get up early, grab breakfast en route and head to your first sightseeing spot. Thankfully, because of the jet lag, getting up early shouldn’t be an issue! We planned our itinerary around the key sights like Ellis Island and Top of the Rock, and also where we wanted to eat. This gave us a bit of structure to the day and we could plan walking routes to see other sights such as the Flatiron Building, World Trade Centre and Central Park. I’m going to share my full 4-day itinerary for a four day trip to New York so keep an eye out for that!

Read more: 7 must-eats in New York City

So there we have it – a (hopefully!) useful guide to everything you need to know before you plan a trip to New York. It’s my favourite city, so if you’re planning a trip in 2019, I am incredibly jealous and I would love to go back again at some point, especially at Christmas. It definitely swept me off my feet.

Want to plan the ultimate NYC trip? Here are some more posts you’ll love:

7 must-eats in New York City | 8 Things to Add to your New York Bucket List | How to Explore New York: The Ultimate First Time Itinerary

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