Visiting New York City? The Top Pitfalls to Avoid

A view of the Empire State Building and the New York City skyline Sam valladi/Flickr
You've made the right decision in choosing New York City for your next vacation. Few places can beat its cultural diversity, historic sights, topnotch museums, world-class restaurants, its performing arts scene,  nightlife and the city's unadulturated exuberance. But despite NYC's riches, too many visitors come away disappointed, or feeling like they've been ripped off. Don't let that be you! What follows are common mistakes that can be avoided.
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A bellman with a trolly of luggage at a hotel in New York City. Jason Kuffer/Flickr
Not doing so is easier said than done, I know. New York City has the highest nightly hotel rates in this hemisphere. And by state law apartment rentals of less than 30 days are illegal, making Airbnb, usually a good way to save, a risky proposition (unless you rent a room from someone who stays in residence, which is legal). Some strategies:
  • Visit in January or February when hotel rates are cut in half. Heck, with climate change, it may not even be that cold during those months. Many of New York's museums debut exhibits, and Broadway shows open, during those months, making this a particularly exciting time to visit.
  • Look for a hotel in an outer borough: Queens, in particular, has some wonderfully affordable hotels, with spacious, clean rooms, and locations that are just one or two subway stops from midtown Manhattan. I think that they're a better option than New Jersey hotels (often), as Queens has many worthy sights of its own, and you won't have to battle the awful traffic into and out of the city.
  • Share a bathroom to cut costs. You likely do it at home. By choosing to stay at the Larchmont Hotel, The Pod or The Jane—all lovely places where facilities are shared—you can pay hundreds less a night than you would in a hotel where rooms have their own loos, particularly in the high season months.
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The buildings of Times Square in New York City. m01229/Flickr
Many first-time visitors to the city assume that they'll be within walking distance of most everything they want to see if they choose a Times Square area hotel. Alas, that's a myth. For such iconic sights as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial Museum and Monument, you'll need to travel several miles downtown to the tip of Manhattan. For the city's great museums—the Metropolitan, the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Frick and others—it's several miles in the opposite direction. So whether or not this is a more convenient area really depends on what you plan to do in the city (it is a good base for those planning to see a Broadway show every night).

More to the point, if you stay in Times Square you'll be spending your vacation eating at mediocre restaurants (the eats are better pretty much everywhere else in town), fighting the area's incessant crowds, and enduring a noise level that doesn't exist in residential areas. Just. Don't. Do. It.
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The head, shoulders and crown of the Statue of Liberty Celso Flores/Flickr
New York is popular and crowded, which means some experiences are open to only those who plan ahead, sometimes well ahead. That includes climbing the interior of the Statue of Liberty up to the crown (you'll need to get reservations a minimum of three months ahead for that), dining at some of the city's hottest restaurants (usually one month ahead works) or seeing Hamilton (who the heck knows, and good luck!)
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A wall of signs in Flushing, Queens. d.aniela/flickr
NYC's marquee attractions tend to cluster in Manhattan. But Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and (to a much lesser extent) Staten Island all have lures that would be top-of-the-list in most any other city: superb museums (like the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image), performing arts venues (can't beat The Brooklyn Academy of Music ), historic sights and splendid gardens. What make the boroughs most interesting is their mix of cultures—one out of every three New Yorkers is foreign-born, a fact that's brought to vivid life when you visit Flushing Queen's Chinatown (pictured) or the Little India section of Astoria, Queens, among other neighborhoods.
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The McDonald's sign in Times Square Miguel Vaca/Flickr
C'mon visitors—you can do better than that! You're in the gastronomic capital of the United States. And you don't even have to splurge to eat well: a genuine New York City bagel costs less than a Big Mac, and beats it tastewise by a mile. You'll also get to try types of food here that you won't find in most major metropolitan areas: Japanese shrimp-and-cabbage pancakes, Peruvian papusas, Filippino pig trotters and more. Eating in the Big Apple is an adventure—so ditch the old standbys while you're here. They'll still be around when you get home.
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The lobby of the Metropolitan Museum Houran Boschi/Flickr
Gotham's attractions are not only world class, they're huge.To see the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pictured)—the largest museum in the Americas—you need a good three hours. Getting through the security lines, to and from the Statue of Liberty (or Ellis Island) and back to shore, will likely take four. And I know very few people who've made it through the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in less than three and a half hours. Other attractions are just as time-consuming (or richly rewarding, depending on your point of view). So be conservative in how many things you try to do each day.
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Uncomfortable shoes on the pavement Susan Sermoneta/Flickr
This is a walking city, a place of pavements and marble-floored museums. If you don't wear comfortable shoes, at least during the daytime, your sightseeing will quickly become tortuous.
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A subway zooms through Brooklyn Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York/Flickr
The traffic in New York City can be epic—and frustrating to time-strapped visitors. That's where the subway comes into play: there is simply no other method of travel within the city as speedy or reliable. That includes the hop-on, hop-off busses (which require a lot of waiting around on street corners, and usually offer sub-par commentary on the sights passed).
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The Grand Central Terminal Subway Stop perceptions (off)/Flickr
Yes, the subways are terrific, but they can be confusing to newcomers. That's particularly true of local versus express trains. Local trains stop at every station; express trains can skip up to three miles worth of stops (we're looking at you A train). So be sure you're on the right train, and don't be shy about asking your fellow riders for advice. New Yorkers don't bite...usually.
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A wall of Broadway show posters Broadway Tour/Flickr
Few activities are as life-affirming as watching wildly talented performers singing and dancing their hearts out. But Broadway shows are expensive, so when they fall flat, the disappointment is magnified. To make sure you're picking the best possible show for you, try the following strategies:
  • Avoid the long-running shows.  You won't see anything like the vibrant show that garnered the reviews that kept the show going—the casts have been going through the same motions for just too long. Rule of thumb: if a show has been running for longer than two years, it will likely be very tired and not worth the cost of admission.
  • Avoid the un-nominated shows. Don't punish a show because it didn't win the Tony Award—many great ones (like West Side Story) weren't given that honor. But if a show doesn't even get a nomination that's a telling sign. To get the scoop on which Broadway shows have and haven't been recognized, go to Playbill.com. Two tips: Nominations come out in spring, so a show that debuts in the fall won't have any to its credit until the nominations are announced. Off-Broadway shows aren't eligible for awards.
  • Don't ignore the plays: They can be as exhilerating as the musicals.
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The line at the TKTS booth in Times Square mlabowicz/flickr
TKTS sells discount tickets for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows at several booths around the city, including its famous booth in Times Square (pictured). Most visitors assume that they'll get the widest selection of seats by getting in line an hour, or several hours, before the booth opens. WRONG! Tickets are released by the theaters throughout the day as staff gets a better handle on what's selling and what isn't. So you have as many choices at 6pm, usually, as you do at 3pm for an 8pm performance—and the line is a LOT shorter later in the day.

An even better strategy is not to wait in line at all. Instead, go online to BroadwayBox, or use the app TodayTix, both of which provide excellent discounts for shows. BroadwayBox gives theatergoers a discount code (for up to 50% off) to use on Telecharge. TodayTix lists the shows it has discounts for, up to a week in advance, which you purchase through its app. Then you either pick the discounted ticket up at the theater box office, or you meet a sidewalk "concierge" who has your tickets in hand, starting half an hour before the show.
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