New York travel tips: 11 golden rules to surviving the Big Apple as a tourist

36 Hours in Central Park

With its endless trails, hidden nooks, museums and nearby night spots, Central Park is that rare tourist destination that is also a pleasure ground for locals. Video by the New York Times.

I've just returned from New York City and each time I go I have to remind myself of the golden rules of getting the most out of a visit. Here is my top 11:

1: Never pay full price if you can help it. New York is one perpetual sale. Anything that doesn't sell quickly is ruthlessly discounted, so new stock is often on sale a few weeks after it arrives. Apart from the discount stores and consignment stores, the chain stores have rolling sales. Sample sales occur regularly. If you're visiting out of the actual delegated sale periods, even the higher-end boutiques may have a discreet sale rack at the back of the store. 

2: Don't forget to tip, just about everyone who gives you service, including the person who washes your hair at the hair salon, luggage handlers, taxi drivers and waiters. Factor tips into your daily budget and it won't seem so unpalatable. It's no use railing against the US system, which pays such a poor minimum wage that servers depend on tips. It's these people you are thanking, not the system. 

3: One caveat – New Yorkers will withhold tips for poor service, such as a dangerous or surly taxi driver. You can too. But be prepared to say why. And do tip extra for great service, just as the taxi driver who recently helped me drag my luggage two blocks because my hotel's street was blocked by a Sikh festival. The fact he was so happy to have the extra dollars, just shows how poorly these people are paid.

4: Don't be afraid to complain. New Yorkers do it all the time if they don't like service or food. I ordered the wrong thing at a restaurant recently – my fault – and they replaced it with another meal without charge.

5: Don't be too polite. Years ago I made the mistake of starting my order at a deli with "May I please have". Before I got to "have" the guy behind the counter cut me off and snarled impatiently, "Whadda you want, lady?" Be direct and don't dither. These people are busy. But "thank you" is OK.

6: Don't dawdle, especially in the subway. Stand to the side if you can't work out where you're going. If you block an entrance, you're likely to be pushed over. It can be mean down there. 

7: Don't take the nearest subway without checking the map. Sometimes the subway on hand lies above a labyrinthine network of underground passages you have to navigate before you get to the train you actually want. Look at the map and see if a short above ground walk will get you to a subway line that's a more direct route to where you are going. It is a bit of an art, especially on weekends, when services can change in a way that's not obvious on the map.

8: Don't stare or point at celebrities and only ask for their autograph  if you're prepared to be embarrassed. Many well-known identities make their home in New York and New Yorkers give them a respectful distance. Locals will give you disapproving looks if you break that pact. Just the other day, I ran into Robert De Niro as I was entering and he was leaving the Greenwich Hotel, which he owns. I smiled at him and he smiled back and that was a nice enough encounter. 

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9: Don't eat in the theatre district. Just don't. The food is mostly horrible. The whole Broadway area is mostly horrible. Eat a banana and then have a drink at Sardi's​ upstairs bar. Or splurge a little on a meal at Charlie Palmer restaurant in the new Knickerbocker​ hotel at Times Square, which has a fantastic value three-course, $45 fixed price pre-theatre menu. I just discovered it last trip. 

10: Don't stick to Manhattan. Much of the action is happening in the outer reaches of Brooklyn these days, as young people and creatives move out of the city in search of cheaper rents. Brooklyn Heights, Prospect Park and Williamsburg are status quo – check out Gowanus and Bushwick for a really cutting-edge experience. 

11: Finally – don't be too cautious. In the old days, you could turn a corner on Manhattan and find yourself suddenly in a dangerous situation. The island is now pretty safe in every pocket, including most of Harlem. Walk with confidence like a local in any situation and you'll be fine.

The writer was a guest of the Knickerbocker and Greenwich hotels.

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