In a city renowned for being on the pricey side, David Whitley offers tips on how to spare the wallet.
NEW YORK is one of the most expensive cities on the planet and it's one where even a short visit can leave you weeping over the impending credit card bill. But play it canny and you can take advantage of all manner of free stuff while in the Big Apple.
There are surprisingly few museums in New York that are permanently free but there are a couple of notable exceptions. The National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu) and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (fitnyc.edu/3662.asp) are arguably the best bets.
But some museums that operate on a suggested-donation basis. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) makes no bones about the fact it strongly recommends visitors pay the suggested $US20 ($19.70) fee, but the tight-fisted can shamelessly pay nothing if they wish. The same principle applies at the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org).
Those with a stouter conscience are advised to do their research and time it right. Almost every museum in New York has a few hours every week when admission is free. These periods tend to be on a Friday or Saturday evening. Of the biggies, the Guggenheim Museum (www.guggenheim.org) operates on a pay-what-you-wish basis from 5.45-7.15pm on Saturdays and the International Center of Photography (www.icp.org) is free from 5-8pm on Fridays.
Tours and transport
The most famous freebie in New York is the Staten Island ferry (www.siferry.com). Theoretically designed for commuters, it ploughs the route between St George on Staten Island and the southern tip of Manhattan at least every half-hour.
Getting on is something of a scrum but there are excellent views of the city from the deck. You can easily tick off those postcard Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty shots without paying a cent.
There's also a free ferry to Governors Island (www.govisland.com), a lesser-known speck in New York Harbour that is slowly being converted into a parkland escape with a few historic buildings thrown in.
It's also possible to go on a few guided tours without dipping into your pocket (although expect some disapproving glares if you don't leave a tip). The Big Apple Greeter program (www.bigapplegreeter.org) has been going since 1992 and relies on volunteers giving up their time to show visitors around their neighbourhood. Quality tends to vary but it's a good way of dipping into what would otherwise be uncharted waters.
It is, of course, free to make your own way around Central Park (www.centralparknyc.org) but guided walks that concentrate on various areas of the park run in all but the most brutal weather conditions.
Other free walking tours include a 90-minute jaunt around Grand Central Station and surrounds every Friday at 12.30pm with the Grand Central Partnership (www.grandcentralpartnership.org) and a flashier alternative in Times Square (Friday at noon, www.timessquarenyc.org).
Activities and entertainment
There's almost always something going on for nothing in New York. The NYC & Company website (www.nycgo.com/free) has a good list of upcoming free events. Club freeTime (www.clubfreetime.com) is a brilliant resource for no-charge music concerts, film screenings, theatre productions and gallery exhibitions. It also offers free off-Broadway show tickets and extra secret free stuff to its members - and the membership costs just $US1.95 a week.
In summer New York is besieged with free concerts, most of which take place in the city's parks. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera will seemingly play for free in any patch of grassland across the five boroughs, while the Central Park SummerStage (www.summerstage.org) at the Rumsey Playfield draws in big names from across the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, gospel and indie.
Bryant Park is also a great freebie hot spot. During the summer months, it hosts gratis performances from Broadway shows every Thursday at 12.30pm.
The idea is clearly to get people to shell out for tickets to said shows but it's a gift horse nonetheless. Other summer activities available at Bryant Park (www.bryantpark.org) include free weekday petanque lessons between 11am and 6pm and table tennis on one of two publicly available tables. The sporty theme continues in winter when ice skating on the pond is available without charge to all (although expect to pay for skate hire).
If you're being astonishingly cheap, it's just about possible to survive in New York on free food samples handed out by gourmet food stores. The Upper East Side is a good place to kick off - Agata & Valentina, on the corner of 79th Street and First Avenue, has sample portions of artisan breads, Two Little Red Hens on 86th and Second offers cookies and biscotti, while Eli's on 80th and Third has cheeses and olives. Later on, the O'Reilly's pub on 35th and Fifth offers a free hot buffet from 5pm as part of its happy hour. You'd be surprised how popular this sample crawling is. Think of it being like a multi-venue tapas meal.
Accommodation is the biggest wallet-drainer in New York and pretty much the only way you're going to get it for free is by signing up to CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.com). Essentially, you beg people for a night or two on their lounge by promising to return the favour when someone's in your neck of the woods.
Otherwise, change tack and look for the freebies hotels are prepared to throw in. The Hilton Garden Inn in Staten Island (www.hiltongardeninn.hilton.com), for example, offers free shuttle services to Newark airport and the Staten Island ferry terminal - that can amount to a big saving in transport costs.
Affinia Hotels (www.affinia.com) offer free "experience kits" that include guidebooks and iPods with pre-loaded walking tours, while kitting you out with as many travel-sized toiletries as you can carry.
Kimpton Hotels (www.kimptonhotels.com) prefer to ply you with booze, hosting a free wine hour every evening.
The writer was a guest of NYC & Company.