You don't need big bucks to enjoy the Big Apple big time. Travel like a New Yorker on the subway. Eat like a New Yorker on the street. And see the city like a New Yorker by visiting public spaces, landmarks and famous places, many of which can be enjoyed for free. Here are some strategies.
Getting around: Subway fare is $2. A MetroCard with unlimited rides on subways and buses is $7.50 for the day or $25 for seven days.
Famous places: Stroll the serpentine paths of Central Park on your own or take a free walking tour from the Central Park Conservancy. Carousel rides are $2. For $8, you can hang out with polar bears and penguins at the zoo ($3 for ages 3-12).
At Fifth Avenue and 50th Street is Rockefeller Center. The elegant art deco skyscrapers, Channel Gardens, and statues of Prometheus and Atlas are worth seeing in person, no matter how many times you've seen them on TV.
Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd Street and Park Avenue, is worth a visit too. Spend a few minutes inside gazing at the arches, cathedral windows and ceiling that make the place so grand.
Head west on 42nd Street to Times Square, but wait until after dark to fully appreciate the neon lights. Don't worry — the place is packed, even at night. You'll be perfectly safe.
Take the No. 1 train to the South Ferry stop and hop on the Staten Island ferry. It's free and offers fantastic views of the Statue of Liberty and city skyline, not to mention the manmade waterfalls on the East River, in place through Oct. 13.
Free ferries to Governors Island also offer waterfall views with boats Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 12.
Another way to see the city from the water is by kayak. The Downtown Boathouse offers free kayaking weekends through Oct. 13 on the Hudson River on the city's West Side.
For a thrilling view of Lower Manhattan's urban canyons and skyscrapers, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Entertainment: Whether your taste runs to David Letterman, Stephen Colbert or Maury Povich, if your favorite TV show is filmed in New York, you may be able to see it live for free.
A few Broadway shows hold nightly lotteries for cheap front-row tickets ($21.50 for "Avenue Q," $26.50 for "In The Heights," check Web sites for details). It's a great deal if your plans are flexible. Or try the TKTS booth in the Marriott Marquis Hotel, West 46th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, which sells tickets at up to 50 percent off for that night's performance at many Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
Many city parks host free shows in the summer, but they mostly end in August. In September and October, though, parades and street fairs abound. The West Indian-American Day Parade is a massive carnival-style pageant every Labor Day along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Look for politicians and other celebrities in the Columbus Day Parade along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, 44th to 79th streets, noon-3 p.m. The Feast of San Gennaro street festival takes place on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, Sept. 11-21.
Museums: Most museums have some free hours. Arrive early and be prepared for crowds. (What, you thought you were the only one on a budget?)
The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, hosts free Fridays, 4 p.m.-8 p.m. The Whitney Museum of American Art, Madison and 75th Street, has "pay what you wish" admission Fridays, 6 p.m.-9 p.m. The Brooklyn Museum (Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop on the No. 2 or 3 train) has free admission the first Saturday night of each month except September, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. The arts-and-entertainment event draws huge crowds, from young hipsters to families to older folks.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, always has a "suggested admission" of $20, which means that no, you really don't have to pay the full amount. Don't be embarrassed; New Yorkers on a budget do it all the time. (One of my high school teachers famously sent us off to the museum with this advice: "A polite quarter will do!")
In Lower Manhattan, the National Museum of the American Indian is always free. Its thought-provoking exhibits include ancient artifacts; masterpieces of pottery, basketry, apparel and other objects; and contemporary art. The museum is housed at One Bowling Green in the former U.S. Customs House, an architecturally stunning 1907 Beaux Arts building.
Food: For breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese is the real deal. (Don't you dare put jam on that bagel!) And don't ask how many calories it is; just know that you won't be hungry for hours. In many parts of the city, corner coffee carts sell decent java, pastries and donuts for about $1.
A cheap lunch might be a hot dog from a cart, a slice from a pizzeria or a sandwich to go from a deli. Also popular are "halal" grill carts selling falafel, chicken in pita and other Middle Eastern fare for $5 or less.
For a sit-down splurge, try Dawat, 210 E. 58th St., an Indian restaurant with impeccable service and an outstanding menu created by the writer and actress Madhur Jaffrey. There are several $16 lunch specials. Dinner entrees run more but even at night, you can get a half-order of tandoori chicken for $14.
Supermarkets often sell whole cooked rotisserie chickens to go for under $10. Add a loaf of Italian bread, a readymade salad, and find a park for a picnic for two. Or round up some friends and order a few dishes to share in an ethnic restaurant. Chinatown has many inexpensive restaurants but one of my favorites is Joe's Shanghai at 9 Pell St. You may need a map to find it, but the dumplings are divine. At Aura Thai, 462 Ninth Ave. near 36th Street, panang curry with chicken, beef or tofu is $8.95.
Dessert for two: Split the six-for-$9 selection of truffles and pralines at Max Brenner's, 141 Second Ave. at Ninth Street.
Neighborhoods: Spend an afternoon exploring. Take the No. 7 train to Jackson Heights and soak up the sounds, sights and smells of the Latin and Asian shops and restaurants. Walk across 125th Street in Harlem. Wander around the Lower East Side, where bargain stores still sell housedresses on racks, but trendy bars and cafes are encroaching on the old neighborhood. Don't forget Coney Island, last stop on the D, F, or Q trains to Brooklyn. If you're tempted by laughter, screams and music from the amusement park, a ride on the Wonder Wheel is $6 while the Cyclone roller coaster is $8. Stroll the boardwalk or wade in the ocean for free.
Big Apple Greeters offers free, personalized tours led by volunteers who love sharing their inside knowledge of the city. Request the neighborhood of your choice or let them surprise you with an authentic corner of the city you might otherwise never see. Reserve three to four weeks ahead.
Accommodations: If you don't have a friend or relative to stay with, the Pod Hotel — 230 E. 51st St. — has some rooms under $200. Or pretend that Sunday is the new Friday, and book a Sunday-Monday stay through NYC Sunday Stays at with room rates 20-30 percent off, free breakfasts and other deals.