Read Before You Leave – New York

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Mar 06, 2017

by ALEX GREIG, Online Writer

Arriving in New York City is like stepping onto a movie set – a pedestrian yells at an overzealous motorist; an off-duty model slinks by in artfully shredded jeans; a displaced hipster from Brooklyn bemoans the G train on the latest smartphone; and a hotdog cart has an eager queue despite its C sanitary rating from the New York Department of Health. And even if you don’t feel like you’re in a movie, watch your step because you could inadvertently wander into a live shoot: at any given moment major films and NYC-based TV shows are being filmed all over the city from the brownstones of Brooklyn to the dive bars of the Lower East Side. New York is familiar even to those who have never visited thanks to this filmed record ­– Woody Allen’s oeuvre includes many odes to the city, Sex and the City tours are still being patronised by a diverse crowd – from the Mid-West to the Middle East – and Katz’s Deli is patronised by Meg Ryan impressionists on a daily basis. Despite our cultural affinity with the city, there are still a few things every visitor should know before arriving in that concrete jungle. To make it in New York, follow our Read Before You Leave guide.

Flight time 

Qantas flies to JFK and La Guardia airports via Dallas Fort Worth, San Francisco or LAX. The flight takes about 21 hours from the east coast and almost 30 hours from Perth.

Entering the US

Australia is a participant in America’s Visa Waiver Program, meaning Australians don’t need a visa for visits of 90 days or less. We must, however, obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) through the Department of Homeland Security site. Authorisation is usually granted on the spot but it’s advisable to apply at least 72 hours before you travel in case there’s an issue. ESTA-approved travellers also need a (machine-readable) ePassport.

If you overstay, the American Government could arrest, deport or even bar you from returning to the States. Your kids will never forgive you if they can’t go to FAO Schwarz toy store and play on the giant keyboard.

Flying in to LaGuardia Airport or John F. Kennedy International Airport

LaGuardia is located in the northern part of Queens near Flushing Bay, about 13 kilometres from Manhattan. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provides buses between LaGuardia and Manhattan. The Q70 SBS LaGuardia Link takes passengers from Terminals B, C and D to the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway. JFK is in Jamaica, Queens, about 20 kilometres southeast of Manhattan. It’s the busiest international air passenger gateway into the US and it’s well connected to Manhattan. The AirTrain stops at each terminal and connects to the subway. Take the AirTrain to Jamaica Station, hop on the subway and you’ll be at Penn Station within 50 minutes.

Taxis are plentiful at both airports. Taxis at JFK charge a flat rate of US$52 with an additional US$4.50 surcharge added during peak-hour. From LaGuardia taxis are metred with a US$1 peak-hour surcharge and a US$0.50 surcharge between 8pm and 6am. A state tax of US$0.50 is added for trips within New York.

Vaccine advice

While there aren’t any specific vaccines recommended for travel to the US, it’s worth checking the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates on infectious-disease outbreaks. At the time of writing, 217 mosquito-borne cases of the Zika virus were reported in the country. It’s also wise to ensure all your vaccinations are up to date.

Transport tips

New York wouldn’t be New York without its subway. Join the straphangers – the subway is the quickest, cheapest and easiest way to get around. Each trip on the subway costs a flat rate of US$2.75, no matter where you’re going. It operates 24 hours a day and travels through Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens. You’ll need a MetroCard – buy one at a booth or a MetroCard vending machine for US$1 and top it up as and when necessary. MetroCard also works on buses, which cover routes not served by the subway system such as cross-town between the East and West Sides.

Read more: 6 Things Not to Do in New York – and What to Do Instead

Money matters

At the time of writing, the Australian dollar was buying around 76 US cents – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date foreign-exchange rates.

Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in Los Angeles. Your Australian bank and American ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.

In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.

Finally, tipping in the US is such a complex ritual that we have addressed the etiquette here.

Weather wise

New York has very definite seasons: in the summertime it’s all exploded fire hydrants and sitting in front of the overworked air-conditioner with average highs of 29 degrees Celsius during July; in winter you could find yourself feet-deep in snow. Spring can remain chilly well into April though there have been reports of unseasonably mild weather in this spring of 2017. Autumn is generally mild and pleasant with daytime temperatures between 12 and 18 degrees Celsius.

Read more: 12 Less Touristy Things to Do in New York

When to go

Each season has something to offer visitors. New York is magical around Christmas time with decorations, ice-skating and falling snow. Spring offers renewal – New Yorkers thaw out and take to the streets for markets, walks in Central park and al fresco dining. Autumn, or fall, as the season is known to Americans, means crisp, bright days and mild temperatures. The summertime is hot – but that means trips to Coney Island, picnics in the park and steamy nights on rooftop bars.

Dress code

Layering is key for winter, as is a big puffy coat the likes of which are easily found in practical outfitter Uniqlo. You might find them deeply unattractive but that will be the least of your concerns when you’re walking to the subway in minus 10-degree weather. A pair of waterproof boots are necessary for tramping through the snow. The rest of the time, New Yorkers are pretty stylish so leave the Kathmandu cargo shorts at home and opt for your street-style best. Just imagine The Sartorialist is lurking, about to snap your ensemble for posterity. As far as accessories are concerned, go big or go home – remember, this is the city that spawned the great Iris Apfel.

Read more: Nicky Zimmermann's Guide to New York

Tap water

The tap water is drinkable in New York and is among the best drinking water in the country. The water is delivered from huge water reservoirs upstate – more than 1 billion gallons a day.

Driving

According to the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website, thieves target rental cars in the US. If you’re planning to hit the road in a rental, don’t leave any valuables behind when you park. According to research cited by Smart Traveller, drivers are almost twice as likely to be killed in a road accident in the US than at home. Remember, you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Read more: Two-wheeled Tours of Hidden New York

Insurance policy

Without comprehensive travel insurance, travellers will pay through the nose for medical treatment in the US. Smart Traveller advises that a visit to the GP for a sore throat, say, will run up a bill in the hundreds of dollars – and this is before any extras such as blood tests or medication.

Stay central

It’s hard to go wrong in Manhattan: the island is compact and easily navigable by subway, taxi, or Citi Bike. The Upper East side has venerable boutique hotels such as The Carlyle and Central Park and some of NYC’s top museums such as The Met and The Frick are close-by. Midtown takes in the theatre district and tourist hotspots such as Radio City Music Halls and Times Square plus the restaurants and bars of Hell’s Kitchen. The Meatpacking District is no longer the gritty club-scene of yore – now it’s all about the High Line, the Chelsea Market and the completely unaffordable yet charming brownstones lining the narrow streets. In the Flatiron/Gramercy area, visitors can be close to Union Square with its Greenmarket and within walking distance of both Midtown and the East Village. The Lower East Side and SoHo are the places to be for hip bars, boutique hotels and that downtown atmosphere. Don’t neglect Brooklyn: Williamsburg has long been on the radar but there are other rising neighbourhoods such as Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene and Bushwick.

A note on Broadway

If you’re planning to take in a show or two during your time in New York, plan ahead. You can still score tickets for sold-out smash-hits such as Hamilton in several wily ways. The first is to get in line: the Theatre Development Fund’s TKTS Booth at 47th Street and Broadway sells tickets for at least 50 per cent off for same-day performances. There are several apps such as TodayTix that allow you to find discounted tickets up to a week in advance. Finally, if all else fails, head to the box office as soon as it opens on the day of the performance you want to see – many yop shows allocate a clutch of tickets (some as cheap at $25) to be distributed on the day via a lottery. Go to Playbill’s Broadway guide to find out more.

Phone calls and mobile data

Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important. 

If you need to make calls in New York, buy a US SIM card for local calls and mobile data. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. Also note that Australian mobile phones operate on a GSM network. In America, both GSM and CDMA networks are in operation. This means that your Australian handset won’t work on a CDMA network such as Verizon. See WhistleOut for more in-depth information on using your mobile phone overseas.

Consider buying a cheap handset from one of the US’s many big-box stores, such as Walmart. It will come with credit preloaded but keep in mind that in America you’re charged not just for making calls and sending texts but also receiving them.

Phone home

To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.

Gadgets

Power sockets in the US (120V) have a lower voltage than those in Australia (230V) and a higher frequency (60Hz compared with Australia’s 50Hz). Most gadgets are designed to work on a range of frequencies and voltages but double-check if you’re in doubt. Power plugs and sockets also have a different configuration so an adaptor will come in handy.

Handy apps and websites

MTA for planning your route on public transport.

Lyft or Uber for when public transport fails/it’s snowing/it’s too hot.

Smart Traveller for safety information.

XE for currency conversion.

LaGuardia and JFK for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.

Gate Guru for flight status, airport information and rental cars.

Central Park App for a detailed guide to all 340 hectares of the park and a schedule of events.

NYCGo for handy information about nearby places and events based on your current location using Google Maps technology.

TodayTix for last-minute Broadway tickets.

Time Out New York for the latest concerts, museum exhibitions, restaurants and events.