Big Apple Bargain

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE BIG APPLE ISN'T MEANT to be experienced on a budget. A Saturday night at the Marriott Marquee in Times Square is $369 on hotels.com, and a modest dinner for two hovers near $100.

The recent surge in gas prices isn't helping. Round-trip airfare for two from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to LaGuardia International Airport is topping $600 this summer.

Just try to get side-by-side seats to Wicked on a weekend before Labor Day at anything less than the "premium" price of about $300 per ticket. And God forbid, you wander into Tiffany's or Bergdorf Goodman. Unless you plan to window shop in a straight jacket, you will drop the equivalent of your monthly mortgage on Fifth Avenue.

But as my boyfriend, Eric, and I recently discovered, a weekend in New York can be enjoyed for less, if planned well. Our assignment was to spend two days in New York on $500 combined -- at the last-minute.

(The last-minute part is more our modus operandi than a journalistic requirement, and since we're inside parenthesis here and the average reader is likely to skip over this, I have to confess that Eric and I went a little over budget. Not by much. Just a little.)

So here is a step-by-step guide to soaking up New York on (a little more than) $500 for two.

Get on the bus

The best way to get from Baltimore to New York on the cheap: the multiple Chinese bus lines that depart round-the-clock from the TravelCenters of America Truck Stop at the Baltimore Travel Plaza off Interstate 95.

Booked online, the trip costs $35 round-trip.

Sure, you could drive. But it will cost more to fill up, park and pay tolls. Southwest has always been a friend to budget travelers, but its flights only get you to Long Island. To reach Manhattan, you have to add a $90 taxi ride. Each way.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the Chinese bus lines on price, and all of them drop passengers off in the heart of Chinatown, a lower Manhattan enclave that should be experienced anyway.

However, I must warn you that the bus lines offer a level of comfort, reliability and convenience just a notch above hitchhiking.

Get a guide

If you are a Manhattan neophyte, travel guides are necessary if you want to avoid getting lost.

First rule on maps: six creases max, meaning do not buy one that unfolds to the size of a bus. Do buy one that is laminated, printed on cardboard-thick paper and can be carried in your back pocket. Also buy one that marks the colors, numbers and letters of the subway lines.

Unlike more manageable subway systems in Chicago and Washington, a New Yorker needs to know more than just the color of the line, and it has taken me several months and multiple visits to figure it out.

Silver Lining's Best Map of Manhattan ($5.95) and Red Maps NYC ($6.95) have saved us a lot of time in the past.

As for food, the 2006 Zagat Survey guide to New York restaurants ($13.95) is the only acceptable option.

Having dined at about a dozen Manhattan restaurants during the past six months, I can assure you that this 286-page, maroon-colored book is omniscient. (Divinely inspired, I swear.)

During our most recent trip, Zagat was off by less than five dollars on both dinners, including wine, appetizers and desserts. Its reviews of restaurants' cuisine, ambience and service were equally dead-on.

Get a hotel

Finding an affordable hotel was awful because we naively waited too long to start the search. Usually when I visit New York, I stay at Eric's apartment.

One of the most appealing Web sites was New York Magazine's "Cheap Guide NYC" and an article called "Best Hotels for $150 or Less."

After reading reviews on so many delightfully bohemian and affordable lodgings - the list included several bed-and-breakfasts - I thought that I had hit the jackpot and called for reservations: booked, booked, booked, answering machine, booked, booked and "I have one room available for $350 a night."

The search became so fruitless that I postponed the trip. But when I gave it one last go, I came upon the Wellington Hotel, one block south of Carnegie Hall and across the street from the Carnegie Deli.

I found it during an irritating search on Orbitz - the number of options in New York can make search engines unmanageable - but at $187.79 for a Saturday night stay and an unbeatable location, the Wellington was exactly what we needed.

If you walk across the street, you can stare straight at Times Square. Turn the other way, and there's Central Park.

This hotel isn't perfect - it's just perfect for the price and location. The front desk is smaller than a newsstand and was understaffed, causing us to wait in line to check-in, checkout and store and retrieve our luggage. (Check-in is after 3 p.m., and a room wasn't available earlier.)

Our room was small, the bathroom port-a-potty tight, and the hotel old. One of the shower nozzles leaked water, and the edges of the doors and walls were scuffed.

However, the staff was friendly and the accommodations clean. We liked the hotel's location so much that we booked two rooms there for New Year's Eve.

Get fed

With the Zagat guide in hand, you shouldn't need too much help, but here are a few suggestions:

Pomodoro Rosso is a small Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side serving wonderful pasta dishes with elaborate and fresh ingredients. As with most Italian eateries, the portions were so large that we didn't have room for dessert.

The decor is a bit cheesy - a lackluster Tuscan villa mural is framed with fake grapes hanging from a trellis - and the waits are long on weekends because they don't take reservations.

But the maitre d' cared for everyone like they were his relatives, offering "specials" to regulars and approaching them by name with a kiss on each cheek. I also learned from a Google search that the restaurant was once lauded on Seinfeld as a great place to break up.

Another option is to walk or take the subway to Fairway Market and Citarella, two neighboring Upper West Side markets.

Select fresh produce, cheese and crackers from Fairway, and add a scrumptious dessert (creme brulee or tarts) from Citarella, and then walk a few blocks east to Central Park for an early afternoon picnic.

The markets were packed recently when we lunched at Fairway's second-floor cafe - $25 for two --- which features some of the city's best burgers. But don't arrive too late, or you will be stuck with the pared-down "afternoon" menu before the cafe turns into a more upscale steakhouse for dinner.

The Blue Water Grill is my favorite restaurant in New York, not only because the seafood is perfect, but also because the flirting among the beautiful people at the tables reminds me of Sex in the City. Located in a former bank, the restaurant offers a complete dinner, including two glasses of wine, an appetizer and dessert, for $100 per couple.

Dimly illuminated red-tinted light bulbs give the first-floor dining room a warm and swanky feel, while the dramatic, vintage ceilings add an air of elegance. Make reservations, and if possible, ask for a table downstairs. The ceiling isn't as lofty, but there is live jazz.

Get going

The best way to experience New York is by foot. And when facing a budget, it also happens to be the cheapest.

The best walk I have taken in New York is across the Brooklyn Bridge. There are easy-to-access subway stations at both ends of the bridge. I recommend taking the subway to the Brooklyn side and making the 20-minute walk into Manhattan.

The trip provides spectacular views of the island and financial district towers. On the Sunday morning that we made the journey, the bridge's wooden walkway was crammed with bikers, joggers and tourists.

Although I have never done it, I would recommend trying the walk at night. I imagine that the views are even more magnificent.

Atop the Empire State Building is my most romantic place to be in New York. To bypass the ticket line, which can be long, go to esbnyc.com and purchase tickets online ($16 per adult). While on the 86th-floor observatory, I witnessed a Brit take a knee - his girlfriend said yes --- and a 30-minute fireworks show over the Hudson River.

The audio tour, which we shared for $6, offered a concise introduction to the city's history, famous buildings and neighborhoods from the perspective of a fictional taxi driver named Tony. (It wasn't as corny as it sounds.)

One note on price: Yes, the trip to the 86th floor is probably the most expensive elevator ride you will ever take - and companies try to hawk you everything from souvenir photographs to a showing of a "virtual reality" movie on the way up - but the views at sunset are spectacular. It's worth every penny.

Don't pass up the Museum of Modern Art. With such well-known works in its permanent collection as Monet's "Water Lilies" and Vincent Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," even mediocre art enthusiasts will leave with a sense that they have peered at something monumental. Bonus: The museum is free from 4 p.m.-8 p.m. Fridays (moma.org).

Hit the ballpark

In the summer, New York wouldn't be New York without baseball.

Eric and I took in one of the best baseball games of my life on May 20 at Shea Stadium. The highlight for Eric was the Yankees' resurgence from a 4-0 deficit to win 5-4 in the 11th inning. My highlight was eating two Hebrew National hot dogs - my favorite - for the first time in several years.

Thanks to our last-minute ways, the game was sold out, and we had to pay $7 above face value for mezzanine seats on eBay the week of the game ($40 per ticket, plus $15 for overnight shipping).

Every now and then, you hear eBay horror stories, but this was the second time this season that I used the online auction site to purchase hard-to-get baseball tickets, and both times the transaction went off without a hitch. The price wasn't bad, either, considering it was the subway series.

In the off-season, reserve a time to ice skate at Rockefeller Center online to avoid the long lines during the weeks leading up to Christmas.

When we skated on a visit in February - as the first flakes of the season's only blizzard fell ---we watched a man and his wife skate to their wedding song all by themselves.

He had rented the rink for their one-year anniversary, spending $150 for five minutes of gliding to the soundtrack of their choice.

It was incredibly romantic, but it also proved that money can buy you anything in New York, even Rockefeller Center.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Take the bus from the TravelCenters of America Truck Stop at the Baltimore Travel Plaza. $35 round-trip if reserved online. Travelers run the risk of their bus being late. I recommend checking for general departure times online, showing up and hopping on whatever bus is available for $5 more. For information, visit apexbus.com, www.today-bus.com or doublehappycoach.com.

LODGING

Wellington Hotel, 871 Seventh Ave. (at West 55th Street), 212-247-3900 or 800-652-1212; wellingtonhotel.com. Rooms are small, but fit the budget. Rates start at about $199 per night, but cheaper deals can be found online at orbitz.com.

DINING

Blue Water Grill, 31 Union Square West; 212-675-9500. Dinner for two for $100 plus gratuity. Also, save room for the caramelized banana ice cream tower dessert ($8). Reservations suggested.

Fairway Market, 2127 Broadway at West 74th Street; 212-595-1888; fairwaymarket.com. Open daily 6 a.m.-1 a.m. Choose items for takeout or try the cafe on the second floor for terrific burgers.

Citarella, 2135 Broadway at West 75th Street; 212-874-0383; www.citarella.com. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Pomodoro Rosso, 229 Columbus Ave. between 70th and 71st streets; 212-721-3009. Open from noon to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closes at 10 p.m. Sundays. Moderately priced Italian food served in large portions.

John's Pizzeria, 260 W. 44th St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue; 212-391-7560. Hardy and quick pizza for the traveler on the go. Prices for pizzas start at about $14.

ATTRACTIONS

Empire State Building, 350 5th Ave. between 33rd and 34th streets; 212-736-3100; esbnyc.com. Tickets are $16 for adults; $14 for youths ages 12-17; and $10 for children. Age 5 and younger are free. Open daily 8 a.m. to midnight. Weekend hours are extended during the summer.

Museum of Modern Art, West 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Tickets are $20 for adults. Children younger than 16 get in free. Students get a discount ($12), and unlike most museums, visitors do not have to pay extra for an audio tour.

Shea Stadium, Roosevelt Avenue in Queens; 718-507-TIXX. Home of the New York Mets. Take the Long Island Railroad or subway train No. 7. Ticket prices vary depending on the date.

Rockefeller Center, therinkatrockcenter.com. Weekend rates are $20 per adult and $15 for children younger than 11 and seniors, including skate rental.

INFORMATION

Visit nycvisit.com, home of NYC&Company;, the city's official tourism marketing group.

[ MELISSA HARRIS]

HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT

All prices include gratuity.

Toll (Fort McHenry Tunnel): $4 (including return)

Bus (single fare): $35

Subway fare: $20

Hotel (one night): $187.79

Museum admission: $32

Audio tour: $6

Baseball tickets: $95

Lunch at Shea Stadium: $22.75

Meals: $139.45

TOTAL: $541.99

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