Growing up, Thanksgiving morning was marked by sacred rituals. My two sisters, baby brother and I would wake up early to the smell of cinnamon rolls in the oven, my mom’s beautiful, off-key voice singing her good morning song to us. We would inhale our steaming orange-iced rolls, wash them down with milk that tasted like cream (because nobody in the 80s had time for skim) and pile onto the couch while Mom turned on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
We watched the giant balloons float across the screen while breathless television anchors described the sights and sounds on the ground. This is where I first learned about Central Park, the Upper West Side, and Herald Square – places that seemed a world away from my Midwestern town.
A few years have passed since those days on the couch watching balloons the size of football fields float over that magical city. Business trips and long weekends have taken me to New York City several times since then, each visit giving more opportunities to explore the city and its neighborhoods, falling a little more in love with the place.
So when my husband suggested we hit the Big Apple to celebrate Thanksgiving and my birthday this year, my childhood dreams of seeing those giant balloons in person were within my reach. I had just one concern.
Thanksgiving in New York City sounds expensive.
Lucky for us, we were Travel Miles 101 graduates with 8 months of reward point accruals under our belts. Armed with a growing pile of points and unbridled enthusiasm, we opened our laptops and set to planning my dream holiday adventure.
The Flight to NYC with Rewards Points
We traveled during peak holiday season, so we accepted that we would be burning more points than our usual off-peak flights. Our old friend Southwest Airlines came through for us with two round-trip flights for 48,000 Rapid Rewards points (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards) plus $22.40 in taxes.
We recently secured the Chase Ritz Carlton card which comes with a $300 travel credit. So for the first time, instead of setting my alarm for 24 hours and 5 minutes before takeoff and checking in online to secure my place in line, we upgraded to Early Bird Check-In for $30 round-trip on each ticket. This extra fee gave us pre-assigned boarding slots and simply required that we check in and download boarding passes sometime within the last 24 hours before takeoff. On both departing and returning flights, the hubs and I were assigned A25 and A26 – yahtzee!
I don’t want to get too highbrow here, but there is something gloriously liberating about not worrying about finding space in the overhead compartment or two seats together. If you have a card with travel credits to burn, this is a great way to do it.
The Hotel in NYC using Rewards Points
My husband and I both snagged the Chase Hyatt card several months ago, earning our 2 free nights each at any Hyatt property. What better way to get the biggest bang for our buck than cashing in those free nights at the Park Hyatt on 57th Street?
At $1,100 per night, the Park Hyatt is one of the highest values you can find for your free nights. I was sure we wouldn’t be able to get four consecutive nights at such a high priced property over this holiday weekend. And when we logged into Hyatt.c
om, my fear was validated. No matter how we manipulated the dates, we couldn’t find four consecutive reward nights.
Loving the challenge, the hubs picked up the phone and called the reservation line.
And guess what?
They made it happen.
Our four nights at the Park Hyatt were among the most luxurious travel experiences of my life. The property is located directly across the street from the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall. The property is stylishly understated throughout. Service is impeccable.
If you are looking for a spectacular experience when using your Hyatt free nights, I can’t recommend the Park Hyatt enough – it’s a once in a lifetime experience.
FUN & FRUGAL TIPS in NYC
New York City has buckets of fun, but frugal? Not usually the first word you think of when talking about the Big Apple. Unless you’re being ironic. But even then….no.
We have visited Seattle and NYC this year – two expensive cities for living or vacationing, and we have found a plethora of fun and frugal activities in both.
If you’re still renting a car or hailing cabs when you visit New York, I’m about to rock your world.
Let me introduce you to my little friend, The Metro Card.
For $31, we scored unlimited rides on the subways and buses of the NYC public transportation system. And for 5 days, we averaged 22,000 steps a day AND 11 subway trips. Download the NYC Public Transportation app or grab a paper map at the hotel concierge desk, and you are free to explore the city and all it’s boroughs.
If you’re concerned about safety, talk to your concierge about stops to avoid. But don’t let fear keep you from experiencing the freedom of zipping all over the city. You’re going to have some interesting moments and perhaps some confusing smells – but don’t be discouraged. There’s no better way to experience the city and its neighborhoods than riding the subway.
What to See in NYC
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the ultimate frugal event, as you can find your spot along the parade route and enjoy hours of entertainment free of charge. The floats, the balloons, the marching bands – and the highly entertaining people watching – all free!
A word of warning: some of the busier sections along the route are competitive and folks claim their spots long before dawn. Due to a late night out on Wednesday, we wandered out around 8 a.m. and there were still plenty of locations closer to Central Park along 6th Avenue. So we grabbed breakfast and returned, moving along the parade route to get different angles and perspectives.
If you’re in town the day before the parade, you will likely hear about the worst kept secret in the universe – the inflation of the parade balloons on the upper west side. We were excited to get this top secret “behind the scenes” first look at the parade balloons.
Just us and 2 million of our closest friends.
Be warned. It will be swamped. It may be worth the experience if you’re a true parade fan. Otherwise, just wait for the big day.
In addition to the parade, we hit some of the classic sites on this trip, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the 9-11 Memorial and the Intrepid Air & Space Museum. Each were captivating and powerful reminders of our nation’s history. If you make it to the Intrepid, take the time to view the POW film – their perspective on life will forever change yours.
In addition to the full ticket price museums we visited, we found plenty of free sites, or those with reduced or “pay what you wish” days and hours.
Museum of Modern Art – every Friday evening from 4-8 p.m., MOMA offers Free Fridays. The beautiful space was busy, but the crowd is part of the fun – a beautiful cross section of the city, and our planet. Highlights of the tour included Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and an exhibit on refugee shelters around the globe. Both unforgettable.
Rockefeller Center – a beautiful spot any time of year. But it comes to life in a special way at the holidays. The skating rink is busy, but the real beauty is in standing where you can see and hear the music and light show on Saks 5th Avenue across the street. We sat for many minutes on the steps of St. Patrick’s cathedral where we could hear the music and watch the lights of both Rockefeller and Saks.
Museum of Natural History – we paid full ticket price, but if you pay for your tickets at the counter instead of booking online, this is a “pay what you wish” museum. It is also very near the location where they inflate the balloons on parade eve.
Chelsea Highline – the Highline is a public park created on abandoned freight line tracks built above the streets of Manhattan. During the summer it is alive with flowers, but we found the late fall landscaping almost as beautiful. You can also enjoy the art exhibits along the tracks.
Bryant Park – Central Park is the headline grabber of NYC parks, but I’ve always been partial to Bryant Park. In summer, you can play ping pong and grab a lemonade, or take a morning boot camp class. In the winter, they offer the only free skating rink in the city, and host a full Christmas market of local vendors and food carts packing the park. Schedule a few hours to stroll through this beautiful space and bask in the holiday spirit.
Dining in NYC
Just google “great restaurants in NYC” and you’ll be overwhelmed with options. You could also try the opposite approach and just explore the streets and stop when you’re hungry – there’s enough great food in the city to make that a successful strategy, as well.
We fell somewhere in between. Here’s a taste of our travels.
Absolute Bagel – this bagel shop on the upper west side was a brief subway ride from our hotel, and worth every second waiting in line. The bagels are better than I imagined they could be and one of our cheapest meals in the city. For just over $10, we scored a breakfast sandwich and a sweet cinnamon raisin with blueberry cream cheese.
Carnegie Deli – if you haven’t visited this classic New York deli by now, your time is running out. They close for good on December 31, 2016. On our last visit to the city in the summer of 2015, we made a special trip to the deli and they were closed for a water line repair. But they were open on Thanksgiving morning! So instead of eating hot cinnamon rolls with orange icing while waiting for the parade to start, we shared a giant mountain of a Reuben sandwich. That’s normal, right?
Joe’s Pizza – this classic NY slice can only be found on Carmine Street. Nothing fancy. But at $2.75, you can’t beat it.
Eataly – this Italian market in the Flatiron neighborhood is a glorious way to spend a rainy morning or afternoon in the city. Chock full of restaurants, coffee and gelato shops, and handmade pasta and Italian specialties, you’ll find things you never knew existed, much less that you needed in your life. We enjoyed the best pistachio gelato of our lives in this place, and I’m confident anything we ate there would have been unique and authentic. It won’t be frugal if you do your weekly grocery shopping here, but it’s a great cultural experience.
A Little Non-Frugal Fun – a chef friend of mine gave us two restaurant recommendations for NYC, and we tried them both. They will forever be remembered as our favorite restaurants in the city. Red Rooster in Harlem is where we celebrated my birthday dinner. The atmosphere is sophisticated but crazy fun and food was unique but somehow familiar. We enjoyed a squid ink pasta and fried yard bird, with the macaroni cheese and greens side. They brought out a slab of chocolate deliciousness with a roman candle when we finished. Nice touch.
Empallon Taqueria in the West Village also made the list. This neighborhood is worth a day of exploring, and the taco shop was a highlight. The standard guacamole and tortillas were delicious, but the specialty salsas, shrimp with pickled potatoes and grilled octopus were spectacular. I didn’t know flavors like this existed. If you visit the city, this restaurant is worth your time.
The Bottom Line
What our trip should have cost – cash:
Transportation $ 62 (Metro card / public transit)
What our trip actually cost – cash:
Lodging $ 0
Flights $ 0
Transportation $ 62 (Metro card / public transit)
Total $ 62
I’m not sure about you, but 6k is twice the price of my first car. It was an unforgettable travel rewards trip and our biggest savings to date.
Thanks for the memories, New York. We’ll be back.