1. Bought my ticket with frequent flyer miles. Not frequent flyer miles that I accured slowly and painfully over several years through multiple flights, mind you, but frequent flyer miles that I earned instantly and painlessly through a combination of two credit cards: the Delta SkyMiles card, which had a signup bonus of about 20,000 miles, and the American Express Starwood card, which let me redeem some of my Starwood Points (also earned as a signup bonus) for another 2,000 Delta frequent flyer miles. The other 3,000 miles I did earn with an actual paid flight. Savings: at least $300.
2. Stayed with a friend. I actually have several friends in NYC, so I had my choice of places to crash. Some of them would have been quite cramped (though they still would have been free), but I have one friend who lives far enough out of the central city that she actually had a whole extra room I could stay in. I did spend a lot of time on the subway each day, but I didn't mind. I can't remember the last time I finished reading a book in only a few days, and since I was one of the first people on, I always had a seat. Savings: $900 (over a hotel room).
3. Limited myself to free sights. There are so many free things to do in New York City. Just walking around looking at everything and experiencing the energy of the city provides endless entertainment. And the one museum I wanted to see, MOMA, is free on Friday nights thanks to a corporate sponsorship (as are many other museums across the country) so I saved $20 there. Savings: at least $100.
4. Stayed away from high-end restaurants. There is a ton of good food in New York City, and one of my goals was to eat as much of it as possible. By sticking with "ethnic" restaurants instead of trying to eat at Per Se and Nobu, most of my restaurant tabs were only $13-$25. Then for several meals, I bought food at a gourmet grocery store. The food was expensive for groceries, but cheaper than going out to eat. I had a lot of the staples and a lot of other things I can't get easily where I live: New York style pizza, bagels and lox, rugelach, non-Americanized Chinese food in Chinatown, Malaysian, German, and more. Savings: hundreds of dollars.
5. Traveled alone. Since I am self-employed, I get as many days off work as I want. Unfortuantely, my boyfriend is not so lucky, so he stayed home. However, that did make the trip considerably less expensive for our household. Savings: at least $600.
6. Took a legal pad, a pen, and my laptop with me. I didn't do too much work on my trip (it was supposed to be a vacation, after all), but I did enough to avoid taking a major financial hit. When you're self-employed, there are no paid vacation days. The only way to not have a serious drop in income from not working for a week is to make up the hours before you leave, after you leave, or gradually over the year (for example, my dad worked 42 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week when he was self-employed in order to give himself two weeks of "paid" vacation a year). Me, I'm crazy and planning to make up all the time this week. While I was traveling, I had plenty of time on the bus and the plane to do wor, and I did a little more on the evenings when I got home early. Savings: a week's income.
7. Took public transit/got a ride from a friend/used Super Shuttle to and from the airport. Most people in New York City would probably tell you to take a cab to and from the airport, but I can't stand the thought of forking over that much money for something I could do for so much less. On my way out of town, I rode the bus to the airport (2 hours, but only $1.25 instead of about $50). Then when I got into town, I took Super Shuttle, a shared ride service that falls somewhere between the cost of a cab and the cost of public transit, depending on the city. (My experience with Super Shuttle was so awful that it ended up being free, but that's the subject of another post.) To get from my friend's place back to the airport, I took the subway and the Air Train, which cost $7 and took about two hours. Then I had a friend pick me up from the airport at home since I arrived at night and didn't want to be on the bus then. Savings: about $200.
8. Used the subway and my feet to get around town. I bought a $25 weekly subway pass, which was perfect since I was in town for a week. I'm sure a cab would have been easier and less frustrating in certain circumstances, but I did save a lot of money. I've actually spent more money traveling to the Midwest because I have to rent a car there. New York City is very cheap in the transportation department, and the subway is pretty easy to use (although it does have quite a few limitations and complications that Manhattanites never seem to reveal to the outside world - it's not as easy most European subway systems, that's for sure).
So roughly, the cost of my trip broke down to $32 for transit and $268 for food (and if I had been on a tighter budget or wasn't such an epicurean, I certainly could have spent a lot less there). I really like to travel, and it's because I make choices like these on every trip I take that I am able to do it so frequently. If you're having trouble finding the money for a vacation, take some time to brainstorm ways you can make it as inexpensive as possible. Who would let you stay with them for a few days? Where could you go camping? How can you get enough frequent flyer miles for a free ticket, or where can you drive to cheaply? What places have inexpensive things to do once you're actually there? You don't have to spend $1,000 or more to have a great trip.