NYC on a Budget

By Jessica Festa

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(Photo by Erik Drost)

While NYC is known for being pricey, it doesn’t have to be. All you need are a few insider tips and you’ll enjoy the best of the Big Apple on a budget. From free tours to complimentary nibbles, here are some top tips for New York on a budget, as told by a local.

1. Opt for free experiences

It’s a myth that everything in NYC costs a fortune. In fact, the city is full of complimentary experiences to enjoy. Wander lush and fun-filled grounds like Central and Prospect Parks, head to Bryant Park to learn juggling or take a yoga class, wander the inspiring Socrates Sculpture Park, see a show at Upright Citizens Brigade ($0-$10), take a free class at the New York Public Library, and keep your eyes peeled for free tastings at wine shops like Astor Wines & Spirits and Big Tree Bottles.

A number of world class museums offer donation-only based entry, like the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, National Museum of the American Indian and the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. If a museum isn’t free, check their website to see if they offer any special free days or evenings, as many do.4487307969_35184152e4_z

 (Photo by Tassilo von Parseval)

2. Skip the taxi

Depending where you need to go, you’ll often be able to reach a destination quicker when taking the subway, as you’ll skip the street traffic. Although NYC’s extensive transport map appears similar to a scary alien creature when you first look at it, it’s actually simple to understand — and can take you literally anywhere you need to go. The easiest way to navigate the subway is with an app like Embark  or HopStop, which both tell you exactly what you need to do to get from Point A to Point B. If you don’t have a smartphone, HopStop provides subway directions through its website.

3. Complimentary walking tours that rock

When planning a budget-friendly trip to NYC, don’t just book the first excursion that shows up in a Google search. First, check the offerings of Free Tours by Foot . This sightseeing company works on a tips-only basis, so the  walking excursions themselves are no charge. You’ll just need to make a reservation to reserve your spot. To show you just how varied their tour offerings are, some options include Ghosts of Greenwich Village, Gramercy Thrift and Vintage Shopping Day, Central Park, Brooklyn Graffiti And Street Art, and Harlem Food, to name a few.

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(Photo by Phil Roeder.)

 4. Use tools for hotel savings

Accommodation is often the most expensive part of an NYC stay. Save money by downloading apps and using tools designed just for that. For example, Hotel Tonight   allows you to save on unsold hotel rooms up to seven days before your trip. Moreover, Tingo  is a travel booking website that offers price drop refunds, meaning if your hotel room becomes cheaper after you book you’ll get the difference back. And with Priceline you can bid on hotel rooms — although you’ll only know the class of the hotel before you pay — and often score business and luxury class hotels for 50% or more off. You can also use tools like Groupon  and LivingSocial to find discounted hotels and travel packages — not to mention attractions and restaurants — typically offered at more than half off the original price.

 

hotel room via Jessica Festa

(Photo by Jessica Festa)

5. Find happy hours serving free food

Happy hour is a great time to score discounted food and drinks. Not only that, but at select venues in NYC you can also get free food, often with the purchase of a drink. While Agozar!  offers free tapas between 5 and 8pm, The Watering Hole  serves a free buffet between 5:30pm to 6:30pm on weekdays. Head to restaurants like Crocodile Lounge, Alligator Lounge  and Charleston  and you’ll be savoring your very own personal pizza pie. Do some research to see where you can stretch those dining dollars even farther with complimentary bites.

 

USA Student Tour can help you plan your next New York vacation! Check out these amazing New York vacation packages from USA Student Tour, including specials for teachers and students!

Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey.  Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.  You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram.

 

 

 

Lafayette — Heart of Cajun Country & so much more

Lafayette, the heart of Cajun Country in South Louisiana, has been buzzing for several years now. Known for its vibrant Cajun and zydeco music, the town’s musicians have garnered international nods and raked up a few Grammys. Its culinary scene, once strictly a Cajun food mecca, has expanded and evolved, one of the reasons Lafayette was named “Best for Food” by Rand McNally’s 2011 “Best of the Road” contest and the 2012 “Tastiest Town in the South” by Southern Living magazine.

Boiled crawfish with corn - a favorite Cajun dish

Boiled crawfish with corn – a favorite Cajun dish

The Lafayette Utilities System installed a citywide fiber optics service that’s been making headlines everywhere, attracting national companies and film professionals — Harry Potter’s 3-D effects were created here. And this past year Lafayette was named best in job growth and low unemployment and one of 20 finalists in the Mayor’s Challenge by Blumberg Philanthropies, picked from more than 300 cities nationwide.

Ask people who live in Lafayette, however, and they’ll tell you it’s the people who make it so special. Lafayette is rich in culture, history, food and fun and all of that stems from its residents. Here people work hard but at the end of the day love to eat good food, listen to great music and dance the night away. Or as they say in Cajun Country, “pass a good time” or “laissez les bon temps roullez” or “let the good times roll.”

So if you’re headed to Lafayette, be sure and bring your dance shoes. On any given night live music can be found in a variety of styles at a host of music venues, from roots rock at the Blue Moon Saloon and Guest House to traditional Cajun and zydeco at restaurants with dance floors, such as Randol’s. There’s even a week of music classes, jam sessions and culinary instruction at the annual spring Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week, for those who want to learn everything there is to know about Cajun and Creole culture — and join in the fun.

Blue Moon Saloon - credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Blue Moon Saloon – credit Blue Moon Saloon & Guest House

Every spring and fall Lafayette is home to world-renown festivals and free concert series are held in “parcs” in downtown Lafayette. Festival International de Louisiane takes over downtown streets with several stages of music, arts and crafts and of course that delectable cuisine on the last weekend of April. It’s one of the world’s largest free outdoor music events, bringing in musicians from all over the Francophone world. In October, Festivals Acadiens et Crèoles offers both traditional and modern Cajun and zydeco music on several stages in Girard Park, along with Louisiana crafts, food and cultural lectures. Lafayette Mardi Gras celebrations range from the family-friendly parades and balls in town to the unique rural Courir de Mardi Gras celebrations, where participants ride horseback begging for ingredients to a gumbo. The annual courirs hail back to medieval times.

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

The accordion is one of the main instruments used in zydeco music

Lafayette’s historic sites explain area history of Cajun and Creole settlers, who created an American heritage like no other. Visitors may stroll back in time at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, and the historic Acadian Village. Both sites offer live music and special events year-round.

Attractions include the Zoo of Acadiana, the Children’s Museum of Acadiana, the Lafayette Science Museum and plenty of outdoors activities, from hunting and fishing to biking along established trails and canoeing and kayaking in nearby bayous and Lake Martin. There are several state parks nearby, including Lake Fausse Point, the Louisiana Arboretum, Chicot State Park and St. Martinville’s Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Site. All are fun destinations for those touring or sightseeing.

Louisiana Bayou - Lake Martin

Louisiana Bayou – Lake Martin

And because the Cajun culture is still vibrant in Lafayette and surrounding areas, it’s possible to hear French being spoken. There are weekly French tables throughout “Acadiana” where people gather for conversation and community and visitors are always welcome. And for those who want to bring their instruments, there are numerous jam sessions held monthly in the area as well, from the monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk to regular sessions at the Scott Welcome Center. Age is never a consideration, not is the ability to sing in French.

Lafayette lies about two hours west of New Orleans and just south of Interstate 10. Known as “coastal South,” the weather is often hot and humid in the summer but fall and spring are gorgeous times to visit, with flowers blooming for months. Winters are practically non-existent. Because it’s almost a subtropical zone, rain showers are likely throughout most of the year, sometimes violent. Be prepared for sunshine one minute and thunderclaps the next.

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com

Nashville

Nashville is a great mid-South city rich in history, bursting with Southern hospitality and food and humming with a vibrant musical heritage.

The town began with the settlement of Fort Nashborough, named for Revolutionary War hero Gen. Francis Nash. The city later became Nashville, home to President Andrew Jackson. And after it rebounded from the Civil War, Nashville developed itself as a hub of collegiate education, giving it the nickname as “Athens of the South.”

Nashville Parthenon

Nashville Parthenon

But most people know Nashville as the heart of the nation’s country music industry, which is why it’s nicknamed “Music City.”

Whether you’re traveling to Nashville to tour the historic sites, enjoy the family friendly activities or learn more about country music, the city has it all.

Start with accommodations. The Hermitage Hotel, built in 1908 as Nashville’s first million-dollar hotel and named for Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, is a grand downtown landmark, from its breathtaking lobby to the outstanding customer service. The hotel is centrally located and offers dining options as well.

Inside view of the Ryman Auditorium

Inside view of the Ryman Auditorium

Visitors to Nashville should start with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to receive an excellent overview of the city’s music industry. The museum includes rhinestone costumes, original instruments, Elvis’ car and much more. Here visitors can pick up a tour to the Historic RCA Studio B, where numerous stars recorded 35,000 songs, including Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Once you hear some of the recordings made at Studio B you’ll see why it’s nicknamed “the Home of a Thousand Hits.”

Opryland Garden Conservatory Atrium - credit Gaylord Opryland Resort

Opryland Garden Conservatory Atrium – credit Gaylord Opryland Resort

The Grand Ole Opry began in Nashville in 1925 by an insurance company looking to advertise its policies with a “WSM Barn Dance” (WSM being the company’s motto, “We Shield Millions). The show became immensely popular and was renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927, quickly becoming one of radio’s longest shows, later moving into television. The Opry performed within the Ryman Auditorium for nearly 31 years before relocating to a larger space at Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

Since the move, the Ryman has been lovingly restored, is open for daytime tours and is used as a performing space, with the Opry returning on special occasions. The Grand Ole Opry can still be heard regularly at Opryland at its sparkling new Grand Ole Opry House. The resort offers almost 3,000 rooms and nine acres (yes, that’s acres!) of indoor gardens and waterfalls and is a great place to stay, especially for families.

Nashville Symphony Photo credit: Nashville Symphony

Nashville Symphony
Photo credit: Nashville Symphony

Other places to visit include:

  • The Nashville Symphony’s new $123 million Schermerhorn concert hall with its almost 2,000 seats on three levels, a massive custom-built organ, a choral loft that can accommodate 146 chorus members and soundproof windows letting in soft, natural light.
  • The Parthenon in Centennial Park is the world’s only exact replica of the Greek temple to honor goddess Athena, built for the Tennessee Exposition in 1897.
  • The 1830 Hermitage was the home of America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, and includes home, horse-drawn wagon and seasonal walking tours.
  • The Frist Center for the Visual Arts occupies a renovated 1933 post office and the building is as much an exhibit as the changing art displays.
  • For kids, there’s the Adventure Science Center and the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere.

For more information on Nashville, visit the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Nashville & Memphis Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Web sites
The Hermitage Hotel

Country Music Hall of Fame

Grand Ole Opry

The Rymn Auditorium

Gaylord Opryland Resort

Schermerhorn Symphony Center

The First Center

Adventure Science Center

Nashville Zoo at Grassmere

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com.

Deep South Traveling

One of the most egregious mistakes people make about the South and Southerners is that residents of this corner of America are all the same. In fact, each Southern state has its own unique accent, cultures and traditions, with regions within each state sometimes vastly different from others. Historically the South consisted of mostly Protestants from the British Isles and African Americans brought in as slaves, with South Louisiana like an island with its Catholic French and Spanish ancestry and the New Orleans melting pot. But because of geographical differences and the influx of other immigrants, each region became unique.

The South as a whole can be divided into many sub-regions, the largest being the Deep South, once defined for the rich soil used for growing cotton. Today, Southerners consider the Deep South as that area hugging the Gulf of Mexico, a region filled with live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss that reaches over to the Atlantic and slightly up the East Coast. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Louisiana fit into this category.

Appalachian Mountains

Appalachian Mountains

The Deep South has much to offer the traveler. Lovers of both early American history and the Civil War will want to visit Georgia’s many historic sites, from its Civil War battlefields to the hip college town of Athens, home to the University of Georgia, the oldest state-chartered university in the United States. Heading towards the coast is the historic and charming city of Savannah with its delightful town squares and ancient cotton warehouses. Nearby are miles of Low Country marshlands, islands and rivers with Charlestown, South Carolina, to the north, another charming Southern city seeped in American history.

Quartz from the Appalachian Mountains makes its way to the Florida Panhandle through rivers and streams and that’s why the “Emerald Coast” offers dazzling beaches of quartz sand along the Gulf. The deep-water “Fathom Curve” that exists close to Destin, plus the unique beaches, gives this area its name, for the waters are indeed breathtakingly emerald. Much of the Panhandle beaches have been preserved, so natural beach settings are coupled with beachfront destinations.

Bust of Rosa Parks Photo credit: Chere Coen

Bust of Rosa Parks
Photo credit: Chere Coen

Alabama offers a wide range of diversity, from Gulf Shores beaches to the northeast mountains to the innovations of NASA in Huntsville. One of the South’s most inspiring experiences is the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail. Visitors may walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, learn about the Montgomery Bus Boycott at the Rosa Parks Museum and follow in the Rev. Martin Luther King’s footsteps, from his Montgomery parsonage to his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Next door in Mississippi visitors can learn the origins of America’s music, visiting the birthplace of Elvis and the Delta, land of the blues. For years the state of Mississippi has been erecting markers honoring its music and visitors can experience these historic spots with the Mississippi Blues Trail and the Country Music Trail. Naturally, Mississippi is home to numerous music festivals as well.

Bend in the Mississippi River

Bend in the Mississippi River

It’s also been said that something in the Mississippi water produces great writers, for the state is home to literary greats Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams and John Grisham, among others. The Deep South as a whole has more than its share of outstanding writers and visitors can view where they created in the Southern Literary Trail.

And what’s a trip to the Deep South without visiting New Orleans, that eclectic, charismatic city where care forgot? New Orleans has something for everyone, a playground for those looking to escape inhibitions, a food-lovers heaven, a unique slice of American history and fun for the entire family with its parks, festivals and award-winning zoo and aquarium.

The big question may be when to visit. Most of the year, Deep South weather is a joy — colorful springs, warm falls for outdoor fun and football and mild winters attracting snow birds (the people kind).

If you are interested in visiting southern states, check out our Charleston Vacation Packages and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com

 

Mardi Gras and New Orleans

What you see concerning Mardi Gras on TV every year is the tip of the Carnival iceberg. And if you’re up for a wild party, mostly traveling through equally raucous crowds along Bourbon Street, there you are!

But Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans is so much more, a slice of Americana steeped in Louisiana culture.

The season of Carnival begins on Jan. 6, otherwise known as the Epiphany or Twelfth Night of Christmas, the day the Three Wise Men brought gifts to the Christ child. The “season” lasts until the day of Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In a nutshell, Carnival and Mardi Gras is living it up before giving it up.

New Orleans Street car on Canal Street

New Orleans Street car on Canal Street

“Carnival refers to the season of merriment which always begins on Jan. 6,” writes Arthur Hardy in his annual “Mardi Gras Guide,” a must for visitors. “Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the single culminating day of Carnival.”

During Carnival season, there are elaborate balls, parades, Mardi Gras Indians (as seen on the HBO series “Tremé”) and special events happening in New Orleans, ranging from the traditional to the absurd. The fun begins Jan. 6 with the Phunny Phorty Phellows traveling up St. Charles Avenue in a decorated streetcar proclaiming the start of Carnival and The Joan of Arc Project resembling something more medieval walking through the French Quarter.

King Cake with Baby and Champagne

King Cake with Baby and Champagne

Most of the fun revolves around the numerous parades that roll through city and suburb streets. Only a few walking parades happen in the French Quarter due to its narrow streets so most will follow established parade routes. Carnival is made up of dozens of “krewes,” organizations that either put on a ball or a parade — or both — and they are the ones who are standing in costumes on floats throwing beads, trinkets and doubloons (aluminum coins) to the crowds.

Mardi Gras Masks

Mardi Gras Masks

Parades routinely happen on weekends in Carnival, then offer a final 10 days of solid parades leading up to Mardi Gras. Because of the Super Bowl occurring in New Orleans this year, the parade schedule is slightly altered. Parades will be rolling the weekend of Jan. 25-27, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 1-2 and Wednesday, Feb. 6 through Mardi Gras Tuesday, Feb. 12. There are three “super parades” featuring double- and triple-decker floats and celebrity royalty: Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus.

On Mardi Gras day in New Orleans, visitors can enjoy the traditional Zulu and Rex parades, following by an endless stream of costumed trucks. Rex is considered the king of Carnival and his meeting with his queen later that night signals the end to the season. Zulu is a predominantly African American parade created during segregation to both allow blacks to parade and mock the once all-white festivities. Other special events happening on Mardi Gras day are the Mardi Gras Indians, another African American tradition; special walking clubs like Pete Fountain; and the Gay Mardi Gras with its elaborate costume contest on Bourbon Street.

Since Carnival is a winter holiday, it’s important to dress for any kind of weather. Winter in New Orleans ranges from freezing to sunburns, so dress in layers and be prepared for anything! If you costume on Mardi Gras day, the same rule applies.

Jackson Square in the French Quarter, New Orleans

Jackson Square in the French Quarter, New Orleans

Accommodations fill up fast for Carnival, and prices tend to be higher during this time. Restaurants also pack in the crowds so make reservations if possible. Since this is a time to be on the streets having fun, staying at the finest hotel is not necessary, but if you can find one on a parade route that’s a plus, for both the convenience of walking out your door to the parade and an available bathroom.

Many people assume New Orleans Carnival and Mardi Gras to be an adults-only holiday. Obviously, it’s not advisable to bring children to the French Quarter during this time — at least not the bawdy areas such as Bourbon Street. But Carnival, with its parades featuring bands, krewe members throwing trinkets and beads and the festival atmosphere surrounding it all, is perfect for children. The trick is to enjoy the parades in the more family-friendly areas. The best spots for families include the beginnings of the parade route in New Orleans or the parades that roll in the suburb of Metairie.

 If you are interested in visiting New Orleans or the surrounding area, check out our New Orleans Vacation Package and start planning your next vacation!

Cheré Coen is a Lafayette, La., travel writer and author, but a native of New Orleans. Her latest book is “Exploring Cajun Country: A Tour of Historic Acadiana.” Follow her at WeirdSouth.blogspot.com.

http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com

http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/schedule.html

http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/mardigrasindians.html