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Pricey New York is no deterrent to budget travelers--if you know where to look

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Subway users enter and leave a station on Manhattan's west side. The subway is the most efficient and reliable way to get around the city. (Photo by Manuel Cortazal)

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A view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. The bridge is one of the city's principal landmarks and tourist attractions. (Photo by Gary Feuerstein)

When Damian Edmondson from Waterford, Ireland, arrived this March in New York City, where a night's stay in a midtown Holiday Inn can run $360, he knew he had to find somewhere cheap to sleep.

Happily, he found a bed for $18 a night at a place called the Jazz Hostel in uptown Manhattan, only a few blocks from the subway. It provided a dormitory-style room and a shared bath, as well as an agreeable complement of fellow lodgers.

“Everyone is friendly around the place,” said the 24-year-old, who plans to travel outside Ireland for the rest of the year. “That’s the one thing you find in the hostels.” Apart from the agreeable atmosphere, Edmondson said, he can afford a three-month immersion in the city rather than a 7-day excursion.

Budget-conscious vacationers eager to visit New York don’t have to go to the extreme route of bunking down with university students hopscotching around the globe. There are a bundle of good deals scattered around the city that can help visitors stretch their dollars, a major concern for travelers brave enough to book a vacation while a recession looms.

The Big Apple continues to draw visitors, even as the economy wobbles and consumers cut back on spending. NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism bureau, estimates that one million more visitors came to the city in the first quarter of year than in 2007.

Robert Grader, author of “The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York,” a handbook for cheapskates searching for free meals laid out in hotel lobbies, theater tickets giveaways, and public concerts, says there are still bargains to be had.

“When I finished the first edition of The Cheap Bastard in 2002, I was afraid that all of the fantastic freebies I found for the book would disappear,” said Grader, who is set to launch the 4th edition of his book next month, just in time for the summer travel season. “But I have been amazed that with every edition there has been more and more gratis goodies out there.”

Whether flying in from Houston or London, a bargain awaits visitors arriving at New York’s two main airports. Both are now served by the city’s transit system, so visitors can scratch the $45 taxi ride off their list. The AirTrain at Kennedy Airport carries visitors to subway lines that offer express service into Manhattan. City buses stop at La Guardia’s terminals and can ferry visitors into Manhattan or nearby subways for $2. But travelers using these options must pack lightly because buses and trains can get crowded during rush hours.

Michael Latham at Marco Polo Travel in Birmingham, Ala., who specializes in booking honeymoon packages, said he often steers price-sensitive couples away from New York.

“The price of the airfare is not bad,” he said, referring to fares that are at historically low levels when adjusted for inflation. “It’s the hotels, especially the nicer hotels,” that Latham said is the deal-breaker for some New York-bound tourists.

For cash-strapped visitors who want a taste of home while in New York, apartment swaps are an increasingly popular option. Some travelers planning longer stays are searching craigslist for posts from apartment dwellers looking to trade homes at no cost. If arranging a swap over the Internet gives one pause, New York Habitat (www.nyhabitat.com), a licensed real estate broker, can place travelers in managed furnished apartments for half the cost of an average hotel stay.

While U.S consumers struggle under the weight of record gas and food prices, others are seeing an opportunity. “With the dollar so weak now, we have a large number of international customers,” said Brian Lowenberg at New York Habitat, who reports a surge in business. Still, he said domestic business remains brisk, with U.S. travelers booking five- and 10-night stays.

After lodging, the cost of eating out can put a crimp on choices to fill up with a good meal. There are more than 18,000 restaurants in the city, including some of the priciest and fanciest in the world. But many budget savvy travelers come to the city for the museums, landmarks and a chance to take in the glimmer and bustle of Times Square, not a $50 entree.

To save money on breakfast, some travelers do what many New Yorkers do when they’re on the run: they stop at a mobile food vendor, the shiny aluminum carts that dot corners throughout the city. A cup of coffee and Danish will set city explorers back only $2.50, leaving extra money in the wallet to splurge on dinner. By comparison, even a Big Mac, fries and drink will top $8 in Times Square.

The city abounds with reasonably priced eateries. The Web site Chowhound.com lists restaurants that cater to neighborhood residents. The site includes tips and reviews written by longtime city dwellers with an eye for a good meal at a reasonable price.

At Gray’s Papaya, a 24-hour hot dog bar and New York icon, Dave Thompson, visiting from San Francisco, didn’t let talk of an economic downtown deter him from visiting Manhattan.

“This is a great place to eat on the cheap,” he said, as he downed Gray’s $3.50 “Recession Special,” two hot dogs, topped with sauerkraut, and a fruit drink.

With 468 stations and 26 lines, the New York City subway’s $25, 7-day unlimited fare card is still the best deal for getting around in the city, but going further afield may involve some additional resourcefulness.

Zipcar, (www.zipcar.com) a self-serve car sharing service, touts greater flexibility and lower rates than the big-name rental companies. The service requires membership and is located in most major cities along the coasts.

Museums, some of the city’s most popular attractions, have raised admission fees to new highs. But some offer a reprieve from the ticket prices. The famed Museum of Modern Art offers free admission each Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. And another New York landmark museum, the Guggenheim Museum, lets visitors set their own admission price on Fridays after 5:45 p.m.

“This city is ridiculously fun,” said Brian Luster, a 25-year-old budget traveler and art lover from Baton Rouge, La., who is learning how to explore the city on the cheap.

During the day he makes the rounds Manhattan’s art galleries, many of which are open to the public at no cost. When not admiring the art, he swings by Chinatown for a five- wontons-for-a-dollar special, but he especially enjoys learning low-cost survival tips from the locals.

“I try to hang out with people who live in the city and see what they like to do,” he said.

Casting a wide net will turn up free events in a metropolis that is home to hundreds of artistic venues. One place to start is Club Free Time (www.clubfreetime.com), where, for a $1.95 one-week subscription, visitors can access updated listings of free movies, plays, and music performances.

For his part, Edmondson’s view of the city on the cheap did not diminish his fascination, but instead left him wanting more. The amateur rugby player is hoping to earn a spot on a local team so that he can extend his visa for additional 12 months.

“After six weeks, I’ve come to love the city,’ he said. “If I get picked up by a team and land a job, then I am thinking of staying for a while.”

E-mail: mc1313@columbia.edu