While you once had to be rich and/or famous to take advantage of a bi-coastal weekend getaway, aggressive pricing by both airlines and hotels is putting a New York City weekend well within reach for the middle class. Easy red-eye flights out of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco are priced and timed to get you there and back with a minimum of hassle or financial outlay.
And who can resist a trip to the Big Apple when you can do it for a few hundred dollars, lose just one day of work and be back in the office Monday morning telling travel tales like you were an A-list celebrity?.
But can a trip from California to New York really work in such a tight time frame? Do you really have time to see anything? Will it be a fun getaway or a gauntlet of stress-inducing hassles and deadlines?
We decided to try it out. Our late evening flight left from San Diego on Thursday, arriving about 7 a.m. Friday morning. Because of the late departure, we were able to put in a full day of work on Thursday and were only absent from the office on Friday.
The first thing you have to realize on your New York weekend is that not all airlines are created equal and it has to do more with legroom than anything else. Service can be good or bad on any of them on any given night, but what you can't change is the configuration of the seats. Some airlines simply configure their seats too close together to have any comfort at all on a red-eye flight.
Unfortunately, the airline we chose -- mainly because it was the lowest fare at the time -- was not the one with the most legroom. We flew Delta on one of their newer 737's (Flight 748) and realized as soon as we sat down that there seemed to be less room than other airlines we had flown recently. Since most people try to sleep on a red-eye, be forewarned -- you won't get much sleep if you are frozen in position for the entire five-hour flight time.
Of course the younger you are, the less you will be concerned about losing sleep. And even those of us who are older can generally make it up the next night -- as we did, by retiring earlier than usual on Friday night.
But a Friday 7 a.m. arrival is ideal for getting a full day of sightseeing done in New York City. Be prepared for at least an hour in the cab if you're arriving at Kennedy International as we did -- it's rush hour all the way into the city and Kennedy is located some distance away from downtown. Depending on flight schedules, LaGuardia or Newark may prove to be more convenient airports for your arrival.
Our cab dropped us off at our hotel -- the Renaissance New York Hotel 57 at the corner of East 57th and Lexington, close to many attractions in the midtown area of Manhattan, and just a few short blocks from Central Park. Conveniently, the hotel allowed us to check in right away -- a welcome gesture that enabled us to change clothes and freshen up before we began our first day of sightseeing. We also figured out right away we had chosen a great place to stay -- the Renaissance New York Hotel 57 is one of Marriott's first hotels being launched under the newly re-defined Renaissance brand. This particular hotel is a stylish boutique hotel that fits in with its neighborhood of art galleries and fashionable shops, and its comfortable rooms are designed and furnished to offer surprises to the prototypical Renaissance guest. That person, PR director Kathy Duffy explains, is a "discovery person" who looks for unusual out-of-the-way features and attractions.
When we visit a new city, often our first stop is the local visitor information office and New York was no exception. Since this is the Big Apple, nothing is done half-way and the visitor center at NYC & Company, just a few blocks from our hotel in midtown, is one of the best we've seen. The center recently underwent a $1.8 million renovation that includes a new interactive trip planner with digital NYC maps and up-to-the-minute event and venue information on attractions throughout the city's five buroughs. We also picked up our New York City Passes which include admission to a number of NYC attractions for between $59 and $79.
For us, the big question was where to begin? There are so many fascinating attractions in New York City you could spend weeks visiting and not run out of interesting things to do. Our challenge was to skim a few of the best off the top, knowing full well we would have to leave many must-see's for a future trip.
Just strolling the city, for us, was a great way to get started. Because our hotel was so well-located, it was just a short walk to sights like Rockefeller Center with its ice skating rink, holiday decorations and festive spirit. Nearby is the Radio City Music Hall as well as the Museum of Television and Radio. The expensive stores along Fifth Avenue also are close at hand.
Stepping onto the streets of midtown Manhattan, the energy is palpable as thousands of New Yorkers scurry about their daily business, a sea of humanity crowding the sidewalks while vehicular traffic is so congested that it often is just at a standstill. Everywhere you look are the yellow cabs that many city residents use instead of owning their own cars. And, of course, the subways are a popular and efficient way to get up and down the island.We have to admit we may have seen one too many movies depicting the New York subway system as a dark, dreary, old repository of big-city low life, and were a little apprehensive about using the subways for our primary means of transportation. Since this was a family weekend, we also weren't certain we should be taking our nine-year-old daughter in such places. But we're happy to report our fears were greatly exaggerated.
The New York subway system, while not as pristine as some we've seen in major European cities, is quite functional and much less intimidating than we'd imagined. People of all ages and walks of life use the subway to go everywhere in the city and we were told by the city's visitor office that the subway system is, indeed, quite safe. We ended up using the subway several times -- once we figured out the ticketing, pricing and routing -- to reach several points of interest in Manhattan that would have been pricy to reach by cab and too time-consuming to reach on foot. For $2.25 a ride, the subway is a bargain.
For example, we were told of a new walkway down in the Chelsea area that was proving quite popular with New Yorkers looking for an interesting stroll. We took the subway to a station near what is called the High Line, a former elevated rail line that has been converted to a walking path. It offers great views of the city, excellent exercise and is a gateway to the stylish row houses and trendy restaurants of Chelsea.
And so it went for our two days of sightseeing -- identifying places we wanted to visit, figuring out where they were relative to the subways and then grouping our attractions for each subway destination. We managed to see a lot -- the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty boat tour, the Museum of Natural History, Times Square, Central Park, the Broadway District, Chelsea, the Diamond District, and the Avenue of the Americas where major media and the country's top corporations are headquartered. We experienced New York hot dogs, New York pizza, New York roasted chestnuts, New York deli food -- in other words, before our Sunday morning departure, we had managed to take a huge bite out of the Big Apple.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: New York City -- basically the center of the universe.
WHAT: A weekend in New York City can be affordable and not burn a lot of vacation time. You'll come back invigorated.
WHEN: Year-round, although dress really warm in winter. Even with subways at hand, you'll be doing lots of walking.
WHY: It's a unique experience, and great fodder for your Monday morning conversations around the water cooler.
HOW: For more information on a visit to New York City, contact NYC & Company at www.nycgo.com or phone 212-484-1200. For more information on the Renaissance New York Hotel 57, phone (212) 753-8841 or visit www.hotel57.com. A recent check of prices for mid-January travel show that you can get roundtrip air from Los Angeles for as little as $239. Name brand chain lodgings were going for as little as $150 a night.
Photos, from top: New York City skyline; High Line walking path;
Photos by Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway