Monday, October 19, 2009

New-York-City in a Jiffy

One of the good things about being an Indian grad student in the US is that you are, generally, good at day-to-day practical combinatorial optimization. Ok, I apologize for my badly-disguised attempt at flaunting my Computer Science credentials, I was just referring to our propensity to detect and analyze the most optimal ways to do stuff ranging from packing stuff into our suitcases to buying goods to planning trips - space, time and economic optimization techniques, if you can call them that. It doubly helps if you study at a university where even PhD students need to consistently worry about paying for their tuition - which means that being a lowly Masters student, you can rest assured that unless you're terribly lucky (know someone who can get your resume across to someone else who feels you're good enough to be a GA) or intimidatingly brainy (read being good enough to be an RA/TA for a prof that has enough money to fund your course-work, while a Masters student), you've got to rely on cash cows (aka parents) or sharks (banks) for tuition and the $7.5/hour on-campus job for your living.

Anyhow, such is the grind that even after having moved on to supposedly higher things in life (like working, being employed, having a job, etc.), old habits die hard, that too, with a vengeance. This vengeance especially helps when you've been hit by the recession at least once and madly enough, bring your parents here on a long vacation now, of all times.

So then, like most international bring-parents-to-the-USA-after-your-studies (no-longer) students, I endeavoured to take my parents on the Holy Grail of Materialism (and the epicenter of the global financial earthquake) - NYC.
Since both my budget and vacation days were tight, I decided to fit in the visit over a weekend. After all, NYC isn't exactly a place known for awe-inspiring natural sights where you can lose yourself admiring the beauty of nature for days on end.

Here's my trip in detail, I think it worked out quite well overall, an opinion reaffirmed by a few of my friends, and I hope it helps anyone wanting to simply visit or take your parents to show them NYC in a quick, cost-effective manner.

Date: Sept 19-20, 2009.

Travel & Stay -
I generally don't believe much in vacation packages like flight+hotel, flight+hotel+car, etc...., least of all on airline websites. Still, I just gave it a shot and browsed package deals on popular travel-sites. By a queer twist of fate, I chanced upon the American Airlines site where I got a more-than-just-decent package - return tickets from Chicago to New York for 3 people + 1-night stay at the Hilton-Penn Station for $950.00
I was initially skeptical since it worked out to about $316.66 per person (yes, we ARE this detailed), but considering the fact that the average ticket rates hovered around the $290 - $340 range when looked for tickets, plus at least 75 bucks for even a half-decent hotel, I think 950 was a fair call.
If you're going to NYC, you need to figure *specifically* where you want to stay. If you're a million-miles-away-from-a-millionaire-background guy like me, staying in any of even the decent hotels in Manhattan is out of question, they cost upwards of $200 per night (ok, literary exaggeration - you don't need to be a millionaire to stay in Manhattan, but I hope you catch the drift). There are a (very) few sub-100 hotels in Manhattan, but they are definitely not places you'd want to take your parents to, that too at night. Which then brings you to New Jersey, mainly Jersey City. There are a lot of somewhat-decent sub-100 hotels (motels, more like) in Jersey City, but the problem is transportation. You'd need to get a bus to the nearest train station (PATH transit) which gets you to NYC, and these buses aren't very safe+reliable+frequent at night. Hence, Hilton-Penn Station was quite a deal - apart from the Hilton brand name (obviously), there's a train station right below the hotel (well, ok not right below, like half a block away, and the station's connected to the hotel by a walkway too). Plus the hotel picks you up from Newark Airport (FREE shuttle, yes, like free food).

The Sights -
  • Day 1 -
    • Reached Newark Airport at 11:15 AM, reached hotel at 12:15 PM. Though the official check-in time is 3 PM, if the room's available, they check you in early, else you can leave your baggage with them free of cost.
    • Statue of Liberty - The PATH train from Penn Station goes directly to WTC (Ground Zero) in about 30-40 minutes, from where the ferry station is like a 15-minute walk. You get to see the upcoming Freedom Tower plan, some of Wall Street and the Bull en route, so it's not a bad walk.
      *Alert* - Book your ferry tickets in advance here. Even with tickets, it's good to reach there at least 45 minutes early, the lines tend to get quite long, especially on weekends. I'd booked my ticket for 2 PM, and reached the ferry station at 1:30. :D Wicked, eh!
      So after the usual photo-session on the ferry and next to the Green lady, with the downtown Manhattan backdrop, etc., we returned from Liberty Island at about 5 PM.

    • Washington Square Park - We'd had a good breakfast before leaving Chicago, besides, my mom had packed some lunch in case we were cramped for time, so this helped us until 5. After returning from Liberty Island, we headed straight to Washington Square Park using the Subway (Oh, I forgot to tell, you can get the 1-day pass in any of the subway stations. Unfortunately, unlike Chicago, irrespective of when you buy the pass, it expires at 3 AM after its first use the previous day) to check out the famed NY Dosas . Unfortunately for us, the Dosa guy was off that day, so we headed from here to Saravana Bhavan (a very popular Indian vegetarian restaurant). Sadly for me, the meal here was better than any Indian restaurant in Chicago and though I thoroughly enjoyed the food, I was left ruing the lack of any equivalently good (Indian vegetarian) restaurant in Chicago.
      Anyway, the park itself is quite cute, with tons of people milling around - from doing nothing to reading books to practising a weird balance-this-item-on-your-leg game which was quite interesting. There's also a fountain and a lawn plus a place for your pets to have fun too.
    • Wall Street + NYSE - Whether or not you're into stocks, finance, etc., I'm sure you know at least that something from there bit you, and quite hard, at that. So you might as well see where it all started. So we then took the Subway to Wall Street. And yes, it did feel quite momentous, getting off at Broadway & Wall Street, and walking through NYSE and Trump Building, all the way to the beginning of Brooklyn Bridge.
    • Brooklyn Bridge - It was dark by now, and the city was lit up, and what better place to see the city than from Brooklyn Bridge? It's a long walk, so ensure you've got some energy and time with you if you want to spend some good time atop the bridge. The bridge and the views were beautiful, and if you're a couple, doubly so. ;-)
      After spending a good 45 minutes there, we realized it was close to 9 PM and headed straight to THE place to be on Saturday night.

    • Times Square - Again, you have easy Subway access from Brooklyn Bridge to Times Square and no, I'm not going to list out the routes. The weather that night was near-perfect, so it made for a wonderful time spent at Times Square. My parents were, needless to say, quite taken in by the lights and sounds there. There's also a big seating area bang in the middle of the road for you to just sit and soak in the sights of the place.

      And so, after a tiring-yet-satisfying half day, we head back to the hotel, again, using the Subway and the PATH transit back to NJ.

  • Day 2
    • Empire State Building - Woke up on Sunday at about 8 and left straight for the Empire State which opens at 9. The crowd wasn't that bad, but the travel agents who kept bugging us outside were. Well, even if we own the tower taller than Empire State, courtesy demands we have a look-out from atop Empire State as well, and trust me, you won't be disappointed. The best pic was of the Statue of Liberty, tiny, but no less attractive.
      After a good time there, we walked a bit to grab some lunch before our final stop for the trip.

    • Madam Tussaud's - At 35 bucks per head, it is definitely not cheap, but the place is great fun, especially if you like famous people/history. A decent visit there needs about 2 hours, not more.
      Once outside, we hung around Times Square (in day-time) for some more time and finally, bid farewell to the endearing city at about 3 PM (not before some much-needed drama of course, missing our 5 PM-flight at JFK and then catching the next available flight from La Guardia).
Retrospectively, a fair call, I felt. Here's a jist of the places we covered in about 27 hours -
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Ground Zero/WTC
  • Washington Square Park
  • Wall Street
  • New York Stock Exchange
  • Broadway
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Times Square
  • Empire State Building
  • Madam Tussaud's
I felt these places best exemplify New York City to the average American tourist. Well, of course, there are many more places to see there, but if you're looking for a short, inexpensive, at-the-same-time not very strenuous, yet relatively exhaustive dekho of New York City, I'm sure these places are coverable over a weekend.
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