You should try to eat breakfast at home, of course—going out to eat costs money and eats up time, so this next bit of information is optional. If you have food with you and eat breakfast at home, your food costs for the day could be $0. If you absolutely want the experience of eating somewhere in the city, go to a place that serves breakfast all day. Breakfast is THE BEST for one million reasons, but mostly because it is cheap and people love to serve it in huge portions and WAFFLES. Figure out where you and your friends want to eat; I’m a fan of wandering around and just happening upon something, but you can also use your smartphones and maps, if you have them. Your best bet is an omelet; it usually costs between $7-$9 and, unless it’s a restaurant run by the devil, comes with potatoes and toast. FILL UP ON THIS STUFF. Seriously, stuff your face; even with walking around, you’ll probably feel full until your next meal. If you’re a vegan or strict vegetarian, try to get a breakfast with beans (protein) and some sort of bread; modified huevos rancheros is usually a good pick for a hot meal full of flavor and veggies.
You can also find on-the-go places for food if you’re hungry or just want to sit down for a minute later in the day. Pizza is always awesome and cheap, and food trucks are popping up all over the place now with cheaper, delicious food options. Whatever you do, don’t sit down to lunch at a restaurant—since lunch is often the busiest time for a restaurant, they can charge a ton of money for smaller portions. Don’t be afraid to ask how much things cost, or ask to see a menu. Stay away from prix fixe meals, or restaurants that try to sell you on a lunch special. Keep your eyes peeled, and try not to exceed your $10 budget.
Cost: $0- $10 (with tip)
By now you probably have to use the bathroom, or maybe you’re thirsty. Bust out your map and look for the nearest museum or library, as these are the absolute best places for water fountains and peeing. (There’s an app I love called Sit or Squat that rates public restrooms.) If you’re using the library, ask for the kids’ bathroom—there’s usually no lines and, because kids tend to be filthy, they’re cleaned more often. If it’s a library that requires a card for entrance, ask for a visitor’s pass. Also ask a librarian to let you see the archival books or special collections—they’re generally pretty rad and full of stuff you’d never get to see otherwise. Most of the time a librarian will accompany you, but sometimes they let you sit in a room by yourself. Where else are you going to be able to handle a first-edition Harper Lee, or see the original schematics for the Empire State Building?
Museums are awesome all around—you can hang out there all day without anyone’s giving you the stink-eye, and you’re bound to see something amazing. While we appreciate your wild side, this is usually not the place to act out. Don’t touch any paintings or sculptures, scream down hallways, or knock anything over if you plan on staying there for a while. Sometimes there are special exhibits that you have to pay for, but most of the stuff is free. Museums are climate controlled and low maintenance, so hang out in one as much as you can! Most museums give tours by using those personal listening devices now, but if you see a group tour, casually join in by just walking with them. It’s rare for someone to call you out, and even if they do, the most they can do is ask you not to creep on them. Feign ignorance and say you thought it was part of the cost of admission if they get in your face about it.
Most museums have student prices, free days or admission by donation. Do some homework before you go and find the ones that let you go in with a donation. For your purposes, donation = FREE. If you’re shy or nervous about the prospect of getting in without paying, say something like, “One, please, with no donation today.” Just be really nice about it—it’s unlikely that anyone is going to think less of you or think you’re a cheapskate if you take advantage of this awesome policy. If it works with your budget, you can pay a dollar or as little as you want (plan on saving some dough to pay more next time if you feel guilty). But don’t feel guilty! They wouldn’t have the policy if they didn’t want people to use it. Plus, some family of eight in line behind you will probably pay full price to get in.
Museums are also a great place to fill up water bottles or use the bathroom; it’s a safe bet that no one has used the fountain as a urinal or the bathroom seat as a petri dish.
Now that you’ve saved so much money on food, water, and entertainment, you can go shopping! Buy something so that you have a souvenir. I still have a pair of shoes I got on one excursion; every time I wear them I think, Oh, I got these on that rad day I skipped class and saw Tim Roth and Anna Sui at John Fluevog! I’m generally not much of a materialist, but girl, get yourself something nice today—YOU’VE EARNED IT. What you buy is entirely up to you, but here are some tips for getting it home:
- Decline any bags or boxes. Unless you purchased something ultra fragile, do NOT bring home a box or a bag, particularly if it has the store’s name on it. It’s the number-one way to get busted; surely your parents know there’s no record store in your town, or that the only one with that specific name is 80 miles away, right? Don’t leave a trail. I used to bring home bags and throw my merchandise under the porch so that my family couldn’t see what I bought; it worked until I found a raccoon making a nest out of my new shirt. Your best bet is to put what you can in your school bag, and leave no evidence.
- Ask very nicely if the salespeople will cut off tags for you after you pay, or keep the box. If they refuse, just be sure to toss that stuff out during the day or in the train station before you get home. You can bring a pair of nail clippers with you to do the cutting, or small scissors, because they double as weapons. Don’t buy anything you can’t fit into your bag.
Cost: varies depends on what you buy.
If you’re going to a city where TV shows are taped, try to get in and see one! Tickets are free. Usually you have to book them way in advance, but sometimes people don’t show up and they need to fill seats. Most nighttime talk shows tape around 5 PM, sometimes earlier. Try to pick up tickets at the actual theater or place where the show is being taped; otherwise, it’s likely a scam.
I spent a lot of time watching Conan O’Brien tape Late Night and Jon Stewart tape The Daily Show instead of sitting in Earth Science, and I feel like my life is much better for it. Go see a talk-show taping! Or a late-night-show taping! Don’t stop to talk to anyone offering you tickets to a nondescript comedy show—it’s never anyone good, and they’re usually at night anyway.
Tip #4: Staying Safe
Don’t talk to anybody. Seriously—you have no reason to talk to anyone on the street, and anyone approaching you will try to zero in on your niceness or naïveté. Most people are just wasting your time, but some of them are wackos of the highest degree, so just keep to yourself. You’ve marked out police stations on your map for a reason; if you’re feeling sketched out or unsafe, go to one right away.
If you’re in a public space in any city, particularly in a park, someone will eventually try to sell you drugs. If anyone approaches you, just look them square in the eyes and say, “NO.” Don’t try to come up with a story about how/why you don’t do drugs, don’t be nice about it—just tell them “NO,” loudly and with confidence. If they persist, move toward the biggest group of people you can see (who look normal and/or your age) and say, “NO I DON’T WANT ANY DRUGS.” There’s strength in numbers, and your menacer will probably back off. When you eventually leave, be sure to walk down a busy street or avenue.
Conversely, even if you do smoke or do drugs, you probably don’t want to accept anything from someone in a city park. You never know what’s in it, and it’s really not an ideal situation to try anything for the first time. Don’t take so much as a cigarette from anyone.
Tip #5: Getting Home
If you miss your bus or train, the first thing to do is see if your ticket can be used on the next one. Sometimes there are different rates for off-peak and peak traveling times (like rush hour, for example) so be sure you can get home on the next train without spending more money. Go to the information booth; if your ticket isn’t valid on the next bus/train home, it’s time to tell your sob story. You’re alone, you’re just a kid, you need to get home without your parents finding out and killing you for being in the city. No one with a heart is going to contribute to your being stranded. Ask for a supervisor if you have to, or just hop on the next bus/train—the few times this has happened to me, they’ve either let me pay the difference or just accepted my ticket with no complaints. You did legitimately pay for a ride home, so don’t feel badly about their weird, arbitrary time zones and pricing.
Plan to take a bus that gets you home at or close to the time you’d normally be home. If you’re late or just want to hang out a little longer, call your parents and tell them you’re staying after school (for extra homework help, detention, whatever) or going to a friend’s house. Coordinate your bus schedule and cover your bases! I once jumped onto a bus home only to find my grandfather in the front seat, on his way home from work. Thankfully, Grandpa was reading the newspaper and didn’t see me, but I had to hop off the bus one stop after ours so he wouldn’t see me, and then walk about three miles home. If your bus/train lets you off in the center of town, try to exit QUICKLY so that if anyone you know sees you, you can pretend you were coming out of a store or something. Don’t loiter; get off the bus/train, and head home.
Although I know high school feels like an eternity, a six- or seven-hour day in the city goes by pretty fast, especially when you factor in transportation. You really only have four or five hours to enjoy a place, so do as much as you can (within reason)! The less you pack in on this trip, the more reasons you have to skip into the city again. ♦