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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

How I tried to remote work in New York on a $100 budget

Can you still save while visiting one of the most expensive cities in the world? I found out.

(Alan Berry Rhys for The Washington Post)

Our new diary series explores remote work on a budget in major cities.

The destination: New York City

The budget: $100 for two days

What it covered: Meals, drinks, transportation, some street charity and a zoo ticket

The working spaces: The stately New York Public Library, a gimmicky juice bar, a hectic coffee shop, a kitchen table and an Amtrak

My trips to New York have always involved a delicate dance between what I’d like to do and what I can afford. The city regularly ranks as one of the most expensive in the world — you don’t go there because it’s affordable. I’ve been lucky to make it work since I started visiting in my early 20s, usually by staying on a generous friend’s couch, bed or air mattress to avoid paying for hotel rooms and Airbnbs.

And that’s exactly how I’m going into this trip: crashing at my boyfriend’s family’s apartment, a move that saved me hundreds of dollars — but I recognize not everyone has this option. Over the next two days, I’ll try to spend as little money as possible while attempting to maintain a normal work schedule and some semblance of my usual travel style — that is, enjoying food that’s emblematic of the destination, going out with friends and experiencing local culture.

Day 1

9 a.m., a walking breakfast

It’s a 48-minute walk from the Upper West Side to my remote office for the day: the flagship New York Public Library. Stepping into the 23-degree chill will save me taxi or subway fare and will double as sightseeing through some of the city’s most iconic (read: cheesy) points of interest, such as Central Park and Fifth Avenue.

Breakfast is a bacon, egg and cheese from one of Manhattan’s many coffee carts. Is this traditional or cliche? Either way, I avert my eyes from the many add-ons (such as avocado) to save a precious dollar and Venmo the cashier for my sandwich, small coffee and tip.

Cost: $9

How to tip while traveling without cash.

Noon, a work call on frozen ground

The library is teeming with tourists photographing every stunning nook and cranny. I am one of them, except that I’m here to work, too.

I set up shop in the Rose Main Reading Room on the third floor, described as “perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Beaux-Arts style architecture in the United States.” It has all the trappings of a great workspace: high ceilings, free WiFi, accessible electrical outlets, clean bathrooms and complete silence. I bond with my seat neighbors by taking turns watching each other’s stuff while someone runs to the restroom.

The total silence turns out to be an issue. A few hours in, I need to grab my belongings and run outside to make a call. I didn’t give myself enough time to figure out the best place for said call, and I end up sitting on the freezing ground outside the library entrance.

Takeaway: If a public library isn’t an option, try finding a local co-working space that offers reasonably priced day passes. Some even offer a complimentary visit.

4:14 p.m., discounted juice comes with a catch

Calls are done, and I’m starving. Worse yet, I haven’t had a sip of water since I woke up. My next challenge is to find a reasonably priced lunch, taking into account the cost of my dinner with friends later. I need to be as frugal as possible without resorting to food from CVS. While deliberating, I spend a buck on a bottle of water from a street vendor.

Google Maps tells me there is a Juice Press nearby offering $6 off your first purchase if you sign up for emails and texts from the brand. The discount is worth the annoyance of Big Juice spamming my inbox. A woman asks me for a dollar. I oblige. She asks me for a follow-up dollar. I uncomfortably decline.

At Juice Press, I pick up my half-priced smoothie packed with fruits and vegetables for $5.44. There are tiny tables in the shop, where one could blow cash fast on health-food luxuries such as cacao overnight oats and probiotics. I stick around to work from my phone, drink my lunch, and unsubscribe from the juice place’s texts and emails.

Takeaway: It’s better for the environment and your budget if you pack a reusable water bottle.

Cost: $6.44

4:56 p.m., a drink (but no foot rub) after work

I’m in limbo. It’s too early for dinner, too late to get much work done. My friend recommends popping into the nearby Public or Edition hotels for free WiFi, but I don’t feel dressed to waltz into places charging $300 to $1,000 a night to freeload. I drop all remaining aspirations of productivity and walk two miles to Chinatown, stopping along the way to buy postcards (5 for $1) and wander through the Strand Bookstore (buying nothing).

I wander around Chinatown looking for a place to get a beer. There aren’t many bars, but there are a ton of spas advertising cheap massages. It takes all of my willpower to skip the $25 foot rub. Instead, I go to the restaurant to wait over a Tsingtao ($7.62 plus a dollar tip).

Cost: $8.62

Takeaway: If you’re absolutely dedicated to saving money on a trip, you can travel sober (or BYO?). Beer, wine and cocktails add up fast in New York — even over happy hour.

7 p.m., the dreaded group dinner

The four of us sit down at Uncle Lou — a new restaurant we’d been wanting to try — and order abundantly. When we made plans, I gave my friends a heads up that I was trying to be frugal during my trip but that I’d also budgeted to “splurge” for the meal.

As the feast arrives, I pray to the financial gods that the family-style meal doesn’t end up with a crazy bill. When the server asks if we want another round of beers, there’s an awkward pause. Maybe it’s because of my budget, or maybe no one knows if they want to keep drinking. I ask instead for a very boring, very free glass of water and continue loading up on the complimentary tea.

Dinner is $42 a person. We all walk away with leftovers. It’s painfully cold outside and my toes go numb within a block of walking, so I pivot to the subway ($2.75). My last dollar of the day goes to a break dancer performing on my train. Back at the apartment, my pedometer says I have walked 21,178 steps since I left this morning.

Cost: $45.75

Takeaway: If you’re hellbent on sticking to a particular budget, you’re going to need to have some honest (potentially uncomfortable) conversations with your travel companions on how much you can spend on group activities.

Day 1 total: $69.81

Day 2

9:05 a.m., chaos at a coffee shop

The first coffee shop I try to work from is completely full of people on laptops. After some manic Googling, I find Joe’s Coffee, a tiny Upper West Side staple with a few tables, WiFi and a bathroom (unfortunately, no outlets). A latte, banana and tip sets me back $8.34.

It’s a distracting place to work, but the loud chatter and phone calls make me feel comfortable taking a Zoom meeting inside, albeit wearing headphones and chiming in at a whisper. I stay until my computer is nearly out of battery, then I go home to charge (and discover the banana I bought earlier was smushed in my backpack).

Takeaway: Charge all of your devices the night before your remote work day.

Cost: $8.34

1:14 p.m., the price of penguins

For my lunch break, I race over to the Central Park Zoo on an electric bike to meet my sister and niece who are coming in from the suburbs. Zoo ticket: $13.95. Electric Citi Bike: $13. The joy of seeing my niece spellbound by penguins: priceless.

Takeaway: For another discounted activity, you can find same-day Broadway tickets and next-day matinee tickets for up to half off at the TKTS discount ticket booth in Times Square.

Cost: $26.95

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3 p.m., coming to terms with leftovers

Is it a sad desk lunch if you’re eating by your computer on a remote work trip? It feels sacrilegious to be holed up alone instead of being out in the city. It feels even worse to be eating my Uncle Lou leftovers — like I’m doing New York a disservice by not exploring more of its world-renowned food scene. The silver lining is that the food is somehow twice as delicious on Day 2.

4:34 p.m., one last meal before I go

Time to pack up for the Amtrak home to D.C. One last subway fare ($2.75) and I’m at Penn Station. Boarding starts in 20 minutes, and I still need to find dinner. There’s NY Pizza Suprema across the street, and because there’s no line, I can grab a Sicilian slice and some water for $10, including tip. I finish my work day on the train.

Cost: $12.75

Day 2 total: $48.04

Trip total: $117.85

What I learned

Working two days in New York for less than $100 is doable, although the budget doesn’t leave much room for trying restaurants and activities the city is famous for when you’re off the clock. But there’s plenty to do for free, such as touring the High Line with a docent, catching free museum days or exploring Central Park by audio tour.

The library was free and my favorite place to work; I felt the most focused, even with tour groups flowing in and out of its quiet areas. Coffee shops could be a hit or miss. They can be full of distractions, not equipped with outlets or WiFi, and (depending on the shop) could discourage remote work customers altogether.

Whether you require absolute quiet or don’t mind a little distraction, stick with a location for your entire workday. The decision fatigue of finding new places to go tanked my productivity. After walking many miles to avoid paying for transportation, a foot massage would have probably moved me to tears.