I'm always amazed to hear the hotel war stories from colleagues traveling to New York on business – most are there on expenses, but it doesn't make the fact that they paid $500 for a middling chain property any less appalling.
As an area native that never paid more than $1,600 a month in rent during the fifteen years I called the city home, finding deals in one of the most expensive places in the world has always been kind of my thing. When I go back, I always have an ideal number in my head of what I want to pay for a night's stay – as close to $0 as possible. This generally means that Manhattan is out of the question.
Sometimes my search leads me to Brooklyn, at other times New Jersey – there are even those strange times where you can get a perfectly nice room somewhere in Lower Manhattan for as little as $125 a night. It happens at least a few times a year, but it's not typical. For travelers sticking to a budget, Queens is where one finds convenience and affordability intersecting most frequently these days.
That was certainly the case on my latest visit to the city. After a full day in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I summoned an Uber from Midtown for the $20 ride across the 59th Street Bridge. Fairly quickly, my courteous driver was pulling up in front of the new-ish Sleep Inn, a modest but nicely-lit tower on a nondescript back street.
The check-in was efficient, the staff polite and professional, the rate an astounding $104. On a weeknight, mind you. For that I got a top floor corner King room, sized much like a normal hotel room, out in the real world. A giant window opened to a sweeping view of the bridge and the Manhattan skyline. The water pressure was outstanding, the bathroom one of the largest I can recall seeing in this class, in this city.
Sure, the breakfast room was crowded the next morning – deals like this don't go unnoticed by deal-minded tourists, many of them from overseas – but the hotel had laid out some very good donuts, decent bagels and plenty of hot coffee. I ate some breakfast, walked two short blocks through the Queensbridge neighborhood, squeezed my way aboard an insanely crowded F train and at the second stop, jumped out into one of the most exclusive parts of Manhattan for the five minute walk down West 63rd Street into Central Park, entering by the charming zoo.
I wouldn't have been able to get there faster from most of Manhattan, where I would have paid –on that night, anyway – nearly quadruple the rate I paid in Long Island City.
How is this possible? Queens, after all these years, remains largely a back office, a bedroom community. It is cable, while Manhattan is the satellite TV service that runs all those expensive commercials making fun of cable.
Long Island City, the area of Queens through which all Manhattan-bound subway lines are funneled before rocketing under the East River and into Midtown, is a little different. Lately, it has boomed beyond belief – a collection of sleek residential towers lines one of New York's most appealing waterfront promenades; you will find smart cocktail bars, good coffee, excellent restaurants. PS1 – a public school turned modern art venue – is here. (It's a must-see.)
And then there are the hotels. In the last decade or so, developers have discovered that you can slap up a hotel – budget, mid-range, whatever – on any nondescript industrial block, charge half (or less) of the going rate across the East River, get your listing on Priceline, or wherever else people go for a bargain and watch the bookings flood in. And flood in they do – there's nothing like a deal – a really good deal, many nights out of the year – to make people overlook the fact that they're vacationing in Queens.
What makes it all even better is that no matter where you are in Long Island City, you're never far from a subway connection into the city – sometimes, you're even steps from the crosstown G train to the happening neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, over the Newtown Canal in Brooklyn. (On a nice day, it's not a bad little walk.) Major attractions such as Grand Central Terminal, shopping on Madison Avenue and Central Park are often one or two stops away. The East River Ferry will take you to Midtown and the Financial District, with stops in Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn.
Best of all, when you stay out here, you're in a neighborhood that's never been more appealing – many commuters have discovered the convenience, the value and the incredible skyline views. Long Island City might be a mishmash of light industry, sagging row houses, pricey glass towers, taxi dispatch centers and highway overpasses, but it's not nearly the backwater it used to be. It's actually a lot of fun, from morning coffee at Sweetleaf to late night drinks at Dutch Kills and plenty more in between.
While the lion's share of the hotels are fairly new and flying familiar flags, not all are created equal – it's good to bear a few things in mind when booking a Long Island City hotel. Follow these simple steps to success.
- Don't overspend. It's Queens. Don't be fooled by come-ons of the various "boutique" hotels out here – only the sleek new Boro is anywhere close to worth a splurge. Ask yourself, though: Why spend $300 here when you can be across the river? I tend to ignore nightly rates above $200, unless it's an insanely busy period where equivalent hotels in Manhattan are charging double or triple that.
- Avoid the biggest brands. These are aimed at business travelers with corporate cards – they're also trading on reputation and hoping that inexperienced leisure travelers, most likely skittish at the prospect of posting up on some random outer boroughs block for the first time, will be sucked into paying more for essentially the same product than the guy that's not flying a chain flag, one block away. Don't do it.
- Unless, of course, there's a good deal. There are times when Marriott properties out here (the two good-value Fairfield Inns come to mind) can barely command a $100/night rate and you can get a room at the Sleep Inn for a little bit less than that. Then, of course, it's open season.
- Spend a little time on TripAdvisor before you book. This is always a good idea, just to get the lay of the land, but especially in New York. I like to do a Queens search rather than a Long Island City search, just in case anything in an adjacent neighborhood pops up (new hotels seem to open regularly). In addition, many of these hotels are cheaply built and won't hold up well over time – when things start to fall apart (literally and figuratively), you can expect to hear a lot of complaining on the very active New York boards.
- Book in advance – or at the last minute. The same rooms on sale now for barely $100 a night at the peak of the Christmas shopping rush in early December will likely rocket up to $200 as room inventory dwindles. If that happens, you can always risk waiting until the last minute, when unsold rooms will be sold off on sites like Priceline.
- Check your location carefully before confirming. As implied in the name, Long Island City used to be a separate city. This isn't another compact NYC neighborhood. It sprawls. Many of its blocks can be short on charm. Some hotels here don't even have subway access, relying instead on oversubscribed shuttle services that keep frustratingly limited hours. Know where you're going to land before you book – these days, many of the best rates are non-refundable, even when you book directly with the hotel.
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