Travel tips for first-time visitors to New York
A now forgotten cartoon published in The New Yorker magazine in 1975 that sought to portray every place on earth as a suburb of New York City remains enduring for students of global geopolitics. The Manhattan skyline is still imposingly enviable but it does not dwarf every city anymore. Clearly, President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy is a throwback to that era.
I had been to the US a couple of times before but not to New York. On a recent trip through a number of states, I decided to pay particular attention to New York, even spending a few days in Manhattan. In fairness, few cities can compare. It is simply mesmerising. It is a “look at me” or “I am and you are not” kind of place!
The big news is that Kenya Airways will start flying to John F. Kennedy International Airport non-stop from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) later this month. With this direct flight, many Kenyans will find a trip to the US faster — though not jet lag-free. It should take about four hours less (give or take) compared with connecting through Europe. Providing for layovers, fatigue and sleep disturbance, one will save almost a full day.
Those who intend to hop onto this flight need to reckon with some New York realities — from the viewpoint of a first-time visitor.
Brace for very rigorous security screenings: Now that there’s no stopover in Europe, expect more rigorous security searches at Nairobi’s JKIA and worse at JFK. Stay very polite when picked for the screening and, as expected, most travellers of non-European extraction will be highlighted. Like it or not, that’s just the way things are.
New York is bustling and frenetic: I took a random walk down Wall Street to take a selfie with the raging bull and the little girl daring it to charge at her. There are just so many people from all walks of life bumping into you from every angle.
Try not to act new to the city and avoid stopping people to ask them for directions or to snap your photo. Relying on Google is good enough. Most of those you stop will ignore you thinking you are needy. New Yorkers just want to get on with their lives.
The smart money is prudent money: The cost of accommodation in New York is over the top, if you can find one. I suggest travellers make their bookings in advance online via Booking.com or Expedia.com. If possible, avoid Airbnb because of the registration issues, but worse, most of those renting out will take a look at your photo and swipe next. Nothing bruises the ego more than knowing you can pay but for some reason your race makes you disposable instantly with the swipe of a finger. Pretty much everywhere is accessible with the metro; just be aware that anything less than Sh15,000 a night would give you very few luxuries if you are lucky.
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Uber is reliable but maximise on the subway: If you normally pay your Uber by cash or via M-Pesa, add a credit card option. You will need it. But the subway/public bus is probably your best bet. The tickets are interchangeable, reliable and cheaper. For $32 (Sh3,200), for example, you can get a one-week ticket that takes you everywhere within the city. Don’t forget that New York is a walking city. Wear comfortable shoes to pound the pavement, more so after those mostly unhealthy meals.
Switch off your data roaming, camp in Starbucks instead: You will see that the city professes free Wi-Fi, but it mostly does not work for foreign numbers. If you are using a Safaricom line like I did, set your phone to roam on AT&T, whose charges are hundreds of times cheaper than T-Mobile. Make a habit of sneaking into a Starbucks (it has hundreds of outlets) or shopping malls like Macy’s that provide very good Wi-Fi.
Besides, if you need it, taking photos is not frowned upon, so you can snap away and send photos of what you want to buy real-time back home for the beneficiary to choose and select.
Shop in the outlets not the gleaming malls: Be warned that shopping in New York is prohibitive unlike in other states or Europe. Things are roughly 50-70 per cent more expensive. Again, the smart money is in looking for deals in retailer outlets and not in the malls. You will get the same brands at nearly 50 per cent knock-down on the prices in the malls.
The currency is the greenback: Unlike in Washington, DC, where your value is in your network, New York, like much of the US, is purely business. The economy is booming and anyone doing any kind of work is making gobs of cash. People are up and down chasing the greenback to be diverted with stories about hating on President Trump. Leave behind the Twitter diversion in Kenya and elsewhere. There is really serious stuff happening in real life.
Embrace the tipping culture: Most Kenyans don’t like to tip, for whatever reason. Be warned that not tipping could cause a serious disagreement. The rule of thumb is to leave between 18-20 per cent if unprompted. If you don’t leave a tip, leave a reason.
Limitation is a gift: New York will help you appreciate the gift of minimalism in the face of the glaring excesses typified by Wall Street or tech billions in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. There’s just so much innovation in optimising small spaces to deliver high productivity.
If your visit is gloomy for shortage of the greenback, just do yourself a favour: Ignore the tall towers, the SUVs, the glorious malls, the beautiful people on the street or the gleaming skyline and learn from the melting pot of immigrants stewing the American dream in those hidden gems.