Time Square, December 2010
New York is the center of the universe, as most New Yorkers will gladly tell you, but for visitors from other planets (like Miami…) it can be a challenging place. Having spent quite a bit of time travelling between these two planes of existence, I thought I would share some of what I have learned in my visits. New York is a great place to visit, but when the weather turns cold, the tropical traveler needs to beware.
As you can see from the photo on the right – taken by Asterio Tecson in Times Square, December 2010, it can get pretty miserable, pretty fast. Even New Yorkers were caught by surprise with this storm! Imagine being up there from Miami! Brrrr.
Here, then, are some tips, tricks, and techniques to make your visit a fun, safe, and (relatively) warm one:
Directions: To most of us, the “top” of the world is north, and the “bottom” is south. In New York, you’ll rarely hear those words, unless you ask another tourist for directions. To New Yorkers, it’s “uptown” and “downtown.” The traveler usually needs to know direction when emerging from the subway, as it is easy to become disoriented when you reach the surface. All you need to do is ask (in a raised voice) “UPTOWN?” or “DOWNTOWN?” and someone (often several someones) will point in the right direction (often without even looking up or acknowledging you). For the other two cardinal directions, “East side” and “West side” bear some resemblance to normalcy. Things get a bit more complicated with “Upper East Side” and “Upper West side” but those should be rather obvious.
Walking: The reason directions are so important is because you will be doing a LOT of walking! The NY subway system is fabulous, but it mostly runs uptown/downtown (north/south, if you’ve forgotten already). The uptown/downtown blocks are rather short, but the east/west blocks are really long, so planning your subway journey’s start/end points is important. You will find that it’s often easier to walk a few extra blocks than to jump back onto the subway, as the wait for the train is often as long as the walk, but the walk is free. Of course, if the temperature is below freezing (around 50 for the tropical traveler), you may want to take the train for the warmth.
The Streets: Most streets in the city are one way (most, not all). There is no right-turn on red, and when you, the pedestrian, have the light, you rule. Don’t jaywalk! And be SURE that you have the light when you cross. Native New Yorkers are able to “read” traffic, and will often cross against the light. You should not. ALWAYS watch the traffic light for your walk signal! While you are crossing, it is not uncommon to have cars driving around you, turning right or left. It is a bit unnerving, but if you follow the cardinal rule of New York Street Crossing: never stop walking!, you’ll be OK.
Addresses: New York’s addresses are not related in any way to the position of the location to its placement on the street. They do progress from low to high as you move from downtown to uptown, or east/west, but there is no relation to where you are. Most New York businesses give their address and a cross street so you can find them. In most of the world, addresses remain constant as you move perpendicular to a cross street. We would expect 296 Third Avenue to be in the same place as 296 2nd Avenue, 296 5th avenue, and so on. Not in New York. There, you’ll fine 296 Third Avenue near 23rd Street, while 296 First Avenue is near 17th Street – 6 blocks South. Always get a cross street, and use it to navigate.
Walking shoes: Comfortable, warm, and absolutely dry shoes are a must in the city. There may well be a lot of slush, so sneakers or open shoes are not advisable. The tropical traveler is better off to get a pair of good hiking shoes that are water resistant, or even a good pair of boots (Uggs), for outdoor meanders. To that end, you want to pay careful attention to your…
Nose & Toes: The winter air in the city is dry, and you will find that your sinuses dry out easily. Staying hydrated is very important, but drinking lots of water is not enough. You should bring spray saline, and even some nasal gel (or Aquaphor) to combat the drying effect. Even just a few days can leave you feeling rather raw. You also want to bring extra socks (thick, warm ones, from an outdoor or ski shop). If your feet do get wet, you want to have something to change into. For ladies, carrying a pair rolled up in your purse is a very good deal. Guys, cargo pants!
Time Square Winter 2010
Staying Warm: You’ll want to check the forecast before you travel. It’s probably not necessary to bring long underwear (maybe an undershirt), but heavy jeans or think pants are highly advisable, or a long trench-type coat. You will spend a lot of time indoors, but if you’re going to walk more than a few blocks, the wind will not be your friend! Plan to layer clothing: denizens of the warmer climates will find that layering so that you can shed or add as the temperature changes is a very good strategy. Bring a hat/cap that covers your ears! A knit cap or flappy hat is the best bet. Also bring a scarf – wool, not silk, to wrap around your neck, or even around your head if it gets to cold.
Rest Up: It is highly advisable to get plenty of rest before you travel, as you are guaranteed to engage in a lot more physical activity than you are used to. Pushing your body to the limit to “get ready to go” will almost certainly result in a cold or illness once you hit the dry cold. Being indoors around lots of people is a sure germ-spreader, and dried out noses and tired bodies are prime attractants. It’s also a good idea to spend the weeks before the trip just walking around – long walks – to build up your stamina. It is not unusual to take several walks 30 mins or longer each day. I’ve easily walked 5-6 miles in a day (see “Walking shoes”).
Bathrooms: NY is NOT bathroom friendly! Very few places provide or even allow access to bathrooms. Some restaurants have them, but limit them to customers only. I can tell you from experience that you can be in contortions with the need to “go” and the clerks will look at you with no sympathy. Large stores, like Home Depot, Target have bathrooms that are easily accessible, as do all Starbucks and MacDonalds. Some stores’ facilities are unisex, so be prepared.
Germs: Oh, do germs LOVE cold, dry weather! You should be sure to carry a handkerchief, Kleenex, pocket hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes. And, try to use your non-dominate hand to grab rails (stair, subway, etc.), and be very careful to keep the grab-hand away from your face until it’s sanitized. Remember that the population of New York City is 1.5 million as of the 2010 census (that is only Manhattan), crammed into about 23 square miles (that’s about 65,000 people per square mile. The population of Miami-Dade County, in 2010, was about 2.5 million, but they live in 2,000 square miles (that’s a massive 1,250 people per square mile). Quite a concentration.
Subways: Speaking of subways, you will spend a lot of time on them. You will want a good subway map to orient yourself and figure out where you are going. Subway access is via a pre-paid “Metro Card” that you can purchase at most stations. You can by single or multiple trips. We strongly suggest that you get a $10 or $20 card, as there are bonuses for these. Multiple people can use one card, if you run short. And, you can re-fill the cards at many stations.
Cabs: Next to the subway, cabs are the most common form of transport, but they can be expensive. However, in inclement weather, if you’re running late, or dressed in nice clothes, they are a viable option. The main rule for cabs is to always be IN the cab with the door SHUT, before you tell the driver where you want to go (especially if it’s a short distance). Never ask first (can you take me to ….) because if the driver does not feel like it, they’ll just drive off. Once you’re inside, you’re OK. Remember that when you tell the cab where you are going, you need to give him both the address and the cross street!
“Entrepreneurs”: Down here, we mostly call them homeless guys, but in New York, it’s a bit more subtle. You will encounter the usual spare changers all over the place, but it is not uncommon to find people in the subway stations playing musical instruments for spare change. In the cars, it is very common to have people climb on and start singing, playing musical instruments, declaiming, or muttering strange phrases in loud voices. I was once entertained by a three-piece mariachi band! Most New Yorkers just ignore them; you can give, if you like, but don’t feel obligated. Some of the beggars have gotten quite creative, huddling up with a cute puppy or kitty to further tempt you. We suspect there might even be a rent-a-puppy franchise, as you see so many strange “pet owners” on the streets.
Speaking of dogs: New York is very dog friendly. New Yorkers generally clean up after pooch (but not always), so watch out for landmines as you walk around. And don’t be surprised at seeing dogs inside public places (rarely restaurants or food stores). I once ran into a golden retriever in Saks 5th Avenue.
Things to bring:
- Get a cheap capsule umbrella; something small that will fit in a pocket or purse
- Saline nasal spray / saline nasal gel
- Warm socks (and extra warm socks)
- Good cap or knit cap that will cover your ears and keep your head warm
- Wool or cashmere scarf
- Hiking boots or Ugg-type boots