What I learnt from going to NYC with $100 and no hostel reservation.

10 years ago, on Thursday July 29 2004 my uncle Rudy dropped me off in front of Toronto Coach Terminal. For the first time in my life I was going to New York City. I had $100 USD in my pocket, a pixelated, home-printed map of Manhattan and a disposable camera. I had barely turned 18 and had no idea what I was doing.

I arrived from Poland just a week earlier to catch up with the Dutch side of my family settled in Ontario and Quebec. It was my second trip to Canada and this time I came with a goal to go across the border to visit New York City as well. In Poland, country still traumatised by the horrors inflicted upon her, I craved for inspiration. The Big Apple drew me in.

As uncle Rudy was taking off in his 1998 Ford Taurus I turned around and made my way into the coach terminal. A few minutes later I had a return ticket on Greyhound in my hand, departure scheduled for 10:00 PM that night. That would give me full three days to explore New York until my return ride on Sunday night.

The next morning at 6:00 AM I arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The city that never sleeps was just embarking on a new day. Delivery trucks unloading, construction workers ordering coffee, traffic lethargically moving from one block to the next. The ever-present concrete and smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed and thrilled you at the same time. I was dizzy from the overnight trip and completely lost but I was grinning from ear to ear.

I took out my map where I had marked 3 hostel addresses that I found online. I circled around the block for a while before heading off to the first one on my list. As it turned out it wasn’t even there anymore. So I moved on to the second one—the Big Apple Hostel.

It was a shabby backpackers den just minutes away from Times Square. As I entered the lobby the receptionist, an archetype of a bearded hipster, greeted me with a look on his face that could only mean one thing—“We are fully booked”, he said indeed the moment I walked in. I asked whether he knew any other hostels in the area that would have space — was full.

“It was Friday morning and somehow I had to survive until Sunday night.”

It started to dawn on me what a fatal mistake I had made. Coming to one of the most crowded cities in the world, smack in the middle of the holiday season, on a $100 budget and without making any reservation in advance—what on Earth was I thinking! It was Friday morning and somehow I had to survive until Sunday night, when my return ride to Toronto was scheduled.

I don’t know how long I was sitting there thinking, but all of a sudden the receptionist’s phone rang and I snapped out of it. After a short conversation the bearded hipster hang up and called me over to the counter—“it’s your lucky day”, he said, “we have a last-minute cancelation”. I felt like this guy just saved my life.

My troubles weren’t over, though. The $70 price the hostel charged for two nights ate 70 per cent of my, well, “budget”. I had completely overlooked that prices on the hostel’s website did not include sales tax. Now I had to figure out how to survive 3 days in NYC on 30 bucks. Ouch.

For the next few days I sustained myself on a nutritious diet comprising of peanuts, bananas and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. I covered the whole island on foot, saving money on public transport. After three days of tireless walking and eating the bare minimum I covered the whole of Manhattan.

When Sunday evening finally came I had spent all but my last $1 bill, which became the only souvenir from the trip. I didn’t see any Broadway shows, I didn’t go up the Empire State Building, I didn’t go to the Statue of Liberty, I didn’t even taste the New York pizza. But I there, living and breathing the City’s life. So when the time finally came to hop back on the Greyhound to Toronto I felt no regrets. I was exhausted but truly happy.

“Facing a similar situation today my first reaction would be NOT to go.”

A decade later, it strikes me how naive and oblivious to the realities of life I was, and yet… survived. Facing a similar situation today my first reaction would be NOT to go. That’s frightening. Apparently, the older we get the more cautious we become. We become so convinced of being perfectly rational that we shoot down viable opportunities. Worst of all, we do that without even realising. Paradoxically, we become oblivious to the one reality of life that actually matters: there is always a way. Don’t fall into this trap. No matter how risky and unrealistic your ideas seem on the surface, you will make it. Go.

Indie product designer and maker of https://greet.bot 🇪🇺🇺🇸