New York City B&Bs

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The one guaranteed way to find rooms under $100

With the average Manhattan hotel room weighing in at a whopping $250 a night, finding an affordable place to bed down in the Big Apple can seem as impossible as locating an empty taxi on a rainy day at rush hour. Even so-called budget hotels have become prohibitively pricey, thanks to the droves of tourists flocking to Gotham these days. But take heart. In the following pages, Budget Travel lets you in on Manhattan's best-kept lodging secret - and its last frontier for affordable stays - bed-and-breakfasts. There are hundreds of these cozy private accommodations sprinkled around New York City, many with double-occupancy rates as low as $80 to $95 - and that includes breakfast! What's more, B&Bs are mercifully immune to the city's 13.25 percent hotel tax and $2 nightly surcharge for rooms over $100.

What they're like Far from the typical small-town B&B - a sprawling four-story Victorian house with numerous guest rooms, lots of gingerbread, and kindly retiree owners - the New York version is often one extra bedroom in apartments belonging to busy, working New Yorkers who either (a) could use a bit of help paying their own skyscraper - high housing costs, (b) love meeting travelers from around the world and sharing their favorite city with them, or (c) both of the above.

The antithesis of huge, impersonal, 500-room tourist meccas in Times Square, B&Bs are as homey and personalized as lodging gets. In fact, many are tucked away in neighborhoods far from the madding crowds, where there's nary a hotel or tour bus in sight. You'll find funky artists' lofts in SoHo, quaint brick town houses on the tree-lined side streets of Greenwich Village, and posh high-rises with smartly uniformed doormen on the residential Upper East and Upper West Sides. As a B&B guest, not only will you get a chance to meet New Yorkers and see how they live, but in a sense you'll become a local during your stay, receiving your own set of keys and then coming and going as you please.

You book through organizations Another distinctive (although hardly unique) twist to New York's B&B scene is the fact that rather than call hosts directly as they would in other large American cities, Gotham-bound travelers contact one of a number of B&B booking agencies or reservations services that help visitors select suitable rooms from their rosters. The practice first took hold in New York in the early 1980s, with one or two start-up B&B agencies offering a mere handful of guest rooms - some priced as low as $15 a night (ah, the good old days). From those humble roots, the market has expanded to include not only small, purist agencies that still focus on a select group of 20 or 30 B&B rooms, but also mammoth operations boasting hundreds of hosted accommodations - as well as slightly higher-priced unhosted ones - in virtually every corner of Manhattan.

The agencies' expertise lies in their ability to play matchmaker by asking you, the traveler, a series of written or verbal questions and using your answers to pinpoint the ideal spot for your stay. For example, if you're passionate about paintings, an agency might steer you toward lodgings a few blocks from Museum Mile; if you're a gourmet food lover, you might find yourself paired with a host who happens to be a chef or restaurant critic. One B&B host near Lincoln Center recalled a diehard opera buff who spent two weeks ensconced in her guest room and walked to the Metropolitan Opera House (a few blocks away) to watch Placido Domingo perform every night.

Our goals and our criteria To help you find as pleasing a perch as she did, we spent weeks pounding the pavement, scouting out various B&Bs around the city, and talking with hosts and guests, as well as those who run B&B services. Here's what to know before you go: First, because these are people's homes, the decor varies widely - we saw everything from cozy buttercup-yellow rooms filled with mementos from the owner's travels to bare lofts with exposed-brick walls and a single futon. Likewise, the privacy levels differ radically from place to place. Some guest rooms were demurely situated at the end of a hall with their own small, well-lit bath; others were separated from the owner's own bedroom by only one thin wall.

Next, though most rooms inspected for this article were clean, a few had floor-level mattresses on somewhat grubby carpeting, and many featured 20-year-old bathroom fixtures (quite common in NYC, but they may catch travelers used to spanking-new hotel baths off guard).

Hosts themselves are as diverse as their apartments - they run the gamut from stockbrokers to set designers. Some are apt to whisk you up to Harlem to their favorite jazz club, invite you to join them in a spot of sherry, or treat you to homemade hot oatmeal with currants. Others are more likely to greet you cordially, provide you with a few local guidebooks, maps, and hints on how to get to the nearest subway stop, then leave you to your own devices and a counter of assorted fresh bagels and fruit juice. Many hosts list their rooms with multiple agencies to ensure a higher number of bookings.

There's also a great deal of difference in amenities from room to room, and it's not necessarily correlated to price. Some are equipped with cable TVs and private phone lines (one even had an answering machine); in others, you'll have to ask to borrow the host's main phone line. Guests at one B&B are invited to enjoy breakfast in a lush hidden garden with their host; those at another pick up muffins on the kitchen counter and carry them back to a tiny round table in their bedroom to eat. In almost all cases, you'll forego typical hotel niceties like daily maid service and in-room fax machines.

It's worth noting that while B&B booking services set their own standards and inspection policies for their hosts, there is no regulatory agency that monitors or accredits them. Although most pride themselves on offering aesthetically pleasing lodgings in safe neighborhoods (much of their business consists of repeat guests and word-of-mouth referrals), we did find a few rooms in rather bohemian neighborhoods that might leave a less-than-intrepid traveler uneasy wandering around after dark. It's wise to be explicit about any special needs or preferences you have when booking. For instance, if you are allergic to or afraid of animals, tell the agent you need not just a pet-free room, but an entirely pet-free apartment. Quite a few agencies maintain Web sites stocked with colorful photos of their B&B interiors listed by location and price, which can be an enormous help for travelers trying to narrow down their choices.

Oddly enough, when you book you may be warned that the phrase "bed-and-breakfast" is verboten upon arrival and asked to tell anyone who inquires that you're a friend or visiting relative of the host. Sources assure us that this doesn't imply anything legally shady about the operation (after all, the city takes an 8.25 percent sales tax on each booking); it simply protects hosts from co-op boards who might frown on having a B&B next door.

Finally, most services require a deposit of 20 percent to 30 percent and a minimum stay of at least two nights. Advance booking is not required, but the earlier you call, the better selection of lodging options you'll find. Unless otherwise specified, the agencies listed below offer rooms in many different Manhattan neighborhoods and types of buildings, from high-rises with elevators and 24-hour doormen to quaint town houses - picturesque, but with lots of stairs and no attendants.

Herewith, a select guide to Gotham's bed-and-breakfast booking services, listed alphabetically (prices don't include the 8.25 percent New York State sales tax):

Affordable New York City

Tel. 212/533-4001, fax 212/387-8732, affordablenewyorkcity.com Rates: Singles from $85/night, doubles from $90/night with shared bath, singles and doubles with private bath from $100, unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 120+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments)

After years of staying at B&Bs and making mental notes on what did and didn't work, former AT&T saleswoman Susan Freschel decided to give the business a go herself, launching Affordable New York City five years ago. Freschel chooses her hosts based on "a gut feeling. They have to love New York, like people, and have their own lives. I don't want hosts so gregarious that they hang over their guests. Nor do I want people with fabulous apartments who are desperate for money, but obviously don't genuinely want anyone in their homes." She also rejects fringe neighborhoods, explaining, "I assume all visitors are from the deep woods and don't know New York. I don't want to sit up nights worrying about their safety."

After an initial phone conversation with each traveler, Freschel and her assistant send a faxed description of several B&Bs, then let the traveler select a favorite. They follow up each stay with a questionnaire. "We can't go out constantly and review places, so we rely heavily on guest feedback. Once a year we inspect each property."

Bed and Breakfast Network in New York

Tel. 212/645-8134 Rates: Shared-bath singles $80-$90, doubles $110-$130, private-bath singles $90-$100, doubles $130-$150, unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 200+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments)

Leslie Goldberg launched his B&B business in 1986 after hearing about a similar service in Montreal. "I thought it was a great idea, and that it would work very well in New York," says Goldberg, whose background was in sales. He started small - simply posting notices and finding people interested in sharing their apartments. The feedback was so positive that in the last 15 years, his roster has grown exponentially. "B&Bs are much less expensive than hotels," says Goldberg. "Plus, it's a friendlier experience. People are more helpful and it gives you a chance to live like a real New Yorker."

All bookings are done over the phone and handled by Goldberg himself (a staff of one) through an informal chat. "I like to keep things small and personalized. Through our conversation, I get a feel for what travelers are looking for, then I offer several options," he says. Callers can specify the type of building or neighborhood they prefer when reserving. Like Freschel, he relies heavily on guest feedback to monitor his roster of accommodations. "If someone complains, we stop listing the property," he explains.

City Lights

Tel. 212/737-7049, fax 212/535-2755, citylightsbandb.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Single and double $90-$130/night, (those on the higher end include private baths), unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 100+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments)

One of New York's B&B veterans, Yedida Nielson was teaching theater at the Strasberg Institute when she got the urge to venture into the business world 16 years ago. After a writer friend suggested the then-nascent field of B&Bs, the gregarious Nielson convinced all her theater friends to open their homes to guests. "I had a lovely little collection," she recalls. "Just ten properties. Over the years, we've had some quite unusual places - even a houseboat and a water tower that felt like a Gothic cathedral."

Nielson and her three-person staff still pride themselves on screening every B&B not only for cleanliness, but for how persnickety a potential host is about his or her apartment, how tourist-friendly the neighborhood is, and how aesthetically pleasing the guest room is. Travelers fill out written forms listing their requests; they can ask to be placed with someone who shares their interests; and City Lights will do its best to accommodate them. Like its competitors, the service sends a follow-up questionnaire and takes up complaints with individual hosts; it also does spot checks of hosts.

CitySonnet.com

Tel. 212/614-3034, fax 425/920-2384, citysonnet.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles $85-$125, doubles $125-$150 (those with private bath tend toward the higher rates), unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 35-40 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments)

This small, husband-and-wife-run company recently changed its name from West Village Reservations to better reflect its membership. However, it still specializes in Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chelsea, and other downtown neighborhoods "because we know them best," explains cofounder Margaret Packer. "Our goal is to represent only places we're very familiar with, places we'd stay ourselves. We don't want to boast about how many properties we represent." Margaret and her British-born husband David are both artists and travel enthusiasts who started booking informally in 1993 and founded their agency four years ago. One of Margaret's goals is to introduce travelers to "the real New York that tourists seldom see." However, "if something is funky or offbeat, we warn people. A loft, for example, is great for a young writer, but maybe not for his parents."

Manhattan Getaways

Tel. 212/956-2010, fax 212/202-4640, manhattangetaways.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles and doubles $105-$145/night, unhosted apartments start at $150 No. of properties: 50 (approximately 15 B&Bs, 35 unhosted apartments)

Judith Glynn was a travel writer living in Spain 15 years ago when she ran across an article on B&B agencies; the idea stuck in her head and when she found herself in New York a few years later, she became a host herself (in fact, she worked with Urban Ventures, below). "It was a natural transition to run my own agency five years ago," she says. Before representing potential hosts, "I spend an hour with them at home to get a feel for the place and take lots of photos." Number one criterion for hosts? "They have to love New York - if they don't, it will translate to the guest. Number two, they've got to be gracious. That's more important to me than having a million-dollar apartment. The bath has to be spiffy, and the sheets and pillows have to be new."

Glynn, helped by her adult daughter, also screens guests carefully, having them fill out written forms before agreeing to help them. She also attempts to match travelers with hosts who share their interests and offers a money-back guarantee to dissatisfied customers. A Web site offers background on the company and its policies along with a variety of photos (specific locations are avoided to protect hosts' privacy). After the initial screening and developing the traveler's "wish list," Glynn e-mails photos and detailed descriptions of several B&B options.

New York Habitat

Tel. 212/255-8018, fax 212/627-1416, nyhabitat.com Rates: Singles and doubles with shared and private baths $85-$115 No. of properties: 7,000 (up to one-third B&Bs, two-thirds unhosted apartments)

Although technically a sublet service specializing in unhosted stays, New York Habitat merits a mention for the sheer volume of rooms it offers. Opened in 1989, the company was the brainchild of French-born antiques dealer Marie-Reine Jezequel, who found herself in the unusual position of having spare bedrooms in Manhattan and decided to rent them to travelers on a nightly basis. "She discovered there was a huge market for this," explains spokesperson Erika Koning. Now with a multilingual staff of 20, the company operates a comparable service in Paris with 800 apartments.

The Web site allows travelers to search B&Bs by location, price, apartment type, and dates available, and then to call up colorful, detailed photos of each place. One caveat: The Web site also includes a category called "sleeping space in the living room," so find out where you'll sleep before you book.

Urban Ventures

Tel. 212/594-5650, fax 212/947-9320, nyurbanventures.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Singles from $75/night, doubles $85-$150/night, most with shared bath; unhosted studios from $125 No. of properties: 900 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments)

In business for over 20 years, Mary McAulay is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of Manhattan's B&B scene. In 1979, she quit teaching high school and launched the then-tiny Urban Ventures, boasting just five guest rooms. The concept was a natural for McAulay, who grew up dividing her time between Miami and Ocean City, Maryland, where her family ran a restaurant and rented rooms to travelers. "I just put up ads in grocery stores," she recalls. "I had no idea what I was getting into, but the business just got bigger and bigger." McAulay, who now has a four-person staff, jokes that she knows what makes a good host because her mother was so finicky. "She'd tell guests which chairs they could sit on. Anyone that picky is not a good host. Some people think it's crazy to have strangers in your home, but we've been doing this for years, and we've never had one theft, not one fight."

McAulay says most requests are made by fax and e-mail; however, travelers can also call and ask for a representative to help them find just the right B&B for their individual needs. Lest anyone doubt her ability to keep tabs on such a sprawling, ever-changing network, McAulay keeps stacks of looseleaf binders detailing the many guest rooms she's visited and inspected personally.

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