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As a tour guide, I’m always asked what I pack in my bag before I head out for tours all day. Most people are surprised that I don’t cart around my entire apartment with me before heading out the door. In fact, I generally only carry 10 essential items in my bag. Find out what to bring with you during the day in NYC–and what to leave in the hotel.
First things first, let’s talk about the bag.
Your bag can be your bestie or your most hated frenemy in NYC. The right bag will work with you (not against you) and not piss off anyone else (more on this later).
When it comes to the best bags to bring to New York, these are our options:
- Tote bag
Please, whatever you do, do not wear a backpack in NYC. Okay, a small purse-sized backpack is appropriate. But no bookbags and no giant backpacks. Why? Mostly because they’re obnoxious. And while I have nothing against you looking like a tourist, it’s the acting that will offend most New Yorkers.
I’ve seen it a thousand times: person wearing backpack turns suddenly and takes out an entire table of glassware. Or, person wearing backpack turns suddenly and takes out an entire row of school children on the subway.
Speaking of the subways: they get crowded. You’ll be asked to take off your backpack and place it by your feet. This just feels awkward and annoying. Oh, and some tourist attractions won’t even let you in if you’re wearing a backpack. Just. No.
Do everyone a favor and leave the backpack at home.
Also, drawstring backpacks are banned from the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (as are regular backpacks).
I prefer a medium-sized crossbody or tote bag. Yes, I do wear a small, purse-sized backpack most of the time. It’s because I need to bring my laptop everywhere. But I wear that backpack responsibly.
Yet if you follow the rest of my advice, you won’t need to schlep around your entire hotel room in the city each day—and therefore have no worry regarding the weight of your bag.
And without further ado, here are the top items to pack in your day bag in New York City.
I always have a small package, or (let’s face it) a Ziploc baggie of tissues in my bag. Not only are they must-have form of currency in a city-wide blackout that traps you on the subway, but they also serve a large variety of purposes (which include the obvious: blowing your nose).
Some of the reasons I pack tissues in my bag every day include:
- Wiping gunk of the seats of the subway
- Blotting spilled coffee of myself
- Using one in lieu of a napkin at one of the many fine dining establishments (dumpling shops, pizza places) that happen to be stingy with napkins
Let’s face it: New York is covered in…well, you don’t even want to know. The more barriers you have between you and the city—the better.
2. Disinfectant Wipes
Okay, if you have disinfectant wipes, you might not need tissues too. But if I had to choose between one of these two items, it would be disinfectant wipes. Some of the uses I get out of these include:
- Wiping subway poles
- Disinfecting toilet seats
- Cleaning off restaurant tables (even after the waitress has wiped it down)
- Getting New York City’s stickiness off my fingers (see above)
Wipes area must-have item to keep in your bag in NYC. Trust me.
The weather in the city is notoriously unpredictable. You could wake up to find it’s drizzling outside. Twenty minutes later, the sun is out. An hour later, the humidity is up to 100%. My average “uniform” in New York includes:
- Jeans/leggings (or shorts or a skirt in the summer)
- Tank top
- Sneakers (or boots in the winter)
- Jacket: a light jacket in the spring and fall and a warm one in the winter
In my day bag I always bring:
- Light sweater in the summer
- Heavy sweater in the winter
- Poncho (see below)
- Scarf (heavy in the winter and light in the summer)*
4. Collapsible Water Bag or Bottle (or not)
I don’t usually recommend that people bring bottles of water with them in their day bags. For one, it weighs you down massively. Two, you can find water everywhere in the city. Just check out my post on how to find free water and cheap snacks.
Save the realty space for your more important items by bringing a collapsible water bag or bottle with you. I like this one that I bought on Amazon. I fill it up when I’m thirsty, and it doesn’t take up unnecessary space in my bag when I’m not.
Throw a pair of earbuds into your bag. Sometimes you just need a break from the city. Trust me. Plus, they’re great for when you want to use guided navigation to get to your next destination.
6. Rain Poncho
Okay. I know what you’re thinking: Alicia, won’t I look like a total tourist if I’m wearing a poncho? The short answer? Yes. But you’ll be a dry one. Okay, truth: I used to snicker every time I saw a tourist wearing one of those free ponchos you get on the ho-ho buses. But the truth is that being dry is waaaay cooler than being a wet mess. So you could say I’m a ponch convert. Plus, it’s not like you’ll be walking around your entire trip in a poncho. But it’ll be there for you in a pinch.
Just do everyone a favor and buy a better poncho before heading to the city. The free ones you get on the ho-ho buses are the worst. I like this one because it’s cute in addition to being functional.
7. Charger Brick
I don’t know why I resisted buying a charger brick for so long. They are lit-er-uh-ly the. Best. You don’t need to worry about finding an outlet–or dragging around your power adapters (hey, Europe!). I bought mine off of Amazon. It’s the size of a candy bar and weighs like a pound or something (not even). Charge it at night, and you get two extra smartphone batteries’ worth of charge throughout the day.
8. Cash/Credit Card
There’s something you need to know about New York before you get here: it’s a notoriously cash-only city. Many restaurants, most bodegas, and all newsstands are cash-only. To make it even more confusing, some restaurants won’t accept cash. Whaaaa? Luckily, those are very few and far between. Try to bring $1s, $5s, $10s, and $20s because some vendors won’t make change for $50s or $100s, thanks to a string of fakes going around right now.
I bought a special smartphone case that has pockets for credit cards, cash, and a MetroCard that allow me to leave my wallet at home most days. My wallet is the size of a brick, and downsizing has allowed me to only bring the cards I really need with me throughout the day.
In addition to my cash and a credit and debit card, I also bring my drivers license and tour guide license (just in case I’m carded—cause I look so young and all). I throw coins in my pocket or my purse and clean them out at night. (Foreigners, this one is tricky for you because you will need to get rid of them all by the end of the trip.)
9. Reading Material
For all the fun and excitement in the city, there’s an equal amount of insufferable waiting. Waiting in line for attractions, food, and theater tickets—it can feel like a Disney World vacation sometimes.
Then there’s the subway.
The first few rides will be exhilarating. Where’s my stop? What’s that noise? Why’s that guy dancing? It’s a lot. But after the first few rides, you’ll start getting bored.
Try to load some games that don’t require WiFi onto your phone before you leave. Download magazines and books onto your phone while you’re at it. Or, get my NYC Survival Kit. It includes reading material with vital info, fun facts, and plenty of entertainment to fill up those boring moments with more fun.
Because it’s always sunny in New York.
Pack This/Not That
Don’t pack water bottles; instead, pack a collapsible water bottle. Or, don’t pack anything. You can buy bottles of water for just over $1 at almost any Duane Reade, CVS, or Walgreens in the city. You can also score a free venti water at any Starbucks (though you’ll need to wait in line!).
Don’t pack your weight in snacks; instead, buy cheap and healthy snacks at one of the Duane Reades, CVSs, or Walgreens on every street corner in the city.
Don’t pack an umbrella (unless it’s already raining); instead, buy one on the street or in a bodega or newsstand for $5. Bring a poncho for sudden downpours.
Don’t pack a wallet; instead, buy a smartphone case that holds credit cards, cash, and a MetroCard for easy access. If you can get one that features an aluminum liner, bonus.
Don’t wear a money wallet; it’s unnecessary in a city as safe as New York.
*Bonus!: the scarf doubles as a head covering in a sudden downpour.