Recently, Amy and I invited ourselves to visit our friend Mark's place in New York. With business tight at the gas station and Amy's handmade soap sales declining as America chooses to become more and more filthy, there was little money for such a trip. Anyone that knows me, though, knows that when life gives me a lemon I make lemonade, or I throw the lemon at a kid. This was no exception.

Rather than bemoan our financial state, I thought it would be fun to see how well I could translate the Big Empire's time-honored low-roller tactics to the Big Apple's legendary high-cost style. The following are my tips on how to vacation in New York for nothing, or darn near close.

My first suggestion is to befriend airline employees because they get really cheap tickets to sell to their friends. Amy and I traveled from Denver to New York for a measly $50 a piece, thanks to the fact that we are acquainted with a woman who is so unpopular that she couldn't get rid of all her cheap tickets through friends. To use the cheap fare, Frontier Airlines made us promise not to tell other passengers how cheaply we were flying and to wear nice clothes. We obliged in both cases, although Amy hinted heavily at our ticket prices with statements such as "We paid more than $49 but less than $51."

From LaGuardia International Airport, which is in Queens, to Manhattan, you can ride an Olympia shuttle for a measly ten bucks each way. This is cheaper than a taxi and a lot more scary. The shuttle area at the airport has about five employees just hanging around, doing nothing except being rude to customers. Each of the employees sells a different looking ticket. Don't be confused, they all are valid, they just have different types so all the tourists will stand around the boarding area looking at each others tickets and wondering if they got ripped off. Once you finally board the shuttle, you either get a talkative and crazy driver, or a silent and crazy driver. Either way, you will be thrown from your seat at some point during the ride, so do not carry an open knife or Exacto blade.

Manhattan is overrated as a dangerous place. It's also an easy place to get around so long as you don't get lost. If you do, you will be mugged and killed, and the killers will rip your face off so you can't even have an open-casket funeral. Our subway costs for the weekend were zero dollars because I convinced Mark it would be easier for us all to use his MetroCard and then I would pay him back later. Of course, later turned out to be after we were already on a plane, giggling at what a rube Mark is. We also went over to Hoboken and wandered about lost for a mile or so while freezing rain pelted us. If you've never been to Hoboken, I think this is probably your best bet.

There are some reasonable hotel prices in New York if you plan ahead and book a rate advertised in the New York Times Travel section. Why, it's possible to stay near Central Park for less than $150 a night if you're lucky. But, for my money, there's an even better lodging choice: Mark's apartment. Mark has a one bedroom apartment on Ninth Avenue, close to the subways and some of New York's better ethnic restaurants. His sofa is actually a futon, and it folds into a comfortable bed at night. The maid service is impeccable, since Mark sleeps in the next room and will come running if you holler for him in the middle of the night. The cost of these fine digs? Despite pleading with the apartment proprietor about unsatisfactory street noise, I could get the price no lower than $0 for three nights. If Mark had a toll-free number, I would list it so everyone could call and reserve space with him. As it is, just e-mail him early to make sure you get the good side of the futon.

Amy and I have always found that the best way to cut our dining costs while traveling is by imposing on our hosts. This trip was no exception and we consumed vast quantities of foods at Mark's house. Although I prefer to have my free breakfast prepared and delivered to me, Mark made us prepare our own. Each morning we enjoyed a selection of breakfast delights , including fresh onion bread, bananas and 100% pure orange juice - with pulp! Lunches were fresh gourmet cold cuts sandwiches, crackers, fruit and a fantastic smoked cheddar that I forced Mark to buy by throwing a temper tantrum in the local gourmet market. I realize that some people look down on the practice of mooching and believe it is ungrateful, and we agree. It is shameful. Shame on us. Our total cost for breakfasts and lunch during our trip were $9 for pizza on one day that we were too far from the apartment to eat there and Mark refused to carry me back on his shoulders.

One dinner almost broke the bank, though, when I made the tactical mistake of offering to pay for it. Normally, someone else will say "Don't be silly, I'll get it," but not Mark. He must have known what I was up to. While the southern-style food at the Delta Grill at 48th and 9th is quite good, I strongly recommend you never order desserts that have no price next to them. One tenth of a key-lime pie goes for $7, so a whole pie would then cost $70, slightly more than a new starter for my Ford Galaxie. My only recourse was to get back at them by stealing about $4 in paper towels from their bathroom, which I stuffed in my trousers and now enjoy back at home.

Because of my obligation as my alter-ego, the Filthy Critic, I had to see a movie. Most movies in the Big Apple cost $9.50, even for matinees. The only movies worth that much are directed by Russel Meyers. Anyway, shortly after arriving in the city, I made Amy and Mark accompany to the opening night of the godawful "Forces of Nature." My only comfort in shelling out nine and half bucks was that Mark and Amy did too, and they don't even get to have disenfranchised kids e-mail to them to say how right they are when they complain about it.

For only $4 each, the friendly animals of the Bronx Zoo entertained us for one full day. The entrance fee includes all the monkey-harassing that you can stand. Similar to a fine buffet however, you are reminded to take no more monkey than you can harass. I made a bunch of baboons livid with my vulgar comments about their bright red butts. The Bronx Zoo has more than we could see in a full day, but we tried. The only animals we didn't get to see were the snakes, and that's because Mark is a big scaredy-cat.

Marrying a woman who likes animals for more than just eating proved lucky the next day. Her membership at the Museum of Natural History allowed us to wander around the World's largest museum (bar none, says the "Rough Guide") without contributing a dime. The dinosaur skeletons are probably the best part, but they also had some real nice mammals form all over. I identified a type of mountain goat I saw on a recent trip after incorrectly saying claiming it was a skunk, then a raccoon. The reason was because I wanted to say I had seen something, but didn't think I would see mountain goats in the display.

One evening we crossed the Hudson and ventured into the frontier known as Hoboken. Maxwell's is a small bar with overpriced drinks and live music. We caught the indie-rock sensation Holly Go Lightly along with local act Mooney Suzuki for only $7 a head. I heartily recommend Holly Go Lightly, whom Mark believes he kissed but he did not. She was very pretty, though, and she took no guff from the pigs in the crowd, including Mark. Mooney Suzuki is probably best avoided by all but those who are really want to see a mediocre Kinks-inspired garage band. As previously mentioned, the drinks were overpriced and for budget considerations, I came nowhere near my goal of getting drunk and picking a fight with a hat-check girl.

Finally, one completely free source of entertainment is walking the streets of New York. There is lots of stuff to see, and even more weird crap to pick off the sidewalk and get all over your hands. While you are walking, you might want to try flagging down cabs. Once they stop, you peer in and say "Nope, changed my mind." Every time I did this and they peeled away, I just fell down laughing. It's so funny.

As you can see, New York can be a cheap place to visit, despite what the "experts" say. I can't give you a total of how much I spent because I only brought $20 and borrowed the rest from my wife. Don't worry, though, I'll pay her back later.

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