There we all were: My wife (Carolyn) and I, plus our daughter's family of seven, standing at the ticket counter in New York's American Museum of Natural History.

"$150," read the register screen.

Whew. At prices like that, I'd be picked cleaner than the dinosaur skeleton in the museum's entrance hall.

"How about $50?" I asked the nice woman behind the counter. And you know what? She smiled and punched a few keys, and a moment later we were off, tickets in hand, ready to tackle all four floors of the monumental museum on Central Park West. It's the magic of the "pay-what-you-wish" option, one of New York's greatest budget-vacation secrets.

Subscribe to the AARP Travel Newsletter

AARP MEMBER DISCOUNTS SEE MORE

I love to travel, and I love New York, but I hate to overspend on travel. So lucky me: Despite the city's reputation as impossibly expensive, I've found it's possible to have a first-class Big Apple vacation on a budget.

Take that "pay-what-you-wish" policy, for example: Besides the Museum of Natural History, you can name your admission price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, the Bronx Zoo (Wednesday), the New York Aquarium (Friday after 3 p.m.) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Saturday from 5:45 to 7:45 p.m.). At nyc-arts.org you'll find a complete list of always free/sometimes free/pay-what-you-wish New York attractions. But be a good citizen: Pay something, OK?

See also: New York City travel guide

New York has 90,000 hotel rooms, and not all of them go for $500 a night. For reasonable rates, we like to think outside the Midtown box. Long Island City in Queens, the first subway stop out of Manhattan (and a quicker ride to Times Square than from many other spots in town), has several affordable hotels; the Holiday Inn and Z New York are two. The hotels in Queens — to say nothing of those in Jersey City and Weehawken, both quick ferry rides away — are not only cheaper, they offer something no Manhattan hotel can: a romantic, sweeping view of the Manhattan skyline itself. Determined to stay in town? Two clean, comfy, affordable Manhattan hotels are run by religious groups: the Leo House on West 23rd Street, operated by the Sisters of St. Agnes, has nightly rates as low as $105; the Salisbury Hotel, owned by Calvary Baptist Church and ideally situated opposite Carnegie Hall, offers a lowest rate of $139 a night. Some rooms in the latter are surprisingly large, thus perfect for family travel.

We usually take the train to New York — it's cheaper from East Coast cities and drops you off right in the middle of town. But when we must fly in, we don't even think about hailing that yellow vacuum of green known as a taxi. Instead, from LaGuardia Airport we take the Q70 Limited (LTD) bus, which departs every 12 minutes and even has luggage racks. For $2.50 it takes you to the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway station for a free transfer into Manhattan. Total time downtown: 35 minutes, which is quicker than taking a cab. If you must taxi, ask the driver to take the Queensboro Bridge — the only Manhattan span with no toll in either direction — to Midtown.