by Richard Mellor
New York is a famously expensive city, where finding a hotel for under $200 a night can be a struggle. There are so few options for those on a serious budget, travelers could be forgiven for being tempted to sleep rough in Central Park.
But a new and unusual type of affordable accommodation – costing from just £23 a night – could be a useful option for adventurous types who can live without necessities like space, electricity and running water.
A small fleet of adapted vans, plus a yellow New York taxi, are now available as holiday rentals through Airbnb.
Parked around Queens’ gentrified Long Island City, the five furnished vehicles include conversion vans with views of the Empire State Building, the retired cab, whose back seats have been swapped for “swanky” fittings, and the top-of the-range four-person campervan.
According to hotel industry analyst STR, the average daily rate for a New York hotel during May 2015 was £185. In Queens it was £95 – still four times more than the cheapest van.
The vehicles are stationary (in compliance with the law) and come with mattresses, fans, blankets, blinds and lights, and though electricity and running water are conspicuously absent, the vehicles are close to public toilets and a YMCA (free trial passes are available) with showers.
The vans are owned by stand up comedian and ex-hotel concierge Jonathan Powley, and since debuting earlier this year, they’ve each been solidly booked and have received largely positive feedback.
“The best part for me was being just 15 minutes from Manhattan,” says Alex Amato, 33, from Manchester, who stayed in the Van With A View for four nights with his girlfriend. “We’d absolutely recommend it. The van was no Ritz but, honestly, we only used it to sleep in. The point is to experience New York, not stay in your ‘room’.”
Alex reported no issues with safety or noise, and this moneyed, mostly-residential area of the city is known for a laid-back vibe.
But 23-year-old Jean Rivière, from France, and his Belgian wife, Marieke, 25, said they did feel nervous: “On our second night, we heard passersby standing outside, talking about there being people in the van.” (Jonathan has subsequently changed location.)
“Nevertheless, we enjoyed it, and had a far better time there compared with a more expensive Manhattan hostel one month later. Jonathan’s kindness moved us the most: he bought us welcome drinks, provided a tour and made us feel completely at home.”
Jonathan says he always tries to go the extra mile, by putting out flowers for guests and arranging deals with local cafes.
“For me, it’s about exceeding guest expectations,” he explains. “Many people want adventure, an experience, and this truly provides that – and very affordably.” His next offering? “I’m finishing a 1980s high-top van with shag carpeting,” he reveals. “Then it’ll probably be an ice-cream truck, with free ice-cream.”