We'd only been living in Manhattan for a few weeks when my in-laws came to stay. On our way home from visiting the spectacular One World Trade Center, we had to take a couple different subways, through which my wife and I steered the out-of-towners with little difficulty.
"I'm just amazed," my mother-in-law Theresa said, "at how quickly you've adapted to living here."
I was slightly taken aback. New York is a full-on, high-octane, high-rise city and we'd just moved from sleepy, leafy, low-rise south London, where we'd lived for years. I didn't think I'd adapted at all. But I knew what she meant: A suburbanite from outside Washington, DC, she had no idea how to get around the big city. But we did it with ease.
"Oh, well, we just use our phones," I said. She shook her head in bemusement.
New in town
Carrying the internet in our pockets at all times has changed the way we relate to our environment, nowhere more than in cities. And when you're new in town, apps and online services are invaluable to getting you settled in, as we found.
The service that let me impress my mother-in-law so easily is called Citymapper (download on iOS or Android). A free app, it has public transit information for 39 major worldwide cities laid out in an easy-to-understand way. Enter the addresses of your home and place of work and it notifies you each morning with the best route between the two that day, based on traffic and other conditions. Brilliantly, it weaves together delays to trains, subways and buses with travel times and walking distances -- it even tells you which end of the train to board so you're closer to the station exit at your destination. Out late with new friends? Hit the Home button and it'll find the best route, or even call you an Uber.
Finding an apartment took more work. We didn't know which neighborhood to live in, how much anything would cost, how brokers' fees work -- we knew nothing. (It's all different from in London.) But Airbnb (iOS and Android) found us a temporary place for a few weeks while we explored. Through the site, we stayed in someone's apartment while the host was out of town, allowing us to get a sense of living in the city that was more personal than if we were in a hotel.
Finding a place
New York Magazine has an online tool called the Livability Calculator that uses data compiled by the renowned statistician Nate Silver, which we used to inform our search. It has sliders that let you assign a priority to certain lifestyle factors like neighborhood safety, nightlife or housing quality, and it picks the best area for you using public data like crime statistics and zoning. We don't have kids, so we assigned zero priority to schools, but we wanted to get a dog -- who we would find on Petfinder (iOS and Android), the pet adoption app, naturally -- so we put a high value on green space.
Making liberal use of Uber (iOS and Android), the ride-hailing service, we saw upwards of 30 apartments in two days. But we still hadn't found the right place, so in the evenings we started hunting online for more. Modern websites are designed to be mobile-friendly, meaning we could search while we were on the go.
Finally we settled on an apartment near Penn Station. But of course it was empty. We didn't have much furniture of our own -- rental places often come furnished in London -- and what little we did have was in the middle of the Atlantic in a shipping container. (Which we could track on a map, using the brilliant website MarineTraffic.) Moving abroad is expensive, so we wanted second-hand stuff, at least to start with.
When I first moved to London a decade ago, I found cheap furniture by buying an evening newspaper and scouring the ads. Here we have Craigslist. A side table, a coffee table, a beautiful lamp, a leaning bookcase -- all bought for cash from local people and carried down the street or stuffed in the back of an Uber. (You should always call and ask your driver if this is OK.) The only snag was when we bought a boxspring that was too big to fit in even the biggest we could hire. Carrying that down the street earned us a few sideways looks, even in anything-goes Manhattan. And then of course it didn't fit up the stairs. Oh well: We sold it on Craigslist for a profit and found an Ikea bed that didn't need a boxspring.
Happily settled in, we wanted to start exploring our new home. As a movie buff I was desperate to find a new cinema. Flixster (iOS and Android), which is now owned by Fandango, is an app I've used for years: You can search by movie and find the nearest place it's playing, or see what's on at your favorite local fleapit. You can read what critics and moviegoers think of each film, and buy tickets easily too, with a small convenience fee.
Before the show, Google and Yelp (iOS and Android) are indispensable for finding great places to eat. So many people here post reviews to those online services that they're an incredibly rich, and in my experience reliable, data source for locating restaurants to hit and those to avoid.
My gadgets have kept me in touch with folks back home too. I used to call my parents on the phone every Sunday night, but here, I use FaceTime on my iPad for our weekly chat, so I can really see them. "I've seen your face more in the last six months than I ever did when you lived in London!" my dad told me the other day. When they come to visit, our phones will tell us what time they land at Washington's Dulles airport, guide us to the best places to eat in the nation's capital and help us secure museum tickets.
Rest assured, not everything has migrated to our phones. As new New Yorkers, we like to get The New Yorker, in old-fashioned paper form, delivered to our door.
This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.
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