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Tourist hideaways at reasonable prices

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Taking a family of five to New York for the weekend can be a pricey proposition. Planning the trip for the weekend before Christmas was compounding the tab.

The Barbizon Hotel offered a queen-size bed with a pull-out sofa bed in one room for $250 a night but required a three-night minimum. A suite at the Algonquin was $425 per night.We opted instead for a beautifully furnished, one-bedroom apartment with a fully applianced kitchen and a washer and dryer. Best of all, it featured a window as large as many hotel room walls, with an unobstructed view of the top half of the Empire State Building 10 blocks away.

The cost? $140 per night, with a two-night minimum stay.

Done.

We found this gem through a Manhattan company called City Lights Bed & Breakfast. The "breakfast" part of that title is for real. Our host left us not only the keys to the apartment and outside security door but orange juice, milk, cereal and English muffins as well.

The cupboards were stocked with condiments and plenty of dishware, utensils, pots, pans - pretty much everything we had in our kitchen back home except the dirt. This place gleamed.

Our daughters - 8-year-old twins Maggie and Caitlin and 6-year-old Nora - glanced at the view of the Empire State Building, then focused on the refrigerator. It had an ice and water dispenser on the door. They were duly impressed and took turns operating the ice dispenser until we tired of cubes skittering across the wide-pine floor. They made a move for the piano, but we laid down the law and soon redirected their energy to sightseeing.

Besides the full-size bed in the bedroom and a leather sleep sofa in the main room, there was a fold-up bed and a large futon mattress. Sleeping arrangements would be no problem. My husband, Michael, and I opted for the sleep sofa; the nighttime view of the Empire State Building, bathed in its holiday colors, was the perfect backdrop for a bottle of champagne and toast to another travel triumph.

This was the girls' first trip to "the city," and our agenda was chock-full of tourist attractions: skating at Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the Empire State Building, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store, the Museum of Natural History and a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park.

Despite our tourist agenda, we felt a bit less like tourists as we scoured our new neighborhood along West 23rd Street for grocery stores and takeout food. We bought oranges at one store, Greek pizza slices at another. A few cartons of Mexican food here, some Italian pastry there. The girls learned to scan the subway signs for the F train. We strolled through the local flea market Sunday morning.

At night, the Empire State Building loomed large in our window.

The standards are exacting, in both the apartments the service will list and in screening those to whom it rents. Some accommodations are actually in a portion of someone's home, in traditional bed-and-breakfast fashion; many are "unhosted," with vacancies created by those who travel a lot or who have moved in with another. The apartment owners pay a brokerage fee.

Those who call City Lights to rent are asked for home and work phone numbers. They also are asked not only where they work but what they do.

The phone number for City Lights Bed & Breakfast is (212) 737-7049, and the fax number is (212) 535-2755.