Tips for Riding the New York City Subway System

Grand Central Station

Home to one of the largest subway system in the world, New York City has its own set of rules even when it comes to public transportation.

The subway is, almost always, the fastest and most efficient way of getting around New York City. Eight hundred and forty-two miles of tracks, carrying millions of people on thousands of subway cars from Bedford Ave to Union Square, from 149th Grand Concourse to Jamaica Ave, twenty-four hours a day every day of every year since the dawn of time. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s dirty, it can be intimidating…and it’s  damned impressive.

The NYC subway (and you should call it the subway, not the metro, by the way) can be confusing, and even a bit overwhelming, to the first time visitor. The following tips and info are meant to get you moving around NYC like a local in no time, because let’s face it, no one wants to look like a tourist when they’re visiting the Big Apple.

Find Great Rates on Hotels in New York City on Booking.com!



Booking.com

Tips for riding the New York City Subway system like a pro!

photo-1452270378797-c66dcc949a3f

The Subway Map

One look at the NYC Subway Map and all of its lines, dots, and colors can make you question whether it is even worth the effort. Unless you have a private driver and lots of time to waste standing in snarled urban traffic, it is. Here is an overview of how to read the subway map.

How to Read the NYC Subway Map
The NYC Subway Map
  • Subway lines are color coded and the trains that run on the lines are numbered.If you want to sound like local, when referencing them use their number rather than color. For example, the green line which runs on the east side of Manhattan and into the Bronx and Brooklyn has the 4, 5, and 6 trains running on it.
  • Directions: When riding a subway line you have two options for directions. The signs directing you to the trains will tell you what direction it is running in by giving you the last stop on the line and usually what direction it is running in (Uptown, Downtown, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, or Manhattan bound). The same information also be displayed on the side of each train car.
  • Express vs Local: There are two types of trains, express and local. The express trains can save you a lot of time so this is important. Express trains only stop at certain stops on the line, bypassing others. The local trains stop at every single stop on the line. To tell if you are headed for a local or express stop look at the line you are traveling on. Each stop on the subway map is represented by a circle. If the circle is solid black then only local trains stop at that station. If the circle is white then all trains (express and local) stop at that station.

NYC Transportation: Subway

  • Many subway stations offer transfers to other lines. It’s a rare treat when you only need to take one train to get to your final location so transfers are often necessary. The subway map will show you what options are available at each stop. For example, at 14th street you can transfer to the L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5, and 6 trains as shown below. If you see a black line connecting two stations (see Times Square stop below) you can transfer to another line via an underground pathway. When you exit the train you are riding just look for signs directing you to whichever line you are transferring to.

NYC Subway Map - Transfers

Entering the Subway Station

Yeah, even entering the subway requires a bit of knowledge.

  • At street level most subway entrances are usually accompanied by a green post with a green globe atop. However, sometimes the globes are red, which typically means the station is closed, or is an exit only. And sometimes… there is no globe. It’s NYC, anything is possible.
  • The entrance, with stairs leading underground, will display the name of the stop, the lines that can be accessed, sometimes the direction (downtown, uptown, Queens, etc.), and usually an advertisement for the latest bad movie coming out (you can ignore that part). If a direction is not displayed it means you can access all directions from that entrance.
  • Walk down the stairs on your right hand side. Walk up the stairs on your right hand side. If you are on an escalator and you don’t feel like walking, stand ONLY on the right hand side. Let people who value their time more than you do walk up or down on the left hand side.

NYC Transportation: Subway

The Metro Card

Long gone are the days of metro tokens. Now your only option to get through the turnstiles of a subway entrance is a Metro Card. Luckily, with one swipe you gain access to any of the 24 interconnected subway lines throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.

For more info on what Metro Card to buy, visit the MTA’s website here.

  • Purchasing a Metro Card – ever trying to make a profit, the MTA recently decided to start charging $1 for the previously free Metro Cards. So once you buy your first card, hang on to it. You can refill and reuse it for about a year before it expires.
  • A single ride fare currently costs $2.75. However, if you load more than $5.00 at a time to your card you will receive a 5% bonus that will automatically be added to your card. For example, if you add $20 to your card, $21.00 will be loaded. In one of the most expensive cities on the planet this can really add up.
  • 7-Day Unlimited – if you are spending a week or more in NYC or you plan to use the subway as your main mode of transport for a few days an unlimited card can be purchased for $31 and will be good for 7 days after the first swipe.
  • 30-Day Unlimited – If you’re lucky enough to be visiting longer than a few weeks a 30 unlimited card is probably your best option. They cost $116.50 and are valid for 30 days after the first swipe.

Note: prices shown as of November 23, 2016. Click here for more info.

Best Hostels in NYC

Buying a Metro Card

You can purchase a Metro Card from nearly any station at one of the vending machines or from a station agent located in one of the booths. Vending machines accept major credit cards, debit cards, or cash while station agents only accept cash. The vending machines have a touch screen display with easy to follow step-by-step instructions, but if you’re like me and want to be prepared ahead of time, here is the rundown on how to buy a Metro Card from a vending machine.

  1. Choose if you would like to pay by cash, credit card, or debit card
    • Cash: If paying by cash insert into the green area to the right of the screen adding coins first then bills.
    • Credit or Debit Card: If paying with card you will be instructed to insert your card into the blue section below the screen and enter either your pin number or zip code.
  2. Choose the type of Metro Card you want: Either “Metro Card” for a typical reusable card, or “Single Ride” which is valid for only two hours
  3. Press start on the screen
  4. Choose Your Language: options include English, Italian, French, Spanish and some others depending on what neighborhood you’re in.
  5. Decide if you want to refill a card you already have or buy a new one
    • If you refill, you will need to insert your card into the yellow slot labeled “Metro Card” on the upper right hand side of the vending machine when instructed to do so on the display.
  6. Your balance will then be displayed in the upper right hand corner of the screen and refill options will be displayed below that. Choose an option.
  7. Your Metro Card will then be returned to you and your balance will be displayed on screen.

How to Buy a NYC Metro Card

Using your Metro Card

To enter the subway you will need to swipe your Metro Card at one of the turnstiles. Before entering a turnstile, however, you need to know if it is open. There is a light below the Entry sign. If the light is green then it is open, if it is red the turnstile is closed.

How to Buy a NYC Subway Card

Step up to the turnstile. There is long box on to the right of the entrance where you swipe your metrocard. Place the card with the black magnet strip on the bottom, facing you, in the opening and swipe forward. If your card is funded properly, the screen display will show you how much time or money is left on your card and display the word “Go”. If your card doesn’t have enough time/money you will see a message with the words “insufficient funds” displayed. If you swiped it too fast or slow you will receive an error message and have to swipe it again.

NYC Transportation: Subway

Tips for Riding the Subway (and not looking like a tourist, or an asshole)

  • The cars at the front and back of the trains (or away from the stairwells) are usually the least crowded
  • Announcing to your travel companions (and everyone else on the train) that your stop is next is a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist
  • Get out of the way: Let passengers off the train before entering it. Once you’ve entered, move to the center of the train and away from the doors so people can easily enter/exit the car
  • There is at least one map displayed in all train cars in case you need to check where you’re going. Some of the lines even have a digital display of the upcoming stops.
  • Subway maps are also displayed throughout the subway station and on platforms.
  • There are a number of handy subway map apps for smart phones. We suggest one called Nextstop. It has a subway map and a function which allows you to choose a line to see all of its stops. You can also see if there are any changes to the service that day or any delays. It even has a feature that tells you when the next train at any station is scheduled to arrive. Don’t get too excited though because it is often not accurate so you can probably skip this feature.

nyc subway

  • Hopstop is a great tool for planning your subway trips. It gives you the closest subway line options and an estimate on how long it will take to get from point A to point B.
  • The conductor will usually announce what the next stop is but often the speakers don’t work properly so make sure you pay attention to what stop you’re at and know what stop immediately precedes yours so you can prepare to exit the car.
  • Late Night’s/weekend service changes: Trains often run on different schedules or delays late at night or on the weekends. Check your NextStop App for more information or look for notices posted throughout the stations.
  • If you’re a wifi junkie like us you’re in luck. The NYC Subway System now has free wireless internet service at many of the stations. For more information, click here.
  • Rush Hour (Monday through Friday, from approximately 7:00 – 10:00 AM and 3:00 – 6:00 PM) sucks. Trains can get so crowded that you have to wait on the platform with hundreds of other passengers while two or three trains pass by before you’re able to board one. When you’re able to get on a train you’ll be up close and personal with any of the passengers near you. It’s also prime pervert time so be on alert for riders taking advantage of the situation.

How to Ride the NYC Subway

  • Subway station location signs on the platform – There are signs on most of the columns in stations and on the walls stating which station you are at. This is helpful when you’re on the train and trying to figure out how many more stops you have to go.
  • If you’re on the platform and a packed train is passing by as it comes to a screeching halt and you see a nearly empty car, don’t run for it. It isn’t your lucky day. Usually it means someone has made this car their own personal toilet, someone with an unpleasant body odor is camping out in it, the heat or air conditioning isn’t working, or some other undesirable situation has occurred.
  • Watch your purse/bag. Make sure to keep a grip on your belongings and ladies, keep your purse closed! I can’t tell you how many women I’ve seen on the subway with open purses just begging to have their phone or wallet stolen.
  • If you are carrying a backpack on a crowded train, don’t keep it on your back. Be courteous and hold your backpack in front of you and near your feet to make space for your fellow riders.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. NYers can be curt, and at times might come off as rude, but almost everyone is happy to help you with directions or information when you ask.

Is Travel Insurance Necessary

Like this article? Pin it!

NYC Subway Cheat Sheet


Disclaimer – We have included a few handy little affiliate links in case any of our readers want to book accommodations. We receive a small commission for any sales made, without any additional cost to you, our dear reader.


16 thoughts on “Tips for Riding the New York City Subway System

  1. I am going to be visiting NYC soon and im a little nervous about riding the subway. I’m afraid of going to fast and wondering if the rides are terribly bumpy. Any help is much appreciated! !

    1. Hi Trudy,

      The rides can sometimes be a bit bumpy. Just hold on to the railing or try and get a seat. Remember, millions of people ride the subway every day. You’ll do great. 🙂
      Any other questions, feel free to ask. I hope you enjoy your trip to NYC!

  2. One clarification question: the single ride. If we are only there for two days, can we just purchase our subway tickets one at a time without paying for the $1 metro-card? We won’t likely take more than three or four rides per person during our stay. Thank you for your helpful info. I have ridden the subway before but I always feel like an alien visitor. Your good directions will help me enjoy the experience this time.

    1. Hi Deb,

      You have to first purchase a metro-card and then you can refill it as you go if you like. There are no single use subway tickets any longer.

      Happy our advice helps and hope you have a great time in NYC!

      1. if I am traveling with my husband, do we each need to purchase a metro card or can one card be used for the two of us? thank you

        1. What kind of card should I purchase to ride the path and the regular subway?? My boyfriend and I will go after Xmas yeiiiii!!..

        2. You can share a card, but that is a dead give away that you are a tourist, and you will slow down the line if there are people behind you.

  3. hello, If I am traveling with my husband, do we each need our own metro card or will one work for the both of us? thank you 🙂

        1. Hey Amber, just one thing. If you buy a 7 day unlimited card you will each need one. But Michael is correct, for the other metro cards, you can both use one.

          Also, the prices have gone up again. I’ve just amended the article to reflect the new fares.

          Hope you have a fantastic time in New York!

  4. I love your article! We’ll be there on the 17th (my daughter and I), and you’ve given us so much great info to help us get around. Could you clarify the last post for me? We would both be using the subway frequently in our 3 day trip there. Would I need to buy a 7 day pass for each of us? TIA!

    1. Hey April,

      So glad the article is helpful. 🙂
      You won’t be able to share a 7 day pass with anyone else because once you swipe it to pass through the turnstyle the card can’t be used again for about 10 or 15 minutes. Also, sharing a metro card is sort of a bad idea in NYC because people are impatient and you’ll end up holding up the line. 🙂

      I hope you guys have a fantastic trip and love every minute of it. Take care. 😀

  5. I’ve been all around the world to a great number of subways and similar light rail etc, and the NY subway is the only one I don’t ‘get’. It seems to me that the same stop has several names. I can’t even properly articulate what I mean – I REALLY didn’t get it. I think it may have something to do with the lines, having different stops but in the same area; or perhaps the exit names confuse me (but they don’t in other places in the world…). I really can’t explain it…

    1. Hey Angela, You’re not alone. The NY subway system is intimidating and a lot of people find it confusing. How long did you spend in NYC? It can take a bit of time to get use to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *