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.
Tips for riding the New York City Subway system like a pro!
The NYC 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 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.
- 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.
Entering the NYC 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 it’s 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.
The NYC 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 25 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 $32.00 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 $121.00 and are valid for 30 days after the first swipe.
Note: prices shown as of September 22, 2017. Click here for more info.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- Press start on the screen
- Choose Your Language: options include English, Italian, French, Spanish and some others depending on what neighborhood you’re in.
- 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.
- 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.
- Your Metro Card will then be returned to you and your balance will be displayed on screen.
Using your NYC 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 of each turnstile. If the light is green then it is open, if it is red the turnstile is closed.
Step up to the turnstile.
There is long box on to the right of the entrance where you swipe your metro card. 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.
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
- Loudly 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.
- 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.
- 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 spot a nearly empty car on an otherwise packed train, don’t run for it. Sorry but it isn’t your lucky day. Usually it means someone has made this car their own personal toilet, someone with unpleasant body odor is camping out in it, the heat or air conditioning isn’t working, or some other undesirable situation has occurred. It’s usually better to squeeze into another car like everyone else that deal with whatever is going on there.
- Watch your purse/bag. Make sure to keep a grip on your belongings and if you have a bag, keep it closed! I can’t tell you how many people 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.
Planning your trip to NYC? Need awesome budget accommodations? Check out our guides to the best Hostels in NYC!
Like this article? Pin it!
Find Great Rates on Hotels in New York City on Booking.com!
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.