New York North America Tips of the Trade USA

Navigating the NYC Subway

There are a bunch of different ways to get around New York City. Although not always the fastest depending on where you are going the subway or as us New Yorkers simply call it, the train, can get you where you need to go in 4 out of 5 boroughs. There is plenty to know, but I will try to make this as simple as possible for the next time you decide to venture around NYC.

Navigating the NYC Subway ©2016 HollyDayz

Price/Purchasing a Metro Card

Currently (Oct. 2016) it costs $2.75 to ride the train. Once you are on you can pretty much ride around all day to any train. Once you come out the turnstile and have to go back through that is considered a separate fare.

You need a metro card in order to swipe through the turnstile. If you don’t already have a metro card it now costs $1 to purchase one. Cards can be purchased at machines or from a MTA employee in the booth. Cash or a credit/debit card can be used at the machines. You can either choose already set increments to put on the card or load onto the card however much you want. Don’t forget to keep the card so that you can load more money on it and use it again!

Metro Card Machine ©2016 HollyDayz
Metro Card Machine ©2016 HollyDayz

There are also single fare rides (must be used within 2 hours,) 7-day unlimited passes where you can ride as much as you want for 7 days and then a 30 day unlimited. Keep in mind that with unlimited metro cards you can only swipe once and have to wait awhile before it resets to swipe someone else through so it is really only good for one person. If you purchase a regular metro card with however much money you put on it then you can swipe through as many people as money you have with that one card.

Metro Card ©2016 HollyDayz
Metro Card ©2016 HollyDayz

TIP: If you don’t remember how much is left on your card walk up to the booth and you will see a place to swipe your metro card. It will tell you how much money you have left on the card. You may also see people offering to swipe their card for you, for $2. Don’t even bother.

Using the Metro Card

The common mistake many tourist make is how to swipe the metro card. The card should be facing you with the black magnetic strip on the bottom. If you swipe too fast or too slow you will get an error and have to swipe again. It will also let you know if you don’t have enough on the card to get through the turnstile.

Fullbody turnstile ©2016 HollyDayz
Fullbody turnstile ©2016 HollyDayz

If you see a turnstile lit up green that means you can go through it. If it is red that means you need to choose another turnstile. If you have a stroller or cart there are doors you can go in and out of. Some stations you have to go through a full body turnstile that has bars from top to bottom. May look intimidating, but all you need to do is push it to get in or out. In some stations, you may see a turnstile setup similar to the ones made by the full height turnstile manufacturer, DaoSafe, which you might be able to find in a whole host of applications outside of stations too.

Getting to your Destination

Once you have a destination in mind you need to know how to get there. The best ways to figure that out is to either research what trains are the closest to the destination, check out the map in the train station, ask someone, or you can use my favorite app, City Mapper. This app tells you where to catch the train, when it is coming, service changes, etc.

It is important to read the signs and know which direction you need to go in. That will determine which platform you need to be on. In the event you get on the train going the wrong direction or miss your stop you can always get off at the next stop and just catch the train going back the other way. There are maps on the platform as well as on the train itself. The train also has announcements and a sign that tells you what the next stop is.

Direction the train is heading in ©2016 HollyDayz
Direction the train is heading in ©2016 HollyDayz

TIP: Although trains are color coded, don’t use colors to figure out how to get around or to ask someone. Use the number or letter associated.

Before even entering a train station it is important to read the signs. Some entrances will only be able to take you to a platform that goes in one direction only. Meaning in order to get to the other side you will have to cross the street to get to the proper entrance. If you go into the wrong entrance and there is no underpass to get to the side you need to be on, you just lost $2.75 swiping through the turnstile.

White and Black Dots indicating express and local stops ©2016 HollyDayz
White and Black Dots indicating express and local stops ©2016 HollyDayz

Please keep in mind not every station and entrance has an elevator or escalator. Many only have stairs. Not all trains are underground some are elevated. There are also local and express train stops. When looking at a subway map the black dots indicate that particular train will stop at every stop. A white dot indicates it will only stop at certain stops. You can also listen to see if the conductor says its an express or local or simply ask those already on the train is this an express or local before you get on.

Riding The Train

Trains can get very crowded, especially during rush hour. It can be very hard to get on and off a train and people will push to make sure they can either get off or stack in like sardines. Always let people get off the train before you attempt to get on. If you don’t get a seat, there are poles you can hold on to, don’t lean on them. If someone’s bag is occupying a seat, you can politely ask them to move it if they don’t automatically do so.

Seats and Poles on the train ©2016 HollyDayz
Seats and Poles on the train ©2016 HollyDayz

TIP: If you see one empty car and the rest are packed, there is a reason that car is empty, so don’t . Usually it is because it smells horrible, there is no air conditioning or heat, or something else.

If you are checking the map on the train and someone is sitting in front of it, don’t stand right over them. Either tell them you would like to see the map or stand on the side and look at it. If you are awaiting a seat on a packed train, most people won’t get up till the train stops at their stop, not before. When that happens, that is your chance to play musical chairs and try to grab a seat before someone else does.

TIP: The walls and columns at every station tells you what stop you are at. This is very helpful if you can’t hear or see much, but can see out the windows.

Train stop information on the wall ©2016 HollyDayz
Train stop information on the wall ©2016 HollyDayz

It is also important to keep in mind that after about 10/11pm the trains take longer to come. You could wait awhile before the next one comes. Service changes are also important to note. Usually they are signs that will alert you to any service changes. Using the City Mapper app with also alert you to that as well. Service changes can disrupt your travel plans. Trains may not run to certain stations or at all causing you to have to figure out another way to get to your destination or the place you need to transfer.

TIP: In the summer trains are very cold and the platforms are disgustingly hot!

Reaching You Destination

The same way you went into a turnstile you will have to go back through them. Keep in mind some people may be trying to swipe threw as well creating all types of back and forth traffic of people. It is important to stay to the right if you are taking an escalator so that everyone else in a rush can walk up or down on the left.

There are typically several exits, especially depending which part of the train you got off of. Same rules apply when going up or down the stairs, you get to the side not in the middle! Also don’t stop in the middle of the stairs. There are several exits to go up to the street level. There are signs indicating what corner you will pop out on.

Exiting the station ©2016 HollyDayz
Exiting the station ©2016 HollyDayz

There is so much information about the subway I could be here writing forever. This is pretty much the basics of navigating the subway. It is overall pretty easy to use. It is important to keep alert, not just for safety purposes, but so that you don’t miss your stop. Many stations now have free wi-fi and areas your phone can get service. You may also get some entertainment on the train in the form of dancing, singing, and instruments being played. It also important to keep in mind Staten Island does have public transportation you just can’t take the subway there.

Have you ever taken the NYC Subway? What was your experience like?

Navigating New York City Subway
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October 8, 2016
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  • 2aussietravellers

    It’s good to have this information as its reputation is quite intimidating. Some of it does sound quite confusing like having to enter from a different side of the road depending on which direction you are going on the line but they have the city well covered with stops so it would be a must to figure it out.

    • Holly Dayz

      Yea it can get confusing, but it is important to read the signs.

  • Lara Dunning

    Not sure when I’ll make it back to NYC, but this information is handy.

    • Holly Dayz

      Hopefully sooner than later.

  • Bryanna

    Amazing tips! I am always intimidated by the subway system and end up being one of those people that swipes my card the wrong way or gets on the wrong train! Thanks for the tips so I can be more confident next time we visit New York!

    • Holly Dayz

      Thank you. Don’t be intimidated. As long as you know where you want to go and read the signs around you should be great. Hope this helps on your next visit.

  • mappingmegan

    Thanks for these tips! Had to laugh at the tip to avoid empty carriages if all others are full, because I’ve made that mistake before!! In general though I love taking the train when we’re traveling through New York. Very convenient method of transport 🙂

    • Holly Dayz

      It is something I think almost anyone who has gotten on the train has experienced. The foul odor is enough to get you running to the next car.

  • Vicki Garside

    Great guide! I was in NYC years ago and managed to negotiate the subway – but it would have been so much easier if I had read this first! Also great tip about avoiding the empty carriage – thats normally the one I head for!

    • Holly Dayz

      Now they have to be the cars your stay away from haha. Hopefully this will help you when you come back again.

  • Christina

    NYC’s subway is a big beast. There are some useful tips here, although, you haven’t really addressed the issue of safety. Would you say it’s safe to travel alone on the subway if you’re not familiar with the lay of the land?

    • Holly Dayz

      I was extremely brief about safety. It is fine traveling alone on the trains, like anywhere else you go you have to keep alert. Anything can happen anywhere at anytime.

  • Joanna

    A great informative article. NYC trains are definitely intimidating and sometimes people are intimidated in asking for help

    • Holly Dayz

      Thank you. They do not realizing that if someone can help them, they will.

  • Indrani

    Very useful information. Not knowing the operations there turns out to be a big hindrance to travel.
    I experienced this in Barcelona, thank God didn’t loose much.

    • Holly Dayz

      Yes, the service changes especially on the weekends with doing track work and such so it is important to note these.

  • mags

    i have been to NYC several times and never used the subway! I’ve experienced the tube several times thought, that’s always an experience.

    • Holly Dayz

      You should give it a whirl next time you are in New York.

  • Elaine J Masters

    Loved riding the subway in New York and I’m so happy for these tips. Interesting about not getting on an empty car!

    • Holly Dayz

      Yes, getting on an empty car when the rest of the train is packed is not the best idea.

  • Mar Pages

    I’ll definitely come back to look at this post again before taking on the NYC subway, also thanks for the reminder that city mappers works there too! That map is pretty much a life saver to me

    • Holly Dayz

      I love City Mapper. It is an awesome app.

  • staciesayzso

    Looks fun. I used to love the idea of taking the subway as a young person. Now that I’m older, I’m positive I’d skip it because I don’t like being closed in.

    • Holly Dayz

      It comes in handy even though I don’t take it as much as I used to.

  • Aileen Adalid

    Oh wow this is SOOOO timely! I am about to travel to NYC this December to treat my mom and this will be so helpful. Thank you! definitely bookmarking this one 😀

    • Holly Dayz

      Awesome! I am so glad this will be helpful for you two. I hope you have a great time!

  • Real Wife Coach

    Girl!! I needed you last year. I ran the Brooklyn 1/2 marathon last year with some girlfriends and at the end of the race, we could not find the train station. I know we walked another 2-3 miles looking for one so we finally ubered to the hotel. Then tried again to catch it to the bus depot to hop on the Bolt Bus. We got lost again in the train system. We finally hopped off and ubered to where the bus was leaving from but it left us for DC.

    • Holly Dayz

      Wow so sorry to hear that. Next time you are in NYC I am hoping this helps you or you can always reach out to me.

  • Carlana Charles

    I absolutely do not like riding the trains in NYC. I feel uneasy and very anxious. It’s so different in other places I’ve been to, especially England. I could ride the train all day.

    • Holly Dayz

      When you aren’t used to something things can be uneasy and such. Especially when it is packed with the many people who live in this city.

  • foodfashionandflow (@FoodfashinFlow)

    This is so helpful. I have been to New York several times, but the first time I caught the subway by myself I was terrified. Back then we didn’t have a train system where I am from, so I wasn’t used to getting around any other way than by car.

    • Holly Dayz

      I can understand that when you do take the train for the first time, especialy in New York.

  • nadeen

    Good info!! As a former New Yorker I know how complicated this can be. Every time I return for a visit I have to run through the steps in my head! Understanding the different cards is important and New Yorkers are NOT patient if you are holding up the turnstile!

    • Holly Dayz

      Thank you. You are right, patience is not there if you are standing in the way.

  • Anitra | The Mom on the Move

    As one who’s been to the city many times, who’s husband is from Connecticut, who’s taken the wrong train and ended up in Brooklyn instead of the Staten Island Station with my 10 year old, and this never afraid to venture out, this was an interesting look into the mindset of a New Yorker. Thanks for the tips.

    • Holly Dayz

      Very welcome. Yea there is a lot to know besides the trains in order to get around New York.

  • NaysVoice

    Learning MTA subway routes is like learning a different language. Just like any language; once you’re fluent in it everything is made easier. #NYCBornandRaised

    • Holly Dayz

      That is a great way to look at it! It gets easier.

  • Moms 'N Charge® (@MomsNCharge)

    OMG, girl I could’ve used this post many a times LOL. I’ve been on the NYC Subway several times and am always overwhelmed (thankfully, I’ve never had to go it alone…if I was alone, I opted to take a cab to my destination). I love the tips throughout the post, especially about not paying attention to colors, because in DC, that’s all I pay attention to primarily. LOL

    • Holly Dayz

      Maybe now you may give it a go alone. Or at least have an even better idea when you are with others.

  • Jennifer

    This is really good to share with others about using the NYC subway. I know there are many people who visit NYC and it can get overwhelming when trying to understand how to use the subway. I remember when I went to San Fran in Cali, I was really confused about how to use the subway. A post like this would have been most helpful! Great tips!

    • Holly Dayz

      Any time you go to a new city it can be a bit intimidating trying to figure out how to use their public transit.

  • Tessa

    OMG I cried tried to figure out the NYC subway lol. Its so confusing, it would be so helpful if they had little lcd screens with the locations like other cities. And also swiping my metro card too many times when it didn’t take, loosing funds in the process haha. Great post 🙂

  • 10 New York City Tips from New Yorkers - HollyDayz

    […] While taking the subway, don’t get overwhelmed with which train goes where. It is not as terrible as you may think. Just in case though feel free to download CityMapper. Not only can you use it NYC, but also in other cities around the world. Also learn more about how to navigate the subway here. […]

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