This post provides 10 helpful tips on how to use the NYC subway system to turn first-time visitors into locals.
Navigating the New York metro system can be very daunting, so we've put together these helpful tips to help make the whole process easier.
- Our Top 10 Tips
- Which MetroCard to Buy?
- NYC Subway Tutorial Tours
- Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus vs. Subway
- Which Subway App is Best?
- Things to Do in NYC
The New York City transit system is one of the most comprehensive metro systems in the world, and the subway is its heart.
You can use it to travel to and around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) runs a rapid transit train system on Staten Island.
It runs 24 hours a day, something you can't say in cities like Paris or London.
1. Choosing what type of MetroCard to buy.
There are two types of cards to choose from: a regular Pay-Per-Ride card and an Unlimited Ride card.
An Unlimited 7-Day MetroCard costs $33 (plus a $1 fee for the card). You can use the subway and bus as many times as you want within that 7-day period.
With a regular Pay-Per-Ride card, every subway ride costs $2.75 (though you get one free transfer to a bus).
If you decide to go with a Pay-Per-Ride you can skip buying a MetroCard and use the Tap-To-Pay option.
Just tap the display screen with a credit or debit card. You can even tap from your phone wallet!
Read our full post on MetroCards to learn more.
2. Make the subway map your best friend.
We are serious, your life will become a lot easier if you have a map handy, and don’t worry.
Even people living in NYC for a long time, take a look at the subway map from time to time.
So take a minute and search for a subway map inside the station (there is one in each station) or ask the station attendant for a free subway map to go.
Click here for an NYC subway map PDF
3. Use letters and numbers, not colors!
When looking at the map, you will see the different lines in different colors and numbers.
New Yorkers don't call the train lines by their colors, so make sure you are choosing the subway line that you need by letter or number.
That's because even though the blue line shows lines A, C, and E, these train routes eventually split up and you may end up somewhere completely different from where you intended to go.
4. Choose between local or express trains – black or white dots?
When looking at the subway map you will see that some stops have black dots and others have white dots.
Black dots are "local" stations and the only trains that stop here are trains that make every stop on the line.
White dots are "express" stations and all trains on a line stop here.
In the image above you can see two circles, the blue circle around 86th St. Station and the black circle around 96th St. Station.
You can see that 86 St. Station has a black dot with a 1 underneath it.
This means that 86th St. Station is a local stop and that the 1 Train is a local train (because it stops there).
Notice now that the 96th St. Station has a white dot underneath it and lists the 1 the 2 and the 3 trains?
This means that the 2 and 3 Trains must be express trains because they are only stopping at the stations with a white dot.
Most Common Tourist Mistake: Getting stuck on the express, when you needed the local train.
Let's say you are planning on visiting the Natural History Museum on 81st Street.
As you can see in the image below, 81st Street is serviced by both the B and C trains.
Since there is a black dot, this is a local station and both the B and C are local trains.
The red circle is around 125th St. Station. This station is serviced by both the B and C trains, but also the A and D trains.
Since 125th Street has a white dot, it means that the A and D trains must be express trains since they do not stop at 81st St. Station or any of the other stations with black dots following 81st Street.
If you are getting on the subway at Columbus Circle/59th St. Station to head north to 81st Street Station, then you must only take the B or C train.
If you were to take the A or D train, then you will be stuck on the subway all the way to 125th St. Station. This is very time-consuming as you could imagine.
5. Decide Uptown or Downtown?
Another important thing you have to figure out is whether you need to go uptown (generally meaning north), or downtown (generally meaning south) - for those staying in Manhattan.
This means that you will have to choose the correct platform.
Also, some subway stations (usually local train-only stations) have separate entrances for uptown (see image above), or downtown-bound trains (see image below).
This means that you might have to cross the street to get down to the direction you want to go.
Most express stations will have entry to both platforms accessible from every entrance to the station.
6. Find the correct station.
The station names make it relatively easy to locate them.
ALERT - if you are planning on meeting your friend at the subway stop on Canal Street though, think again, because there are 5 possible meeting spots, as there are different subway lines with a stop named Canal Street.
Also, many stations tend to have a front and back entrance/exit.
7. What do those red and green globes mean?
Also, you will notice that most subway stations have either a green globe or a red globe.
Historically, these were installed to tell riders which stations are open 24 hours (those are marked with a green globe) and which stations are closed at night (those marked with a red globe).
The red globes were also supposed to mark exit-only stairs, but 99% of New Yorkers and visitors ignore that.
To simplify things, just remember that red globe station entrances are not likely to remain open after the evening rush hour.
With that said, there are fewer and fewer red globes remaining and it's possible you won't see any in your time in NYC.
8. Utilize Pedestrian Tunnels to Transfer from one train line to another.
Another mistake that newbies to the NYC subway system make is to exit from one station to head to another station to catch a different train, thus having to pay for another ride.
Some stations have pedestrian tunnels that connect them to other stations.
For example, many visitors who are on the A, C, or E 8th Ave line (that's the blue line) heading to the Mets game at CitiField in Queens will exit the system at Port Authority Terminal and walk east on 42nd St. and reenter at Times Square to take the 7 Train to the game.
It is much quicker, and it's cheaper, to take the pedestrian tunnel between the two stations, as you can see in the image above.
9. Understand the general train timetables.
During peak hours, subway lines typically run every 2 to 5 minutes (from 6:30 am to 9:30 am and from 3:30 pm to 8 pm).
They run every 5 to 10 minutes during the day and every 5 to 15 minutes until midnight.
You can expect most trains to run roughly every 20 minutes after midnight.
Of course, you should consider getting a good subway app, such as CityMapper or Google Maps, as a route planner to use when in NYC.
These apps are also excellent sources to check the service status of lines and to see which stations are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers, which have working elevators and escalators, etc.
10. Simply Ask Somebody.
If you are still not sure whether you are getting on the right train or standing on the right side of the platform, just ask somebody.
You will be surprised to find that many New Yorkers like to help you find your way.
And why not ask the conductor?
At each station, there are black and white striped boards that conductors on the train must point at (to prove they didn't fall asleep).
While you can have fun like the people in the video, you can also ask your conductor if the train is the one you need.
And consider listening to an episode of our NYC Travel Tips podcast that covers tips on riding the NYC subway.
This podcast offers bite-sized audio clips with tips on how to plan your trip to NYC. You can get our podcast on Apple, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.
We at Free Tours by Foot offer several tours that utilize the NYC subway (and buses) to get around the city.
While these are not specifically subway tours, your tour guide will assist you in learning how to master the system.
Your guide will also discuss the history of the subway and its role in the lives of New Yorkers as well as in popular films.
NEW YORK IN ONE DAY TOUR
This tour, which runs several days each week @10 am, is a 6-hour tour that visits the Financial District, Lower Manhattan, the 9/11 Memorial, Chinatown, Little Italy, SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the High Line, with a 45-min lunch break.
You will ride the subway at least 2 times with either a 3rd ride or one ride on the bus. We use this time to explain and demonstrate how to master the system.
Watch the short video below or visit the tour page for more information, or just book the tour now.
We also offer a 3-hour version of this tour, called the Downtown Manhattan Tour, that uses the subway once and covers the Financial District and Lower Manhattan, the 9/11 Memorial, Chinatown, and SoHo.
MIDTOWN MANHATTAN NIGHT TOUR
From March through October, we offer this evening tour 3x a week. You will ride the NYC subway 2x during this tour.
Another bonus is that this tour begins at Grand Central Terminal, which is within walking distance to most Midtown Manhattan hotels.
If you arrange an early arrival with your tour guide, he or she can help you sort out purchasing a MetroCard (which you can learn more about here).
Learn more about this tour or go straight to our booking page.
HOP-ON-HOP-OFF BUS VS. NYC SUBWAY
If you are visiting NYC and aren't sure about using the NYC subway, then we hope our 8 top tips above, as well as our guide to choosing a subway Metrocard, have made you more confident and willing to use the subway to get around the Big Apple.
Still, we understand that some people may still be apprehensive or are torn between the benefits of both the subway and the tourist double-decker buses.
So, we have included a few pros and cons of each service to help you make up your mind.
Hop-On-Hop-Off buses are really useful for getting an overview of the city or for enjoying a stress-free night tour.
However, we strongly feel that they are not an efficient way to get around NYC if you are here for multiple days.
Be sure to read our post on NYC bus tours to compare the different bus tours available to you.
Pros of a Bus Tour
- easy to understand routes
- convenient stops at the most popular tourist attractions
- climate controlled all year
- tickets often include night tours, boat cruises or free attractions.
- commentary along the routes
Cons of a Bus Tour
- more expensive than riding the subway
- routes are only one-direction
- wait times can be long in high season due to traffic
- buses can be crowded
- bad weather is always a risk
Pros of Riding the Subway
- flexible routing
- very warm in the winter
- you get to meet real New Yorkers
- faster than tour buses in most instances
Cons of Riding the Subway
- trains can change direction without notice (though not common)
- not all stations are accessible for wheelchairs and strollers
- can be really hot and sweaty in summer
- can be really crowded during rush hours
- no commentary (unless you are on one of our tours)
- As a backup plan, there are always hop-on-hop-off buses to get you around the Big Apple.
- Check out our comparison post on New York boat tours and cruises.
- Many of these options are included free with an NYC discount tourist pass.