I grew up in New York City, so it perplexes me when visiting friends tell me they don't understand the New York City public transportation system. Let's fix this now. In this NYC subway guide by a native New Yorker, you'll find essential tips on how to ride the New York City subway, how not to get on the wrong subway, what not to do on the New York City subway, how to get from JFK to Manhattan by subway, and other insider tips for the New York city subway by a New Yorker.
What's covered in this New Yorker's guide to NYC Transit:
I dedicate this blog post, which will hopefully answer many of your questions about the NYC public transportation system (which includes more than subways), to my late grandfather who would spend his childhood riding the New York City subway all day just to see more of the various trains in service.
How to ride the New York City subway in 5 easy steps
Before we get into service changes, the difference between express trains/local trains, let's cover the basics here. I swear, this part is easy. The rest is where it goes wrong. If you're lost on the subway or unsure about anything, ask someone who doesn't look like they're in a rush (it might take a bit) and ask. New Yorkers don't bite most of the time.
One more thing: the subway is perfectly easy to master with the help of a transit app ...and some hand sanitizer, so don't be afraid to take the subway around while you're in New York. The subway is the best way to get around New York City. Onwards to your touristy cheat sheet for the New York City subway.
Figure out where you are and where you're going via a NYC transit app. Check which direction of the train that you need first.
MANY public transit systems allow you to switch directions if you mess up. Going towards Times Square from the Village, but realizing that you're waiting for the wrong train? In some NYC subway stations, you actually have to leave the subway station--and cross the street above ground before re-entering the subway station for the other direction. Annoying, right? ALWAYS CHECK FIRST before you lose money and time.
(What does uptown and downtown mean? Covered below...)
Get a Metrocard
It's best to buy a reloadable metrocard. A single-use is a rip-off and you need to pay $1 extra for every extra metrocard you buy beyond your first one, so don't lose it. I recommend one Metrocard per adult/teen. The subway costs $2.75 (2017 prices), so use the machines in the subway station to add money to your Metrocard via a credit/debit card. It's best to do this not during rush hour. Put your wallet away and leave the Metrocard out.
Swipe your metrocard
Get your train
Look first for the number/letter of your train. (We usually don't call them by colors, so instead use the letter/number.) You might need to walk 15+ minutes to get to your platform if it's a major station. Once there, look for the subway direction you need. Before you get on the train, CHECK if it's a local train or an express train that skips most stops.
Wait for your train and let people get out before you push on.
Get off the subway
You don't need to swipe out, but just exit the subway station (typically through gates). The hardest decision of your day will be figuring out where to eat and which subway exit to go out of. (The second part: it doesn't matter much and it's easier to find your way once you've left the subway station and you're above ground).
Good to know tips for the New York City subway
What do the NYC subway directions mean?! WHAT IS UPTOWN AND DOWNTOWN?
You're probably staying mostly in Manhattan, however remember that Manhattan has a grid imposed on it. The streets are horizontal and the avenues are vertical on the map below (for Manhattan).
From ANY point that you want to go North, you're going uptown. So if you're on 42nd street in Times Square (the red dot) and you want to go to 59th street? You're going UPTOWN.
From any point that you want to go South, you're going downtown (e.g. 42nd street to 14th street).
Sometimes you'll see that the subway direction is UPTOWN & THE BRONX or UPTOWN & QUEENS. This means the train is still going uptown, but if you stay on that subway train, you're going to end up in the Bronx or Queens. Both are awesome, but probably not your intention. ;)
The same logic applies to DOWNTOWN & BROOKLYN. If you stay on the train, you're going to Brooklyn. Simply, the direction matters; the final destination doesn't as long as it stops off at your stop.
Express Train v. Local Train!?
If you're about to catch the subway, you might accidentally end up on an express train, which skips most of the non-major subway stops. If you're looking at an NYC subway map, keep an eye out for the white circles, which are express AND local stops. This means that both express and local trains stop here. Typically, these are transfer points, so if you miss your stop, try to pick a transfer point to switch directions in. Some smaller stations require you to exit to switch directions while bigger stations allow you to just to walk over to the downtown direction. If it's a black circle, it's a local stop and express trains will skip this stop.
At night, some trains switch tracks, so read the sign for your track carefully. (You can see on this photo above that it's typically an express train, but it runs a local train on late nights.)
I recommend taking the local train until you get the hang of the New York City Subway.
NYC Subway Fare hacks / need to know facts
New York City Subway Etiquette: Don'ts of taking the NYC Subway that tourists make
What happens when the NYC subway isn't working due to construction or delays?
Service changes are a MAJOR issue, especially on nights and weekends. The MTA does most of their construction then, so you'll sometimes encounter stuff like, "This F train is running the A track until X destination" as the tracks normally available aren't working. Instead of the train stopping off at its normal stops, it will function as if it's an A train instead of an F train. Annoying and confusing, right?
As much as I love Google Maps, it's not great for various service changes with the NYC Subway for now. As a result, it's really best to have a good NYC Transit App installed on your phone before you go. You can check the signage in the subway, but that's more of a desperation move for when you realize that the train isn't coming as you need to go to a totally different track (e.g. go to the express train track instead of the local) to get your train. Usually people will give you a heads-up. That said, Google Maps does the job well 90% of the time, but I recommend having a back-up if you see a sign that there's construction on the line that you'll be taking every day.
The Best New York City Transit Apps for Tourists
I find that Citymapper and Transit are your best options for New York City subway apps. I think Citymapper is pretty good for tourists as it allows you to see a HQ version of the subway map, so if you're just trying to figure WHERE you're going even when you're not sure. Transit is super simple to use and incorporates all the subway construction/delays into its easy-to-use interface, so follow the app.
Some apps I haven't mentioned here are very handy for commuters, but as a tourist, I think simplicity is best. ;) (I've tested a bunch and these two are my favorites. No affiliation. )
Apparently the MOST confusing thing that people find about NYC transit is how to get from JFK to Manhattan. Don't worry, I got you. ;)
How to get from JFK to Manhattan by Airtrain AND Subway
As soon as you exit JFK, follow the signs towards the Airtrain. Go to the booth and get your combined Airtrain + Subway ticket. (The Airtrain costs $5 per way). Take the Airtrain towards Jamaica Station. At this point, get on the E train towards Manhattan or the A train towards Brooklyn and Manhattan. The E is faster if you're going to midtown Manhattan, but it depends on your destination. From JFK Terminal 2 to Times Square, it will take about hour. Voila you got it, $7.75 to get from from JFK to Manhattan by subway. Save that cab money for good food.
Sidenote: My favorite subway is is the above ground part of the N (in Astoria) and the 7 (when it's working) as you see so many neighborhoods from the window. Similarly, I love the above ground part as you cross from Queens into Manhattan.
Enjoyed this? I have more helpful articles about New York City, including the perfect itinerary for five days in New York City, tips for visiting NYC on a budget, NYC for Christmas/the holidays, what to wear in New York for every season, and assorted insider tips for New York City.
Have you taken the New York City Subway? Any questions?
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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