Are you intimidated by the thought of getting around NYC using the subway? Then you end up walking from 14th street to Central Park? Fear not! We’ve got you covered with our beginner’s guide to the New York City Subway.
Let’s face it, the most cost-effective way to travel in New York City is by subway. For many first-time visitors, tourists, and even locals, however, the subway can be very intimidating and confusing.
Every day we see tourists step on the wrong train, wonder why a train does not stop at their desired destination, or lost at some station with no clue where to go.
Seeing so many visitors struggle with the system, we decided to write a beginner’s guide.
What is MTA?
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, is the agency that oversees the transit systems within New York state—not just the NYC subway, but also the city bus system, commuter rail lines, bridges and tunnels, and the Staten Island Railway.
The subway system is the main public transportation system in New York. In terms of the number of stations, It is one of the oldest and largest public transportation systems in the world. With some 5.5 million riders on a given weekday, it is one of the primary modes of transportation for the majority of New Yorkers and tourists.
The subway system is usually just referred to as the “trains.” Locals say “I can take the train to your place” to generally mean that they take the subway.
Hours of operations
With some exceptions, the whole subway system operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It essentially never closes, except for major incidents such as hurricanes.
New York City’s geography
New York City is divided into five boroughs with Manhattan being the central area where the majority of tourist attractions reside:
The New York subway system operates in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
The boroughs are often used as a direction of travel for trains:
Trains that travel towards Manhattan are Manhattan-bound trains
Trains that travel to Queens are Queens-bound trains
Trains that travel to Brooklyn are Brooklyn-bound trains
Trains that travel to Bronx are Bronx-bound trains
The Staten Island Railway is a separate train system that runs on Staten Island only. Even though it is often depicted on the New York subway map, there does not exist a physical connection between the two systems. You have to take the (free) Staten Island Ferry or cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in a car to get to Staten Island. However, the system operates on the same farecard as the regular subway system: there is a free transfer between the two systems (you pay only once in one system, and the second swipe with the same farecard within two hours will be free in the other system).
Manhattan’s street grid
The street system in Manhattan is famously composed of a rectangular street grid. Streets (abbreviated as “St”) travel east and west, while avenues (abbreviated “Ave”) travel north and south. Street numbering increases as you go further north, while avenue numbering increases as you go further west:
This grid system is not perfect. For instance, 4th Ave is named Park Ave for most of its stretch and the grid system does not really exist below 14th St for historical reasons. The rectangular area that streets and avenues create in between are referred to as blocks and are also often used as a colloquial measure of distance.
Understanding Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown
Roughly speaking, Manhattan can be divided into three areas:
Uptown (anything north of 59th St.)
Midtown (between 59th St. and 14th St.)
Downtown (anything south of 14th St.)
How much is it to ride the NYC subway?
Pay-per-ride MetroCard: Self-explanatory; you fill a MetroCard with a certain amount of money, and each time you swipe to get on the subway, $2.75 is deducted. You can add up to $80 at a time. If you buy a new MetroCard rather than refilling an old one, you’ll be charged $1 for the new card.
Unlimited ride MetroCard: Pay a set amount—$33 for a week, or $127 for a month—and you can ride the subway as often as you like. There is an 18-minute waiting period to swipe again once you’ve entered a subway station or boarded a bus. If you take the subway more than a couple of times per day, this is likely to be the more cost-effective route. (The MTA also has a fare calculator to help you figure it out.) The $1 “new card” fee also applies here.
Single-ride card: You can purchase a single subway fare on its own special card, but it costs $3 and is not refillable.
Transfers: If you pay per ride, you can transfer for free between subways and local buses up to two hours after your initial swipe. If you have an unlimited MetroCard, well, it’s unlimited—you don’t need to worry about free transfers.
e. It also means that you don’t have to dig out the Metrocard from your pocket or tap your phone on your way out.
Before you do anything else:
You must download a subway map onto your phone. The map is something you can’t do without if you are new to the NYC subway.
Google Maps is a great resource, they give directions using public transportation, even incorporating service changes and delays. However, even if you download a map of New York to use offline, you cannot access transit directions offline. This may be an issue If you don’t have cellular service in New York or once you’re on a subway in a tunnel you may not have service.
In addition,mta.infois a very useful website to bookmark, because it provides real-time service status updates for each subway line right on the homepage. This is especially useful nights and weekends when the MTA does most of the repair and maintenance work.
How to buy a MetroCard
Enter any subway station and look for a vending machine. All machines take credit cards, but not all of them take cash.
To access the subway you can use a MetroCard (which you fill with money or can purchase a weekly pass)
or with the new OMNY system which with a tap charges the $2.75 fare to your credit card through a contactless card of a e-wallet.
You can use an e-wallet like Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay. Make sure you hold your phone or smartwatch near the reader. Ideally, you have data on your phone, but if not, every subway station has free wifi.
Now what? Figuring out “Uptown” versus “Downtown”
Most of the subway lines in Manhattan generally run in a north-south fashion. In NY parlance, north is “uptown”, south is “downtown”.
Again, we are only talking about Manhattan here.
Look for signs above the stairs to figure out what side of the platform you need to go down to.
Here is what a “Downtown” sign
and on the opposite side would be the stairs to the “Uptown” platform:
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. Now with all that out of the way, go out there and ride with confidence!
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