New York City's famed subway is by many measures the largest mass transit system in the world, and it runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While you can travel all over the City for just $2.75 a ride, the size of the subway system can also make it somewhat intimidating for newcomers. Fear not: it's actually easy. Just read our 15 insider tips, and you too will soon be a pro at riding the rails through the five boroughs.
1. Know the magic numbers.
The fare for one ride on the subway is $2.75, and the most economical way to pay is by purchasing multiple rides on your MetroCard. There's a built-in 11% bonus on multi-ride cards, so—if you don't want to waste any money—just buy a MetroCard for $23.30 and you will get exactly 9 rides, or $50.55 for 20 rides and so on (note: these include the $1 fee for a new MetroCard; the calculations will differ slightly if you're reloading money on an existing card). If you're in town for a while and plan to use the subway a lot, the best deal may be a one-week ($31) or one-month ($116.50) unlimited-ride pass. For more fun with MetroCard math, check out the MTA's own fare calculator.
2. Watch the clock.
The subway runs 24 hours a day, but service does change a great deal between midnight and 6am. While the cars don't exactly turn into pumpkins à la Cinderella at midnight, all express trains run local, wait times between trains increase and service stops on certain lines. The key to late-night travel is MTA's underpublicized Late Night Service [.PDF]. You'll be glad you downloaded it to your phone when it's time to get home in the wee hours.
3. Embrace the color code.
New York City's subway entrances, with their distinctive iron gates and round colored globes, are works of art—but they also indicate what you'll find once you get underground. A green globe means you can buy a MetroCard and enter through a turnstile all day and night. A red globe means you can only use that entrance if you already have a MetroCard (and money on it), as there will be no way to purchase one down below. Sometimes red entrances are exit only or have limited hours of operation, but these should be marked with a sign outside explaining details.
4. Check the schedule.
Believe it or not, subway trains run on a timetable. Find scheduled arrivals and departures for each line on the MTA's website [.PDF]. Free apps like Transit and Google Maps use the schedules as well. Given the complexity of the City's transit system and the many variables involved, trains can and often do deviate from their schedules (just ask any New Yorker). Real-time train arrival info is available for the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, L and 42nd Street Shuttle trains, along with the Staten Island Railway. You can access this info on the MTA's free Subway Time app, and also view arrival times on countdown clocks in stations along those routes (the 7 is next in line for this service). As well, certain stations have been outfitted with touchscreen kiosks that are meant to show scheduled times of arriving trains, though those are more useful for their interactive route planners.
5. Estimate travel times.
The subway is frequently the quickest way between points A and B in NYC. If you need to estimate how long a trip might take, a good rule of thumb is an average of two minutes of travel time per station. So if you're wondering how long your ride will be, look at a subway map, count the stops to your destination and multiply that number by two: traveling two stops equals four minutes, four stops means eight minutes and so on. Expect express stops to take a bit longer than that. Of course, waiting time is another story, and an unscheduled train delay can change things in a New York minute.
6. Stay up to date.
While there are plenty of maps and signs posted through the system, the MTA's website (mta.info) offers the quickest and most comprehensive way to figure out what's new underground. The MTA's homepage gives live updates on service and posts details when there are delays. Additionally, The Weekender provides an easy-to-view map with weekend service changes due to construction and maintenance—an unfortunate but necessary part of keeping the system running after 100-odd years of service. The Weekender is available as an app for your mobile device, too.
7. Feel free to transfer (to the bus).
Subway and bus service in the City are both run by the MTA; both accept MetroCard payment. Riders get a free transfer between the two modes of transit for two hours from their initial swipe. Note that you can go from bus to subway, subway to bus or bus to bus—but you can't switch to a bus on the same line going in the opposite direction. For real-time bus info, go to the MTA's BusTime page.
8. Beware the empty car.
Sometimes you'll see a crowded train pull into the station with just one empty car, a rarity in the bustling City. It may seem like a gift, but unfortunately it is often the opposite: the air-conditioning is not working in that car, or there may be an unpleasant odor or a spill on the floor. The main thing to know is to proceed to the next car, which may be full but will surely offer a more agreeable ride.
9. Respect the rules of the rails.
Following a few basic underground etiquette rules will make you feel like a real New Yorker and help New Yorkers appreciate you too.
• When the doors open, always let others get off before you get on.
• Once on board, don't stand near the doors—move toward the middle of the car.
• It's one seat per person; bags go on your lap or the floor, and your feet don't go on the seats.
• When standing, always hang on to the poles. Never lean against the poles, as that prevents others from holding on.
• When walking on stairs, platforms and passageways, always keep to the right. On escalators, stand to the right and walk to the left.
10. Have an exit strategy.
NYC subway trains are typically 8 to 11 cars long (some, like the G train, are well short of that) and can stretch nearly 600 feet, the length of two city blocks. Because of this, most subway stations have multiple entrances—and knowing where to enter and exit a station can make your journey more efficient. An app called Exit Strategy ($4.99) provides information on which car to board depending on where you're going and includes detailed maps of the station entrances and exits. CityMapper also advises on where to exit—and that one's free.
11. Take a shortcut to Queens (or the Bronx).
The subway is not the only train in town; the MTA also runs commuter lines Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad. While you can't use your MetroCard on these trains, you can get extra-speedy rides to destinations within the City like Yankee Stadium, the New York Botanical Garden, Wave Hill, Flushing's Chinatown, Citi Field (home of the Mets) and the National Tennis Center. Fares vary during the week, but on weekends the MTA offers a special discounted in-City rate: $4.25 each way. While that's more than a subway fare, the quicker ride and better shot at a seat can make it worthwhile.
12. Ride to the river.
The City's newest subway station, Hudson Yards, is just one block away from the Hudson River. From the new terminus of the 7 line, you can stroll down the beautiful Hudson River greenway to Chelsea Piers and the Meatpacking District, or north to the Intrepid and the departure point for Circle Line tours.
13. Express yourself.
Novice riders should pay close attention to the difference between local and express trains. On the MTA subway map, local stops are indicated by black circles while express stops are shown as white circles. Express trains barrel through the local stations and thus make quicker trips; just make sure you're aware of the kind of stop your final destination is—and transfer to a local line (usually right across the platform) if the train you're on doesn't stop where you want to get off.
14. Get online underground.
In recent years, many of the City's subway stations have added free WiFi service underground. More than 100 stations are wired for free Internet access, including major transfer points like Times Square–42nd Street, 59th Street–Columbus Circle and 14th Street–Union Square, and others are in the works. For a complete rundown of stations that have WiFi, visit transitwirelesswifi.com.
15. Find middle ground.
If you're a first-timer looking for the best place to ride on the subway, it's easy to find—just go to the center car, where the conductors ride. You'll see them poking their heads out in the station to check the closing doors. The area is marked by a black-and-white-stripe zebra board, which hangs above the platform. So if you look up, you can find it before the train arrives. The conductors can answer questions about subway travel.