The New York underground can be pretty daunting, but here are our New York Subway tips for tourists. Deep breath, it’s going to be okay.
Take a look at your Google Maps to figure out the best route to your destination (and don’t be afraid to ask a friendly-looking New Yorker for help, we’re nicer than we look). It may be daunting, but worth the experience and the time saved! Subways can normally get you places in New York faster than cars.
*Google Maps Tip* You can download the New York City area locally to your phone so that your maps can work even if you lose reception while underground on the subway.
One ride on the train is a standard $2.75 no matter how far you go, and the card itself costs a dollar. This MetroCard will work on both subways and buses; No need for a separate New York Bus Pass!
Time Vs Value Card:
- Time can either be a 7 day or 30 day unlimited pass.
- Unlimited Subway passes are activated on your first swipe, so if you’re here for two weeks and buy two 7 day passes only use one at a time (or wait to buy your second after your first card has expired). The days continue to be used whether or not you use the card (so you can’t save days and use it on your next visit).
- Value is a dollar amount preloaded on the card ($2.75/ride). If you’re here for multiple days and really plan on exploring multiple areas of the city (And you should – there’s more to New York than just Times Square), I would recommend buying the 7 day unlimited pass. It’s $32, which means if you use it 12 times you’re saving money.
- You can activate your subway card simply by swiping in the turnstiles on your first ride.
How to order a Subway card online?
You don’t. Online purchases of metrocards are really for people who buy them monthly. But don’t worry, it’s incredibly easy to buy them once you arrive! Just go to any station and use one of the touch screen kiosks.
If you need to buy a metrocard at the airport:
Head straight to the train or bus station you’re hopping on. You can purchase them at the station!
Does the subway take debit cards?
Yes! Most station kiosks take both credit card and cash, but the smaller kiosks only take card.
One of the most important things to understand about our subway system is the concept of uptown/downtown. Before you head out for your excursions, take a look at a map. Is your destination further North than your current location? Take your subway line uptown. Destination further South? You guessed it, head downtown.
Take a look at the signs overhead on the platform. Generally, at express stops one side of the track will be express and the other local (same platform). At local stops, there will be one entrance for uptown, and one entrance for downtown.
*Some local stops won’t let you transfer sides without exiting the station and re-swiping. If you have a value card with money on it, you’ll be charged again. If you have an unlimited card, it won’t let you swipe again for 18 minutes.
- Local: Stops at every station on a line. These stations are on maps as a black dot.
- Express: Skips some stops to get you there faster! These stations are on maps as a white dot.
*Sometimes the conductor will announce that certain trains are running local/express. Pay attention if your destination is at a local stop. You may end up zooming right past it!
*Pay attention to the letter or number on the train! Colors will only help you so much! Lines of the same color sometimes split in opposite directions and can make you end up somewhere different than expected!
If you need to transfer trains, and you’ve confirmed from the map that they both stop at the same station, you don’t need to exit and re-enter. Most staircases have clear arrows for you to make it to your next train.
People can live in New York for years and not take the bus once. When I first started using it, I was mad that I had missed out on the convenience for so long! Generally, buses save your tired little NYC legs from walking those extra 10 blocks. Or, if you don’t want to transfer trains and prefer to just sit for an extra couple of minutes, the bus is for you!
How to Swipe
There are two type of buses in New York:
- Normal Bus: Hop on the bus when it pulls up. There’s a machine by the driver to insert your metrocard (it’s an aggressive pull – beware). It’ll spit back out, then have a seat!
- Select Bus Services: Technically a premium ticket. Rather than swiping your card as you board the bus, these buses always have machines on the street to insert your metrocard before you board. It will spit out a receipt. HOLD ONTO THIS! You won’t need to do anything or show anyone your receipt, but NYPD does random checks on select bus services to make sure you’ve paid your fare. I’ve seen it happen, it’s not worth the $100 ticket from the police.
*The M60 is a select bus service from LaGuardia Airport to Manhattan. WAY cheaper than an uber or taxi, so if you aren’t in a rush after landing or on your way back to the airport. Hop on the M60!
Navigating: Here’s where a good sense of direction comes in handy. Similar to navigating uptown/downtown, make sure you’re looking at a map for where your destination is. Google Maps will tell you which bus to take, but it’s up to you to make sure you board on the correct side of the street. If you board on the wrong side, you’ll be heading clear in the opposite direction.
*Find some mile markers to give you a general sense of direction: The grid system is super helpful (higher numbers mean North, etc), or a few recognizable buildings (Empire State, Chrysler, One World Trade).
Stop at your Stop: The bus doesn’t always stop. If the driver doesn’t see anyone waiting at the bus stop, they will keep on plugging away. To make sure the bus lets you off, press the “Stop Requested” button on the poles once you’re one stop away. This lets the driver know, “Hey, I’m getting off at the next stop!”
Etiquette is a very real thing on NYC Public Transit. Here are a few tips that will keep you from making New Yorkers grumpy on the train (trust me, if we’re happy you will be too):
Boarding: Like your mom taught you the first time you got on an elevator, step aside and let people off first. There will be more room for you once they’re on their merry way. There is nothing worse than trying to get off the train and having a wall of people standing in front of you getting mad because they can’t get on themselves.
Whilst on Board: Things not to do…
- Try to Subway surf and not hold on. You’ll look like an idiot and everyone will hate you.
- Talk obnoxiously loud. You’ll sound like an idiot and everyone will hate you (or you could end up on @overheardnewyork).
- Try to make friends with strangers. We know we’re standing inches apart, but eye contact just isn’t a thing. Talking DEFINITELY isn’t a thing (unless you really need help with directions). This is not the elevator in your Toledo apartment building. New Yorkers value our hard to find silence.
- Manspread. Time to get cozy with your neighbors. Bucket seats monitor this a bit, but on bar seats slide over to make room for other passengers. No one hates a manspreader more than New Yorkers.
- Eat. Seriously? No one’s immune system is strong enough for this. No one wants to smell your halal food on the train either.
For nightmare worthy Subway sights, follow @subwaycreatures on insta. On a normal day, there may be a few alarming things, but nothing worth causing a scene over. If you truly feel uncomfortable, quietly remove yourself from the situation or notify nearby security.
Panhandlers: It’s no secret that you’ll bump into a few homeless in the tunnels, on your train car, or on the platform. They will hop on your car, tell a sad story, and ask for money. You’re the judge of what you do in those scenarios, but coming from a New Yorker, know that they are always there (sometimes with the same story, and sometimes different). I’m not a totally insensitive jerk though, I’ve given money to those I believe are being honest. As a fun fact, an average New York panhandler makes about 60k a year.
Showtime: Breakdancers, magicians, musicians, even comedians hop on the train and give a little performance. If you don’t plan on handing them money, don’t stare or record (I know, it’s hard not to sometimes). If you watch or video, they’ll be expecting you to pay for the performance.
Would you like to explore New York City with a local while you’re here? If you’re looking to cross off all the popular stops like Times Square, Grand Central, Radio City, and a view from the Top of Rockefeller than our Rise Above Midtown tour is calling your name.
Have questions about the New York City Subway? Leave them in the comments and we’ll answer them for you!