If you find yourself visiting New York City for more than a day, odds are you’re going to ride the subway. You’ll definitely do some walking, but you can’t see everything NYC has to offer on foot and live to tell about it. And at some point, you might even hail a cab, if for no other reason than raise your arm and feel like a true New Yorker. But cabs aren’t always the fastest option, and you could easily burn through your entire vacation budget on taxi fare alone. And so you find yourself heading underground to the wild world of New York City’s subway.
When we first came to New York City in 2009 for an internship, it was my first time ever stepping foot in the city. By far, the most mystifying aspect of this huge city was the subway system. It took me weeks to understand the intricacies of how the subway worked. Uptown and downtown. Fare prices. “Swipe again” errors. Weekend service changes. You’d think something that’s ridden by over a billion people each year would be super user friendly. Yeaaa-no.
So for anyone who plans to visit New York City soon, here are our best tips for the crazy underground system known as the subway.
Buying the Card
Once you get down into the subway, your very first actionable item is purchasing a metro card. You can either use the vending machine or stand in line with the other tourists and give the window attendant money for the card. The vending machine is actually fairly straightforward, and it will save you some time.
As of March 2015, you’ll pay $1 to get a card, $2.75 per ride, or $31 for a 7-day unlimited card. If you’ll be in the city a few days and you plan on riding the subway more than 12 times, go the unlimited route. Otherwise, go with the $27.25 (plus $3.00 bonus) option, as that will maximize every penny and leave you with a $0 balance after 11 rides. Unlimited cards can only be used for a single rider, whereas per ride cards can be used to swipe multiple people, but will charge your card each swipe.
Believe it or not, swiping your subway card can be kind of tricky. There’s no quicker way to spot a tourist than someone stuck at a turnstile swiping their metro card over and over to no avail. Anytime we’ve had visitors to the city, at some point they struggle with swiping their cards through the turnstile. It took me a while to get a method down that avoids the dreaded, embarrassing “Swipe Again” message. Personally, I like to curve the card slightly backwards so that the black strip is forced against the reader on the left side, and then I swipe pretty quickly. I just asked Johnny, and he does the same thing. Works like a charm.
Uptown vs. Downtown
Before getting on the right subway line, you need to know which direction you’re headed. For most subway lines, you’ve got two options: uptown and downtown. Uptown goes north (technically northeast) and travels to the top of Manhattan and sometimes Queens and the Bronx. Downtown goes south (technically southwest) and travels to the bottom of Manhattan and sometimes Brooklyn. The Uptown and Downtown lines are sometimes located on opposite sides of the street from each other, so pay attention to the signs leading down the stairs to know if you’re heading to the right track.
This is perhaps the trickiest part of the subway yet. I used to assume that if I just headed Uptown or Downtown, any subway would take me to generally the right area. But that’s not the case. Subway lines are referred to by color, numbers, and letters, and not paying close attention to what you choose could spit you out miles from where you’d like to be. 86th Street on the East Side uses a totally different line than 86th Street on the West Side, for instance. A great, free option for iPhone is KICKMap Lite which is basically a well-designed subway map in your pocket.
Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please
When you hear, “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” you best get out of the way of the subway doors. Those doors will close right on you and any body parts that aren’t totally inside the train. I know this from experience. It will open right back up if part of you is trapped, but not without some bruising.
Holding on Tight
Some locals have figured out stances on the subway that don’t require holding on. Do not assume you can do the same. Most locals don’t risk not holding on in some way. For some reason in the beginning, I struggled with remembering to hold on to a subway pole, and I had multiple stumbles when we first lived here, once right into a guy’s lap. If there’s a seat available, snag it, but don’t expect to be too comfy unless you’re riding during less busy hours.
The Empty Subway Car
If all the other subway cars are full, and you see one that’s almost entirely empty, beware. There’s mischief afoot. And you don’t want to find out what kind. This just happened to me recently. Inside was a man passed out across several seats and some sort pool of liquid several feet wide around him on the ground. Thus, I chose a different car. When we lived out here for Johnny’s internship, we made this mistake a couple times and then learned from it really quickly.
The subway seems to be a favorite place for panhandling. And while most of it consists of scripted petitions from homeless people, there are some that provide entertainment for the entire car, which can make for an enjoyable sideshow. On our line, there’s an awesome quartet of men who like to sing gospel songs on Sundays. And then there was also this guy who did an incredible sketch of Johnny in two minutes on a bumpy subway car. He’d choose a random person and sketch them from one stop to the next. We were both amazed at how it turned out.
The subway conductors aren’t known for speaking clearly, but sometimes what they have to say is very, very important. On occasion, the train schedule will change suddenly, skipping a few stops or switching from Local to Express. When this happens, the conductor will make an announcement, and usually it means you’ll need to get off and find a different train to take. If you fail to hear what’s said, you could end up 40 blocks farther north than you intended… not that this has ever happened to me or anything.
More important than anything else is this: rely on the Google Maps app on your phone. It has a transit setting that will tell you exactly how to get from point A to point B using the subway and buses. I still rely on it for many outings. Do not assume you can figure things out without it. It’s an incredible resource. I love it so much I’d marry it if Johnny would let me.
When in Doubt, ASK!
Yes, New Yorkers have earned the reputation of being brash and hard around the edges. But underneath most of their hard shells is a kind, caring soul who will go out of their way to help a visitor to their wonderful city.
Those are our tips and tricks! There are more, like how to handle a toddler that decides to throw a tantrum on the floor of a crowded train car, but these are the basics that every visitor should know. If you’ve visited the Big Apple, what surprised you most about the NYC subway? Any other tips you’d add?