A Tourist’s Guide to the NYC Subway

New York City Subway Guide

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.

Subway Lines

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.

Creative Panhandling

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.

Listening Closely

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.

Google Maps

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?

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  • Reply Rachel March 27, 2015 at 7:29 am

    Did Sally help you write this one 😉

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      Oh you know it! There’s no one more obsessed with the subway than that girl!

  • Reply Sarah March 27, 2015 at 9:10 am

    In the summer, if the car is totally empty and there are no passed out people in it, still be suspicious. The AC is inevitably broken and it WILL suffocate you.

    Loved this list. 🙂 Lived in NYC for 10 years. I didn’t realize how curt I was with tourists until I moved to Philadelphia and everyone was sugar-sweet. 1.5 years later, still haven’t lost my NYC brash exterior!

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:09 pm

      Oh, that’s a great tip. Subway car + no A/C + summer = death. I think the brashness is necessary out here… it’s the only way to let all the crazies/swindlers/opinionated folks know you’re not a tourist!

  • Reply Aldo @ Million Dollar Ninja March 27, 2015 at 9:12 am

    These are good tips. I would also add, “Don’t Manspread.” For those who don’t know what that is, it’s when a man sits on the subway and spreads his legs so wide that he blocks two or sometimes three seats. Manspreading is an infection and it needs to stop.

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:10 pm

      Ha, yeah that’s a definite no-no for the subway.

  • Reply David March 27, 2015 at 10:25 am

    Nice post Joanna. I’m coming to New York with my wife and brother in law in August. It is good to have a head’s up on the subway – I’ll send the post to them too. I was on the Paris Metro once and ‘The Empty Subway Car’ guy was midway through creating the pool!

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:11 pm

      Yikes! Never a dull moment down in the subway — no matter where you are, apparently! Hope you enjoy your time here this summer!

  • Reply Kristina March 27, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Citymapper is also a good app for navigating the subway. They have an offline map of the subway that’s handy when you are in the bowels of the subway system and do not have a signal. 🙂

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:12 pm

      Oh yeah! Great tip. Thanks!

  • Reply Kayleigh March 28, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    The google maps app is magical. I only got lost on the Subway once with it because we couldn’t figure out if we wanted the uptown or downtown train. I asked a subway worker at the information desk and she was the single most rudest and unhelpful person I’ve ever met in my life, but actual civilians in New York were super helpful and kind. I’m from the midwest, so we have the stereotype that we’re super nice but people from New York are rude and mean and it’s really not true at all!

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      The subway workers all seem pretty miserable… don’t think I’ve ever met a happy one! But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how nice and helpful fellow NYCers are when I’m out and about with Sally in tow!

  • Reply Debra March 28, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    This is a timely post! We’re hoping to earn some Southwest Companion Passes for next year, and New York will be one of our destinations, I’m thinking Spring Breakish. What area of the city do you recommend we stay? I visited NYC twice when I was a teenager (we stayed at a seedy hotel near Times Square), but my husband and kids have never been! Our kids will be 5 & 7 at the time of our trip. They are super excited to ride the subway, and want to visit a real tri-state area (from watching too much Phineas & Ferb!)

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      How fun! I would stay away from Times Square and opt instead for a neighborhood outside of the hustle and bustle. If you’re not set on a hotel, lots of people sublet their places through Airbnb, which can be a great option. I would just make sure you’re as close as possible to a subway line and you should be good to go. If CP is within walking distance, that’s also a plus. Your kids will be a great age to visit. What a perfect family trip!

  • Reply Julia March 29, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Great tips! I live in Shanghai and was absolutely overwhelmed when I had to use the subway system here for the first time. We have at least 13 lines currently, which is convenient, but also extremely confusing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten off at the wrong stop, gotten on a train going the wrong way, or missed a train because of confusion. We also have similar issues with card swiping and you can definitely tell who is a tourist or new to the city by how many problems they have with it. Seeing the pricing of rides in NYC also makes me feel really lucky – you can go almost across the entire city of Shanghai (which takes over an hour) for about 6 CNY (less than $1) and most rides are about 3 CNY (less than 50 cents). While I’ve never seen someone passed out with a pool of liquid next to them (yikes) I have seen people clipping their toenails (and leaving the clippings in a pile on the floor) and spitting on the floor of the train, so I guess you get “interesting” things on the subway everywhere.

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Wow, that sounds like quite the system! I’m so horrible with direction that I think I’d be a lost cause in Shanghai. But the prices! NYC is making so much money off the subway fare. It’s so expensive in comparison!

  • Reply Ashley March 30, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    Two additional *fantastic* apps are SubwayTime (tells you when the next train is coming for lines that have monitors) and NYC Compass (simple compass that reads uptown/downtown/east side/west side).
    For advanced Subway (I call it Subway 201), there is Exit Strategy. That one tells you which car to ride in to be closest to your desired exit. Brilliant! It’s the little things that help!

    • Reply Joanna April 3, 2015 at 2:24 pm

      Nice! I hadn’t heard of any of those! Downloading them all immediately. I was 20 minutes late to my doctor’s appointment Wed because of a delayed train! Luckily, they couldn’t turn away someone who’s 39 weeks pregnant :). Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Tourist guide | Travelguide April 16, 2015 at 6:31 am

    […] A Tourist's Guide to the NYC Subway | Our Freaking Budget http://www.ourfreakingbudget.com/The NYC subway can be a crazy, wild beast, especially if you're a tourist. Here are our best tips and tricks for taming that beast while you're in town. […]

  • Reply JJ June 3, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Great post! I’d like to add: Don’t just assume you can reverse directions in a station. I discovered on this, my 3rd annual trip, that in some local stations you have to exit and reenter (Nostrand/Fulton I’m looking at you). This is a problem if you are counting dollars/rides on your card. Also, an express like A may look longer than a local like L, but it’s still probably going to be faster. And yes, sometimes three trains is faster than two. Trust your app or the guy down the hall, because your instincts about route are….limited…

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