A New Yorker Shares Her Insights: How to Use the NYC Subway

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Part of the map of the NYC subway system. Credit: Judy Antell

Looking for the quickest way from point A to point B in New York City? The good news is, there are many options. The bad news? You don’t always know which option to choose.

But over a billion people couldn’t be wrong. That’s how many people ride the NYC subway each year. And over 4.3 million people ride the NYC subway system daily. You can too, with this helpful primer on how to use the NYC subway.

how to use the NYC subway: get a Metrocard
A Metrocard, your golden ticket to riding the NYC subway. Credit: Judy Antell

How to Use the NYC Subway

When you take a vacation to NYC, be sure to travel around the city the way real New Yorkers do, on the MTA. The MTA, or  Metropolitan Transportation Authority, runs the NYC su bways, buses and commuter rails and bridges and tunnels. When you want to get around the city quickly, and cheaply, the subway is your best bet.

Where Can You Ride the Subway?

Everywhere. Well, almost. There are 472 subway stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens. A New York City subway map shows you just how extensive the coverage is. Staten Island doesn’t have a subway, though you can take the subway to the Staten Island Ferry and pop over to the island for free.

How Do I Pay for the NYC Subway?

You need a Metrocard or OMNY (One Metro New York) to pay for the subway (and buses).  A single ride is $3. Metrocards, which cost a dollar, can be loaded with a dollar amount at a MetroCard Vending Machine. (Don’t throw yours out when you leave NYC! Keep it for your next trip!)

You can use cash or credit card at these machines, and each trip is $2.75 a ride. If you are visiting New York City for a week, or plan to ride a lot during a shorter trip, the 7 day unlimited card, at $33, can be a better deal.

You will be issued a new MetroCard at no charge if your card is expiring or damaged. So you can keep that Metrocard around.

Children under 44 inches (112 cm.) regardless of age can ride trains for free, as long as they are accompanied by a fare-paying adult. If you are traveling with a couple of family members, you can share a Metrocard (not an unlimited, which I’ll explain) for up to four people – just pass the card back and swipe again.

With an unlimited card, you have to wait 18 minutes between swipes. So every person needs her own card.

how to use the NYC subway: OMNY
The OMNY reader at select NYC subway stations. Credit: Judy Antell

The MTA just introduced OMNY, where you can tap contactless bank cards (credit or debit) or smartphones linked to Apple Pay or Google Pay to pay subway and bus fares. With OMNY, you don’t have to pay the $1 Metrocard fee and you can also swipe up to three additional people. But the system isn’t at every station yet.

Riding for Free

When you take a subway trip, you have two hours with a free transfer on a city bus (and vice versa). But there’s also a kind of secret free transfer at 59th Street. Here, the 4, 5, 6, N and R trains stop, and the F and Q are at 63rd Street, just four blocks away. If you take one of the trains in the first group, say the 6 train, you could get out at 59th Street, shop at Bloomingdale’s, then get on the F or Q train – as long as you get back on the train within two hours of your first swipe. And there’s actually an 18 minute grace period, so you can get that free second trip within two hours and 18  minutes of your first. This doesn’t work if you are riding the 6 train from the far reaches of the Bronx, but if you are in Union Square and want to make a quick stop around 59th Street, you are golden.

No matter how far you are going, one stop or 15, the fare is same, $2.75. Except…

There’s Always an Exception

The AirTrain, which you can take from JFK  Airport, also requires a Metrocard. The AirTrain fare is $7.75 from JFK, plus the $2.75 for the subway.

Where the Train Goes

David Bowie Metrocard: a collector’s item. Credit: Judy Antell

If you are new to New York, you might have learned about uptown and downtown. These have different meaning for different people. But for subway services, uptown means trains going north – to higher numbers in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. Downtown means trains going south and to Brooklyn.

1, 2, and 3 Trains

These west side lines overlap on some stops. The 1 train, the Broadway local, goes from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to the South Ferry (where you can get the Staten Island Ferry). The 2 and 3 express trains are basically the same in Manhattan and both go to Brooklyn. They stop at Times Square, Penn Station and Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, where you can see concerts and watch the Nets play basketball.

4, 5 and 6 Trains

These trains go from the Bronx and through Manhattan on the east side. The local 6 train ends at Brooklyn Bridge, while the 4 and 5 continue to Brooklyn. This is train you take to the Upper East Side (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park) or to the Brooklyn Museum and Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

These subway lines all go through Grand Central. Grand Central has commuter trains to Westchester. It is also a destination, with a food hall, beautiful ceiling and shops. But avoid at rush hour.

7 Train

This train goes from Flushing, in Queens, to CitiField, the next stop, ending at Hudson Yards. There are a couple of bargain ways to get to LaGuardia Airport, taking the 7 train to Queens, then a bus. It’s not great if you have a lot of luggage and several kids, but it’s great if you are traveling alone or with teens.

Orange Lines: B, D, F

These trains all start in Brooklyn; the F and D at Coney Island, where you can go to the New York Aquarium, and the B at Brighton Beach, with a free public beach. The F goes through Manhattan to Queens and the B and D go through Manhattan to the Bronx. You can take the D train right to Yankee Stadium.

Blue Lines: A, C, E

The A train is the longest line in the NYC subway system, running from Inwood, at the tip of Manhattan, to the Rockaways, in Queens. You take this train to transfer to the A train, but beware: there are actually three different A trains. You need the one going to Howard Beach. The C and E are local trains along part of the same line.

Yellow Lines: R, N, Q, W

The Q train includes the three newest stops in the NYC subway system, the long awaited Second Avenue Subway. These are the cleanest subway stations: 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street. The R local and N express run from Queens to Brooklyn, and in Manhattan stop in Chinatown and Soho. The W local also starts in Queens and ends in lower Manhattan.

Other Trains (You May Never Take These)

Brown Lines: J and Z

Although I’m a native New Yorker, I have never been on either of these trains. The J goes from Queens to Brooklyn to lower Manhattan.

Green Line: G train

The G train stands alone. It goes from Brooklyn to Queens, never going to Manhattan.

Gray Line: L train

The L train goes from 14th Street and 8th Avenue to Canarsie, Brooklyn. It offers a quick way to get crosstown, but there is a pilot program along 14th Street that reduces traffic and speeds up bus service. This makes it even faster to get crosstown. And remember, you get a free transfer to the bus.

S Trains

These are shuttles and the Staten Island Railroad. You likely have no need for these

Local Train Stops

The ceiling in the Hudson Yards station, the last stop on the 7 train. Credit: Judy Antell

At some subway stations, you can only go uptown; across the street are downtown trains. If you accidentally go to the wrong one, you have to pay again if you exit the station and re-enter across the street (on a pay per ride Metrocard). Or, you can ride the wrong direction a stop or two to the next express stop, where the local train also stops, and switch to the correct train. Believe me, even locals have been known to space out and take the train the wrong direction from time to time.

Safety: How to Use the NYC Subway Safely

Before you ride the subway with your children, talk to them about what happens in an emergency. My kids knew that if they somehow got separated from us, they should get of the train and go to a grown up. My subway savvy 10 year old once got onto a train as the doors were closing, but her grandparents didn’t board the train. She got off at the next stop and waited for them (she also happened to run into one of my closest friends at the next stop, who stayed with her until the grandparents arrived).

Of course, the safest thing is for the adult to make sure the kids get on and off the train with her, but that’s another story.

In the station, wait in the middle. Subway conductors ride in the middle of the trains, so they are nearby in case something happens on the train.

Don’t Cross the Line

That yellow line on the ground is your signal to stay back form the edge of the platform. Looking down the tracks for the train doesn’t make it come any faster.

How to Use the NYC Subway: Boarding and Exiting

In theory, riders are supposed to exit the train before you board. In practice, there is often a scrum and mass chaos ensues. If you are waiting to get on the train, board quickly when riders are no longer exiting the car – otherwise people behind you may start to push. Likewise, when you know your stop is coming, move towards the doors and exit quickly.

Fold Your Stroller

Never have your child in a stroller on an escalator. Some subway stations have elevators but if there isn’t one, fold your stroller and carry both your child and stroller on an escalator.

Note: New Yorkers can be very helpful. When my kids were in a stroller, strangers would offer to help me carry it up or down stairs.

What If Someone on the Train Makes You Uncomfortable?

Look, it’s a big city, and there are sometimes aggressive panhandlers or extremely unpleasant people. If someone looks sketchy in the train, switch at the next station to another car. NEVER walk through cars. Most doors are locked anyway, but switching outside the subway cars is safer than inside.

NEVER jump onto or off a train as the door is closing. Yes, New Yorkers do this all the time, but your bag, coat, or hair can get caught in a closing door. Why risk it?

When to Ride

Avoid the subway during rush hour, where you can get pushed, jostled and crammed uncomfortably in the subway. Rush hour is from around 6:30-9:30 a.m., and 4:30-6:30 p.m. Of course, if you are going to the theater, you may have to take an evening rush hour train – traffic in the streets can be at a standstill. Just hold onto kids tightly. Likewise, don’t ride the train very late at night. Subways run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the middle of the night is not the most pleasant time to be riding the rails.

Don’t Eat on the Subway

I’m a germaphobe, so I think it’s just disgusting. Even if you have a seat, you may have touched a dirty poll, turnstile, the buttons on the Metrocard machine. Really, you don’t need to eat on the train. Plus, there are no garbage cans on trains, and if the ride is bumpy, you can drop your food. Just. Don’t.

Changes in Service

Checking online on how to use the NYC subway
Always check online to see how the trains are running. Credit: MTA.info

You might research your trip and know exactly how to get somewhere. But later, when you go home, there’s construction and your train isn’t stopping at the same place. Don’t assume because you know how to get TO a place, you can get FROM it. 

Weekend Woes: How to Use the NYC Subway on Weekends

On weekends, maintenance causes service disruptions. That trip you took Thursday might not exist on Saturday. Always always always check the weekend schedule for service changes.

Don’t Believe What You See

Countdown clocks sometimes tell you when the next train is arriving. And sometimes they don’t. I rely on the app SubwayTime to tell me when the next train is coming. Google Maps can even give semi-accurate info. BUT don’t rely on Google Maps to plan a subway trip. Some of the suggestions have you exiting a station and going to another (which costs double) or going out of your way.


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