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How to Ride the NYC Subway

Updated on July 9, 2013
An above-ground subway stop in New York City / Photo by E. A. Wright 2010
An above-ground subway stop in New York City / Photo by E. A. Wright 2010

How to ride the subway without fear, and without looking like a fool

Don't be afraid of the subway if you are a tourist in New York City. It's your best bet for getting around, especially in Manhattan.

Driving into the city is nearly impossible, cabs are expensive, and walking gets old after a certain number of blocks.

What that means is that sooner or later, you'll want to consider the New York City subway your friend. 

The subway system works perfectly well for getting to major tourist attractions, it provides more or less reliable service 24 hours a day and it's a true New York experience unto itself. 

Like most friends, this one has its flaws. But with a little love and acceptance, you can make this potentially rocky relationship work, even on a short visit to New York City.

Below are a few pointers for subway newbies.

A portion of the MTA subway map found in all subway cars.
A portion of the MTA subway map found in all subway cars.
Subway seats / Photo by E. A. Wright 2009
Subway seats / Photo by E. A. Wright 2009

NYC Subway

How to ride the subway

  • Set reasonable expectations. It's easiest to just accept that trains can be crowded and smelly. Underground stations can be unbearably hot and stuffy in the summer. Dirt, trash and grit are inescapable. So are seemingly endless flights of stairs and narrow passageways between lines — a particular challenge for tourists with SUV-sized suitcases to haul. It's also tough to call a subway ride a true bargain. (Fares were $2.25 when I first wrote this; fares are now $2.50 per swipe.)
  • Get going. To find a subway entrance, look for a pair of posts with spherical green lights on top. This generally designates a set of stairs down to a subway entrance, though some entrances close overnight. A pair of spherical red lights means that's an exit-only staircase.
  • Hand over your money. Once inside a station, you buy a Metrocard or single ride card at automated machines. Some machines only take credit or debit cards, others also take cash. Note that some machines are temperamental. The base fare to ride the subway is $2.25, but discounts are available. A single day unlimited pass is $8.25, and a one week unlimited ride card is $27. These are good options for tourists who plan to ride the subway frequently.
  • Find your target. Look for the rows of turnstiles, but don't rush ahead in a show of bravado. (See below.)
  • Master the Metrocard swipe. There is an art to "the swipe," and the official MTA directions aren't of much use. To truly learn, stand aside first and watch others the locals closely as they swipe their cards to enter the system. Believe me, you don't want to be the tourist who holds up the line by trying to swipe your card four times, four different ways, still unable to get through.
  • Have an exit strategy. Subway stations frequently span many blocks. You may well get off the train at the 4th Street stop, but by the time you are above ground, you will have to double back (and determine which way to double) to reach 4th Street.
  • Know how to call for backup. Even after looking over the official MTA maps and spending a few minutes doing dry runs of your voyage with Google's street views, the meandering caverns of the New York City subway system could still leave you confused. A helpful resource for mapping a subway's stations innards and locating your preferred exit staircase is the subway map from Zoom in on the station of your choice — just don't zoom too much, or you will see the rats. (Not kidding on that one.)
  • Learn the local customs. Making eye contact or otherwise staring at other passengers is considered rude. So is blocking an exit, or using the seats next to you as storage devices for your bags or suitcases. And don't ever lose your balance. Hang on to the warm, slimy metal poles if necessary.
  • Note that some hazards portrayed in movies are real. If you walk over a subway grate wearing a billowy skirt and a train happens to pass beneath you at just the right moment, you can try for your own Marilyn Monroe moment, as in The Seven Year Itch.

Subway entrance at Columbus Circle, just south of Central Park / E. A. Wright 2009
Subway entrance at Columbus Circle, just south of Central Park / E. A. Wright 2009


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    • profile image

      nk 5 years ago

      As a New Yorker,I find this absolutely hilarious. But hey thanks for effectively frightening off any tourists that might have made their way down to the subway. Leaves more space for us natives in the cars.

    • E. A. Wright profile image

      E. A. Wright 8 years ago from New York City

      Wouldn't that be something!

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      This is such a great and necessary article. I am a native NYer and it would be nice if this advice was laid out for tourist, people just moving in and even those of us that have been around forever. It would also be nice if there were toilets. When I lived in S. Korea, in Seoul, that massive city of over 14 million people, it had a world class subway system and every single station, every one...has a full set of toilets for women, and for men! Wow!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      No wonder they say there are people in NYC who went into the subway and have never found their way out! What a nightmare. Now I'm really glad my first experience with a metropolitan subway system was London's! Very easy to use.