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Tips For Using The Subway In New York City

Updated on June 4, 2012

Riding The Subway

If you're visiting New York City for the first time, or aren't in Manhattan that often, using the subway can seem like a scary thing to do. It's crowded and such a huge system that riding the subway can seem very overwhelming. I have a friend who visits me fairly often from Long Island and she still refuses to take the subway by herself. She's just so scared of getting lost, though I assure her that this won't happen.

However, millions of people use the subway every day to commute from the outer boroughs or get around the Big Apple. Once you get the hang of taking the subway, it really isn't that difficult or a big deal.

Of course, you ARE using the subway in a huge city so when doing so, you need to use some common sense as you would in any other crowded, urban setting. But once you get used to riding the subway, it can be relaxing -- and even fun!

Here are my tips for riding the subway in NYC.

Tips For Taking The Subway

1. Make sure you're going in the proper direction, i.e. uptown or downtown, or to Manhattan or Brooklyn. Most stations have very clear signs which indicate the direction in which a subway is heading. However, while you can cross from one direction to another in most stations, there are a few where you have to go back up outside and go to a completely different entrance. For example, the 49th Street Station on the R line is like this; though the uptown and downtown trains are technically in the same station, you can't get to one from another. You need to go outside, cross the street and reenter to change direction. So it's much easier to just make sure that you're going in the correct direction in the first place! By the way, open stations are illuminated with a round, green light, making them very easy to see. A red light means a station or a particular entrance to a station is closed.

2. Before taking the subway, make sure that the line that you intend to take is in operation. The MTA is always doing construction, so many lines shut down or go on another track at nights and on weekends. I often take the F and E lines and on weekends, they frequently have the F run on the E track or vice versa. When I visit my grandmother in Brooklyn, I take the Q, a line which is notorious for shutting down on weekends and making passengers take buses to their destination. In most cases, you can find an alternative subway, especially if you're just going around Manhattan, but it's better to know how you're heading beforehand. I've linked to the MTA's site in my sidebar; each day, they give updates on which trains are running and if there are any emergency alerts.

3. Consult a subway map. Don't just blindly get into a subway car and go. There are maps all over the place: in stations and in each subway car. They're pretty easy to read, so make sure to check your route. You'll see that the NYC subway system is fairly organized and easy to navigate. You can also check out maps online at the above mentioned MTA site or head to, which gives you door-to-door subway directions.

4. Get a MetroCard. Subway tokens are obsolete so you need one of these. You can get a standard Metro Card or a day pass, and most machines accept cash, credit or debit cards. Upon using your MetroCard, you get a free bus transfer up to two hours upon usage. Keep your card in an easy-to-reach, but memorable spot, so you don't lose it. When you swipe the card, you'll sometimes get a message that the swipe didn't register. Just try again at that machine; if you keep trying at different swipers, you might get charged more than once.

5. Pay attention to subway transfers. Many times, you will need to switch subway lines in the middle of a ride. Again, consult the subway map or HopStop to see exactly which stop you need to get off at. Most subways will also announce which lines you can transfer to, though those jokes about NYC subway announcers being difficult to understand are made for good reason!

6. When entering a subway car, the polite thing to do is to let passengers exit first. Then you can get onto the train. Don't just shove through the crowd. Also, watch the gap between the train and the subway platform.

7. If you can, avoid the subways during rush hour (bewteen 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.). This is when the subways are the most crowded. You're more likely to get a seat if you use the subway during off-peak times.

8. If you have to stand, grab onto a pole in order to keep your balance. Once the train gets going, you're going to be jerked around a lot, so it's best to hang on. But don't lean agaist the pole and hog it because other straphangers will want to grab onto it.

9. Keep your feet and bags off the seats. Seating is pretty limited in a subway car, so make sure there is room for anyone who may want to sit down. I once saw a family of four take up eight seats because they had bags of goldfish on the other four seats! They finally moved them when a big guy threatened to sit on their fish. Don't be inconsiderate like that family.

10. Mind your belongings. The subways are pretty safe, but you're still traveling in a crowded city where anything can happen. Keep your wallet out of range from potential pick pockets and keep your bags closed. Yo don't have to be scared, but it never hurts to be careful.

11. When you get off at your stop, make sure that you're leaving through the best exit. Many subway stations are HUGE and have multiple exits that take you to the street. Try to find which exit is closest to your destination. For instance, the station for Rockefeller Center spans from 47-50 Street on the F line. Which exit you take can make a difference of several blocks.

12. Be ready for anything! The subways can be wildly entertaining. There's a good chance that your ride will include impromtu performances from musicians or a visit from panhandlers asking for money. It's New York City so anything goes. My best advice is to be cautious, but to sit back and enjoy the ride.


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