Your Practical Guide to NYC’s Subways

by Haley Davidson

As you prepare to spend ten weeks exploring the best city on earth and working your butt off as an intern, you might be getting nervous about one unique NYC challenge: using the subway. Well, never fear, because we’re here to give you a comprehensive subway guide that will help you get to work on time, explore some cool new places on the weekends, and make you feel a little bit more like a real New Yorker.

New York is made up of dozens and dozens of different neighborhoods, and that can feel overwhelming. However, once you learn the basics of subway navigation, the entire city will be at your fingertips, and you’ll be living as a fearless New Yorker in no time.

Step 1: Get a Metrocard

Your metrocard is your key to the city. When you get to the city, simply find your nearest subway station and purchase one from a machine there. Here’s how to decide how much you should put on your card:

If you need to commute daily, buying a 30-day unlimited card for $121.00 will save you a lot of money. When asked, simply select “add time” from the MTA vending machine, then choose this option. If you don’t want to commute daily, but want to take public transit and explore a lot during a certain week, save money by purchasing a 7-day unlimited for $32.00.

Otherwise, if you walk to your internship, try using a MetroCard calculator to decide how much you should put on your card. Don’t just add $5.50 to your card every time you take a trip, because leftover change quickly adds up. Make the most of MTA deals by purchasing in larger amounts, like $27.25.

Step 2: Download the best subway apps

Not even long-time subway users can navigate without a little help from their smartphones. For iPhone users, Apple Maps isn’t the most reliable app to use for directions. Instead, we recommend downloading the Google Maps app. Within that app, you can map your daily commute out and plan your trip. The app will let you know if there’s something wrong with a train (if it’s been rerouted or just isn’t running) and can even notify you of delays.

If you want to make sure you’re in the loop about subway delays and service changes (which are always a problem on the weekend), you’ll also want to download an additional app, like NYC Subway or the Weekender. These apps can send you notifications when there are delays, when a train is being rerouted, or when there’s some sort of weekend service change.

Step 3: Don’t get lost!

Keep these important distinctions in mind as your dive into navigating the subway. If you know the difference between express and local, and uptown and downtown, you’ll be ready to take on the city. And even if you get lost a couple times, you’ll probably end up exploring somewhere cool!

Express vs. Local Trains

Express trains make it far quicker to travel longer distances. However, if you accidentally get on an express train when you’re only trying to go a stop or two, you can end up in a real mess! Here’s how to tell the difference between express and local trains:

On a subway map, express stops are denoted with a white circle or bar. The local stops are denoted with a black circle or bar. Make sure you pay attention to announcements when riding, however, because trains will often adjust their routes to be express or local on the weekends.

Also note that though an express and local train run along the same line and are the same color, their numbers or letters are different. For example, in Manhattan, the 4 and 5 are express, but the 6 is local; the A is express, but the C is local; the 2 and 3 are express, but the 1 is local.

Uptown vs. Downtown

The distinction between uptown and downtown can get confusing. Make sure you have the apps mentioned above so that you make sure you’re going the right direction.

Uptown trains are going towards streets increasing in number (72 St. to 86 St.) and north towards Harlem and the Bronx. Downtown trains go towards streets decreasing in number (72 St. to 66 St.) and south towards the Financial District and eventually, Brooklyn.

Step 4: Master subway etiquette so you can ride like a real New Yorker

Navigating is useless if you get knocked over for pausing in front of the subway exit. Pay close attention; you’ll rock it in NYC this summer by making sure you follow these etiquette tips!

  1. Have your subway card ready so that you don’t create traffic congestion at the turnstile.
  2. Don’t stand in front of the subway entrance, inside or outside the station.
  3. Go up the right side of the stairs, and down on the left side. Make sure there’s room for someone rushing to catch the train to get by!
  4. Don’t hold the subway doors!
  5. Give up your seat for the appropriate parties: kids, the elderly, disabled people, and pregnant women.
  6. Hold your bag in your lap or between your feet, and take it off when standing in a crowded train car. Never take up a seat with your bags, even if you have several.
  7. As the train approaches your station, stand up and get as close to the exit as possible so you can exit quickly and let other passengers on.
  8. No matter how crowded the train is, or how rushed you are, always let others get off before you get on. Trying to get on before they get off only slows the process down.

For more NYC etiquette tips, check this out.

That’s it! You’re ready to take on New York, commute like a pro, and explore the city. Good luck!