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Guide to the New York City Subway

The New York subway is literally a city under the city. Here are some basic tips to help you get your bearings and get the most out of the Big Apple's fastest transportation.

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

12 min read

Guide to the New York City Subway

Image of the New York Subway | ©Hellotickets

If you're planning a trip to the Big Apple, transportation is probably something to worry about if it's your first time using it because with so many different lines, stations and types of subways it's easy to make a mistake. Don't worry! In this guide to the New York subway I'll tell you everything you need to know to get around like a New Yorker.

1. Get your hands on the New York subway map

The New York Subway
The New York Subway

To start with I suggest you to download the New York subway map in PDF to your phone. This way you can always carry it with you and consult it whenever you need it even when you don't have Internet connection.

However, if you have data on your mobile I advise you to download the official app in Spanish of the New York subway as you will not only find the map but you can also calculate the best route to move, the time in which the next subway will arrive or see the incidents in the lines, among many other things. Here is the iOS version.

2. How much does a ticket cost and how do I buy it? Are there any passes?

New York Subway Map| ©Malvina Battiston
New York Subway Map| ©Malvina Battiston

A single New York City subway ticket costs $2.75. If you plan to use public transportation frequently for your trips around the city, the best way is to buy the MetroCard, a rechargeable card valid for the subway and bus.

As in other cities around the world where a similar system is also used, the MetroCard is a public transportation card for getting around the city using New York's bus and subway network.

The particularity of the Metrocard is that it can be recharged to:

  • Single rides (Pay per Ride)
  • Unlimited rides for 7 days
  • Unlimited rides for one month

3. How to get the Metrocard?

New York Subway| ©Malvina Battiston
New York Subway| ©Malvina Battiston
  • To get your Metrocard you must go to any subway station, where you will find the ticket vending machines.
  • Once you have selected your language at the machine, you just have to choose the type of card you want from the available options.
  • If it is the first time you buy a Metrocard you will have to choose the option "Get a new card" which has a $1 fee.
  • If you already have a Metrocard from a previous trip, simply select the "Reload your card" option and enter the balance you want.

How to buy it at the machine step by step

  • After selecting the option "Get a new card" you must choose the type of Metrocard: Regular Metrocard and Unlimited Ride.
  • Within the Unlimited Ride option there are two possibilities: "Unlimited rides for 7 days for $33" and "Unlimited rides for one month for $120".
  • Most commonly we commuters choose the "Unlimited Ride for 7 days for $33" option. In a city as big as this one you will get a lot out of it because there are long distances and with this Metrocard you will be able to hop on and off the New York bus or subway as many times as you need.
  • The next step is the payment method. You can use cash, bank card (ATM) and credit card.
  • When you insert the card, the vending machine will ask you for a zip code. As a tourist you will not know the zip codes of the city , you can enter the number 00000 or 99999.
  • And that's it! The ticket machine will issue your Metrocard and you can start using it.

What happens if I have both credit and unlimited travel on my card?

In case you have on your Metrocard both balance and unlimited trips for 7 days, you will first consume the trips of that week and then the balance in dollars will start to be spent. In other words, unlimited travel takes priority over the balance for individual trips.

Do children pay on the metro?

Children under 44" (111 cm) can ride for free when accompanied by a paying adult. Infants are also free of charge until their second birthday.

How to validate your Metrocard?

It may seem obvious, sliding the card through the slot on the turnstile, but the trick is to do it at an intermediate speed so that the machine's reader can read the Metrocard properly. In other words, not too fast and not too slow.

At this point I want to make an aside and that is that if when entering the subway you have confused access and you have to go back out to the street to take the correct station mouth, you will find two situations:

  • If you have chosen the Metrocard with unlimited travel, you will have to wait 20 minutes to validate your card at the turnstile.
  • If you have loaded your Metrocard with a balance in dollars, you will be asked to pay for the trip again. In other words, they will deduct another $2.75 from your balance. Unfortunately, it is not possible to request a refund for the previous wrong trip.

Frequently asked questions about the Metrocard

  • Can I buy the Metrocard before traveling to New York? No, you can only buy it at the vending machines in the subway.
  • If I have questions when I buy it, will someone help me? No. In many stations you will find subway employees that you can ask and ask for help but if there are not, don't worry because New Yorkers are very attentive and they will help you if you need it.
  • If I travel to New York for two weeks should I buy two cards? No. It is not necessary. Once you have used up your 7-day Unlimited Ride voucher, you can reload the same card with credit or another Unlimited Ride voucher for another week.
  • Can I share the Metrocard with another person? No. If you choose the 7-day Unlimited Ride option, the card is for personal use and is not transferable. On the other hand, if you choose to load it with credit and pay for each trip, then you can share the Metrocard.
  • What happens if I lose my Metrocard? Unfortunately, you will have to buy a new card and you will lose all the balance and/or value you had on it. Only the "Unlimited rides for one month" MetroCard is protected against theft and loss if you purchase it with a debit or credit card at the Metro vending machines.
  • How do I know how much balance is left on my card? If you have been recharging your card and you don't know how much balance you have, in many metro stations you can check it at the card readers that will tell you the balance, the days you have left and when the card expires.
  • If I have a balance left on my card, do I get my money back? No, so my advice is to be cautious when recharging. In any case, the Metrocard has a validity period of 2 years, so if you have a balance left over, I recommend that you keep the card to use it on your next trip to the city or to give it to someone else who is going to travel to New York.
  • Can the Metrocard be used for other transportation? In addition to the New York subway network, this card can be used on the bus network and the Roosevelt cable car. If you want to take a ferry, you will have to pay a separate ticket as it is not integrated in the Metrocard. If you would like to know more about the ferry, don't miss my practical guide to the New York ferry.

4. How to find your way around: express trains, direction of the lines and the meaning of the letters

The New York subway| ©Malvina Battiston
The New York subway| ©Malvina Battiston

Once you have your ticket in hand, you will need some guidance to avoid getting lost in the largest subway in the United States and one of the largest in the world. It has 26 lines, nearly 500 stations and more than 1,000 kilometers of track connecting Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

The only borough where the New York subway does not reach is Staten Island although you can go by car from Brooklyn or from the south of Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry.

The New York subway lines are identified by colors and each of them can be bifurcated into letters (A, B, C, etc.) and numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) depending on the directions, so to avoid getting lost it is good that you follow the following tips:

Know where you are going

When taking the subway be sure of the direction you want to go as most lines split and trains take different directions.

Once you know which line to take, go to the nearest metro stop. At all stations the entrance to the southbound (Downtown and Brooklyn) or northbound (Uptown and Queens) platforms is marked.

When boardingthe subway, pay attention to the signs and signals. Both on the signs and over the public address system, the direction the train is heading is indicated by showing the last stop on the route or which borough of New York it is heading towards.

Local vs. express trains: how to tell them apart

An important detail to note is that in New York there are two kinds of trains: local and express. Unlike the local trains, the express trains don't stop at every stop and are much faster, so they are very practical for long distance travel, which is great because you can cross the city in less than 15 minutes!

Now, how do we know where an express or local metro stops? Very easy, if on the map you see that the stop has a white circle it is an express train, if it has a black circle then it is a local train.

Pay attention to the letters and numbers

Each line of the New York subway has a different color to identify them but because at certain points on the map they fork, to prevent the plane becomes a multicolored rainbow each branch is given a different name with numbers and letters.

Therefore, when taking the subway you should have as a reference not only the color of the line but the letters and numbers. In fact, New Yorkers know the lines better by the numbers and letters, not so much by the colors.

And where can I see the letter or number of the subway to know which one I'm getting on? It appears on the first car of the subway although it is also posted outside each car so you can check it. Keep it in mind if inside the subway you need to ask for directions or routes.

Look at the direction of the subway stations

As I said before, if you look at the New York subway map you can see that there are subway lines that go in different directions by forking two or more times (such as the orange or yellow line).

The first thing you should know before using it is to distinguish correctly between Uptown and Downtown. Sometimes in the same subway station the different entrances have different directions, that is, in many streets if you enter from one sidewalk entrance you go south and from the other side you go north.

Therefore, before going down to the subway, I advise you to look at the direction so you do not have to go out again to the street and change direction, because in many cases once inside the station you can not change platforms.

The directions that the New York subway can take are: Downtown and Uptown (South and North) or Westbound and Eastbound (West and East).

Sometimes you will also see that they point to the district or neighborhood they are traveling to:

  • Manhattan
  • Queens
  • Brooklyn
  • Bronx
  • Etc.

Transfer between lines?

If we look at the New York subway map we might think that it is not possible to transfer between lines unless it is indicated that they cross. But this is not always the case because the map shows black lines that warn of the existence of transfer tunnels that facilitate the change of lines to avoid unnecessary journeys.

5. What is the schedule and frequency of the New York Subway?

The New York Subway| ©Malvina Battiston
The New York Subway| ©Malvina Battiston

The good thing about the New York subway is that it runs 24 hours every day of the year but at night not all station entrances are open.

It ranges from 2 to 5 minutes during peak hours (6:30 AM to 9:30 AM and 3:30 PM to 8:00 PM Monday through Friday), 5 to 10 minutes at noon and 5 to 15 minutes until midnight. The frequency of the subway from dawn to 6:30 AM is approximately 20 minutes, although at night I advise you to take a cab, especially if you are traveling alone between districts, as there are few operators working in case of any incident.

6. Tips for using the New York Subway

Traveling by subway| ©Unsplash
Traveling by subway| ©Unsplash

The New York subway is not so different from other subways in the world in terms of rules of use. However, as a commuter it is always good to keep in mind some basic rules to make it easier to get around the transportation network.

  • In the subway cars, always let yourself out before entering.
  • Do not block the car doors with your luggage to facilitate the entry and exit of people.
  • When using the escalators, if you walk up or down them, always use the left side. Otherwise, place yourself on the right side to facilitate the transit of other users.
  • Give up your seat to people who may need it (elderly, pregnant women, handicapped, etc.).
  • Do not occupy other seats with your belongings. Seats are for the use of other passengers.
  • Avoid eating or drinking inside the carriage during the journey out of respect for other passengers.
  • On the subway or platforms, do not stare at people.

7. Enter New York's phantom subway station

The streets of New York are fascinating, there is always something new to discover in the city that never sleeps. There are countless tourist attractions on the surface but not many know that beneath it lies a secret site known as the ghost subway station of City Hall, which for a long time was plunged into darkness.

Its enigmatic name alone makes you want to find out what it's all about, right? All you have to do is to enter the New York subway and take line 6 to the end of the route as the train continues to travel through this station. After Brooklyn Bridge you can pass by the ghost station of City Hall and see it from inside the car.

Unfortunately, you can not go down to the station to see it but at least the subway runs at such a slow speed that with a little skill you can take several pictures of this piece of New York history, which tells us about the origins of this public transport in the early twentieth century.

What is the New York subway ghost station like?

City Hall was never a very frequented station by New Yorkers, as most of them got on and off at the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. Eventually, for various reasons, it was closed to the public in 1945.

Perhaps this has allowed it to be preserved in such good condition, as well as the original crystals, chandeliers and stained glass windows that decorate it. In fact, many find a similar air to the decoration of Grand Central Station, what do you think?

Another way to get a glimpse of City Hall's ghost station is from above ground. In the middle of City Hall Park sits a space reserved for pets. If you pay attention, here you'll see an iron opening from which you can peek inside the structure. Amazing, isn't it?

It was striking the elegance and style of the design of this stop compared to the others that made up the subway network at that time. City Hall had glass windows through which natural light penetrated and vaulted ceilings covered with tiles with clear influences of the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, whom the New York Times baptized after his death as "the architect of New York" for his famous "Guastavino tile" and his great contributions to American architectural design.

8. More things to do in New York!

But New York's ghost subway station is not the only secret place in the city- there are many original things to do and unique places to explore! In the article 10 secret places and original plans that you can't miss in New York I tell you about some of them.

And if so many tourist routes whet your appetite, then I recommend you to take a look at the article 10 best places to eat in New York to know where to have a good meal. Here you come to enjoy and have fun!