The best way to get around New York City is the without a doubt the subway. In this article, we talk about everything you need know to understand how the New York subway works.
There are 472 stations in the New York subway system operated through 27 lines and it runs 24 hours a day. We’ve put together everything you need to know using this transportation method to get around. New York is the busiest subway in North America and the 7th busiest in the world with 1.7 billion riders per year.
Hours of operation
The subway runs year round 24 hours a day. (not all lines operate at the times). You can call 511 on your cell phone for more information.
How to buy tickets
You must buy subway tickets at the machines in the subway.
Tip #1: Be sure to wait at the right machine. Some subway ticket machines only accept cash.
Be sure to analyze the subway ticket machine to be sure you’re waiting in the right line. Some machine only accept cash and other ticket machines accept both credit cards and cash.
Cost of riding the subway
Single ride: 3,00$
The single ride is perfect if you only plan on using the subway
Buy a MetroCard for 1$ if you plan on using the subway many times during your stay in New York City. The card will allow to buy many passes at 2,75$ or even purchase a 7-day unlimited pass for 32$ for subway only access or 59$ which can be used on the subway and buses.
Note to foreigners: When it asks for your zip code, you can put 90210 like the old television series. MTA only uses this info to track different metrics.
You can check how much money is remaining on your MetroCard by going to a subway ticket machine and selecting MetroCard -> Get Info and feeding your card in the yellow section of the machine where it says “Metro Card”. It will display the amount of money remaining on your card.
Note: If you chose the unlimited plans, you must wait 18 minutes between swipes. This concept is used to prevent two or more people using the same unlimited card. The same MetroCard with pay-per-ride funds can be shared by 4 people. The same MetroCard can be used for city buses and just like the subway, the price is 2,75$.
How to use the MetroCard
On each MetroCard, you will be a magnetic strip at the bottom of the card. This is the part that is recognized by the subway entry point and we suggest you swipe your card at medium speed with the yellow side facing you. Once your card is accepted, you must immediately continue walking or else you will need to start over and it will cost you another 2,75$ if you don’t have an unlimited plan.
Direction (Up, down, letters, colours, numbers and lines)
The only way to understand how the New York subway system works is to understand the lines, colors, numbers and letters. You can find a map of the New York subway system here: click here to see the New York system in Manhattan. We will make references to this map throughout the article
Download this PDF version of the subway system and keep it on your phone. This PDF allows you to zoom in and out of the document and will help you find your way.
Tip #2: Where are you and where are you going.
The best tip I can give to anyone taking the New York subway is to ask yourself two questions: Where are you and where are you going.
Where are you? Look on the map and find out where you are and which subway entrance are close.
Lights on top of each subway entrance
The lights on top of each subway station have meaning. If you see a green light, it means that it’s a 24 hours entrance. If you see a red light, it means it’s an exit only station or it’s only available part-time.
Uptown & Queens, Downtown & Brooklyn
Tip #3: Uptown or dowtown?
Avoid the costly mistake (money and time) by entering the wrong subway station. Read and analyze the subway sign as you enter the subway station and ask yourself: “Do these subway trains go in the right direction?”
It’s important before you enter a subway station to read the signs above the stairs. Most subway station only go in one direction so if you’re uptown and you want to go downtown, you must be certain you’re entering the station that mentions downtown.
There are some lines that go across (East to West, West to East) but there are few options .
Tip #4: If you’re lost, ask someone
New Yorkers are proud people and they’re extremely helpful. It has served me right to ask when I wasn’t sure which train to take.
Tip #5: Pay attention to the numbers on the train
I wouldn’t try to make out what is being said on the lousy speakers used by subway employees to know which train to hop on. Pay attention to the numbers and colours on the subway train to be sure it’s the right one.
Tip #6: Don’t get in an empty car
I would avoid getting on an empty subway car if all possible. There is a reason it’s empty. It’s usually extremely hot with no air conditioning or someone vomited in it or it simply smells.
Colors, letters and numbers
As you enter the subway station, take note of the colour and numbers on the subway sign.
Tip #7: Take a picture of the subway sign as you enter the subway station
A great tip is to take a picture as you walk down the stairs in case you forget the colours and letters. You can then analyze the the map while you wait for the subway train.
The letters and numbers written on the subway sign are important because they tell you which train to take. You must look on the New York subway map and find the spot where you’re going. You will where see where the train is going by seeing which letter is closest to your destination.
The colors in the circle are important because the will tell you where the line
Local & Express trains
There are two types of train: Local and Express trains. The difference between these two types of subway trains are the number of stops they make.
New York Subway Tip #8: Look at the dots on the line
Another tip is look at the dots on the line. The small black dots are stations the local subway train will make along the way. If you’re going somewhere close to these black dots, be sure to take the Local train.
The big white dots are the subway station stops the Express train will make. If you’re going close to a big white dot, you can save time by taking the express train.
New York Subway Tip #9: Don’t fall asleep and leave your bags unattended
If you don’t want to get your stuff stolen or miss your stop, stay awake and be vigilant with your belongings. You can strap your bags around your arms of legs to avoid getting your stuff stolen. Be sure your bags are zipped and that you keep an eye on everything you have with you.
I also suggest you be aware of your surroundings. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Here are in our opinion the best mobile apps about the New York subway system.
New York Subway Tip #10: Download mobile apps that can give you up-to-date information
CityMapper: We love CityMapper! It’s easy to use and New Yorkers love this app. You can simply enter the address of where you want to go and it will give you the route. It will also give you subway train times which is extremely useful. It will also tell you how long you will need to walk once you get off the train to reach your destination. CityMapper will give you up-to-date information as you travel on the subway.
Google Maps: Most of us already have Google Maps app installed on our phones. This app will give you the routes you need to take to get to where you’re going. The good news is that you can use this app for many purposes, not just the New York subway.
I strongly suggest you check out Google Maps every time you want to go somewhere. It’s often the same distance to walk, take a cab or take the subway. It will help you make the best decision on how to get there.
Getting on and off the subway and while riding
Getting on the subway
It’s important to understand that people getting off the subway need space to exit the subway cart. You must stand on the side and let people get out before you can get in. Remove bags on your back to avoid bumping others riding beside you.
Note: Do not put your feet on the bench. It’s a crime and you could get arrested. Also, sit straight in crowed subways not to take more than one seat.
While riding the subway
If you’re sitting down and you see an elderly person, a pregnant lady or just someone who looks like they could use your seat, please give it up. It’s common courtesy and it’s a small gesture that can make a huge different for someone in need.
Getting off the subway
You must understand how full the subway cart can become especially during peak times. You will need to be proactive in getting close to the door and use your voice to let others know you must pass by them to exit. It’s recommended to have your bags in your hand and not on your back to avoid bumping people as you get off. Avoid getting up before the cart as stopped because it often stops abruptly and accidents can happen. You don’t want to hurt yourself or anyone else.
The busiest times are weekdays from 7am until 10am and then 4pm until 7pm. If you can avoid these busy times, you will be better off.
New York Subway Tip #11: Wash your hands when you leave the subway
This is more of a health issue but you can imagine the amount of hands that touch a pole, bench, door, stairs, etc. You can bring some Purell hand sanitizer and use it often.
New York Subway Secrets
Secret #1: Have a drink at Le Boudoir
Le boudoir is a speakeasy located in Brooklyn in an old railroad tunnel. It’s accessible from the restaurant Chez moi on Atlantic Avenue: See on Google Maps here. The bar is inspired by the secret boudoir of Marie Antoinette in Versailles. It’s a great place to have cocktails in a unique French Rococo-style with custom-made furniture and decorative pieces from châteaux in Europe.
Secret #2: Miss Subways Pageant
Miss Subways ran for 35 years until 1976 and the contestants were judged on congeniality and talent. The contest was reinstated in 2014 and the newest Miss Subways for 2019 was crowned with a wreath of plastic rats, troll dolls, and rhinestone unicorns.
The 2020 Miss Subways event should be in early October.
Secret #3: Track 61
Track 61 is located under the famous Waldorf Astoria hotel. You can still find an old abandoned subway train. It is still used to this day as a secret escape passage for US Presidents.
Secret #4: City Hall Station
A superb subway station created in 1904 but is now abandoned. In the past, the train would leave from City Hall station and would reach Grand Central Station. That was when a subway ticket was only 5 cents. The architects Rafael Guastavino, George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge built City Hall Station. You may recognize the names because they also built St John The Devine.
How to see City Hall Station without joining a tour
1) The station is below Manhattan Municipal Building at the corner of Centre Street and Chambers Street. You must take line 6 Downtown direction.
2) Once you arrive at the last station Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall / Chambers Street, passengers must exit the train.
3) Stay inside the train and duck so no one sees you. Once the train leaves the station, it passes by City Hall station. That’s how you will be able to see it.
Secret #5: Myrtle Avenue
This subway station located in Brooklyn was closed in 1956. It is now a place for artists to amuse those who pass by the abandoned station with a cartoon-like Masstransiscope with hand painted images.
Secret #6: Beach Pneumatic Transit Company
The Beach tunnel was constructed by the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company in only 58 days, starting under Warren Street and Broadway, directly across from City Hall. Alfred Ely Beach, inventor and editor of Scientific American, had designed a pneumatic air-driven system which he demonstrated at the American Institute Fair in 1867, and he thought it viable for transit operation in underground tunnels. This system only ran for 3 years.
Secret #7: 58 Joralemon Street
This brownstone apartment is used by the MTA as a Subway Vent and an emergency exit.
Secret #8: The Knickerbocker secret door
This entrance was used in the past to access The Knickerbocker hotel. You can find this secret door on the end of the platform of Track 1 on the S shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square-42nd Street, closest to the 42nd Street exit.