Five tips for riding the New York subway like a local

By Chris C., December 8 2014
Five tips for riding the New York subway like a local

While New York taxis are an international icon, the city’s subway system remains the cheapest way to get around town – and without peak traffic to contend with, it’s usually the most efficient too.

But before descending the subway steps, there are five handy hints that’ll get you on your way faster, and riding the subway like a local in no time.

1. Don’t get a map, use the Subway app

Save space in your pocket or handbag by ditching the printed subway map and that standout ‘tourist’ look.

Instead, download the free mxData New York Subway app from the iTunes store or Google Play, and you’ll have the keys to the city on your iPhone or Android smartphone:

If you’re not sure how to get from A to B, there’s also a route planner to help you out and highlight which train to catch and where to swap if there’s not a direct service between the two stations:

And if you want to follow the journey along to make sure you don't miss your stop, just hit ‘map’ after entering your route:

It also keeps you updated with any disruptions or service changes in real-time, which is handy when many subway announcements are unintelligible and leave even the locals scratching their heads:

2. Know the city and its boroughs

While centred around hubs in Times Square and Grand Central on 42nd Street, subway trains aren’t labelled ‘to Times Square’ or ‘to Grand Central Station’.

Instead, directions are given as Uptown, Downtown, Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx – here’s what they mean.

Uptown: These trains head north. If you’re looking at the subway map as below, Uptown trains move from the bottom (Lower Manhattan) towards the top (The Bronx).

The Bronx: Used interchangeably with Uptown, although it refers to trains that extend far into The Bronx rather than those that are merely heading north and that terminate at an earlier station.

Downtown: The opposite of Uptown, with trains moving south or towards the city’s Financial District at the bottom of the map.

Brooklyn: Often seen paired with Downtown signs and used to describe how far the train is venturing, with Brooklyn trains crossing underneath the East River and into Brooklyn, rather than winding up at South Ferry Station.

Queens: If you’re south of 42nd Street, Queens means Uptown. At 42nd Street, Queens then means ‘east’ on the purple 7 line as the trains venture towards Queens and away from Manhattan. On the E, F, M, N, Q and R lines, Queens still means ‘north’ or Uptown until you reach 53rd Street, at which point the meaning also changes to ‘east’.

Some subway stations have both Uptown and Downtown trains on adjacent platforms…

… while others have a dedicated entrance to the station and side of the platform for specific trains:

The take-away? Know which direction you’re headed in before you enter the subway station and board a train – as the lines run in both directions under the same colour and number.

3. Buy an unlimited-use MetroCard

With a standard pay-per-ride stored balance MetroCard, a single journey on the subway will set you back $2.50 regardless of where you’re travelling to – or $2.75 if you buy only a ‘SingleRide’ ticket – plus a $1 fee to grab a new MetroCard.

On the other hand, a 7-day unlimited pass costs just $30, plus the $1 fee if you don’t already have a MetroCard.

Let’s assume you’re visiting New York for just four days – four round-trips to the office would cost $20, add to that a trip from your hotel to see a Broadway show, a train to a restaurant to grab some dinner and the obligatory venture to Times Square, and you’re already looking at $35 in subway fares.

Read: Snap up half-price tickets to Broadway shows at TKTS

In contrast, the 7-day pass is just $30, lets you go anywhere on the subway network without worrying about having enough credit and gives you just one receipt to expense that covers all of your travel.

Unlimited MetroCards can be bought from the vending machines at most subway stations using cash or your Aussie Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Diners Club card.

If the terminal prompts you for a five-digit ‘ZIP code’ to complete the transaction, it’s not asking for your PIN – we’ve found that appending a ‘0’ to our home postcode works a treat, such as ‘02000’ for Sydney’s CBD.

Once the MetroCard is yours, hang onto it for your next trip to New York, where you can simply reload it at the vending machine with another 7-day pass on your return.

4. Know what the colours, letters and numbers mean

The colours, numbers and letters used to describe subway lines tell you two things – the colour shows which main avenue the train follows in Midtown Manhattan, while the letter or number refers to the final destination as shown in the subway app you’ve now downloaded.

Red trains run along 7th Avenue, green trains follow Park and Lexington Avenues, yellow trains zip along Broadway and so on.

There’s not an easy way of remembering which is which, other than to memorise the colour nearest your hotel for ease of returning later in crowded and expansive stations such as Times Square.

In conversation, New Yorkers usually skip the colours when referring to a subway line – so to sound like a local, a red ‘1’ train would just be ‘the 1’ or a ‘Bronx 1’, while a yellow ‘R’ train is simply ‘the R’, a ‘Brooklyn R’ or a ‘Queens R’.

5. Distinguish between ‘local’ and ‘express'

'Local' trains stop at every single station along the way, while 'express' trains only stop at key points to get people from A to B faster.

The catch is that many routes have both train types running under the same number or letter, so you’ll need to know what you’re doing before jumping on board.

It’s easy on the 7 – express services are indicated by a diamond shape around the number on the front and sides of the train (as opposed to an ordinary circle), while the subway app is your saving grace on the other lines that don’t follow this convention.

On the map, the lines are clearly marked with a colour and their number or letter, but if you look closely underneath the name of each subway station, you’ll see a list of trains that stop there:

For example, the (green) 4, 5 and 6 trains stop at Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Station, but only the 4 and 5 continue onwards to Wall Street.

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Chris C.

Chris is a a former contributor to Executive Traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2013

Total posts 73

Always good to check the MTA website for trackwork prior to making any trips, especially like out to the airport, as there is little to no signage at stations. I was waiting for a subway at Port Authority and the line I needed was not running. The platform was slowly filling up with more people, also presumably unaware it was not running. There was no signage in the station at all, or at least any that were noticeable. As bad as Sydney trains are, trackwork warnings are plastered everywhere. It wasn't until I looked at the MTA website on my phone I realised the trains weren't running and had to make last minute alternate arrangements. 

30 Jun 2011

Total posts 49

I'm pretty sure the USD$30 Metrocard weekly works on buses as well,  which gives you that other option if you spot one on the surface.  I recall grabbing one from Harlem all the way to about 14th, which took about an hour (so way longer than the sub) but at least you can get your Times Square sight-seeing done en-route.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 1378

That's right.

Buses can actually be very useful for cross-town journeys as the subways 'mostly' run North/South.

Shoudl also be noted that most lines are four tracks with dedicated express tracks that pass the local trains - so take the express if going a decent distance to save time.

The Metro doesn't quite go to the Airport. Instead you need to connect to the AirTrain ($5 one-way) at either Howard Beach (A Line) or Jamaica (E, J, Z Lines). Can also connect to the LIRR at Jamaica which is more expensive but gives good access to the Upper-West (from Penn Stn). Jamaica is good if going to the lower part or Brooklyn

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2012

Total posts 580

Many hotel concierge desks also sell MTA cards for $5 which come with $5 credit, so no need to buy one at the subway station for $1 + credit.

17 Feb 2014

Total posts 8

The ultimate app for New York as well as a selection of other major cities (no Australian one yet) is City Mapper... covers everything from local metros / subway right through to finding walking dierctions to the nearest chemist / drug store / supermarket.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2012

Total posts 213

Weekends can really mess up your travel! There is often trackwork and maintenance going on. Some of the delays and diversions are minor, but others can see you re-routing your trip considerably, adding a lot of time to your travel. Ditto for late night travel, any day. There is heaps of signage in the stations on the affected lines days before however to warn of potential problems. By and large the system runs very smoothly with short waits between trains we can only dream of!

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