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.
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.
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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