Skip to Content

10 Quick, Easy, and Mostly Painless NYC Subway Guide

Announcing my Amazing NYC Subway Guide, “How to Avoid being a total Dick on the New York Subway (and other essential tips for any NYC subway planner)”

Welcome to the whimsical and wonderful world of riding the New York City subway system, a world filled with unfulfilled dreams and incoherent NYC subway directions (unless you’re reading this NYC subway guide and then that will no longer be your fate)!

Do you enjoy the small of urine, long lines at the metro card machine, and watching rats the size of house cats scurry across the subway rails, all while worrying that you may become the next “based on actual events” disclaimer in a new Law and Order SVU episode?

Well then awesome, you’ll love riding the New York City subway.

Okay, I’m kidding. Sure the subway is dirty and smelly, but it’s really not that bad, at least in turns of creating actual bodily harm.

Plus, there really are no predators lurking in a dark, shadowy corner, waiting to steal your last traces of feminine (or masculine) virtue.

The only time that might kind of sort of happen is if you use the NYC subway schedule at like 3:30 am, since like the city, the subway never sleeps.

Honestly, if you’re rolling out of a bar after closing, then just suck up the extra cost and call an uber (They really aren’t that expensive, as long as you don’t order the supreme one like I accidentally did. I’ll never make that mistake again).

But there are other tips and tricks that New Yorkers use to make riding the New York subway mildly tolerable.

I mean, no one wants to feel like a homicidal maniac after leaving the subway station right?  

So take heed ye faithful reader of some of my NYC transit directions and not only will your ride be mildly pleasant, but you will also look and act a whole lot more like a native New Yorker (that and we all won’t be silently smiting you, strategically plotting your inevitable demise as you board the subway.

***I know that the New York City subway is massive and can be really complicated, especially with NYC transit delays. So before you visit, try downloading some of these apps to make your subway excursions a little easier; Citymapper, My Transit NYC, Moovit, and Google Maps.

***In case you didn’t read the statement above, get a subway app because service is always changing ir being disrupted. And if you can understand the garbled mess that passes for an audio announcement in the Subway, then I applaud you.

Can you escort me around the city so that I can make quick use of your expert code breaking skills (When I saw you, I knew you were the one who ended World War II).

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure for more information. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.

If you’re booking a trip right now then I IMPLORE you to get travel insurance – even if it’s not from me.

After all, this past year has been a wild ride and I don’t want you to lose money because government regulations have changed. 

Truth be told though, I’ve never traveled without travel insurance and don’t think you should either – especially since I think we’ve all had plans drastically change because of the pandemic. 

Therefore, find an insurance agency that covers travel changes related to COVID-19, like my two all-time faves World Nomads and Safety Wing. You can also read more about which policy is right for you in my full review here.

1. Do not refill or buy your metrocard at a major subway station like 42nd in NYC subway guide.

This is the cardinal rule of riding the NYC subway. Kind of like in Fight Club where the first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.

Well, it’s the same here, only you can talk about this because it will save you, and a lot of other people, the pain of waiting in a line, behind 15 people who have no idea how to buy a metrocard (not an exaggeration).

But it makes sense. People basically stop and refill/buy metro cards at a station that they frequent and that is convenient for them.

Yeah well, chances are that stop is convenient for like a million other people too. You know, like the station at 42nd street, in Grand Central Terminal?

Yeah, well this subway stop is always packed with people because all the trains from the surrounding Connecticut and New York, metropolitan area come into this station.

So shocker, everyone of these people board the subway here. Sp the metro card lines here are longer than the wait for some Hamilton tickets.

So don’t be like everyone else. You are a beautiful unicorn of uniqueness and should refill your metrocard at a smaller station so that you skip the line and keep all of your hair follicles intact.

Plus, you’ll save your sanity and remove any homicidal tendencies that waiting on line may induce. So really it’s a total win win for you and for society.

2. Check the Metrocard NYC Machine to see if it accepts cash or credit cards or both.

Okay, this one is huge because everyone will want to kill you if you go up to the machine, click to purchase your tickets and
then shockingly exclaim, “Oh wow, I didn’t know this was credit only. I only have cash.”

Yeah, no. Do not do this. Do not be this person because we will never forget and probably make a meme about it.

See, us New Yorkers are always in a rush and if you do this, you are holding us up and we will hate you forever. Okay maybe not that long but we won’t be happy.

I mean we are busy even when we’re not busy at all.

So don’t be that person. Instead, prepare for your upcoming transaction by having your cash or credit card and metrocard at the ready so that you can get in, get out, and go home because us New Yorkers, we’re all about speed and efficiency.

Think of it as a race against the limited amount of patience that all New Yorkers have.

***I am not lying about this speed thing. We walk fast, talk fast, don’t wait for cross walk signs, and stand almost in the middle of the street so that we can cross the road as soon as humanly possible. So yeah, don’t be that guy or girl.

***If you’re unsure of how much money is left on your metro card, you can check your metrocard balance at separate balance checking machines at every station.

Trust me, you don’t want to be THAT person who swipes there card, it doesn’t go through, and then the person behind you smashes into you because they thought you were gonna go through the turnstile. Yes this does happen and indeed, New Yorkers are in THAT much of a rush.

3. Do NOT give money to beggars

Now I know this makes me sound like a heartless creep but hear me out, because the New York subway is not “save the children” foundation (lovely organization, just not on a subway near me).

First of all, you have no idea where the money is going and if this person is really destitute. I mean for all you know, they could be using your hard earned cash to sip champagne and eat caviar at the Plaza Hotel.

Plus, if you keep giving these people money, they are gonna keep annoying the locals who ride the subway everyday.

Yup, this pretty much suns it up.

So just don’t do it. If you really want to give to the less fortunate then work with or donate to a reputable charity organization that directly helps those in need (Midnight Run is a great charity in NYC).

And same with these people. If they are in need, then they should go through the proper channels to get assistance and not make announcements on the local 6 train, like 12 times because you need to get from Spring Street all the way to 42nd street (sorry I’m venting because this recently happened to me.

I heard the same guy at least 5 times, begging for money. But I some he wearing this new, matching tracksuit and I was thought, “Impoverished and destitute? Probably not.”

4. Do not talk to anyone with headphones on.

Okay, I know we seem kind of standoffish and anti-social, but New Yorkers are busy and we don’t really like spending our time engaging in needless small talk.

Kind of like when you say, “Hey how are you?” and people don’t wait for your response. Yeah, It’s more of a courtesy then a question we actually want an answer too.

Most people don’t really care and won’t wait for an answer so don’t take it personally. And if you do answer with anything other than, “Fine thanks,” you may totally freak people out.

But to avoid moments like this, we usually wear headphones since they are the universal sign for leave me alone, I am not in the mood to chat.

If you go against this social norm, we will loathe you since we already tried to look down and not make eye contact with you, but that didn’t work.

And it’s not that we’re mean, we just don’t want to chat up someone we’ll never see again. But if you’re lost or in need, of course we’ll help you, unless we have headphones on. Kidding.

5. Do not listen to music without headphones.

So I am gonna continue with this music theme because even some New Yorkers out there do not get this.

Just because you made a new rap CD and love it and want to share it with the world doesn’t mean I want to hear it. I’m sitting here, listening to my poppy Taylor Swift song, don’t judge me, and I really don’t feel like listening to a song about bitches and hoes, at a decimal that would split anyone’s ear drums.

Oh you’re trying to promote yourself? Yeah well you’re giving me a migraine so let’s not and say we did. Sorry but I’ll say thanks but no thanks to your latest CD.

As an aside, New York is a crowded city, and people do not reaction well when you use three seats to hold your gym bag and your laptop.

So if I were you, I’d put my stuff in my lap because otherwise you will incur the wrath of the gangs or New York..I mean memes of New York. We fight injustice and judge people with memes nowadays.

6. Wait until everyone gets off before you board your train.

Now I know chivalry is dead, so dead that I don’t even know what it really means, and that we all are in a rush, but even New Yorkers don’t trample over people, usually.

Plus, I’m not even asking you to get up for a pregnant lady or an elderly person (much nicer than that dirty word old), even though that would be super nice.

All I’m asking is that you wait until everyone exits before you push your way onto the subway car.

Yes we all want to make the train, but there are sensors on the door so I promise that the doors won’t close and the train won’t depart while people are entering the train.

7. Friends don’t let Friends Let Go of the Railing

Oh, you think that you’re Gabby Douglas on the balance beam and can totally rock riding the rails without the assistance of a handrail?

I hate to break it to you but this is a lie that you tell yourself. The train will jolt forwards and you will inevitably crash into a neighbor who is indeed holding the hand rail.  

And once you crash into me, I will then crash into someone else and the cycle will continue until you have one angry subway car full of people, a scenario that is no bueno at all.

So stay on everyone’s good side and just hold the rail.

8. Do NOT get into an empty subway car.

This is a trick that the subway Gods or mole people play on you. You are lulled into a false sense of security and think you have the comfort and luxury of a subway car, all to yourself.

But this is a lie! Why? Because there are millions of people living in New York City so there is something seriously wrong when no one is around because in New York, everything is crowded.

I mean, it takes me months to get a dental appointment and everyone hates the dentist.

That’s why you need to stay far, far away from empty subway cars.

Generally, they are vacant because either the air-conditioning is broken or maybe there is an icky bodily fluid leeching into the floor within. Either way, you don’t want to find out.

Just slowly back away and follow the hordes of eternally stressed out people (In this case, be a sheep. A total herd following, conformist sheep. Ba).

9. Do NOT throw out your Metrocard

Tap subway new york metrocard
You can actually throw this one out because it is a single fare card but don’t throw that metro card out. Image Source: New York Times

Look, every time you throw out your Metrocard a fairy dies. No, totally joking because that would be awful.

What actually happens is that each time you get a new metro card, you have to spend a $1.00 since that is the metrocard cost, 2017.

Now I know this doesn’t sound like a lot, but once you see how expensive New York City hotels are, you’ll realize that you need to save every dollar humanly possible.

But let’s go a step further because when you’re at the ticket machine it can be kind of tricky to figure out what type of metro card you want (if you already have a metro card, you can add time to extend the expiration date of the card, or you can add value and get more rides on your card).

To do this, you have to determine if you are going be a connoisseur of the subway or if you’ll basically never use it since metrocard fares are now cost an insane $2.75 a ride (Yikes, choose your metro card wisely because otherwise your bank account will suffer).

If you think that you’re gonna use it a lot and will be visiting for about a week, I would get the 7 day, un-limited ride metro card for $32.00 (I know it sounds like a lot but when you add up the metro card fare NYC, you spend $5.50 for a single, round trip, so clearly this card will pay off quickly).

Otherwise, you can just purchase a metro card and add whatever value you like. Obviously the more money you add, the more discounted the rate.

But generally, this option will be the best since it is amazing how quickly you can spend $32.00 on the subway.

***Sadly, there used to be an unlimited one day fun pass for $9.00 it went away too quickly, just like that cheesecake I ate last night. But it was an awesome options if you were just in the city for a day. Sigh, I guess all good things in life must come to an end.

***A trick that many locals use is to buy one metro card and have everyone use that same card so that you don’t end up buying a ton metro cards that you’ll never use, unless you’re a DIY, scrapbooking ninja from TLC. 

10. Always Carry a Subway Map

Look, New York is massive and so is the subway system. So it can be pretty complicated, even for locals. I mean, I am never in Staten Island or Queens so I would need a subway map NYC to navigate the subway there. Translation, don’t feel like a loser for carrying a map.

Check out nycsubway for a subway map that you can actually read.

Now, time to decode the map like a total code cracking pro. The first thing you need to know is that while subway lines may be color coded on a map, we don’t actually use a color system when naming the lines.

Therefore, make sure you are choosing a subway based on the line number or letter because although two lines may be  blue that doesn’t mean that they service the same areas (generally lines of the same color will eventually diverge from one another, or some will be express while others will be local).

After you find your line and look at the stops on your map,  you’ll see that some stations have a black dot and some have a white dot.

This is not an accident and someone didn’t use your map as an impromptu coloring book. Rather,  black dots symbolize “local” stations.

So the only trains that stop here are trains that stop at every station on the line. In contrast (as you can probably guess because you’re a smartie), white dots represent “express” stations, so both local and express trains stop here.

10. Always Carry a Subway Map

Another mistake newcomers to the New York City subway system make is leaving one stop and travelling to another to catch a different train, paying a second payment.

Some stations are connected to other stations via pedestrian tunnels.

For the Mets game at CitiField in Queens, for instance, many people using the A, C, or E 8th Ave line (the blue line) will quit the system at Port Authority Terminal, walk east on 42nd St., and then rejoin at Times Square to board the 7 Train.

Using the pedestrian tunnel between the two stations, as shown in the graphic above, will take significantly less time and cost less money.

The official NYC transportation and subway maps; no frills or extra complexities.

No need for an internet connection.

All New York City rail, bus, and subway maps, including the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) network map and the night subway, along with the New York Subway Map, Staten Island Bus Map, Bronx Bus Map, Manhattan Bus Map, and Brooklyn Bus Map.

***Pay close attention to these circles because the biggest mistake non-locals make (tourist is such a harsh word) is getting on an express train when they really needed a local.

OMG, lots of boring information. Quick, look at this cute cat meme. And dear readers, don’t ever leave me! Please!

The only other thing you need to know is the difference between “Uptown” and “Downtown” since many local trains have separate entrances for uptown and downtown trains.

Generally, uptown means North and downtown means South. But I am not in the habit of carrying a compass around so that explanation means nothing to me.

When I was learning about the subway, I just knew that downtown meant the street numbers go down, until you hit Brooklyn.

In contrast, I knew that Uptown meant that the street numbers would eventually go up until you hit the Bronx (tricky when you get into lower Manhattan and most of the streets are no longer numbers).

***Many streets, like Canal, service a ton of subway lines. These stops are not connected to one another so make sure you know what subway line and station you are meeting someone at.

I mean, Canal alone has 5 different subway stations (I know, the subway is total mayhem. i get it) so just make sure you’re super specific.

***Some useful train lines are the 4, 5, and 6 which run along the Lexington Avenue line (this line runs through Manhattan from North to South, along the East Side of Central Park) from the Bronx, all the way down to Brooklyn. The 4 and 5 are express trains while the 6 is a local.

The B,D,F, and M lines also service Manhattan on the 6th avenue line which mainly runs along 6th avenue and then cuts across Manhattan.

The B and D are both express lines while the F and M lines are local. The S in the Times Square Shuttle that only runs from Grand Central Terminal to Times Square. The N,Q,R, and W are all on the Broadway Line, which runs through Manhattan along Broadway.

The N and Q trains are on express tracks while the R and W trains on the local tracks during weekdays (the N and Q trains are local during late nights, as are the N and R trains on weekends).

Lastly, the 1, 2, and 3 trains run along the Broadway Seventh Avenue Line which runs through Manhattan (This line always run through Manhattan from North to South but along the West Side of Central Park).

The 1 and 3 are express trains while the 2 train is express during the weekdays and local on the weekends. No, these are not all the subway lines in New York, but for visitors, this guide will cover most of the subway lines that you’ll use.

The Boredom of this Post About Subway Train Lines and where they go is Over! You’re Free

I know, this post won’t win any awards for being the sexiest post out there, but I feel like understanding the subway map and learning how to find a “subway near me” can be  tricky for anyone, especially someone who is new to the city.

So that’s why I created this hopefully helpful guide to the New York City subway. But you’ve suffered through enough of this boring stuff so now you can go to New York City and rock the subway like the boss and big shot I you know you are (Stay classy, not trashy).

*** Please note this Disclaimer: On my blog, I sometimes use affiliate links. I will always tell you and these links are only for items that I use and approve of. If you click an affiliate link and purchase that product or service, I will be paid a small commission but your cost will still; remain the same or less. I will always disclose this at the bottom of the post. This money goes towards keeping this site online. Note: We are a participant in an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to affiliated sites. If you found this website helpful, please support it!


Sunday 8th of April 2018

great article!


Sunday 8th of April 2018

Thank you so much! So nice to hear.


Saturday 7th of October 2017

Great tips! I think my biggest pet peeve on the subway is when people try to get on when people are still trying to get off. The interesting thing is I have found the problem is even worse on the PATH train!


Saturday 7th of October 2017

Number 8. It reminded me of one ride when I got to learn this lesson the hardway. Had been on myfeet the whole day so when it was time to get back home I was just dreaming of a seat. You never get a seat when you catch the train in the middle of Manhattan, but at some point the wagon starts emptying, so you are lucky if you pick the wagon that empties earliest. So that one fateful day I see my train approaching, all wagons crowded like it's rush hour in Japan, and one wagon nearly empty. "This is my lucky day" I think, and make my way towards that one. Well it turns out it was semi-empty because a gentleman who had not seen a shower in like 2 months had decided to ride that train. I didn't last long in there, I transfered to the adjacent wagon in less than a minute and enjoyed my stench-free sardine-ride. I can still remember that smell.


Saturday 7th of October 2017

HA! Many literal lols :) I've not been to NYC as yet, and I must say I was scared off the idea of using the subway with some negative press (saw a few Buzzfeed articles about the nightmare of breakdowns and people being stuck for hours - terrifying). This guide might be just enough to convince me to give it a go. Thank you for sharing!!


Saturday 7th of October 2017

First of all, are you spying my web searches? Let's say I grew up in a 20,000 people town, and then moved to Florida where mass transportation is kind of myth. I have never been to New York, which is like Puerto Rico III (so it makes almost no sense for me to have not visited it) and honestly one of the reasons is the subway. Just this week I was looking for something like this, because I'm thinking about going to NY in January! I also get anxiety (sweaty palms and all that stuff) when I feel I might be doing something that might be upsetting to the locals. You just earned a bookmark on my phone because I need to get back to this article.

P.S. That Gabby Douglas reference was on point.

Comments are closed.