Navigating NYC: The Subway

April 3, 2018

Uptown? Downtown? Local vs. Express? All phrases one may be unfamiliar with not being originally from or residing in NYC.  While there are many forms of transportation to get around the subway is like the veins of the city.

Since moving here I would say the MTA is mostly reliable. However, if you were to ask the 5.6+ million people who ride the trains daily I’m sure they would agree that each trip is like a never-ending guessing game of making it to your destination on time.

Luckily with the number of transit apps on the map navigating the NYC is a lot easier than before. But before I share some of my favorites let’s break down the basics.

Entering the Subway Station

For the most part, you’ll find the entrance to the subway at street level marked with a green post and a sign stating which stop you’re at and which direction the train is going. For stations that connect to other trains like the LIRR or Amtrak at Penn Station or the Metro-North at Grand Central, the subway entrance can be a bit tricky to find so don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Getting a MetroCard


MetroCard vending machine photo by Eric Fischer

Congrats you’re one step closer to traveling almost anywhere in the five boroughs. The next step would be purchasing a MetroCard. In the subway stations, you can either purchase one through a vending machine (pictured above) or at a booth with an MTA employee.  In either case, you’ll be asked what kind of MetroCard you would like to purchase. As of March 2017, the current fares are:

Subway, Local Bus, & Select Bus Fare – $2.75 per ride

Single Ride Ticket – $3.00 (Only sold at subway vending machines)

7-Day Unlimited – $32.00

30-day Unlimited – $121.00

When purchasing a new MetroCard add an additional dollar as there is a one-time fee for the actual card.  The cards (minus the single-ride) expire in a year so you can refill them as much as you want. The pay-per-ride option adds a 5% bonus if you refill $5.50 or more. Although definitely a plus, at some point you’ll have insufficient funds and will need to refill (which typically happens as the train you need is pulling into the station). So if you’re visiting for 3 or more days and plan on getting around solely by public transit, I highly recommend getting the 7-day unlimited versus doing the pay-per-ride. It will save you time, frustration, and money!

Tip: You can swipe a pay-per-ride card up to 4 times at any time, but an unlimited card can only be used once every 18 minutes once swiped at the turnstile.

Riding the Subway

Here’s where knowing the difference between uptown, downtown, local, and express come in handy. To make this really quick and easy at any point, if you are heading north you’re headed uptown but if you’re going south you’re going downtown. So pay attention to which direction you need to go as a majority of the stations do not connect to both directions of the train and you wouldn’t want to waste a fare! Local trains make all the stops on the line whereas express trains only make stops at certain stations.  A really good tip I picked up recently is locating & standing near the dirty spots on the platform as that is where the doors will open.

Commuting with Ease

Now that you’ve mastered the basics here are my favorite transit apps to make your commute a breeze.

NYC Subway Map – If you’re looking for the least battery draining way to get around town and have somewhat of an idea of where you need to go this app is essential.  It features the entire subway map, service statuses, and a basic route planner based on if you know which stops you’re going to and from.  The only downside is not knowing when the train is coming.

Subway Time – So the MTA released an app solely to let you know when the trains are pulling into the station. It also features the maps and service statuses, however, since it’s just sharing info from the website those features are not ideal.  It makes my list as a favorite for being a quick way to know whether I should be running or walking leisurely to catch the next train.

City Mapper  – This is honestly the holy grail of transit apps. Combining everything from the previous two into one you are able to navigate any public transportation method in NYC along with other major cities like Boston, DC, Los Angeles, etc.  In my experience, sometimes it can be a little slow to load while trying to use on the train or congested areas but it’s also giving you directions for every method of transportation all at once.

Have some tips of your own? Leave a comment because sharing is caring. Until next time…

xo Sincerely Shanti

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