This is quick guide to the MTA Subway system. The NYC subway is generally the quickest, most efficient and cheapest way to get around Manhattan . For the visitor it can feel intimidating and daunting. This subway guide will help get you acquainted with the system before you arrive, so you'll feel more comfortable and confident using the New York City subway.
Useful facts. A subway train can be up to 2 city blocks long. Some stations may have multiple entrances. The "Exit Strategy" app (available for Android & iPhone) will help you find the closest entrance if you know what stop and line you are looking for. Some entrances will have a green light at the entrance while others a red light. The green light indicates that the entrance is open all times and will likely have an attendant available. Red light entrances will be open limited hours (usually daytime hours) and will not have an attendant nearby, and will not likely have machine for purchasing tickets. The red light may also be an exit only - in otherwords you take your chances when heading to a red light access point. The subway system runs 24/7 but not all entrances are open 24/7.
Local Terminology. Although the NYC subway system may run above ground in some places locals still refer to it as the "subway". Many locals also refer to the subway as "the train". Please keep in mind that the Long Island Railroad (aka LIRR) is also a "train" but never known as the "subway". If you are asking for directions and are unsure what "train" they are referring to, ask for clarification! There is also a subway system which services New Jersey. This is known as the PATH train operated by New Jersey Transit. But no one will be referring to the LIRR or Path unless you are heading to NJ or Long Island. When you enter the subway station with a manned booth you may ask the attendant for a free subway map. They may also have free bus maps. You will also find a map of the entire subway system and a street map for local area on a wall near the exit (usually closest to the attendant booth). This will help you orient yourself before you surface to the street.
Buying a Subway Ticket. To purchase a subway ticket you will need to use a machine. You may pay with cash or a credit card. Some will take both others will only take credit cards. Do be aware that that no machine will dispense more than $6 in change. In other words, if you are purchasing a $10 card with a $20 bill you will not be able to do it. If you are paying with a credit card you will be asked to enter your zip code. If you do not have a US zip code enter 11111. (the ENTER button is on the number pad to the right of the zero button, designated by "ENT").
There are 3 different types of cards available for purchase. If you only want to use the subway once, a single ride to ticket will do. At the time of this writing a single ride ticket is $2.75; please note that you will have two hours to enter the system with this card. This does not mean that you can swipe it repeatedly for 2 hours. You may also purchase a pay as you go card. Which means that you may load it with as much money as you like. Each time you swipe the card, $2.50 will be deducted. Lastly, you may purchase an unlimited use ticket. The minimum unlimited use ticket is one week ($30). Both unlimited and regular passes cost $1 and may be reloaded with more time or money as needed. Please note that unlimited does not actually mean unlimited. You may only swipe the card once every 18 minutes. In other words, if you mistakenly swipe your card successfully, you may not leave and swipe again for 18 minutes. This helps to deter multiple riders on one pass. However you may swipe your card and then use it on a bus or vice versa without waiting. If you are using a single ride or a pay as you go card, you may transfer to a bus or vice versa within 2 hours you will not be charged again. This is considered a transfer. When swiping the card at a turnstile you must not swipe too slowly or too swiftly. If you do, the reader will not recognize your card, try again. Generally, if you are using a pay as you go card you should not change turnstiles if you get a "swipe again" message, the machine has already taken a fare and if you change turnstiles it will take another. If you have an unlimited use pass you may try again at another turnstile if you are having trouble.
Entering the Subway System. Once you pass through the turnstile the fun begins. Once in, you may ride the system as long as you like, without having to pay more as long as you do not cross out of a turnstile. However there are a few exceptions. If you surface from the subway system and swipe your card within 2 hours of the initial swipe at a designated transfer point, you will not be charged another fare. The card reader will recognize that you are transferring. You may also transfer from the subway to a bus within 2 hours of swiping your card at no additional cost. If you have been riding underground for 2 hours it is not likely that you will be able to exit and get on a bus with the same fare. Obviously, this will not matter if you have an unlimited use pass.
Which subway train to choose? To better understand the New York City subway system you must also understand how Manhattan is organized. Most of Manhattan is divided into a grid system. The streets run East and West (1st Street in lower Manhattan while 215st at the north end); the Avenues run North and South (1st Ave on the east side to 12th Ave on the west side). Trains heading "Uptown" are trains heading north to the higher number streets, while downtown trains are going south towards lower numbered streets. Everything North of 59th Street (aka Central Park South) is considered Uptown. Everything between 1st Street and 59th is Midtown. Everything south of 1st Street is Downtown. In other words, if you are at the Museum of Natural History (81st St. & Central Park West) and want to get to Times Square, you would need a downtown train.
How will you know which train is which? The signs of course. As you enter the station from the street the entrance will have a sign letting you know which train lines are available and in which direction the train is running. If a direction is not designated then the entrance will give you access to trains running in both directions. If the sign says "via passageway" it means that you will have access via underground tunnels. In this case it may be easier to stay above ground. Once underground look for signs for the direction you want to go in. On the platform, double check the signs above the track to make sure that you will be heading in the right direction. Very often one track may serve different train lines, but never different directions. A platform may have two sides, with one side heading Uptown while the other heads Downtown. As the train enters the station take note of the designation at the front and side of the train.
Express & Local trains. Express trains make limited stops while local trains make all stops. Almost all express trains will run local late at night. To tell the difference look at a map. If you look at 86th Street stop on the Green line on the east side you will notice that it has a white dot while other stops have black dots. This means it is an express stop. Next to the white dot you will see the numbers 4,5,6; this means that all three trains will stop there. However, the stop just before and after are black dots and only have the number 6 next to them. In this case only the #6 train will stop while the 4&5 trains will go past. Having said this, be aware that late at night and on the weekends express trains may run local and local trains may run express or sometimes a train will change to a different track all together! Pay attention to the signs in the subway announcing the changes and listen for announcements on the train. And if it's confusing ask someone for help! One change which seems to catch many off guard is when the E train runs on the F line which means you can't get to the World Trade Center via the E!
Frequency & Problems. Most trains run about every 7-10 minutes. Some trains servicing the outer boroughs may take as much as 15 minutes to arrive. If you arrive on a platform that is empty it means that a train has just left the station. If you wait more than 10 or 12 minutes and you are still the only one standing there, start looking for signs. Often when this is the case it means that a train is not coming and you did not miss one. On the other hand, if you arrive and the platform is completely crowded there is a problem. Ask someone who looks a little bit unhappy how long they've been waiting. If it has been more than 15 minutes there is a problem, and you may want to consider a taxi. If a train arrives during rush hour and all the cars are full except for one. Don't get on the empty train! In the summer it means that there is no air conditioning! Or it may mean that there is something very smelly on the train! The locals know best.
Handicap access. The NYC subway system was built over 100 years ago when those with disabilities were left to fend for themselves. Although the city has tried to make public transit more accessible, it is far from perfect. Not many subway stations are equipped with elevators. If you are in need of wheelchair access, the bus may be best. You can find wheelchair accessible stations at this website: http://web.mta.info/accessibility/stations.htm#manhattan
Although this may all sound intimidating and difficult, it really isn't once you have tried it. Enjoy and on behalf of all New Yorkers thank you for using the subway! It's green, economical and efficient.