Let's face it --the most convenient, cost-effective way to travel in New York City is by subway. For many first-time visitors, tourists, and even locals, however, the complexity of the system can be very intimidating and confusing.
Time and time again, I see tourists step on the wrong train, wonder why a train does not stop at their desired destination, or become stranded at some station with no clue where to go.
I don't blame them. The New York subway system is not the simplest in the world. What many native New Yorkers take for granted can be very confusing and unintuitive to outsiders.
Seeing so many visitors struggle with the system, I decided to write a guide to set them at ease. I make absolutely no assumptions about what you know about taking public transportation in New York and explain how to use it from top to bottom, sometimes in excruciating detail. I've added a lot of photos to help illustrate the subway system. My goal is to make an easy-to-read, step-by-step guide that allows you to overcome your fear and frustration with taking the trains and maximize your time and money while you are here.
I very much welcome your suggestions, feedback, and corrections. Please e-mail me if you have ideas on how to improve this guide.
Minh T. Nguyen
New York, October 2013
This guide was last updated in August 2016.
Before I delve into the details of how to take the trains, let me help you understand some of the basic information about the system.
The subway system is the main public transportation system in New York. It is one of the oldest and largest public transportation systems in the world (in terms of number of stations). With some 5.7 million riders on a given weekday, it is one of the primary modes of transportation for the majority of New Yorkers and tourists. The system is operated by a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
The subway system is usually just referred to as the "trains." Locals say "I can take the train to your place" to generally mean that they take the subway. The subway is never referred to as the metro, underground, or tube.
Unless noted otherwise, I mean the subway system if I just use the word train by itself. While trains mostly run underground in Manhattan, a good portion of trains run on elevated tracks in the other boroughs. The whole subway system operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It essentially never closes, except for major incidents such as hurricanes.
While the subway system is the primary mode of transportation in New York, it is not the only transportation system in the greater metropolitan area. Other large, train-based transportation systems that you should not confuse with the New York subway include the following:
With the exception of the AirTrains, these trains are also referred to as "commuter trains" because commuters from outside New York take these to commute in and out of the city on a daily basis. This guide does not apply to any of these transportation systems.
To avoid confusion, some locals refer to these transportation systems by their names. They'll say, "I'm taking Metro-North this weekend," "Let's take New Jersey Transit to the airport," or "I'm coming in from the PATH train."
New York City is divided into five boroughs:
The New York subway system operates in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. It never leaves New York City. You have to take one of the commuter trains mentioned previously to do so.
The boroughs are often used as a direction of travel for trains:
The Staten Island Railway is a separate train system that runs on Staten Island only. Even though it is often depicted on the New York subway map, there does not exist a physical connection between the two systems. You have to take the (free) Staten Island Ferry or cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to get to Staten Island. However, there is a free transfer between the two systems (you pay only once in one system, and the second swipe with the same farecard within two hours will be free in the other system).
The street system in Manhattan is composed of a rectangular street grid. Streets travel east and west, while avenues travel north and south. (This is not entirely accurate, since the grid system is not perfectly aligned with the directions on the compass.) Street numbering increases as you go further north, while avenue numbering increases as you go further west:
This grid system is not perfect. For instance, 4th Ave is named Park Ave. for most of its stretch and the grid system does not really exist below 14th St. However, the concept of this grid suffices for now. Keep this concept in mind as it will help you find subway stations and navigate maps.
Roughly speaking, Manhattan can be divided into three areas:
While Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown are geographic regions of Manhattan, the words uptown and downtown can also mean your direction of travel. If you head north or towards the Bronx or Queens, you can say you are headed "uptown"; if you head south or towards Brooklyn, you can say you are headed "downtown."
Free subway maps are available at the ticket booths in each subway station. Many mobile applications and online maps will help you too. For our purposes, let's focus on the official subway map provided by its operator, the MTA.
You can find the official map on the MTA website. Because the map changes occasionally (e.g., due to hurricane damage, newly constructed connections, or even line extensions), be sure to get the latest map. It looks something like this:
The first thing I want to point out is that this map is not drawn to scale. Manhattan is not that wide and Staten Island isn't really that small. The map is intentionally distorted to highlight the subway lines, stations, and the connections between them. Stations might actually be farther apart or closer together than they appear on this map.
The thick, solid colored lines are obviously the subway lines. You can also find on this map a few of the other commuter lines that are not officially part of the subway, such as Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tracks, buses, and AirTrains -- but let's ignore those for now.
As you can see, no subway line ever leaves New York and no physical subway connection exists from Staten Island to the rest of the subway system.
Unlike many other subway systems around the world, there are no zones because you pay the same fare regardless of how far or how long your trip is. The cost of going from one station to a neighboring station (say, a one-minute ride) is the same as traveling from one end of the map to the other (which might take two hours).
The colored subway lines on the map indicate related trains that share a portion of common track. Here are the main lines:
|Train Services||Line Name||Express||Local|
|Broadway - 7th Ave.|
As you can see, each line has a name and a specific color. The 8th Ave line for instance is always blue, while the Broadway - 7th Ave line is always red. Don't worry about the line names too much. Even locals often don't know the official name of a given line (and you'll see later why).
Within each line, there are a few services which are each designated with a single letter or a single number. We also refer to these services also as just "trains". For instance, within the "blue" 8th Ave line there are three services which are A, C and E. These three services are grouped into this "blue" 8th Ave line, because they share a common tunnel/avenue/street at some point on their journey (8th Ave). However, these three trains have different starting and/or ending stations. Similarly, the 1, 2 and 3 services on the "red" Broadway-7th Ave line run along Broadway and 7th Ave, but they do start and end at different stations.
I should pause here and note that while it might be tempting to use these colored lines to describe directions, you ought to be using the single letter/number designation for the the specific services instead. It's confusing to say that you are taking the "blue" 8th Ave line, because the three services within them (A, C and E) go to entirely different endpoints and even stop at different stations on the same shared path. This is the reason why locals don't refer to lines by their names or even color. People never say, "Take the green" or "Take the red line"; Instead they say, "Take the 4 train" or "Take the 2 train". Even though a line and a service have different meanings, you will find that colloquially the word "line" is sometimes used when "service" or "train" is meant. For instance, "Let's take the 4 line to Yankee Stadium" is technically incorrect, but the single number 4 implies that we are talking about the 4 service.
Trains are either express or local. Express trains skip certain stations for faster service, while local trains stop at every station along their path. Some train services, such as the 6 or 7, can either be express or local depending on the time and direction of travel, which is why their icon can be either a circle (local) or a diamond (express). Unfortunately, trains are not reliably express or local along their entire route. A single train can be an express train in Manhattan but turn local in Queens (or vice versa). For instance, the Q train is an express train in Manhattan but turns into a local train in Brooklyn.
Not surprisingly, subway stations appear as black and white dots on the subway lines (I explain the difference shortly). Surprisingly, however, subway station names are not unique. See how there are five stations named 23rd St. and four stations named 14th St. in just this area alone (you differentiate them by their subway line):
Similarly, the 86th St. station could be the one on the 4, 5, or 6 services in Manhattan or the one on the R service in Brooklyn (both stations are very far apart):
Take a look at the different meanings on the map:
A station with a black dot means that only local trains stop here; express trains skip this station. Trains that stop here are listed underneath the station name. In the example above, it's the C as well as E train. This makes sense because those are considered local trains.
A station with a white dot means that both the local and express trains stop at this station. In other words, all trains stop here all the time. In the example above, the express 4 and 5 trains stop here as well as the local 6 train.
I already mentioned that station names are not unique (different stations carry the same name). Unfortunately, the reverse is true as well: the same physical station can have different names, depending on which train you are taking.
The station shown in the picture above will be announced as the 6th Ave. station if you are coming from the L train but it will be announced as the 14th St. station if you are coming from the F or M train.
You might notice that the letter M is not boldfaced in the picture above. Subway service names that are not boldfaced indicate stops that are not serviced full-time. Consult the online schedule to determine when the part-time service commences or ends. For instance, the M train does not operate at night or on weekends in Manhattan, which is why the letter M is not boldfaced in the above picture.
A solid black line between two stations means that there exists a physical passageway (usually a tunnel) allowing you to transfer between subway lines without leaving the subway system or requiring you to swipe your MetroCard again.
For example, three trains stop at two stations in the previous map:
Notice how the 51st St. station is a local stop on the 6 service but the Lexington Ave./53rd St. station is an express stop on the E and M service.
Putting this knowledge together, I hope you can deduce from this picture that the A and C trains stop at Chambers St., the 2 and 3 trains stop at Park Place, and the E train stops at the World Trade Center - and all three stations are connected to one another by free tunnels.
Don't expect to understand the New York subway map immediately. It's a dense document conveying perhaps more information than you need to get from point A to point B. The most important things to pay attention to when looking at this map are the train numbers or letters shown below the subway station names.
In order to use the subway, you need to buy a farecard, called a MetroCard. It's the size of a credit card and made of (cheap) plastic that looks like this (front and back):
It has a black magnetic stripe at the bottom, three rounded corners, and one "cut off" corner.
The back of the card has what I call a physical expiration date which is usually set pretty far in the future. This physical expiration date is fixed and indicates the time when the card becomes unusable and must be exchanged for another one at a token booth. This physical expiration date has nothing to do with the value and time on the card, so don't confuse this date with the expiration of an Unlimited Ride window (which I will explain that later). This physical expiration date is merely there to take old cards out of rotation.
A MetroCard can operate in two modes: Regular and Unlimited Ride. Physically, the card looks identical regardless of which mode it is currently in, so you can't tell the difference unless you swipe it at a card reader. There also exists a Single-Ride ticket for $3 but it is not economical to buy it. Regardless of the type of MetroCard, it costs $1 just to buy the card.
Children under 44 inches (112 cm.) regardless of age can ride trains for free and don't need to buy a card as long as they are accompanied by a fare-paying adult. (The children can just walk underneath the turnstile.)
The regular MetroCard (also known as a Pay-Per-Ride card) carries a real dollar value that decreases every time you take the subway (hence "pay per ride"). You can keep on adding value to the card whenever your balance runs low.
In this card mode, the cost of riding the subway is $2.75 per ride (regardless of the destination or length of the ride).
When you add more than $5.50 to the card, you get a 11% discount. This means that adding $5.50 actually adds $6.10 to your balance. In addition to the balance, the fee for the card itself is $1 and not refundable.
Pay-Per-Ride cards can be shared by up to four people. To share a card, swipe the card for each person individually: swipe the MetroCard, let the first person enter, swipe it again to let the next person enter, and so on.
You can also use this Pay-Per-Ride card to pay for some other public transportation in New York City, such as the buses, the AirTrain to/from the JFK airport or the PATH commuter trains to New Jersey.
You can combine the values of multiple Pay-Per-Ride cards by going to the information booth and asking the attendant to combine them for you. When you do so, only the current values are accumulated; the $1 fee for each card is not taken into account.
Unlimited Ride cards allow you to ride the subway (and buses) as often as you want, as long as the time window that you bought for the card hasn't passed. There are only two time windows available:
Sorry, there aren't any weekend passes or single-day passes. If you think you are going to make more than 12 individual trips (a very likely scenario for tourists staying more than two days), buying a 7-Day Unlimited Ride card will be cheaper than paying 12 times.
The time window does not activate until you swipe the card for the very first time at a turnstile to enter the system. For instance, you can buy the card on January 17, activate it on April 1, and it will expire at midnight between April 7 and April 8.
Unlimited cards always expire exactly at midnight on the 7th or 30th day, regardless of the time you activated the card on the first day. For instance, if you activate a 7-Day Unlimited Ride card on Monday morning, it will expire Sunday night at midnight. If you activate the card Monday evening at 11:30pm, it still expires Sunday night at midnight. As a result, you effectively get to use it only for 6 days and 30 minutes. In that case, you are better off paying for a single ride using the Pay-Per-Ride card and then activating the Unlimited Ride card the next morning.
Unlimited Ride cards cannot be shared by two people. In fact, there is an 18-minute delay at a given subway station between each swipe to prevent the card from being used by more than one person.
As noted before, on the back of every MetroCard you'll find a printed physical expiration date. Do not confuse the printed physical card expiration date with the paid expiration of the Unlimited Ride time window.
A card can carry "time ", "value", or both. In other words, you can add a dollar value to an Unlimited Ride card or buy time to an existing Pay-Per-Ride card. When this happens, the time card always takes precedence when you swipe it at a turnstile (it will activate the time window as necessary). After the time portion of the card has expired, it will then (and only then) start draining the value of your card. Lastly, MetroCards can be refilled. Provided that the physical expiration date on the back of the card has not passed, you can reload a new Unlimited Ride time window or just money onto an expired or empty card.
You can buy a MetroCard at any subway station, either at a ticket booth or MetroCard vending machine located inside the subway station. They look like this:
The screen on the machine does not have the most intuitive layout. I've devised the following simplified flowchart to navigate this machine:
Remember that in addition to the price listed above, you must add $1 for the card itself.
Notice that the small MetroCard vending machines do not accept cash. When you pay with cash on the large machines, note they can only return up to $9 in cash (paid out in $1 coins). When you pay by ATM or credit card, the machine will ask you for the ZIP code associated with your account. If you come from outside the United States, just enter 99999 as your ZIP code.
Inside subway stations you can also find some standalone MetroCard readers where you can swipe a given MetroCard to check its balance and time:
The display of these MetroCard readers can be a little confusing, so let's take a look at some common scenarios. If you just added an unlimited time window to a MetroCard and have not activated this time window yet, the card will display both the unactivated unlimited time window as well as any monetary value you might also have on the card:
In the above example, I have a 7-day unlimited time window and as well as $33.40 on my card. You might be confused by the first line displaying "TIME EXPIRED", but that's just because I used to have a previous unlimited time window on the card that has already expired. The recently-purchased 7-day window has not activated yet. To make matters worse, these readers also display on the last line the (mostly useless) physical expiration time (which is printed on the back of the card anyways). Again, don't confuse that date with any of the unlimited time windows.
Once you actually have activated the unlimited time window portion of a MetroCard, these readers will display when the time window will expire as well as the last time this card was swiped at a turnstile:
The keyword to look for is "THRU" to determine that the time window is currently active until the specified date (of 06/15/16 in the above example). Note that even though the reader only displays the expiration date, it is implied that the time window expires exactly at 11:59pm on that date.
Lastly, once the time window has expired, the reader might still display the time window that you once had:
Because the display does not display "THRU <date>", it means that the 7-day unlimited time window has expired. The display also shows "INSUFFICIENT FARE" because the available $0.40 I also have on the card would not be sufficient to pay for a single swipe anyways.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the subway lines, services, stations, and map, let's move on to the fun part: taking an actual trip! I assume that you can plot out a general plan of how to get to your destination. This might involve deciding the following:
There are many ways to get from point A to point B. Your trip will likely involve taking a few trains and making one or two transfers. Make sure that the stations you are considering are indeed served by the trains you intend to take by looking for the single letter/number service designations below the station on the map. The most common mistake tourists commit is take an express train and then wondering why it does not stop at certain local stations.
Most of the time, you can recognize subway stations by the green or green-white "globe lamps" that surround the subway entrances:
Subway entrances can be hidden inside large buildings and shopping entrances, so look carefully:
Use your physical map or the map on your mobile phone (or ask a local) to find the closest subway station.
Sometimes it's beneficial to walk to a station that is farther away to catch a more convenient service depending on where your final destination is.
Because subway trains are really long, a subway station may have many entrances and exits. Not all entrances are created equal. Exit-only staircases are marked with a solid red globe.
You can't enter this station through these stairs; you have to find the other entrances instead. (Sometimes there are red globes around an exit that you can enter as long as you already carry a MetroCard. There should be a sign that says "enter with MetroCard only".)
More importantly, some entrances can only be used to access trains in certain directions. This is clearly stated on the sign above the entrance.
This is an entrance to the 28th St. station on the N and R service. However, you can catch the N and R trains only in the downtown direction from this entrance. For uptown service, you have to find the corresponding uptown entrance. Because subway lines generally run underneath the streets in Manhattan, you can often find uptown train entrances on the east side of the street and downtown train entrances on the west side. (Imagine the trains running on the same side of the street as the cars above them.)
In this example, you can catch the Downtown 6 train from this entrance to the Canal St. station. You can also catch the J, Z, N, Q, and R trains (in all directions) from this entrance via a free passageway (tunnels).
In case you didn't notice the red globe I mentioned earlier, this staircase is an exit only. You cannot enter the subway from here; you have to find another entrance to this station nearby.
Before entering the subway system, you have to swipe your MetroCard at the turnstile:
Before entering the turnstile, be sure that this is the right place to enter. Notice in the picture above that this is the entry only for the downtown and Brooklyn-bound train. For uptown service, you have to find another entrance. In some stations, once you are in, it's impossible to get to the other side of the platform without leaving the subway system again. This means paying a second time with your Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, or waiting 18 minutes or walking to another station for those with an Unlimited Ride MetroCard!
Besides the turnstile, you can enter a station through these revolving doors:
Both the turnstile as well as the revolving door act both as an entrances as well as an exits, so before you enter them you might have to wait for a stream of people to exit through them first. As you approach the turnstile/door, you will find a card reader on your right side. Have your MetroCard ready as you approach the card reader. (New Yorkers hate it when people fumble for their card while holding up the line behind them.) Here is how to swipe your card against the card reader:
Make sure the magnetic stripe faces down and toward you. Once you swipe the card successfully, you'll hear a discernible click sound, the display tells you that you can go and will also display the remaining value balance or the Unlimited Ride card's expiration date. (To be exact, the Unlimited Ride time window will expire at 11:59 p.m. on the displayed date.)
If the machine can't read the card, it will ask you to swipe the card again. Most tourists fail because they swipe too slowly. Imagine holding the card in your hand, locking your arm, and just walking through the turnstile at regular walking speed. If you fail to swipe properly, don't try your luck at another turnstile. It is important to keep trying to swipe at the same turnstile. Trying at another turnstile might render your card useless for 18 minutes because it thinks you have already used it.
A quick caution about the revolving doors: these doors are already locked into a position that allows you to simply go through them by pushing on them. There should never be a need to pull on the door to "turn it into a position for you to enter" -- doing so will actually count as a turn and you end up wasting a swipe.
Once you enter the system, you can put your MetroCard away. You won't need it to exit.
I assume you already know which train you want to take. You should also know by now the direction of the train you want (uptown, downtown, Manhattan-bound, Brooklyn-bound, etc.). Knowing this allows you to follow the large black signs with the arrows to guide you to your platform:
All directional signs have arrows. These signs tell you in which direction to walk to get where you want to go. The arrow applies to the entire sign - so in the picture immediately above, the sign tells you to go downstairs to catch the Uptown B, D, F, and M trains as well as the Uptown 6 train.
Platform layouts are going to differ from each subway station. However, there are several layouts that are commonly found, so let's take a look at them. For local stations that service only one subway line, you'll often find one of these two configurations:
The local trains travel on the right side (like regular traffic on the streets above them), with the local platform to enter them along the right side of the direction of travel. Sometimes you have express tracks in the middle that allow express trains to overtake the local trains, but these express trains will not stop here.
On the other hand, for stations where both local as well as express trains stop, you very often find one of these two configurations:
Either there will be a middle platform, where you can enter the express trains in either direction (depending on which side of the platform you stand), and the outer platforms serve a local train service in one particular direction, or you'll find a station that has a designated uptown platform as well as a designated downtown platform where each side of each platform will give you local vs. express access. Note that the schematics above are simplified and assume uptown/downtown directions while you are in Manhattan. It works conceptually the same in other boroughs with local trains tracks generally being on the outside and express trains tracks on the inside.
On a given platform, there are also signs that tell you on which side of the platform to stand:
To confirm that you are standing at the correct platform on the correct side, look for the large black signs that are parallel to the train's track and do not have any arrows. They look like this:
As you can see, these signs tell you the service designation (A), the train's direction (downtown), but more importantly the name of the very last station of the train. By looking at the very last station of a particular train on the map, you can determine whether that train is going in the right direction for you.
Remember that signs with arrows do not indicate the platform you are standing on. This confuses tourists all the time. They see the following sign and think that the A, C, E, and 7 trains (or 1, 2, 3, and S trains) stop here:
Instead, these signs are telling them to keep walking to the left or right to reach those trains.
A New York subway train consists of a series of passenger cars. While there are doors between the cars, it is illegal and very dangerous to move between them. Most trains have 10 cars which make them long enough to cover an entire platform. However, the C, J, Z, M have only 8 cars, while the G train is especially short, so you might have to stand in the middle of the platform for those.
Although trains do run on set schedules, it probably suffices to just go down into the station and wait for the next train, which should arrive anywhere between 2-5 minutes during rush hour and 10-20 minutes at night. The subway system runs 24 hours per day and never closes (You've heard that New York never sleeps, haven't you?). With a few exceptions you could catch nearly any train at 4 a.m. if you wanted to, although the wait might be long.
Some train services are equipped to indicate how long you have to wait for the next train(s):
These displays tell you the order of trains (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.); the train service (5, 1, and 2); the last station and, hence, direction of the train (Bowling Green, 14th St., Flatbush Ave.); and the estimated arrival time. Some displays also tell you the side of the platform you should expect the train to arrive on (the 14th St.-bound train on the left, the Flatbush-bound train on the right).
The first line always displays the next approaching train (1.), whereas the second line will alternate between all subsequent trains (2., 3., 4., etc.). If the first line turns yellow and is blinking, it means that the train just entered the station.
Because a single platform can service different trains, you want to confirm that an approaching train is indeed the train you are waiting for.
Trains carry the train service designation at the front of the train:
Most trains will have the name of the service and the name of the last station on the side of the car:
Once the train car's doors open, let passengers exit first before you enter. Once you enter the car, be sure to walk all the way in to let others behind you come in as well. Trains can be very crowded during rush hour. It's normal to find yourself sandwiched between people. Also make sure to find a pole to hold on to as the train's sudden acceleration and movements can easily throw you off balance.
The next thing to do after entering a car is to look for the route map that indicates the stations you will encounter on the service. Sometimes, the route maps are just simple printed signs:
Below some station names on this map are other connections that you can take. For example, at 74th St.-Broadway, you can connect to the E, F, M and R trains as well as take the Q32 or Q47 bus to the airport.
Some route maps are fancier displays:
The large lighted arrow on the end indicates the direction of travel (in relation to the map). Yellow lights indicate subway stations that are coming up. I took this picture on a train from the 59th St. station to Grand Central-42nd St. The last stop of this train is Bowling Green. When the train enters Grand Central station, that first yellow light will also blink.
On fancier trains, you might even see an LED display indicating the upcoming stations:
Here we are at Times Square, where you can transfer for free to the 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, Q, R, and S trains, and also walk to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT). The next station is 49th St. The display keeps on updating (shifting left) as you travel.
At last, overhead displays also tell you the next station:
These displays will alternate between the following information:
Besides the station displays I previously mentioned, the conductor will also announce the upcoming station name, although hearing (and understanding) the announcement is another matter. Look out the window to determine the station as well:
After you leave the subway car, follow the signs with the arrows to transfer to another service or follow the red exit signs to leave the subway system altogether. As you go through the turnstiles or revolving doors again to exit the system, you won't have to swipe your MetroCard.
When you finally exit the subway station, you might not immediately know your bearings. Here are two recommendations to help you out:
So far, so good. Confusing as the system already is, it's going to get even more confusing as you need to watch out for some caveats.
In the evening - usually after 10, 11, or midnight - you'll see some subtle changes to the trains. They arrive less frequently and run more slowly than usual. Express trains tend to become local, meaning that they stop at every station. You can find exactly what happens to your service by looking at the MTA website. In the top-right corner of the official MTA map you can also find a box with descriptions of how each service changes at nights and on weekends. There also exists a dedicated late-night subway map.
A few train services have a different weekend schedule. For instance, the B train never runs on weekends or the Q no longer operates in Queens. This is also described on the MTA map as well as the MTA website. However, in addition to these regular weekend schedules, there will also be a plethora of other planned service changes that are specific to the upcoming weekend. Because the subway system operates 24/7 for all 365 days of the year, maintenance of the tracks or construction has to be done while the system is in operation. New lines are currently being added, while existing tracks and stations require constant maintenance. To avoid disrupting rush-hour traffic, maintenance happens on weekends - and they happen every weekend. The MTA website has a special Weekender page where you can check the service changes.
As you enter stations, you will find "Planned Service Changes" indicating the type of change:
The type of change is very specific to each service. Read those leaflets carefully to determine what your next options are. The most common type of changes are as follows:
Express trains turn local for a certain section. This isn't too bad because you can still use the same train to get to the same destination. You just have to endure stopping at every station that usually would be skipped.
A local train that usually stops at every station is now an express train for a certain section. This usually means that in order to exit at your desired local station, you have to take this express train to the next express stop and then catch a local train in the opposite direction to end up at your desired destination.
Very often, a train is rerouted to a completely different train service altogether. For instance, the 5 trains, which typically run on the Lexington Line on the east side of Manhattan, sometimes run on the 7th Ave. line on the west side of Manhattan. Somewhere downtown it forks from the usual 5 track and merges back eventually to the 5 track somewhere midtown.
To illustrate, you find yourself standing at Times Square and suddenly see the 5 train approaching on the side of the platform where you otherwise would expect the 2 train. The conductor's announcement should be something like, "This is a 5 train running on the 2 track." In those cases, just think of that train as a 2 train. However, eventually the train will merge back to its original track and you might find some temporary sign posted in the station indicating when this will happen. Pay close attention to the conductor's announcement; it'll let you know when the train goes back to its original track.
On some trains, the route map shows a warning light, indicating that it's incorrect:
The train is no longer running. You have to exit the subway station and take a free shuttle bus that drives along the same route to each subway station. This takes longer since above-ground traffic tends be slower.
This train is out of service. Find some other route using a combination of other trains to get to your final destination.
Stay in the know:
There are some unspoken rules of etiquette to follow when you ride the subway. They may not be all that different from other transportation systems' ridership rules, but allow me to state them here:
Three major airports cover the greater New York metropolitan area:
Unfortunately, none of these three airports is conveniently located. It's always somewhat painful to get into Manhattan from these airports. The following sections outline the most popular ways of reaching Manhattan. All modes of transportation take at least 30 minutes. Note that I can’t really cover all possible alternatives (and there are many), and that depending on where exactly you want to end up, there might be some other bus service that will get you there faster.
If you have a lot of luggage, taking a cab or a rideshare like Uber/Lyft is generally the most convenient way to get to Manhattan. You won’t have to take multiple trains, ride elevators, or climb stairs. However, cabs can be very expensive and oftentimes take much longer than public transportation, especially during rush hour.
If you decide to take a cab, be wary of people standing inside the baggage claim area who offer you transportation to the city. It's illegal and somewhat of a scam. Always go to the official taxi stands outside the baggage claim area. The yellow cabs there aren't just famous, they're the real deal. As for tipping your cabbie, please note that the credit card machines in taxi cabs usually provide you with a default choice of a 20% tip. You can change this manually to a more standard tip of 10-15%.
JFK has one of the best train and railroad connections into the city. You have many options and the prices and total travel times are fairly predictable and consistent.
Option 1: Taxi cab
Price: $52 + tip/fees; duration: 50 minutes
Taking a cab from JFK into Manhattan incurs a flat fee of $52 plus toll, tip and a possible $5 rush-hour fee. Because of the flat fee, you do not have to negotiate with the cab driver (and the meter will display the $52 fee right from the beginning). However, to avoid being ripped off, you should reconfirm this flat fee policy before your ride. The ride might take you about 50-70 minutes (depending on traffic and destination).
Option 2: Airport express shuttle
Price: $16; duration: 1 hour
As you exit the terminal, look for white buses that say "NYCAirporter.com". They drop you off either at Grand Central station or the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.
Option 3: AirTrain and Long Island Rail Road
Price: $5 AirTrain + $4.50/$7/$9.50 for LIRR; duration: 1 hour
The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) consists of commuter trains that bring workers from outside the city into Manhattan. Because they are for commuters, you will find that they run frequently and can be very convenient. During rush hour on weekdays, there are trains going to New York's Pennsylvania ("Penn") Station almost every 5-10 minutes.
The LIRR station near the JFK airport is called the Jamaica Station, but it takes 15-20 minutes just to get to that station. From the terminal, go towards baggage claim first and then follow the signs to the AirTrain shuttle:
The AirTrain is an elevated, fully automated train that connects the different terminals and parking garages. It looks like this:
The AirTrain has two final destinations (Howard Beach & Jamaica Station). Even though it's technically possible to get into Manhattan from either station, it's generally faster to take the route that goes through Jamaica Station. Look for the overhead monitors to wait for a train that is labeled "Jamaica Train":
You don't pay at the airport terminals to hop on the AirTrain (you'll pay later when you get off). Take the AirTrain to its very last stop at Jamaica Station (this ride alone might take up to 20 minutes).
As you exit the AirTrain at Jamaica Station, you will find turnstiles as well as MetroCard vending machines:
This is where you need to buy an AirTrain MetroCard in the amount of $5. Please note that you cannot buy Unlimited Ride MetroCards for the NYC subway system here. (Although the machines offer and advertise a combined ticket for $7.25 that includes a single-use ticket for the subway, it's not worth it.)
After you swipe the AirTrain MetroCard to exit the AirTrain system through the automated turnstiles, follow the crowds to turn left onto the bridge over to the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) trains:
Taking the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train from here is very convenient, especially during rush hour (trains go to New York's Pennsylvania Station almost every 5-10 minutes). From the displays, you can determine the next train to Penn Station, the track where you can board, and whether the trip would be considered peak or off-peak.
With that information in mind, you can then buy the appropriate one-way ticket from one of these machines. On weekdays, that would be $7 for off-peak and $9.50 for peak time. On weekends, you can look for a so-called CityTicket which only costs $4.25.
The LIRR train ride from here into Penn Station lasts about 25 minutes and might make a few stops before it arrives there. Once at Penn Station, try to remember the area where the LIRR trains arrive. Penn Station is an immensely dense and highly confusing rail station that serves a multitude of trains. You’ll want to remember the LIRR train area in case you want to take the LIRR back to the airport.
Option 4: AirTrain and subway
Price: $5 AirTrain + price of subway MetroCard; duration: 1½ hour
Since it's likely that you’ll buy an Unlimited Ride MetroCard for the New York subway trains anyway, you might as well take this travel package and use the subway trains to get into Manhattan from here.
Unfortunately the subway system does not go directly to the airport. You have to take the AirTrain from the terminal to the LIRR's Jamaica Station first, so follow the steps described previously in Option 3 to get to Jamaica Station. However, instead of taking the LIRR trains, simply walk past all the LIRR trains towards the end of the bridge until you see the elevators:
Take an elevator to the bottom floor (Level A), where you will enter the Sutphin Blvd./Archer Ave./JFK Airport subway station, which is served by the E, J, and Z trains.
Here you can buy your Unlimited Ride MetroCards for the subway. At this point, you might be approached by strangers trying to sell you used MetroCards. Don’t buy their cards; buy them from the official machines.
From this station, take the next Manhattan-bound E train (final destination World Trade Center). The trip from here into Manhattan can take up to 45 minutes.
Even though LaGuardia Airport is the closest airport to Manhattan, it does not offer any train or railroad connection to Manhattan.
Option 1: Taxi cab
Price: $35–$50; duration: 30 minutes
Unlike the JFK airport, there is no flat fee to take a cab from LaGuardia. You are going to have to pay the metered fare, which can fluctuate a lot depending on the exact location of your destination and how bad traffic is.
Option 2: Airport Express shuttle
Price: $13; duration: 40 minutes
Follow the "Express Bus to Manhattan" signs and look for the white "NYCAirporter.com" buses. Those buses cost $13 from the airport and drop you off either at Grand Central station, Port Authority Bus Station, or Penn Station in Manhattan. They look like this:
Option 3: Q70 Bus
Price: Price of subway fare; duration: 40 minutes
Since it's likely that you'll buy an Unlimited Ride MetroCard for the New York subway trains anyway, which provides you with free access to the public bus system, you can take the Q70 bus to get to the nearest subway station.
First, follow the signs to the "Public Bus to Manhattan":
Right before you exit the terminal, you will also find a MetroCard vending machine:
Here you can, and should, buy your MetroCard. This is the same card that you will be using for both the bus and all subway trains in New York. Note that these vending machines do not accept cash.
There are multiple public buses that serve LaGuardia, so be sure to look for the one labeled "Q70":
Once you board the bus, there will be a MetroCard read situated right next to the bus driver. This is where you can swipe your MetroCard. The swipe will be free if you have an Unlimited Ride MetroCard or deducts the usual $2.75 for a single ride if you have a Pay-per-Ride MetroCard. The bus takes about 20 minutes and won't make any other stop until it arrives at the 74th St./Broadway/Jackson Hts./Roosevelt Ave. subway station in Queens served by many different trains. From here, take the next Manhattan-bound train (the E, F, or 7 trains are probably the fastest taking about 20 minutes to reach Midtown Manhattan). Using the same MetroCard as before, entering the subway station here will be free as it counts as a free transfer.
Option 4: M60 Select Bus Service
Price: Price of subway fare; duration: 40-60 minutes
If your final destination is Astoria in Queens, or in uptown Manhattan, you might consider taking the M60 Select Bus Service instead. This is a bus that leaves LaGuardia airport and heads west towards Astoria, Queens and then crosses a bridge into Manhattan where it goes on 125th St. through Harlem towards Columbia University/Morningside Heights. Along the way, it will make stops with access to the following subway services: N/Q in Queens; 4/5/6, 2/3, A/B/C/D in Harlem and finally the 1 in Morningside Heights/Columbia University.
In order to take this bus, follow the same instructions as in Option 3 (Q70): follow the signs to "Public Buses to Manhattan" and buy a MetroCard at the MetroCard Vending Machine (inside the terminal). Boarding the M60 bus is slightly different than what you might be accustomed to with other buses. The M60 is a so-called Select Bus Service (SBS). SBS buses serve popular bus routes; to save time, they have devised a separate payment mechanism. So instead of swiping the MetroCard in the card reader next to the bus driver on typical buses, you would actually have to pay the fare before you even board the bus. First, look for a Select Service Bus fare payment machine near the bus stop (outside of the terminal, next to the bus stop). They look very much like a small MetroCard Vending Machine, but have a distinct "Push to Start" button in the middle:
Push the round metal button first and then insert your MetroCard on the right side as pictured below. The swipe will be free if you have an Unlimited Ride MetroCard, or it will deduct the typical single-ride price if you have a Pay-per-Ride MetroCard.
The machine will dispense a receipt (on the left side). Take the receipt and board the bus using any available door. You do not have to show the receipt to the bus driver. The receipt acts as a proof-of-payment and only needs to be shown when a fare inspector asks you for it.
The bus will make many stops, with the following stops giving you access to subway trains:
Note that the times above are very rough estimates as it depends on the traffic, which can be notoriously bad depending on time of day. As you transfer from the bus into a subway station, the swipe through the turnstile should be free as it counts as a free transfer from bus to subway.
The Newark airport is the farthest airport from New York City. In fact, it's located in the neighboring state of New Jersey. However, it's close enough that many New York City–bound flights land here as well.
Option 1: Taxi cab
Price: $70–90; duration: 50–70 minutes
Naturally, the cost of taking a cab from the Newark airport is very expensive. Because the cab has to pass through a few toll booths, you'll end up spending about $90, including tip. Traffic into New York through the tunnels can take some time, too, so it's not always the most convenient way. If you take the Taxi and want to pay with a credit card, please note that at this airport you have to pre-pay your fare at a Taxi pay terminal, get a payment slip and then show your slip to the driver. The terminal will charge you a $5 transaction fee on top of this.
Option 2: Newark Airport Express shuttle
Price: $16; duration: 50–70 minutes
The Newark Airport Express shuttle runs every 15–30 minutes. There can be a bit of a wait for all passengers to board the bus and pay their fare, so the wait alone can add some time to your trip.
Follow the signs to the buses to New York City:
The bus itself looks like this:
You can pay with cash or credit card on the bus. The bus trip itself takes about 30-40 minutes to reach Manhattan. It drops you off at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Bryant Park, or Grand Central station.
Option 3: AirTrain and New Jersey Transit
Price: $13; duration: 40–60 minutes
The New Jersey Transit (often abbreviated "NJ Transit") is a commuter train serving the Newark airport. Because this train comes at set times and is not subject to traffic, it is often the fastest way to get into New York City during the weekday. However, it runs infrequently at night or on weekends. I usually take the NJ Transit when I arrive during the weekday and the Newark Airport Express bus at night or on weekends.
In order to get to the NJ Transit stop, you first have to take the AirTrain (an elevated, fully automated train system that connects the different terminals). Follow the signs to the AirTrain:
The AirTrain entrances are easily recognizable inside the terminals:
You don't pay to enter the AirTrain; you pay when you exit. There are two directions for the AirTrain. Take the one labeled "RAILink":
Take the AirTrain to its last stop (Rail Link Terminal). There you can buy tickets for the NJ Transit at these machines:
The ticket into New York City costs $13. The ticket has a QR code on it and you have to place the QR code against a scanner to be able to go through the turnstiles. Hold on to the ticket though, as you'll need it later on the train.
Follow the signs to Track 1, A (New York and Newark). You can then wait at the platform for the next train into New York ("New York-SEC"):
Once you are on the NJ Transit, a conductor will ask to see your NJ Transit ticket again (he or she will also probably keep the ticket). You won’t need the ticket to exit.
The NJ Transit makes a few stops before it reaches New York. One of the stops might be Newark Penn Station. Do not confuse Newark Penn Station with the final destination, New York Penn Station (they sound similar).
As you exit Penn Station in New York, try to remember where the NJ Transit area is. As I mentioned before, Penn Station is a highly confusing and chaotic station serving multiple trains. You’ll want to remember where the NJ Transit area is in case you want to take it back to the airport. If you do use the NJ Transit to get back to the airport, you will need to use your NJ Transit ticket twice: first to show it to the conductor on the train, and second to enter the Newark AirTrain system to get to the airport terminals.
I hope you enjoyed reading this guide as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you have found this guide to be useful, please help me in promoting it. I would be grateful if you can share this guide with other travelers, post it on Reddit, Facebook and other social media, blog about it or just link to this website. You can also leave some feedback on this TripAdvisor post where I first announced this website. Lastly, I welcome you to reach out to me via e-mail if you have any questions or feedback so that I can continue to improve this guide over time.
Despite some of my gripes about the New York subway, I do think it's one of the best subway systems in the world. It certainly provides the most bang for your buck. It's impossible to think of New York City without picturing the subway. The subway system brings a lot of jobs to the city, and is the one place where you encounter people of all races, ethnicities, genders, types, and income brackets. New York wouldn't be this great of a city were it not for its subway system.
Minh T. Nguyen
PS: I want to thank Stefan Gruenwedel for the thorough copy-editing.
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