For most tourists the New York subway is a chaotic labyrinth. It is, however, the fastest and cheapest way to get around the city. With its 472 stations(!), you can reach any part of the city, so long as you have understood its system.

By purchasing the MetroCard, you will be able to pass through all the subway ticket slots. It costs only 2,75$ per route. For more information on the cost, the duration and the use of the MetroCard click here.

In the article below you will find all the relevant information which will help you to comprehend the New York subway system and how you can save money.

Becoming familiar with Maps

Understanding the maps are the first steps which will help you navigate the subway more easily. After you have decided which part of the city you want to visit, the maps will enable you to choose the right lines.

In the west part of New York are the lines 1, 2 and 3 and E, C, B and D. In the east side 4, 5, 6. All lines separate and end in different places. You must follow the lines on the map in order to get to your destination.

It will be much easier to use the subway if you have a map or download it on your mobile. A recommended app, which also works offline, is the NewYorkSubway–OfficialMTAmapofNYC. There is also a map at every station and if you can’t find it the station staff are very helpful.

Use numbers and letters, not colours.

Looking at the map you will see that the lines are in different colours. They also having letters and numbers. The locals don’t use the lines based on their colours but on their letters or numbers. The colours show that certain lines pass through the same tracks at certain points.

You must always choose the line based on its number or letter, not on its colour. Even if lines have the same colour at some points they end up in totally different locations. The lines A, C, E are all blue but they all separate at CanalSt.

Local or express trains/black or white dots?

You will also notice that some stations on the maps are dotted in black and others in white. Local trains stop at all stations, whether they have black or white dots. On the contrary, express trains only stop at the white dotted stations and never at the black ones.

In the image above, you can see subway station 86 St (blue circle) with the indication of the line no 1 beneath and a black dot. This means that the train of line 1 is local and is the only train that stops at this station. On the other hand, at station 96St (black circle) the dot is white and indicates lines 1, 2 and 3. This means that the trains of lines 2 and 3 are express and stop only at this station.

This is one of the most common mistakes that tourists make on the NY subway. Unknowingly, they enter an express train and end up at a station much further than the desired location. Let us say that you want to go to the Natural History Museum on 81 St. As you can see in the image below,  lines B and C take you to the station 81st street. As this station has a black dot, it means it’s a local station and lines B and C are local.

Notice that on the station 125 St (red circle), which is served by lines B and C, but also lines A and D the station’s dot is white which means lines A and D are express. So they do not stop at 81 St or at any other station with a black dot.

If you are at the station Columbus Circle/59 St and are headed north towards 81 St, you must take trains B and C. If you take trains A and D, the next stop will be 125 St, a mistake which will cost you a lot of time.

Uptown or Downtown?

It is also very important to understand whether you are going Uptown or Downtown. In other words north or south, in order to choose the right platform.

Many stations, usually the local ones, have a different entrance for Uptown (left image) and Downtown (right image). That means you might have to walk to the opposite sidewalk and go down to the platform which will take you to the right direction.

At some stations, instead of Uptown you might see the sign BronxBound or QueensBound and instead of Downtown the sign might say Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan. This indicates the train’s last stop and direction.

Choosing the right station

The station’s name will usually help you locate where you are on the map and choose where you want to go. However,many stations have different entrances, like for example Canal St which has 5 exits.

Use the underground docks to transport to the stations

Another mistake first timers make in New York is that they exit one station in order to enter another station to take a different line and end up paying for a second ticket. Some stations have pedestrian tunnels which unite different stations. And even have shops and restaurants and many buskers who fill the tunnels with music.

New York subaway map

Thus, if you find yourself at Port Authority Terminal and want to take line 7, you don’t need to exit the station, and walk east towards the station Times Square. Instead you can walk through the tunnel, following the signs to your line, without needing to exit the station or buying a new ticket.

Red and Green spheres

You might notice red or green spheres upon entering a station, like the ones in the image.

new york subway guide

These spheres are there to indicate to the passengers which stations are open 24hrs and which ones are closed at night. The green spheres also indicate that these stations only have stairs. Recently, the red spheres have been lessening to the degree that you might not see them at all in the future.

Ask for Help

If you are not sure you are taking the right train, or standing on the right platform do not hesitate to ask.

Local New Yorkers are famous for being antisociable and snobs, but you will be surprised at how helpful they are with directions. If they see you looking lost they might even approach you themselves without you asking. 

The staff at every station are also very helpful, and so are the police who guard every station.

Empty wagons

If during rush hour you see an empty wagon with all the passengers squeezed onto one side there is a reason for this. If you don’t have a good sense of smell or don’t want to catch a virus you had better change wagons. A tragic reality of New York are its homeless, its poor and its mentally ill, who, especially during the cold months, find refuge in the subway wagons.

For available activities in New York check here.

Beware of your things

Our last advice for the New York subway is stating the obvious. Watch out for your personal belongings, your wallet, your mobile, passports and IDs and the rest of your possessions.

The NY subway station is safe, with police guarding every station. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t malicious pickpockets around.