New York Subway Metro Card
New York Subway Metro Card

New York Subway – A Comprehensive Metro Guide For Tourists

It was over a decade ago that I was introduced to FRIENDS, a popular sitcom from the 1990s. Whether it was Ross’s query antics, Rachelle’s fashion statements, Joey’s pizza, Monica’s competitiveness, Phoebe’s songs or Chandler’s sarcasm, each episode had me glued. Even today I watch any random episode of FRIENDS and laugh harder every time. 

From the famous Central Park to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, a lot of New York City’s establishments made it to the show. Among them, the New York Subway was one. Whether it was Phoebe’s songs at the subway stations or Joey’s advert, I was always fascinated by the setup. Honestly, never in my wildest dream had I thought that I’d get to experience the New York Subway. 

During my first international trip to the US last year, I spent some time in New York experiencing one of the best cities in the world. And the New York subway was Maharaj’s chariot for the entire week. New Yorkers refer to the metro as the subway, so instead of the metro, we’ll refer to it as the Subway.

In this blog post, I’m going to share everything about the New York Subway and have this among the best New York Subway guide for tourists. 

A Little Bit of History

The New York Subway is one of the oldest metro systems in the world with operations starting way back in the early 1900s. The first subway line opened from City Hall to 145th Street. Over the years the system has expanded and has more than 472 active stations and covers close to 400 kms making it easy to go from one borough to another easily.

While the metros in India including Delhi Metro are better looking when compared to New York Metro, it’s the sheer scale at which the latter operates plus the duration since when it’s been operating. Interestingly, the subway made use of tokens way back in the 1950s which eventually gave way to metro cards in the early 2000s.

New York Subway Routes & Lines

When I first got on to the Chicago Metro, I thought it was a little confusing, only to realise that the New York Subway beats it by a huge margin. The New York subway has to be one of the most difficult metro systems to understand for tourists. You will be confused with the colours, letters, numbers, and fast and local trains that ply on the route. I spent a week travelling in the subway and went in different directions, so here’s an easy breakup for you:

  • Uses a combination of letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) and numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) to identify its various routes.
  • Letters typically represent subway lines that serve Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx, often extending from Manhattan out into these boroughs. For example, the A, C, and E lines serve different parts of Brooklyn and Queens, all starting their journey from Manhattan.
  • Numbers are generally assigned to lines operating within Manhattan and extend into the Bronx. The 1, 2, and 3 lines, for example, run on the West Side of Manhattan and continue into the Bronx.
  • Each subway line is associated with a specific colour. The colour represents a group of lines that share a significant track portion in Manhattan. For instance:
    • Blue Lines (A, C, E): These lines all run along Eighth Avenue in Manhattan at some point in their routes.
    • Yellow Lines (N, Q, R, W): These lines connect to Manhattan (Times Square), Brooklyn and Queens.
    • Red Lines (1, 2, 3): These lines travel along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
    • Green Lines (4, 5, 6): These lines use Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.
    • Orange Lines (B, D, F, M): These services operate along Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
  • Apart from these, there are express and local train services that operate too. 

So you see, it’s a deep interplay of colours, numbers, and alphabets which is extremely confusing for anyone getting on the subway for the first time. I used the yellow line most of the time since I was staying in Queens.

Nyc metro transit map 2023

New York Metro Card, Fares & OMNY Pay

Now that you’ve got some understanding about the New York subway, routes and lines, let’s get into understanding fares and passes. Most subway stations have functional vending machines as well as counters. Like the Chicago Metro, this also has different plans for everyone’s needs.

Regular Fare

The regular fare of New York Subways, Buses and select ferries is capped at $2.9. Irrespective of the distance you’re traveling or places you’re visiting, you’ll pay a flat $2.9 for each trip. This is a good option if you’re going to take the subway less frequently. But assuming you’re going to be using it frequently, considering cabs are super expensive, this is not something you want to do.

New York Metro Card

The New York metro card is a great option for anyone planning to use the metro regularly. These cards can be purchased at any vending machine across stations. Different fares start from single trip, 7-day unlimited and 30-day unlimited to specialised plans for students and others. 

New York  Subway Metro Card
New York Subway Metro Card

I opted for the 7-day unlimited pass which cost me $35 ($34 + $1 metro card fee). During my 5 day stay in New York, I utilised this to the core. Every place that I wanted to cover, there was a subway near it. If you’re visiting New York, the unlimited pass is highly recommended. 

OMNY Pay

OMNY Pay is a digital platform/app that allows you to pay for all your commute in New York. Like any other app, you can link your credit/debit card to the app and simply tap and go at all subway stations. Every trip costs the same $2.9, but after 12 trips in a week, every trip is FREE during the week. This is the unlimited metro pass digital version. So if you don’t want a physical card, this is what you should use. Since I wanted to keep the metro card as a souvenir, I opted for it.

My New York Subway Experience

Even before I left for the US, I had my research in place and I was crystal clear that the subway is the most affordable way to commute in the city. Some YouTube videos did help me with this, Sarah’s channel has tons of videos about New York. I booked my Marriott Residence Inn Hotel in Queens which was close to a metro station that had direct trains to Manhattan. 

During my first time in New York, I landed in New York at midnight and the next morning I walked to the Queens Street subway station. The station had functional vending machines and I was able to secure a metro card with the 7 day unlimited pass using my Niyo Global debit card. While I expected a plastic card like Chicago Metro, this is a flimsy, paper-like card. 

Subway stations in New York
Subway stations in New York

Nonetheless, I used it a lot, a LOT. From visiting the Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center, Wall Street, and Brooklyn, to exploring the food joints in the NYU campus and going all the way up to The Vessel, I only used the subway.  

I won’t deny that it was extremely confusing the first 2 days as I couldn’t wrap my head around the numbers, alphabet, and colours of the subway. I even got to the wrong platform and took the wrong train. So every morning, I used to plan my day and memorise the route based on what Google Maps suggested. By the time I left New York, I at least knew all the trains that would go to Queens! 

The cable car ride from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan was fun. Also for that stretch, the metro goes beneath the East River which was so fascinating. If you’re on this of the Manhattan, do try to experience it.

Cable Car from Rooselvet Island to Manhattan
Cable Car from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan

Lastly having travelled in metros in India, and seeing the type of people who travel, I’d say don’t be surprised if you found beggars or sellers selling incense sticks and other items in the New York subway. The beggars there speak English so you WILL respond to every “Excuse Me” only to hear “Can you give me a dollar?” later. So be cautious.

Apart from that, the New York subway helped me explore the city so well and on a budget. Highly recommend getting a pass for your next travel.

Tips For Using the New York Subway

  • Using the subway is pretty straightforward forward, and is like using any other metro service in the world. You enter the subway station, swipe your metro card and get to the platform. 
  • There are 400+ subway stations in New York, most of them underground, and it can be difficult to find one. Look for green-colored lamp posts that indicate a subway station.
  • Many underground stations have multiple levels, and you need to walk a LOT.
  • Use Google Maps to plan your ride. I used it extensively and it was pretty accurate. It will tell you exactly which train to take to go to your destination.
  • Having the Unlimited Pass gives you peace of mind, especially if you’re spending multiple days in the city.
  • Not all ferries are served by this pass, so please check before you board a ferry.
  • There are certain cable car services included in the pass, for instance, this one from Roosevelt Islands to Manhattan.
  • The subway can get extremely crowded at peak hours, so be ready to stand.
  • The subway is largely safe, but then again do protect your belongings and avoid taking large luggage for you.

Most Affordable Way to Explore New York

After spending 5 days in New York, I can easily say that the Subway is the most affordable way to explore New York. If you’re a solo traveller, you’ll surely fit your budget. Even if you’re with your family, if everyone is comfortable walking and taking the subway, this will be very affordable too.

I enjoyed my experience in the subway, and by the time I was leaving the city, I had already memorized the trains that would take me back home to Queens. So I’m not an expert, but I can surely guide first-timers to New York with anything related to the subway. Let me know in the comments below, tweet to me at @Atulmaharaj, DM @Atulmaharaj on Instagram or Get In Touch

About Atulmaharaj

A seasoned blogger and a content marketer for close to a decade now. I write about Food, Technology, Lifestyle, Travel, and Finance related posts. Blogging brings me joy and the best part is I get to read and e-meet so many amazing bloggers! PS: I'm also the founder for Socialmaharaj.com :) Favorite Quote: "Traveling is like reading a book, one who hasn't traveled, hasn't turned a page.

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