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As one of the largest underground systems in the world, with 472 stations and millions of users, the New York subway is beyond daunting. Rather than tackle this mind-boggler alone, here are our top tips for surviving the MTA.
1. THE BASICS
Learn to use letters and numbers
London’s easy, right? Find a line, remember the colour and follow it. But not in New York. In the Big Apple, you (mostly) work with letters and numbers. You might find three lines with the same colour, but they’ll eventually split and go to three completely different destinations.
Tip from a New Yorker: Lines of the same colour run nearly identical routes through a lot of Manhattan and in some cases, into the outer boroughs. So colours give you a general indication of roughly where the line runs.
Direction is not denoted by destination
Again, in places such as London, you know you’re on the right track by checking the final destination and ensuring your stop is on that line. Not so in New York. Oh no, that would be far too simple. Instead, you’ll need to check your direction at the station entrance or platform:
NB: You might have to cross the street because some stations have separate entrances for uptown and downtown-bound trains.
In this instance, the tracks are going in both directions, and it is the platform which will indicate whether you're going uptown or downtown etc.
Buy a Metrocard before travel
The NYC MetroCard can be bought from any MetroCard vending machine or staffed sales booths in the subway stations, or any MTA Metro-North Railroad station.
Add money to your MetroCard
The card itself costs $1 and at the same time you can add money:
Consider a MetroPass
The current fare is $2.75 (per ride) when using a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard, but depending on the length of your stay, a MetroPass might be more cost-effective. Grab a seven-day metro pass for US$32, or a 30-Day pass for $116.50.
3. ENTERING THE UNKNOWN
Watch out for lock-out times
Another good reason to get your direction right the first time, is because there’s a lock-out condition on your MetroCard. Say you enter the turnstile and realise you should be on the other side of the track, once you exit, you can’t re-enter for 18 minutes.
Talking of turnstiles
One of the easier things about the New York subway is that you only use your MetroPass to enter a station, it isn’t needed for exiting. Once on the train you can put it away and forget about it.
Once the doors close, they’re closed
There are no internal or external buttons to re-open the door, so pay attention! This means you might miss your train if you don’t get on quick enough. Equally if you don’t get ready to alight, you might get stuck behind other passengers and miss the doors opening for your stop. They are that quick.
Tip from a New Yorker: Remember, if you do get on the wrong train or miss your stop, it’s no big deal. You can always get off, head to the opposite platform and wait for a train going back the other way in order to retrace your steps, typically without paying a new fare - easy!
4. THE COMPLICATED BIT
Local trains are different to express trains
This is where it gets tricksy.
Express trains skip certain stops (makes sense) whereas local trains usually stop at every station on the line.
There’s a trick to making this a bit easier
Once in the station, local trains usually stop on the outer platforms (next to the wall), while express trains stop on the inner platforms.
And easier still...
Use a subway map - they're in every station. Look closely and you'll see the lines which DO stop at the station, are in bold on the map. If they're not in bold - they're not stopping.
Tip from a New Yorker: The key thing to note is that lines of the same colour group are usually local/express variations of the same route for much of Manhattan. For example, the RED 1, 2 and 3. Number 1 runs local (unless there is track work in which case there will be a million posters telling you so) and 2 and 3 are express.
5. DOWNLOAD AN APP
When in New York, especially if it’s your first-time, your best bet is to download an App. Google Maps will only get you so far, and annoyingly don’t often highlight weekend trackwork.
Around-the-clock service, BUT…
Though the subway runs 24 hours, there are fewer trains running very late nights and some platform entrances close so you may have to hunt to access lesser used stations at very off hours. Alternate entrances to a platform are sometimes across the street or around the corner. The rule of thumb is that stations are open when the light at the stairs is on (much like cabs are available when their lights are on).
If you want to explore parts of neighbouring New Jersey like Hoboken (called the “sixth borough”) reached by PATH trains, you can use your Metrocard to pay for those as well.
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