How to ride the New York subway

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Leave your tourist bubble, stop criss-crossing Manhattan in the back of a yellow cab and try the quickest and cheapest way to get around New York City. I’ve seen the future – and it’s train-shaped

Taking the subway from JFK will initially take you overground through Queens. It’s a great introduction to New York. As you gaze down over the rooftops and the nose-to-tail traffic, it’s hard not to imagine yourself in a Scorsese movie. Or even a Spike Lee (but not Do the Right Thing – I mean a good one). Approaching Manhattan, the place and street names are so familiar that you feel a growing sense of comfort, like this is somehow your place. By the time you disembark downtown, you’ll feel so at home you’ll want to scoff at the other tourists hunched over their fold-out maps, arguing over the location of Ground Zero and all pointing in different directions.

But I think we may be running before we can walk. You need a few practicalities in order to begin.
Paying is easy, once you know how. In my opinion, the best way is to buy a day ticket (which costs $7.50 and gives unlimited journeys). Seven- and 14- day passes are also available for longer stays. Other than this, the pricing structure is such that each journey costs $2: get on at 42nd and disembark one stop later at 34th, and it’s cost you $2 once you exit the barriers. Get on at 10am, ride the train all day, change lines every five minutes if you like and finally exit the barriers in time for bed – and it will still only cost you $2, because you’ve only exited the barriers once. Think and plan before you choose your ticket.

So, go to the self-service kiosk, select your ticket type using the touch screen – the unlimited ones are called "Fun Passes" – and ideally pay by cash because it’s quicker and easier. If you want to pay by debit or credit card, you’ll be asked more questions and ultimately need a zip code in order to get a ticket. The first time I tried to do this, I didn’t know the zip of where I was staying and aborted the mission. It later became clear to me that putting in any five digits will suffice as a zip and get you over this last hurdle – probably obvious if you’re American, but not so if you’re not and don’t know the format of the US zip code.

Once you have your ticket, the subway map needs a little understanding – it’s nowhere near as clear as the Tube maps in London – but in essence, the system is the same the world over. Be aware that sometimes an "E" train, for example, can depart from one of two platforms. One is the fast train – ideal if you’re going to the airport, because it doesn’t stop at every station – while the other is the local one – which you may need, depending on where you want to get off.

It’s all explained on the platforms, though, so don’t worry. After that, once you’ve made a couple of journeys you’ll get the hang of it – and it’s so much better than sweating in the back of a yellow cab, watching the meter tick round as you sit gridlocked in eight lanes of traffic.

Once you are familiar with the system, get adventurous; I rode the Q train down to Coney Island and Brighton Beach before going back up to Brooklyn and walking over the bridge. Fifteen minutes later, I was in Central Park. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a yellow cab at some point, but that’s something they just couldn’t achieve.

You don’t need me to tell you where else to go during your stay in New York – but I can give some final advice for when travelling to and from the airports. Most international flights arrive at either JFK or Newark Liberty. From JFK, it’s a flat fee of $45 in a cab and can take anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes depending on the time of day and the traffic. The subway will take you around 45-50 minutes and will cost you $2 for the one journey. To get to the subway, you take the AirTrain (monorail) service directly from the terminals to either Howard Beach for the A train or Sutphin Boulelvard for the E, J or Z train – and this will cost you $5. If you’re travelling alone or in a couple and don’t have an expense account, it’s really a no-brainer financially.

At Newark, you also take a SkyTrain service directly to the NJ transit station which then takes you overland to Penn Station at 34th as there is no subway from the airport. This will cost you $12.50 including the cost of the transfer from the SkyTrain to the train – and you should find yourself in Penn Station around half an hour after setting off from anywhere you can get to on the subway system.

The other NYC airport is La Guardia, though I believe this is mainly used for internal flights in the US. On the face of it, it’s a slightly more awkward journey because there is no train or subway directly to the door. That said, when you come out of the terminal doors, there is a bus stop directly outside from where you catch the Q33 to Roosevelt Avenue/Jackson Heights. This part of the journey costs $2, which you will need in quarters (don’t ask me why, but they don’t like dollar bills on this one and they don’t give change). After alighting at Roosevelt, go back on to the bridge just behind you, where you’ll find the subway station from where you can get the E train down to Manhattan for another $2 (or use your day pass). A few weeks ago, this journey from the airport to the address on the edge of Greenwich Village where I was staying took me 45 minutes. I love New York – it's one of my favourite places – but I loved it more once I could get around it properly. 

Oh, one more thing. Check out the Millenium Broadway hotel for offers. It's very plush, right on Times Square, and you can get a room right at the top giving you views all the way across Manahattan. Their regular room rate is not cheap as you can imagine but they do really good offers every couple of months and I managed to get 3 nights there for around $100 per night.  And there's a fantastic deli selling everything imaginable almost directly opposite the main entrance!

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More information on How to ride the New York subway:

Author:
Jim Severn
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)
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First uploaded:
24 June 2009
Last updated:
5 years 44 weeks 2 days 14 hours 53 min 56 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Shopping, Short Break
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
Subway, New York City, Manhattan, JFK, La Guardia, Newark Liberty

Jim recommends

Hotels

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1. Millenium Broadway Hotel
£100
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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thanks Jim, this is a really entertaining and useful guide. I suspect many readers would be nervous about using the trains and subway in NYC so you might have helped alleviate some fears! This guide is proving to be popular because it is so focussed, yet practical and personal. Can't wait to see your next guide for Simonseeks.

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