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Subways are, by far, the fastest and cheapest way of transportation for long distances in Manhattan. It costs $1.50 to enter the subway system. However, once you enter the system, you can switch lines as often as you need to for no additional charge.

Subway Train
Subway train with Manhattan in the background

You should get a subway map before you go so that you can familiarize yourself with the different lines and stations. You can get a subway map at a Tuscaloosa or Birmingham bookstore or for free from the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) by writing to them. The MTA web site also has subway maps.

Despite the stories that you hear from people who have "been to NYC" or "know NYC", the subways are safe to use as long as people are around. I ride it to work anytime from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. without fear of being mugged (the system runs 24 hours a day). Just use common sense and a healthy dose of caution and you will be fine.


You can identify subway stations by finding underground stairways on street corners and sidewalks (a few stations are inside buildings, such as Penn Station or Grand Central Station). The stairway openings will be surrounded on three sides by black railings with signs identifying the station, such as "28th Street N * R". Once you find the station that has the line that you want, such as N or R, go down the stairs into the subway.  Be sure to note that the entrance is for the direction you are going - some entrances are one direction.  If the entrance is Uptown only then the Downtown entrance is usually across the street.

Subway Station
Wall Street subway station for the 4 and 5 line

Using your subway map, locate the station you are at and the station you want to go to. If the map indicates transfers at a certain station, this means you can get off the subway train for any of the lines that stop at the station and switch to another line at the same station. Usually, you will walk down corridors or up and down stairs to get to another platform.


Once you have selected your route, buy a MetroCard with $6 or $15 on it at the underground booth, usually located near the stairs to the street entrance. Be sure to ask for a MetroCard when you slide the attendant the money or he/she will sometimes try to give you tokens. You can still use tokens, but the MetroCard is more convenient and also stores transfers electronically (2-hour window).  There are no transfers from the subway to bus with tokens.

Front side of MetroCard

MetroCards can be used on both buses and the subway. You can buy these thin, plastic, yellow cards at the attendant booth down in nearly any subway station and at some convenience stores. You can buy MetroCards with $3 to $100 on them. The normal cards can be refilled by handing money and the card to the attendant. However, the convenience stores only sell prepaid cards.  MetroCards do not have an intrinsic value - a card containing four fares costs $6.

The MTA has now begun to sell unlimited ride cards for seven days and thirty days. The seven-day card costs $17 and the thirty-day card costs $63. The countdown for usage starts when you first use the card NOT when you buy it.


Entering the area from where the trains depart requires you to go through the electronic turnstiles.

Using the MetroCard
Directions for using the MetroCard

While holding the MetroCard in your right hand, turn it so the yellow side is facing you and slide it forward through the swipe on top of the right-hand side of the turnstile. The green LED display on the turnstile will beep and display the balance left on your card.

Go through the turnstiles and follow the overhead signs for the line you want.

Note the direction of incoming trains by looking at the electronic signs posted on the side of the cars. Usually the trains will display the final destinations such as "149th Street - Bronx" (uptown) or "South Ferry" (downtown). A little map reading will tell you if the trains are headed downtown or uptown.

Express trains skip about four out of five local stops. These trains are quite faster than the local trains. The express trains are labeled as such.

The train operator will announce the next stop before arriving. Don't worry if you can't understand the announcements, the station names are on clearly visible signs in each station.

You will quickly master the subway lines and be able to navigate yourself to locations in Manhattan with minimal effort.

Note: The Howard Beach subway station in Brooklyn has a free shuttle bus that picks up subway passengers and takes them back and forth to JFK Airport. The whole trip from Manhattan to JFK will take about one and a half to two hours by subway and the shuttle bus.  However, a much better and safer option is to use a car service or take a taxi and pay the flat fee.

Also read MTA's How to Ride the Subway.

Copyright 1998-2000 by Jonathan Sides
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