16 Tips to Tackle the NYC Subway

For newcomers to the city, using the train can seem complicated—there are routes and train names to memorize, transfers, and the (sometimes) unspoken train etiquette to consider. Here are 16 tips to help you get your bearings on using the train :

Use an app

NYC subway maps are posted on all trains and in most train stations. But using a mobile app is a great way to plan your trip and keep up to date on any train schedule changes. Most apps will alert you when a train is delayed, shut down, or otherwise diverted. You can find a list of great mobile apps here

What’s cheapest?

Depending on where you live in the city, it may make sense to only buy a train ticket when you need it. If you’re going to be taking the train on a daily basis, it probably makes sense to get a monthly MetroCard. Don’t forget: your MetroCard can be reused, and you’ll avoid paying a fee to get a new card if you just reload your current one.

Getting a MetroCard

You can buy MetroCards in any train station in the city. You can use the MetroCard machines to buy one with cash or card. The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) also offers EasyPayExpress cards that can be automatically reloaded online. Don’t forget that your MetroCard can also be used on most busses in the city—with the exception of the SBS line (Select Bus Service.)

Uptown or Downtown

You’ll notice most trains run uptown or downtown. This means the train is either running south (downtown) or north (uptown) as it relates to Manhattan. The trains are usually described by the last stop of the direction it’s headed and which borough it’s headed to.

This also dictates which side of the platform you’ll stand on in the station. If you’re taking a train that runs north and south in Manhattan—such as the 1,2, or 3 train—the train will be headed either uptown or downtown. If you’re catching a train in Brooklyn—such as the J train--and you’re headed to Manhattan, you’d stand on the Manhattan-bound side of the track.

Trains can also be called by the last stop on their line. For example, on the 5 train going downtown, you’ll see “Flatbush Ave” posted on the train—that’s because Flatbush Ave is the last stop on that line headed downtown towards Brooklyn.

It might sound complicated at first, but keep your app handy and soon you’ll get the hang of it. Once you do, you’ll be able to navigate NYC like a pro.


Transferring just means you’re getting off of one train line and onto another. Many stations give you the ability to transfer so you can get to just about any direction in the city. For example, you might be staying on the Upper West Side by a 1, 2, or 3, train, but need to get to Grand Central. You’d take the 1, 2, or 3, train downtown (south) to Times Square, for example, and then hop on the S train which will take you east to Times Square.

 You’ll see on your app that station names will tell you which trains stop at that station, so you can see the different trains you can transfer to. Transferring within the same station is completely free. You just get off your current train, and head over to the right platform.

If you get lost or aren’t sure what the best route is, just ask. You’ll notice quickly that New Yorkers love to show off their train/transfer directions. You’re likely to hear a passionate (but harmless) argument about which route is the best.

Express trains

Express trains will be your friend during peak rush hours. When a train is running express, it means that it’s only stopping at certain stations on its route. You’ll see these on your subway map marked as white circles or ovals. Be cautious of this because trains aren’t like busses—you can’t request a stop. Most trains run express during peak rush hour times and rarely on weekends. This will make your commute faster if you live or work near a train that has an express stop.

Stay up-to-date

It is very common to have train delays and route changes in the city—and no one likes them. Many mobile apps have notification capabilities to inform you when there’s a schedule change. Consider following the MTA on Twitter as they tend to tweet alerts pretty quickly. Changes to the train schedule will also be posted inside stations that are affected, along with instructions for how to transfer.  

Step out of the way

When the train pulls up to the platform, stand out of the doorway and to the left or right of the doors so passengers can get out of the train as quickly as possible. If you stand directly in front of the doors when they open, you’re likely to get pushed out of the way or hear a grunted “move!” as people try to get out. Move to the sides of the doors and let them pass.  

Get in quickly
Once the train doors open and people who are getting out have done so, get on and move in quickly. Don’t hop on and then stand in the door way—there are likely other’s behind you that want to get on. Also be sure to keep out of the way of the closing doors—if you don’t you’re likely to get injured or—even worse—hold up the train while everyone gives you the stink eye.

The Wet Seat of Terror

Always, always, always, look at your seat before you sit on it. Sometimes it might be wet and instead of speculating what that wetness could be—it’s probably better to just find another seat or stand.

Take off your bag

Your goal on the train is to take up as little space as possible. If you’re wearing a backpack, no matter the size, take it off and either hold it in front of you or, place it on the ground between your legs. Keeping your book bag on takes up space for another person to stand behind you. This is especially true during rush hour when everyone is jammed in trying to get home. If you forget to take it off, don’t be surprised if someone asks you to do so.

You’re not a DJ

We’re sure you’ve got impeccable taste in music, but your fellow riders may not agree. Don’t play music without headphones.

Say ‘excuse me’

If you’re trying to get on or off the train and someone isn’t moving out of your way first say ‘excuse me’—clearly and firmly. Most people will gladly get out of your way. Don’t be shy about it—you need to let people know you’re trying to get on or off. It’s not their job to pay attention to what you need—it’s your job to let people know what you’re trying to do.  

Don’t be a pole hog

If you’re holding on to the pole while riding, use just one hand if you can. Don’t ‘hug’ the pole—that’s being a pole hog and it’ll keep other people from holding the pole if they need to. And that’s not cool.  

Mind the spread

When you’re seated, keep your knees close together as comfortably as possible. Avoid touching other’s knees with your own if you can. Don’t be the person who hogs either seat beside them because you’re spreading your legs. Chances are someone will firmly ask you to move so they can sit down.

Be present

Millions of people use the train in the city every day. It is generally regarded as safe. But sometimes, you might run into a shady character or two. Keep your phone out only when you need it and hold it firmly. Keep your valuables out of sight and if you wear a wallet, keep it in your coat pocket, your bag, or your front pocket. If you wear a purse, cross it over your chest so that it’s secure—don’t let it hang off one shoulder or it might be gone before you know it.