For the first time visitor, the New York City subway system can be daunting. My own unofficial survey of worldwide underground transportation systems finds that New York’s subways are by far the most complex and least user-friendly. The most unusual aspect of the subway system is the “express” versus “local” train.
Express trains skip certain stops in order to help passengers get long distances quickly. Each express train has a corresponding local train that stops at all of the stops on the line. In short, a local train stops at every stop and an express train stops only at the larger stops.
The most useful tool for the subway neophyte is, of course, the subway map. Don’t be embarrassed to check the one on the train or in the station: many seasoned New Yorkers also use the maps to reach unfamiliar destinations.
Online maps can also be a boon: the standard MTA map is available.
The Straphangers group offers a map that shows subway stops near to an address you enter.
Finally, this web site helps plot your trip for you, even offering several options and estimated times.
The New York City Transit System has now completely replaced tokens with the MetroCard. You can purchase MetroCards in subway stations as well as at any store with a sign that says, predictably, “MetroCard sold here.” One thing many tourists find difficult is the “swipe” necessary to get the turnstile to read your MetroCard. The proper speed is neither too fast nor too slow. I know, I know, some help! If you are patient, you’ll be swiping like a born New Yorker by the end of the day.
A single ride on a subway or bus costs $2, though transfers between the subway and the bus are free. There are a number of ways to pay less than $2 including buying unlimited MetroCards for 1 day (the “Fun Pass”), 7 days and 30 days. All information on MetroCard fares is available here.