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New York City Subway 101 (and Why It’s the Best Way to Get Around)

By Adam Guy

The New York City subway is the fastest and most affordable way to get around the city, but it can seem daunting, especially on your first visit here. All those letters, numbers, and colors… I get it. Here’s a quick primer on the subway system to help you.


OMNY, which stand for One Metro New York, is the system to pay for subway rides. It’s simple to use. A single ride costs $2.90, whether you are going one stop or 50 stops. There are scan pads at the turnstiles like the one you see below. Just tap with a contactless credit/debit card that has the little 3 Cs symbol ))) on it. Or if your phone has Apple or Google Pay enabled, you can just hover it above the reader to pay. A card or phone can be used four times at any stop. Tap, get the Go signal, then pass through the turnstiles. With multiple people (e.g. kids), I suggest having one person be the scanner/tapper and tap each person through one at a time. Remember, you only get four taps per card/device, so remember to save one for yourself.

When going from bus to subway or vice versa, you need to tap the same card you used on the first purchase. The transfer will be free. The system will recognize your transfer ride and you will not be charged.

While there are no "unlimited" or "week-long" options when using the OMNY system, once you’ve taken 12 paid rides in a seven-day period, you ride FREE for the rest of the week. In other words, take 12 rides and the 13th ride and beyond are free during a week.

Subway swipe cards

You can buy subway cards (through 2024) from machines in any station and pre-fill it with a $$ amount. A single card can be shared but must be swiped for each ride. $2.90 will be deducted with every swipe. If you run out of money on the card, you can simply refill the cards at the same machines. The machines take credit, debit, or cash. Unlimited ride passes for a week or month are also available, but they cannot be shared.

Finding your way

Most subways work like roads – if the traffic is headed a certain direction and you enter a subway station on that side of the street, the train is headed in the same direction as traffic. Just look for the signs as indicators: Downtown to Brooklyn or Uptown to the Bronx or Queens – that’s the direction you are headed. Some stations, especially big ones like Times Square or Grand Central, don’t have this direction modality. You can go into the station on either side of the street. Once in, find the signs to whichever train you want.

Local vs Express

Trains are either “local” or “express.” Local means they make all the stops on the line; express means they skip a bunch to only the bigger stops. It’s good to learn which line is which… and often you switch from one to the other to get to a place (like you take the 2 or 3 to get from Times Square to downtown. But switch to the 1 at Chambers Street to get to the Staten Island Ferry stop – simply switch by walking directly across the platform.) Nothing to be afraid of.

Apps and more...

There are tons of subway apps to download, some free, some not. I recommend Citymapper or the MTA’s subway app.

On weekends and late nights, trains often switch lines, are rerouted, or can even be closed due to maintenance. It’s a pain for everyone. Use the app to find alternate routes.


We have seen an uptick in violence in the past bit. Don’t be scared. Just be vigilant. I feel safe every day, but I do keep my head about me a bit more. Here are a few tips to help:

  • Stay far away from the platform edge on the subway platforms

  • Stay together, especially at crowded stops.

  • Ask info booth attendants for help if you need it.

  • Avoid the people you know you need to. Move to other cars. Walk away. Just don’t engage. And don’t stare at people.

  • Use common sense. If you feel uncomfortable, leave the station and walk to another or jump in a cab.

And New Yorkers are the friendliest people in the world! Ask for help if you need it.

There’s more, but that’s enough Subway 101 to get you started. Come join me on a tour, and I’ll turn you into a subway-riding pro! We’ll do a lesson on reading the map, navigating the station, and using the turnstiles, all to ease your worries about using the subway system during your visit.

Subways are the only way I get around on my tours, aside from the occasional ferry or tram. It’s part of the whole I Know A Guy NYC Tours experience. Neighborhood tours with me are private, personal, and fun. Or at least that’s what past families and groups have said!

I also give plenty of tips like this on the I Know A Guy NYC Tours Facebook or Instagram pages. Follow along!


I Know A Guy NYC Tours

Thanks for reading this blog! If you would like to chat about your upcoming trip and possible tour ideas, please contact me at I'm quite friendly!

© All photos by Adam Guy


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