The Traveler’s Subway Cheat Sheet or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Subway

The Traveler’s Subway Cheat Sheet or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Subway

New York can be intimidating. It will throw a lot at you – just to see how you handle yourself.

Case in point: The Subway.

I spent a few years working at Visitor Centers around the city and, as you can imagine, I got a lot of subway-related questions.

“How do I buy a Metro Card?”

“How do I get to Brooklyn on the subway?”

“Is the subway safe at night?”

These are valid, productive questions. Traveler Questions. The people asking them saw a challenge (navigating the subway) and were trying to rise to the occasion.

On the other hand, there were people who would ask me for directions somewhere, Lincoln Center for example, and I when I began by replying “You can get the #1 going Uptown right across the street. Take that to…” I’d be interrupted mid-sentence by someone who looked at me like I had three heads. “NO!” The frightened tourist would exclaim, “I’m not using the subway!”

“But Lincoln Center is 20 blocks away,” I’d reply. “And it’s raining. And it’s rush hour.”

No dice. They wouldn’t even entertain the notion.

I try to empathize with this mindset. Really, I do. The subway can seem harrowing at first blush and maybe this person has never spent time in a major city before so the thought of using subways or buses is genuinely foreign to them.  

But when in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in New York, ride the damn subway!

“But Cristina,” you say, “I don’t want to spend half my vacation lost in a subterranean labyrinth! How in the name of Great Caesar’s Ghost do I figure this insane thing out?”

I’m glad you asked!


While it should be considered a jumping off point, and not a definitive how-to, this is a good “crash course” in using the subway. If you can commit it to memory, you’ll be able to go home and brag to your friends about how you got around NYC like a local!

(Note: The cheat sheet focuses on Manhattan because that is still the borough that gets the most love from tourists and travelers alike. But, please, explore the other boroughs, too. They’re awesome.)


MOST of Manhattan is a grid. North of Washington Square Park, the streets are numerical. The greater the number value, the farther North you are. (ex: 42nd street is North of 34th street). If you’re in Times Square and you want to go to Harlem (which you should!), you’ll need a train headed UPTOWN. If you are in Harlem and want to go back to Times Square, you’ll need a train headed DOWNTOWN.

Below Washington Square Park there is no grid system in place. If you want to know why, I encourage you to take my Greenwich Village Tour . However, you can still figure out which way you’re going with a little help from the skyline. If you can see One World Trade- that’s likely South. Looking toward the Empire State Building? That’s North. If you’re heading to an outer borough from Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx will be UPTOWN, Brooklyn is DOWNTOWN. Staten Island is DOWNTOWN, too. But you’ll need the Staten Island Ferry to get there.

  • EAST v. WEST

5th Avenue divides Manhattan in half, lengthwise. EAST of 5th Avenue is the EAST Side and WEST of 5th Avenue is the WEST Side. 1st Avenue is as far East as you can go. Any further and you’ll be in the East River. (Note: Please don’t jump in the East River.) 12th Avenue, sometimes called West Street or the West Side Highway, is as far West as you can go. Any further and you’d be in the Hudson River. (Note: Don’t jump in the Hudson, either!) Subways generally run North/South but there are exceptions. 


The Subway is color coded. Yes, there are letters and numbers to keep track of but let’s make this SUPER EASY and stick to the colors for the moment. Most likely, you’ll be focusing on the PRIMARY COLORS- RED, YELLOW AND BLUE. Those three colors will bring you back to 42nd street with RED AND YELLOW going directly to TIMES SQUARE and BLUE stopping at 42nd St and 8th Avenue. Odds are, your hotel is someplace relatively close to Times Square. If it isn’t, you should make a special effort to familiarize yourself with the subway line closest to your hotel. Your concierge will help you. (Note: Failure to tip your concierge will result in seven year’s bad travel karma!) If you’re feeling lost and don’t see a primary color anywhere, go for the GREEN line. GREEN will take you to GRAND CENTRAL (GREEN to GRAND, got that?) and GRAND CENTRAL connects to TIMES SQUARE via the Shuttle or the 7 train which is PURPLE.


Some trains run LOCAL, meaning they make more stops. Others run EXPRESS and will only stop at a few stations. For example, the LOCAL train on the RED line is the #1, whereas the 2/3 usually run express. If you know you’re going to a major stop, like Times Square, Columbus Circle, or Union Square any train on the appropriate line will do. However, when in doubt, use a local. Nothing’s worse than realizing too late you’re on an express and watching the train blow past your stop.


You need a Metro Card to ride the Subway. Metro cards can be purchased in subway stations from Metro Card Vending Machines with cash or credit or from tellers with cash only. Some machines will be super annoying about international credit cards. If the machine is giving you a hard time enter 99999 in that field to indicate that an international card is being used. Of course, you can always use cash. But, be advised, the machines will only give out up to $8 in change and it will be paid out in coins, not bills.

How much you want to put on the card depends on how long you’ll be in the city. If you’ll only be in the city a short time and you don’t expect to use the subway much, a Pay-Per-Ride card is probably best. It can be shared by up to four people and you can always add more money to it if you need to. If you’ll be here several days and expect to use the subway often, an unlimited card may work well for you. These are only good for one person and may not be shared. The 7 Day pass is $30 and is good for a week from the time you first use it. There is also a 30 Day pass for $112 which might be beneficial to you if you’ll be here for an extended time. The first time you buy a Metro Card there is a $1 fee. When you refill a card, the fee does not apply. Children small enough to fit under the turn-style do not need to pay when accompanied by a paying adult. And, yes, there is a Senior Rate for 65+ but you have to apply for it. Don’t bother. Who wants to do that much paperwork on vacation?

(Note: Metro Cards also work on Buses and the Roosevelt Island Tram. You can usually transfer to buses for free.)


  • The subway runs 24/7 but trains run less frequently late at night, on weekends and on holidays. Can you get a train at 3am from Downtown Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan? Yes. But this is one of those instances where you might consider a cab if it can be found. Especially if you’ve been bar hopping. (And, if it’s 3am, who are you kidding- you’ve obviously been bar hopping!)
  • The subway, and the city as a whole is remarkably safe. That said, don’t be an idiot. Crowded trains attract pickpockets and thieves.  Keep your money and valuables close, don’t advertise the fact that you’re a tourist (that massive camera around your neck and the map in your hands can and will make you a target for thieves), be mindful of your surroundings, TRUST YOUR GUT. You have instincts for a reason. They are evolution’s handy little way of helping you stay safe. Please, never ignore them.
  • You can download a subway and bus map to your phone and lose the bulky maps altogether. There are also some really good, free apps out there to help you navigate the subway and the city in general.    
  • New Yorkers will help you. Seriously, we will! We want you to have a great time. We love it here and we want you to love it here too! If you need directions, ask us.  


The MTA, while generally the bane of most New Yorker’s existences, does put out helpful information from time to time. You’ll find links to said info, as well as some other articles of merit, below.


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