Riding the New York City subway can be intimidating for first-timers. On our family’s first subway ride, we were late, we were disoriented, and when we stepped on to the train for the first time with our two children, we just hoped it was going in the right direction.
Within a couple of days, my kids were swiping their passes like they’d done it all their lives, and we successfully navigated Grand Central Station during the evening commute. Here are my tips, as well as tips from 10 other family travel bloggers, to help first-timers navigate the New York City subway system like locals.
If you can read a map, you can use the New York City subway – also known as MTA or Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Each train line has a color coded letter or number that are pretty easy to follow. See the online version of the map here. There is a large map on the wall of every subway station, and upcoming stops are easy to see when you are on the train.
Underground subway stations are much larger than I expected. Busy Manhattan stations may have several entrances and serve multiple train lines on multiple levels. If you know the train you want and the direction you want to go, it’s pretty easy to follow the signs to the correct platform.
Subway trains in Midtown Manhattan may be crowded every day, all day long. At rush hour, there is no such thing as personal space. Everyone just squeezes in because the next train won’t be any better. Jenny of Witness Humanity says, “Don’t stand in front of the doors.” Move to the center of the car when you can so others can get on and off. They should do the same for you.
Pick up a paper map of the New York City subway system at your hotel or at a subway station early in your trip. Jessica at Suitcases and Sippycups says in her Step by step guide to navigating the NYC subway: “Study the map before you get to the subway and have a good idea of where you are going.”
There are lots of smart phone apps, such as Google Maps, that can help you find your way around on the New York City subway. Here is a list of useful apps for tourists in New York City from Tamara at We 3 Travel: Best NYC Mobile Apps
I quickly found that my mobile phone was no help underground. Free Wi-Fi and cellular service is now available in some stations, and it is expected to be in all stations within a couple of years. For now though, don’t assume you will be able to use your smart phone for navigation in the New York City subway.
Storage space is limited when you have to carry it all with you, and that can be a challenge with young children. Many subway regulars carry a roomy tote bag or cross-body bag that are easy to hold in front of you in a crowd.
Don’t forget the hand sanitizer! The New York City subway feels every bit as dirty as you’ve imagined, and kids have a knack for touching the germiest surface they can find just before sticking their fingers in their mouths. You may also want to keep water, snacks or toys on hand for young children in case of delays.
Jenny of Witness Humanity says, “ If you need help getting a stroller down the stairs, ask. Most New Yorkers are happy to help. The transit workers behind the desk will let you through the handicap door with a stroller if you ask (and they see you swipe your Metro card before you go through.) Rush hour is not a good time to let your toddler slowly make his way down the stairs by himself.” Anna, a NYC local who writes at The Baby Bump Diaries offers many practical tips for using a stroller in the subway here.
Using a stroller on the subway is not always easy, but it can be done. In her wonderfully titled post New York Subways Exposed – Not the Murderous Hell Holes TV Has You Believe, Erin of Travel with Bender explains how navigating the subway with a double pram wasn’t so bad.
Children under 45 inches (112 cm) tall don’t have to pay for a ticket, which makes “transportation one of the few things in New York that is actually quite affordable,” says Corinne of Have Baby Will Travel. Read all Corinne’s tips for getting around NYC here.
For everyone else in the family, plan to pay $2.75 per trip, including transfers. Depending on the the length of your stay and how often you expect to use the subway, you’ll purchase a Pay-Per-Ride or 7-day Unlimited Metro card.
If your stay is short, Pay-Per-Ride is likely your best bet. You can share cards, and avoid the $1 card fee for family members who don’t need their own. You can add money to the card if it gets low. Add at least $5.50 at a time to get an 11% bonus on the card.
We were in New York City for six days and rode the subway at least twice a day. We chose the 7-day Unlimited pass for $31 per person. We saved a little money with the 7-day pass and it was convenient because we could hop on public transit anytime without worrying about unplanned expenses or whether or not our cards were topped up. A 30-day option is also available.
You can purchase your tickets from machines inside most subway stations. You can also purchase from a live attendant at many stations. Find more information about current fares and ways to save here at the MTA website.
Don’t forget the bus
Your MTA pass can also be used on buses, and sometimes, that will be the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. The bus was the fastest way for us to get down 5th Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to F.A.O. Schwartz one day, and to reach the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on another.
Make a plan
The one memory from our trip that still sends chills down my spine was when my 10-year-old daughter walked onto a subway train without us and the doors closed behind her. We got her off the train before it pulled away, but the moments in between were filled with panic about what we would all do if she became separated from us in an unfamiliar city.
Michele of Malaysian Meanders says, “We have a plan for if we get separated on public transportation. If you don’t get off in time with the rest of the family, get off at the next stop, and the wait by the wall away from the track for a parent to come get you. If you’re left behind at a station, wait by the wall or away from the track for a parent to return.” Michele’s family did put this to use once in Italy.
Michele also recommends having one parent go first through the turnstile and the other parent go last. A bit of technique and timing are required to swipe the pass and move successfully through the turnstile. If a child has trouble getting the pass to swipe, or waits too long to go through the turnstile and gets locked out, an adult will always be on the same side of the gate to help.
I’m sure that everyone on the subway knew we were tourists. Nevertheless, none of our fellow passengers ever made us feel unsafe.
If you keep money and expensive items like cameras or jewelry out of sight and easy reach, stay alert and mind your own business, your subway experience should be uneventful. However, here are a few common sense tips from the NYPD for keeping your family and your belongings safe:
Remember that when you’re on the platform, the safest place to wait is behind the yellow line, away from the edge.
- Be careful not to display money in public.
- Hold on to your purse or pocketbook when using the shoulder strap.
- Keep your wallet out of sight and never put your wallet in your rear pocket.
- Be sure your necklaces and other jewelry are not visible.
- Do not doze or fall asleep on the train.
- Beware of loud arguments or noisy incidents. They could be staged to distract you in order to pick your pocket.
Read the rest of the NYPD’s article here to learn more about riding safely at night.
New Yorkers are nice!
Every family travel blogger who helped with this post agrees that New Yorkers were unfailingly helpful when asked for directions or when they noticed a traveler in need. Hilarye of Dotting the Map says, “New Yorkers get a bad rap. They were so nice to us on the subway – many people giving up a seat to me with a sleeping baby in my arms.”
We had a similar experience when a young man with baggy pants, piercings and tattoos offered his seat to my 7-year old son.
Amy Whitley of Pit Stops for Kids recommends that you ask more than one local for directions to the same place. “New Yorkers all seem to have their own way of navigating the subway system. They know the routes they take frequently, but seem as confused as we are when asked about other destinations.” Read more of Amy’s tips in her post, NYC with kids: Making sense of subways, taxis and trains.
Riding the subway is a great way for families to experience New York City. It’s relatively efficient and inexpensive, and it will get you just about anywhere you want to go. My kids thought it was a fun adventure.
Do you have tips for riding the New York City subway?
Please share your tips and experience in the comments!