Taking the family to New York City? Riding the subway is one of the best ways to get around, but it can be intimidating for first-timers.
On my family's first NYC subway ride, we were late, we were disoriented, and when we stepped onto 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.
If we can do it, so can you! Here are my tips, plus tips from other family travel writers, to help you ride the New York City subway successfully with kids.
If you can read a map or use the Google Maps mobile app, you can use the New York City subway. Officially, the subway is known as MTA or Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Each train line has a color-coded letter or number. 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.
I recommend that you use Google Maps or another good map app. It will give you step-by-step instructions for getting from where you are to where you want to be, using subway trains, buses, and your own two feet.
Most stations have pretty good mobile service, but there may be no service in the tunnels. Public Wi-Fi may be available.
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 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.
Jessica at Suitcases and Sippycups recommends: “Study the map before you get to the subway and have a good idea of where you are going.”
You may still be able to find paper maps of the subway, but the map on your phone is a better bet these days. It's always with you and it's a lot less obvious.
Pack a portable charger and a cord to make sure your phone lasts all day. Map apps can drain batteries fast.
Plan your next ride or while you're finishing up lunch or an activity – above ground where you have reliable service and are not feeling rushed. Make mental notes of what stations you'll use, the direction you want to go, what transfers to expect, and how much time it will take.
The direction of the train is usually indicated by the last stop on the line. These are generally not the places you want to go and they are generally not familiar names. However, they will become more familiar every time you ride, and Google Maps will tell you what to look for.
If you need to be somewhere at a specific time, give yourself extra time to get there. If you get on the wrong train or are delayed for any reason, you'll feel a lot less stress if you're not worried about being late.
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 is easy to hold in front of you in a crowd.
Don't forget the hand sanitizer! 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.
Honestly, strollers are going to be tricky on the subway. But it can be done.
Elevators are available at subway stations, but they are not usually obvious. If you can use the stairs, that's what I'd do.
I'd also avoid rush hour with a stroller when possible. You'll need to fold the stroller and squeeze it and your family into a packed car during rush hour. At less crowded times, you won't need to fold the stroller and your child can sit in it on the subway.
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 New York City local who writes at The Baby Bump Diaries offers many practical tips for using a stroller in the subway here.
Children under 44 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. Transfers are included in that price.
If you are only staying in New York City for a few days or will not ride often, then a standard MTA card is your best option. The card costs $1. Then load it with however much you need for fares. You can re-load it with more money later if needed. You will not get a refund for any unused amount.
You can share cards. On our recent trip, my family of four bought just one MTA card. I swiped it four times every time my family rode the subway. Each trip cost my family $11 ($2.75/person).
If you are staying a week or longer, consider buying an unlimited 7-day or 30-day pass. At $33, the 7-day pass will save you money if you ride at least 12 times (about twice a day.) We did this on our first NYC trip, and it was nice to hop on the subway anytime we wanted without worrying about the cost every time.
You can purchase your tickets from machines inside most subway stations. You can also purchase from a live attendant at some stations. Find more information about current fares and ways to save at the official MTA website.
Related: Tips for Using Uber/Lyft with Kids
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.
Related: 7 Tips for Riding the Bolt Bus
What if you get separated?
A memory that still sends chills down my spine was when my 10-year-old daughter walked onto an NYC 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 wait by the wall away from the track for a parent to come for 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 this once in Italy.
Michele also recommends having one parent go first through the turnstile and the other parent go last. 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. Who else rides with the whole family on a weekday? But we have never felt unsafe on New York City subways and buses.
Still, it's a good idea to take a few precautions before you ride. Here are a few common-sense tips from the NYPD for keeping your family and your belongings safe:
- 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.
Don't wear your backpack on your front. Instead, don't keep anything worth stealing in your pack. My husband keeps his wallet and phone in his front pocket and I carry a separate mini purse that's easy to wear in front.
I LOVE my Travelon theft-resistant mini bag so much that it has become my everyday purse. Click HERE to visit the Travelon Store at Amazon.com.
Finally… remember that when you're on the platform, the safest place to wait is behind the yellow line, away from the edge.
Every family travel blogger who helped with this post agrees that New Yorkers were unfailingly helpful 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.
Riding the subway is a great way for families to experience New York City. It's efficient and inexpensive, and it will get you just about anywhere you want to go. My kids thought it was a fun adventure…. and so did I!