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And this week, I’m in New York City; a stopover between my cousin’s wedding last week in Guatemala and my graduation from Trinity College in Dublin next week. Away now from smog-and-chicken-bus thick Guatemalan traffic, I re-adopt my erstwhile favorite chauffeur: the New York City subway.

The NY subway moves over 4.3 million people per day and has been in operation since 1904. It is part of the MTA – short for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. There are 24 train lines, linking with buses and commuter trains operating throughout New Jersey, New York State, Connecticut, and Long Island. The subways and buses operates 24 hours a day – with service slowing down considerably after midnight – but the commuter trains run between roughly 4AM and 3AM. Technically, between the trains and the buses, you should be able to get anywhere you like in the area and, technically, this is a brilliant system; NY boasts the largest fleet of subway cars in the world. But the many train lines, construction efforts, and shifting schedules can be confusing and the service is notoriously spotty; “fun” for locals as well as out-of-towners. Here’s a handy guide to riding the New York City subway.


  • Hit the map. Free subway maps are available at any train station and, alternatively, they’ll be at the station entrance, on the platform, and inside the train itself. Follow the colored lines to your destination. There are green lines, a purple line, yellow lines, orange lines, red lines, blue lines, and gray lines, that’ll take you to all of the 5 burroughs. The lines are named by either letters or numbers. Or visit – a website that lets you find subway directions between any two points in the city.
  • Read the maps and service announcements carefully. Many lines split off at certain stations and take off in different, far-flung directions; trains often also suddenly go “Express” or change lines altogether. Find service announcements on train station platform pillars and listen carefully to announcements over the PA system to avoid having to backtrack on your commute and lose precious time. Note: Queens Plaza and Queensboro Plaza are different. Not like I made the mistake of taking the stupid R train instead of the stupid Q train recently.
  • Buy a Metrocard. Metrocards replaced metal subway tokens at the end of the 20th century. Metrocards are small and flimsy; yellow and blue. A single subway or bus ride costs $2.50 and fares remain the same no matter where you travel within the 5 burroughs. You can buy Metrocards at the machines located at the entrance of most subway stations. Buy: a single-use Metrocard or Refillable Metrocard for $2.50, an Unlimited Weekly Metrocard for $29 or an Unlimited Monthly for $104. Unlimited Monthly cards are one of the best deals in the city, even if inflation keeps driving up their price.
  • Save some change for the bus, as buses still accept exact change.
  • Enjoy the show. New York City subway stations and the train cars themselves are famous for attracting all sorts of performers. Time your commute just right and catch a troupe of break dancing youths, or – the ultimate – a mariachi band.
  • Keep an eye on possessions. A no-brainer, but sometimes difficult to do during the crush of rush hour.
  • Keep an eye on yourself. Perverts are fond of taking advantage of the rush hour closeness to get a good squeeze in. Also, violent crime is always a possibility in large cities. Try to travel in numbers after hours, as stations become creepier at night. And as the announcements will remind you often: If you see something, say something. Thanks, terrorists.


  • Call it the subway. New Yorkers call the subway “the train.” We call the commuter trains by their commercial names: The LIRR, The Path, The Metro-North. We call taxis “cabs.” We call the bus… the bus.
  • Set your watch by the trains. I heard somewhere that there’s a time schedule for trains and buses. Ha. Ha. Give yourself an ample time cushion to arrive at your destination; you could get lucky and get a train as it’s arriving into the station or you could have to wait half an hour.
  • Give money to panhandlers. It’s illegal in New York City.
  • Put your shopping bags on the train seat. Too many people, too little time. Be considerate.
  • Hold the train doors open. Your Indiana Jones fantasy does not apply here; holding the doors slows the train down and that sumbish is already slow enough.
  • Lick that subway pole. Remember: 4.3 million people a day.

Have you ridden the New York City subway? Share your tips in the comments section below!

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  1. adenaNo Gravatar
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    You immediately adorn the timeless black jacket and jeans as well :) I want to see pics from the wedding! ;)

  2. adenaNo Gravatar
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    PS, guilty of saying ‘the subway’ – though when in NYC, it returns to ‘the train.’

  3. EvaNo Gravatar
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Haha! The photo is almost 10 years old; note the youthful gleam.

  4. Michael PowersNo Gravatar
    Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    The photo of you is striking, regardless of its vintage; I had no choice but to read the article to see what that woman in the picture had to say. You’re right about NYers saying “the train,” I’ve lived here 15 years and at some point early on and started saying “the train” myself. It’s purely another case of adopting the phrase that rolls off the tongue the easiest (watch saying the year as “two thousand eleven” etc. fade into oblivion now that we’ve passed “twenty-ten” and saying “twenty”-whatever is easier to do, for example). Sadly, some people never outgrew their mothers’ admonishment not to talk to strangers but I’ve met most of the people most important to me on the trains, with more every week. It’s a great idea to talk to strangers on the train and I do it continuously myself.

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  1. By How to Ride the Subway in New York City on June 22, 2011 at 7:56 pm

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