Travel Guide: Riding the New York City Subway Like a Pro

I don’t know where exactly to begin with blogging about our recent trip to New York. ‘Cause that trip was like a dream! I had such an incredible three weeks in America and I am like, “Man, this is the life!” The moment I stepped out of the JFK airport to ride the Airtrain, one freezing Tuesday morning, I found myself singing, “O say can you see, by the dawn's early light…” and then this one:

If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere, that’s what they Alicia Keys says.

Baby, I am in New Yoooork! ♪

Born and raised in a place where traffic is notorious, I’ve always had this admiration, rather, envy in cities like Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, London for having such comprehensive and reliable train system. I don’t exactly love the NYC subway 100%, but riding it was a cultural immersion on its own rather than just a necessity. If you’re visiting New York, it’s highly likely that you will ride the subway at least once or twice. So I thought of writing a guide about riding the subway for tourists because it really is NOT the simplest in the world!

NYC Subway Backgrounder

  • It runs 24/7. 
  • It is the largest rapid transit system in the world with 36 lines, 472 stations in operation. 
  • Average speed‎: ‎17 mph (27 km/h); Top speed‎: ‎55 mph (89 km/h) 
  • Stations are located throughout the 5 boroughs of New York - Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx. 
  • Based on stats, it delivers an average of 5.7 million daily rides on weekdays. 
  • 5,700,000 rides x $2.75 x 365 days… Now that’s a lot of money! 
Also in this post: The cheapest way to get out of JFK Airport to Manhattan was $2.75, no kidding!

Subway Map: Important Things to Know

At this rate, I hope you already have a copy of the subway map you guys! You can download the official MTA subway map here.

Local or Express Trains

The 2 main difference is that (1) “Local” trains will stop at every station along their path; “express” trains skip some station. (2) On the subway map, a subway station with a black dot means that a local train will stop there; whereas, a station with a white dot means that both the local and express trains will stop there. However, I noticed that there are instances when express trains become local when they reach certain stations. So it’s really important to pay attention to announcements regarding changes on service.

Here’s the MTA service status link for a more accurate information.

Uptown or Downtown

(In reference to the Manhattan subway map) From wherever you are, if the station you’ll get off at is northbound, you should ride the Uptown train otherwise, take the Downtown train for southbound journeys. In Manhattan, the Bronx is up north so you gotta take an uptown-bound train, Brooklyn is in the south, therefore you can take a downtown, Brooklyn-bound train.

Color-coding and numbering of subway lines

This can add up to the confusion at first especially when you see random signs with all that numbers, colors, shapes (circle and diamond) and letters. I learned that they are just representations of the train lines to make it easy for people to look at the routes in the subway map. There really is no need to memorize them.

❮❮ Read: U.S. Visa Application in Manila ❯❯

Subway entrance near the Brooklyn Bridge

3 Types of Metrocard

The cost of riding the subway is a flat rate of $2.75 per ride, regardless of time and distance.

Single Ride Ticket ($3.00)

For subway use only, transfer to MTA bus is not included. Plus, the ticket is not reloadable.

Regular Pay-per-ride

Every time you swipe, $2.75 is deducted to the stored dollar value in the card. But compared to a single ride ticket, it includes a free transfer to the MTA bus system. There is a $1 charge for every new plastic metrocard issued by the machine. You can swipe for your companion too using this card.

Unlimited Ride

The card does not activate until the first swipe on the turnstile. There is an 18-minute time delay before you can use the unlimited card again. You can’t swipe for a friend until the 18-minute window have already elapsed. You can also use this card for MTA bus. There’s no 24-hour or 3-day train pass in New York, only these two:
  • 7-Day Unlimited = $32 + $1 card fee 
  • 30-Day Unlimited = $121 + $1 card fee 
A note on card expiration: If you activated the 7-day unlimited ride on a Monday (regardless of the time), the unlimited ride will expire on Sunday, midnight.

TIP: If you’ll use the subway for more than 12 times during your stay, it makes sense to just purchase the unlimited card. Otherwise, there’s also a way to save when using the regular metrocard, see Metrocard Bonus calculator, something I didn’t bother to look at. I stayed in Queens, so I needed at least 14 rides a week to tour New York.

New York state of mind

Buying A Metrocard

Debit or credit card is accepted. Some machines only accept cards, no cash. And if I remember it right, the machine won’t dispense a card if your change is more than $9. It’s advisable to use small denominations when buying a metrocard. Keep the receipt in case the machine did not function as expected. The officer will not honor any refund if you don’t have a receipt.
Swiping Errors

“You gotta swipe it fast, but not too fast” says one local in the subway. I encountered different turnstile errors during my entire subway journey. But the main takeaway here is, don’t swipe too fast and if there’s an error, don’t switch to another turnstile. Chances are, you will be charged by another $2.75 if you tried to enter via another turnstile.

We’re now done with the basics...

Here’s how to act like you are a subway pro in 5 easy steps!

1. Avoid using the actual paper map when trying to figure things out in the subway. Download the PDF version of the map instead.

Download the official MTA subway map here

2. If you can’t take the annoying details of this blog post anymore, just download the Google Maps app and use its “Transit” option. There are other apps to help you navigate the subway easier, but Google’s app is already reliable. It is especially useful to know when the next train is arriving.

3. Most subway stations have free wifi which is very helpful when you’re stuck in stations where subway maps are not available.

4. Sometimes, 3 trains are better than 2. In some cases, taking 3 trains can be faster than riding a single express train. I would trust Google map’s transit feature on this case because my subway knowledge is limited.

5. When in doubt, find a caring soul and ASK for help!

In other words, "Don't HODOR!" 

Cheapest Way: Getting out of JFK Airport for only $2.75

Why pay for a cab when the train can take you anywhere in New York? Forget about Uber because you pay a flat fare of $52 plus tolls from JFK to Manhattan. Here’s how you can go to your hotel for as little as $2.75, no kidding!

JFK Airport Train (also known as the Airtrain)

 It’s free to ride the airtrain if you just need to switch between the 5 terminals of JFK. However, there is a $5 fee once you leave the airport train system in Howard Beach or Jamaica Station. These stations will connect you to the main subway system. Note that the $5 fee is not included in the unlimited train pass, so you have to have an extra $5 value in your metrocard.

Therefore, you will need at least $7.75 in your metrocard to get to anywhere in New York from JFK ($5 for airtrain + $2.75 for the subway system = $7.75).

See JFK Airtrain Map here.

How did I come up with $2.75, you ask?
Here’s something I learned online that worked! But with a catch (see 2b).

Step 1. Take the airtrain going to Howard Beach

Step 2.
Get off at Howard Beach Station (green line)

2a. Technically, you have to pay $5 here because you will “get off” at the Airtrain system but…

2b. You can ask the MTA officers if you can cross the turnstile to buy a 7-day unlimited train pass (or just a single ride metrocard) and enter the airtrain again without paying the $5 fee. The catch is, it’s up to the officer to allow you to pass through or not! The lame excuse I gave was that I needed to go back to terminal 5 to wait for my friend who’s arriving on a different flight. I smiled a lot and asked nicely! :D And they allowed me to cross the turnstiles for free.

Step 3. If they allowed you to re-enter without paying $5, ride the green line train again and get off at Lefferts Blvd (one stop away). Otherwise, you will exit the airtrain and you need another $2.75 here to enter the main subway system.

Step 4. Lefferts Blvd has a bus that connects JFK to the subway system. I’m talking about the Q10 bus guys!

Step 5. Swipe your metrocard in the bus ticketing machine ($2.75)

Step 6. Get off at Kew Gardens Union Turnpike station - it’s the last station and about 20-30mins away from JFK

Step 7. Switch to the subway - you can now take either the F or E train going to Manhattan or anywhere in NYC!

Okay, as a summary of this $52, turned $2.75 journey:
[Airtrain] Howard Beach Stn. >>> [Airtrain] Lefferts Blvd Stn. >>> [Bus] Q10 to Kew Gardens >>> [Subway] F or E train to Manhattan.

Your choice, pay $52 for convenience or $2.75 for an added adventure (or hassle, lol)?

Gotta Love New York More!

It took me a few “Ooops, we shouldn’t be in this train” and “No freakin’ way this train ain’t stopping at this station!” before I got a hang of the intricacies of the NYC subway. Honestly, I’m still confused with late night and weekend service trains, or when do trains switch from express to local. All the more reason to ride the subway on my next visit to New York! There are more tips and tricks out there, but I do hope you found my subway guide helpful!

If you have already visited New York city, did you have any funny stories on how you tried to figure out things without looking like a complete idiot? I surely looked like one at some point!

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Suggested Reading:
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🡦 12-Day Palawan Beach Trip Itinerary + Budget


  1. Thanks for the tip about that $2,75 ride to Manhattan! Uber and cab prices are ridiculous!

    1. You're welcome, Alastar!

      Also, in case you don't want to go to the Howard Beach station, you can go directly to the Q10 bus at JFK Terminal 5. You'll need to pay $3 for the bus (single-ride ticket which you CANNOT use to switch to the subway) PLUS $3, if you then wish to take the subway to Manhattan.

      So that's a total of $6. Still a looot cheaper than riding an Uber to Manhattan ;)

      - Brenda


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