Visitors Guide to NYC by Subway

It’s that time of year again when tourists flock to New York City to see magic the city takes on during the holidays! Though the city has, undoubtedly, the best public transit in the U.S., the Subway system can be extremely complicated to navigate for the first time visitor. Here are some basics to be aware of:

Multiple Lines Use The Same Tracks

The Subway system can seem like a big jumbled mess when looking at a map and this is largely because the system we know today was originally built by 3 competing companies.

These companies tried to make the most of their real estate, grouping lines together and having them branch out in the outer boroughs. Lines of a similar color generally share a Manhattan trunk line based on the street of their primary Manhattan route. For example, the B, D, F & M lines run along 6 Ave so they are all colored orange, even though these lines all branch off at 53rd St.

Where it really gets tricky is that many different colored lines eventually merge. For example, after the orange B & D trains branch off the main trunk line, they join the blue A & C trains to head up Central Park West.

When this happens, take a  look above the tracks for details about what trains stop there and at what times!

Q Confusing Direction Sign
The Q train only stops on this track late nights and weekends. All others times it’s on the opposite track.

Local vs. Express Trains

The NYC Subway features local and express service, the latter or which allows you to cover great distances quicker. Express stops are indicated on the Subway map with a white circle rather than a black circle.

Usually, at express stops, local trains stop on the outside tracks while express trains stop on the inside tracks. However, there are many exceptions to this rule so ensure that you read the sign above the tracks very carefully.

Train Destinations

Q Train Weekday Destination Sign
This Q train appears to be bound for both Astoria Ditmars Blvd & Coney Island

Some older trains will list both terminuses of the train, not just where it is currently heading. I’ve seen many a tourist confused by this and it’s understandable why. Generally speaking, it’s a safe assumption that if a train stops at the Downtown platform, it is heading downtown and so forth.

Late Nights, Weekends & Service Changes

We are blessed in the fact that the Subway system runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  But while the Subway does run all night and on weekends, it does so at a drastically reduced service level.

The other big wrenches in night and weekend service are those pesky Service Changes. See, the Subway is old and requires constant maintenance. As such, trains can re-routed from the norm and, at times, have large segments of their routes temporarily suspended, with shuttle buses or alternate trains lines providing service! And, of course, this work always happens late nights (varies by line but approximately 11-11:30pm-5:00am) and weekends, making a little research a must before setting out during these times.

The Metropolitcan Transit Authority, more commonly known as the MTA, the organization which manages the Subway system will post notices on platform about these changes. Make sure you take a look at these! They tell you when the change is in effect, what it is, and what your alternatives are.

Service Changes Poster
A Service Changes poster telling riders that the Uptown N & R local trains will be running Express to 34th Street. To reach anything in between, you’d have to take a Downtown train from 34th Street.

Another fantastic source to check before heading out during these times is the MTA’s website, where all Service Changes are clearly listed. This is a site I check every weekend so I know how to gt around and I would highly suggest that you do to!

Also of note: Unplanned things can happen which lead to disruptions of service. Trains break down and there are “police investigations.” In these times, listen for announcements in stations and on trains and ask the locals for their best advice.

So next time you see a 3 Express Train stop at Columbus Circle, a local stop on that line, glance around for one of those Service Changes signs! It might just save you that blank look that I’ve seen so many, many confused tourists have!

Do you have any tips or questions about how to use the Subway system? Let me know in the comments below!

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2 Responses to Visitors Guide to NYC by Subway

  1. Lisa E @chickybus December 21, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    Great info for first-time visitors and not a bad refresher for me, someone from NJ! What’s messed me up in the past has been the express trains. If I don’t pay attention, I sometimes end up on one that’s skipping many stops. I didn’t know about the white circle vs the black circle, so thanks for pointing that out!

    • Aaron December 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm #

      Hehe I’ll add that the key rule to the subway is to pay careful attention! There are so many ways of getting confused and then of course, stuff happens!

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