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Directions and Maps that may help you understand NYC
1) Manhattan, 2) Brooklyn, 3) Bronx, 4) Queens, and 5) Staten Island are the Five Bouroughs of NYC. Manhattan is the (central) bourough visited the most, it has the most high rise buildings, and many of the main attractions.
Both NYC airports (JFK & LGA) are located in NYC but outside of Manhattan (they are both in Queens) and Newark Airport (EWR) is also close to NYC but is actually located in New Jersey (a different state all together) Just across the hudson river.
"AVENUES" (in Manhattan) go North and South (more commonly called Uptown & Downtown) Avenues go from 1st -12th and 1st ave is by the East river and 12th ave is by the Hudson River.
"STREETS" go east and west (or Cross town) and there are many more of them (over 200 streets). When asking for directions it helps to ask for a cross street (i.e. "21st and 2nd" means 2nd Avenue and 21st St.)
For the most part Manhattan is a grid that works on the above principal but there are exceptions:
1) Broadway goes North/ South (uptown and downtown) and it also goes diagnal across the grid.
2) Some Manhattan Nieghborhoods (West Village, Financial District, Tribeca etc..) still have curvy streets with names and not numbers (you should still ask for a cross st and nieghborhood when getting directions that involve a street NAME)
3) 4th Ave is only a few blocks long and Lexington, Park, and Madison Avenues are actually what is between 3rd ave. and 5th ave. in much of Manhattan (It goes 1st Ave., 2nd Ave., 3rd Ave., Lexington Ave (or LEX), Park Ave., Madison Ave. (Or MAD), 5th Ave, and then 6th etc...
4) York Ave is before first Ave in uptown Manhattan. In lower Manhattan as you go east (in the East village) it is 1st Ave, Ave. A, Ave. B, Ave. C, and Ave. D
5) Amstersam Ave is added in on the upper west side and in Harlem some Avenues have NAMES (i.e. 6th Ave becomes Malcom X Blvd., 7th Ave becomes Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. and 8th Ave becomes Fredric Douglas Blvd.)
Avenue addresses start downtown and move uptown. Broadway is the same way. If you have a lower number for the address (i.e. 52 1st Ave) it will be closer to the down town part of the Ave., but a Larger address (1233 1st ave) will be farther uptown. Once again cross streets are good, and will make it easy to find with out always stopping to get out the map.
340 E. 40th St. (EAST) and 340 W. 40th (WEST) both look like a very similar address, but they are on two different sides of town. This is one of the reasons why it is good to ask for cross Streets & Avenues
If you do not have the cross street (or Ave) 5th Ave is usually the dividing line between east and west (i.e. "20 W. 40th St" will be close to Fifth Ave, but "180 W. 40th St." will be closer to 6th Ave.)
You can practice with your hotel and other sights (i.e. "My hotel is on 50th and 3rd" or "The Empire State Building is on 5th between 33rd and 34th") for lower street numbers (below 12th St.) you need to specify (i.e "10th St and 3rd Ave.").
There are many threads on the TA forum that are helpful in figuring out Metro Cards etc.. but a reason that many new comers get lost is because they don't understand the difference between the express and local trains and stops.
The EXPRESS stop is designated by an open white circle and a LOCAL stop is a black circle (on the map linked above). As in any city subway sytems things change often and an EXPRESS train will go LOCAL or a LOCAL train will go EXPRESS. If you need an EXPRESS stop you could take either, but if you need a local you can always take the EXPRESS to the stop closet and then catch YOUR LOCAL train.
Also if a train line (i.e. C train or 5 train ) is written in bold by a stop on the map it means it usually stops there, but if it is not in bold but written next to the stop it may only stop there at night or on the weekends (of course you always should listen to and read anouncements as well).
Also make sure you are on the train that is going in the right direction!
At local stops the train going in the other direction will only sometimes be on the other side of the same platform, or sometimes you may have to get out and pay another fare (make sure when you enter a station that not only is it the train you are looking for but also that is going the direction that you need.
At express stops the local and express (going in the same direction) are usually across from eachother on the same platform and to go the other direction you will have to go upstairs and find the platform going in your direction.
UPTOWN trains may also say Bronx bound or Queens bound and Downtown trains May also say Brooklyn bound. You will also sometimes see the last stop of the subway line in that direction.
Most routes have the option of either;
a) normal service (all stops) or
b) LIMITED service (faster but w/ fewer stops).
When you see a bus stop it should have a schedule and route on the pole marking the stop so you can see what bus is offered at that stop, and look to see how frequent the service is at the time you are there (i.e. if the route has a bus every 7 mins or every 45 mins) this way if the service isn't frequent, then it maybe a better option to walk to a subway stop near by.
Two additional types of Buses are SELECT (beoming more common) and EXPRESS
SELECT buses are a newer option where it has fewer stops (like a LIMITED) except it is even faster than a LIMITED because riders pay their fare at the stop and then get on the bus with a reciept (instead of waiting for every one to pay with their metrocard or change on the bus).
EXPRESS buses are mostly for commuters from the outside bouroughs (Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens) and then they usually only have a few stops in an outside bourough and a only couple stops in Manhattan. For the most part they only have service (during rush hours) coming into Manhattan in the morning, and then commuters go back to those stops and get a ride back to their bouroughs at the end of the work day. The Express bus cost more than the usual bus services above, because commuters stay on them longer and it is typically a more comfortable bus.
To recap there is normal service (all stops), LIMITED service (faster w/ fewer stops), SELECT service (fewer stops- and pay at the stop instead of on the bus), and EXPRESS service (mostly commuter service).
Metrocards are the most common way to pay for your subway and bus rides. There are Metrocard vending macines at most subway stops. The above link explains some of the differences between an UNLIMITED metrocard (where you pay to ride as much as you want for a time period of 1 week, or 1 month) and a PAY PER RIDE (where you get some bonuses for buying larger amounts but you are paying the whole fare every time you ride).
One difference they do not currently explain is;
Rides that cost more (AIRTRAN, Express buses...) or LESS (NJ PATH train) than the typical fare will not accept the Unlimited cards- you have to use a pay per ride (or regular) metro card.
It still is worth it to get an UNLIMITED Metrocard if you plan on taking more than three rides in one day on the regular subway or buses for one week, but you will have to buy a seperate Metrocard for the unusual fare rides (such as airtrain).