Public transportation within the city is relatively inexpensive, convenient and efficient, particularly since the implementation of the MetroCard system. The present fare for a subway or local bus ride is $2.50 with a MetroCard.  Effective March 3, 2013, a $1.00 fee will be charged for each new MetroCard purchased at a MetroCard Vending Machine or station booth, or commuter rail station.  Riders may purchase a MetroCard at subway booths and self-serve kiosks that can be used interchangeably on both subways and buses. Out-of-town visitors should definitely take advantage of the unlimited ride MetroCards  while a seven-day one is $30.00. More than one person (up to 4) can use a standard Metrocard at once, (not the day/weekly pass). One person holding the card can just swipe 4 times and then four people can pass through. Children under 44 inches tall can ride for free. If you put at least $10 on a Metrocard, you get 7% added. Additional information on the cards and public transportation in general can be found at the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s website.

Subway and bus directions are available through Trip Planner, MTA New York City Transit’s online travel information service. Just type in your destination and Trip Planner instantly searches its database of over 5,000 locations to give you step-by-step directions. To access Trip Planner, log onto www.mta.info, go to the New York City Transit link, and click on the Trip Planner icon. TourbyTransit - New York City provides directions via the subway to most New York City attractions and landmarks.  It also provides walking directions and times from the subway stations to each attraction. 

MetroCards can be purchased at many stores and newstands above ground. In subway stations (and a few other spots) are MetroCard Vending Machines. They will issue new cards and refill old ones. The big ones take cash, debit, and credit cards, the smaller ones hanging on the wall do not take cash. You can choose from several languages - just touch the screen to start. Cards are good for about a year - there is an expiration date printed on them. If one is near expiring just put it in the machine and it will transfer the value to a new card. While single ride tickets are available, they do not include a free subway bus transfer, so unless you are absolutely sure it's your only trip they are not a very good deal.

The Subway

New York’s underground mass transit system is the fastest means by which to travel within the city. It is used daily by millions of ordinary people, and visitors should not be afraid to make the most of it themselves.  It is wise, however, to exercise the usual cautions of any traveler while waiting for or riding the subway.  Keep alert of your surroundings.  Have your farecard ready so you don't have to open your purse or wallet in public.  Do not wait for the train near the edge of the track; keep back a few feet.  If it's good enough for the mayor, the subway is good enough for you--the former mayor of the city, Michael Bloomberg, is known to have used it every day to get to City Hall from his home uptown.  While cabs and buses get stuck in traffic, subways almost always run faster and usually on time. Maps are clearly visible in subway stations, and train lines connect virtually all of the city’s major destinations. Maps are also available at token booths (still the name although there are no tokens). If one is out, ask at the next one. If you find yourself out late, you won’t have to worry about the transportation system shutting down, as it runs twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year (albeit less frequently off-hours – so of course you need to pay attention and take the usual safety precautions). The only shutdowns are for strikes (averaging once ever 25 years), blackouts (once a decade) and occasional natural disasters such as snowstorms and major storms, like Sandy in 2012. Another good place to get maps is the Transit Museum Annex in Grand Central Terminal (west side, near the StationMasters office.)

The subway system is complex however. Lines merge and divide into trunk routes - the trunk routes are the colors on the maps and station signage. So if you are going far out you have to pay attention to the announced destination - multiple routes will be on the same track. For most of the tourist stuff in Manhattan that will not be an issue however. The other key concept is express and local: Most NY subway trunks are four track - there are local trains that make every stop, and expresses that only make some stops. It's very important to know which you want, or you will waste a lot of time backtracking. In most stations the locals are on the outside tracks, and the expresses on the inner tracks. But there are some exceptions, so look for the signs above the platform, and listen to announcements (which are much better than they used to be) to be sure. Late nights almost everything runs local. Many routes don't run at night, although all but a few stations (not near any tourist areas) have service.

In some cases you will see references to the old divisions of the subway. The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) comprised what are now the numbered lines. You'll notice these cars are smaller than the other divisions - there are transfers between, but no track connections. The two main trunks in the IRT are the Broadway-7th Ave on the west side (1 local, 2 and 3 expresses) and the Lexington Ave Line on the East Side (6 local, 4 and 5 express). The 7-Flushing Line is also considered IRT although it does not connect to the other lines. So is the Times Square - Grand Central Shuttle (just to be complete) The BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) is the Broadway Line (R and W locals, N and Q expresses), the Nassau Loop (J/Z and M trains), and the 14 St.- Canarsie L line. (Plus the anachronistic Franklin Shuttle - nicely rebuilt a few years back - but if you find yourself there you are certainly out of the mainstream.) The IND (Independent System - meaning independent of private interests) has trunks on 8th Ave (A express, E and C locals) and Sixth Ave (B and D expresses, F and V locals) plus the G train that never enters Manhattan.

Service Diversions: Tens of billions of dollars have been spent to fix the subway system over the past two decades - and there is much more to do. Late nights and weekends trains are diverted off normal routes to allow for the work. These are posted on the MTA website ("Service Advisories"). They are posted in stations on Red striped posters. On weeknights most of these don't start until midnight, and they end by 5AM so you probably won't be affected. Large changes do take place on weekends (often from midnight Fri/Sat until 5AM Monday), so it's worth checking the MTA website and station posters. If you know you will be taking a specific trip at a fairly specific time the trip planner on the website will incorporate service changes into it's recommendations. (Of course, keep in mind that things do change at the last minute in a system this complex.)

Handicapped Services:  Access to the subway lines tends to be sporadic and often frustrating.  Not all stations have elevators, and not all the elevators work all the time.  Carefully map out your route ahead of time and check the MTA site or call 718-596-8585 for station information and other help.

More information is on the MTA's website and InsideTransit and fansite NYCSubway.org

If you really like the subway visit the MTA's NY Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn - in a closed subway station.  Information about it is on the MTA website.

City Buses

Bus routes thoroughly cover all major areas of the city and, while not as fast as the subway system, provide an inexpensive alternative and another great way for the visitor to encounter everyday folks. Normal city buses are also completely wheelchair-accessible, whereas most subway stations are not.  Single-fare riders are allowed one transfer between north/south and east/west bus routes. There are also express buses for commuters. These cost more and most vistors won't have any use for them. You can recognize them in that the route designation (on the sign above the window) starts with X.

The route designations are a letter and a number. The letter is the borough: M=Manhattan Q=Queens B=Brooklyn Bx=Bronx and S=Staten Island. Most routes stay within the borough, but there are exceptions such as the Q32 that goes to Penn Station in Manhattan.

Helpful Apps

In the age of the smartphone, it's very possible to have a map and even a schedule (in case of city buses) in your hand or purse, even before arriving in NYC. The MTA has helped to foster the development of helpful apps for the major smartphone platforms, iOS and Android, by sponsoring apps contests and also by making it's transit data available to third party developers. To see a list of some helpful apps, check out the MTA's official list.

For the subway, Exit Strategy is recommended. This is a paid app (currently $4.99), but when riding the subway, it will come in very handy. It contains a full map of the entire system, installed on your phone, so even when you're underground and without a connection, you can look up stops and maps without a problem. The app also gives you information on connections, exit locations (hence the name), as well as the local street maps that you'll find at each station, so you can plan ahead where to get off and which way to go once you're back above ground.

For buses, there are quite a few apps, including BusChecker. BusChecker gives you an interactive map to located yourself by. You can then find the closest bus stops and find out what buses stop there and when they are due. BusChecker and other similar apps are able to pull the live GPS data being fed from the individual buses in the MTA system, so the schedule times displayed are real-time and usually fairly accurate. Waiting for a bus in NYC can be rather frustrating at times, but with this app, knowing when the next bus is due can reduce some of the frustration, which is borne out of uncertainty, and can also help you to plan your travel intelligently.

Staten Island Ferry

Well first off: IT'S FREE!!! Hard to beat that. While there actually are some interesting things to see in Staten Island the biggest attraction is the view of Lower Manhattan. Both terminals are new. If you get on in Manhattan just stay at the back of the boat as soon as you get on. When you get to Staten Island you must get off the boat. You can follow the signs to get back to the boarding area. If the weather is good you might consider taking a stroll on the waterfront prominade. It was built a few years ago as part of the redevelopment that included the minor league baseball stadium just west of the ferry terminal. If you are fortunate some of the giant cargo ships will glide right by.

And that big bridge you see to the south east is the Verrazanno-Narrows.

PATH

The  Port Authority Trans Hudson system, formerly the Hudson & Manhattan Tubes connects New Jersey and New York. There are two branches in NYC: downtown is just the World Trade Center station, while the midtown branch stops at Christopher St. and then runs up Sixth Ave (Ave of the Americas for tourists) stopping at 9th St, 14th St, 23rd, St, and 33rd St - Herald Square. Sixth Ave Subway connections are available at 14th and 23rd street (F and V local trains) and many subway lines are within a short walk of Herald Square, plus Penn Station.

In New Jersey one branch goes out to Newark-Penn Station (connections to NJ Transit) with stops in Jersey City and Harrison. The other branch in New Jersey goes to the Hoboken Terminal for NJ Transit. There is a connection between that stops at Newport - an office, shopping and residential complex on the shore. During peak hours there is service from both NYC branches to both NJ branches. Off hours there are fewer services so you will have to make transfers. Fare is 1.50. Most Path stations now accept pay-per-ride Metrocards. They also have their own "Quickcard" that offers discounts for multiple trips, but this is not useful for most tourists. Maps and more information available on the PATH website.

Rail Options Into Manhattan From John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK)

There are a couple of rail options to get into Manhattan from John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK).  First use the Airtrain at JFK.  There will be signs in the airport to guide you to it.  Once you are in the station decide whether you are going to the Jamaica Station or the Howard Beach Station.  The Jamaica Station is the best option for connections into Midtown Manhattan and the Howard Beach Station is the best if you are going into Lower Manhattan.  First I'll talk about the Jamaica Station.  Get off the Airtrain at the last stop which is the Jamaica Station.  Then go to the ticket machines located right before the fare gates.  From here you have the option to use the subway into Manhattan or the Long Island Railroad (LIRR).  The subway is cheaper.  The fare is $5 for Airtrain and $2 for the subway.  Go through the fare gates that go to the subway and follow the signs to the E train.  Make sure you get on an E train into Manhattan.  If decide to use the LIRR, then get a ticket for Airtrain ($5) and a LIRR ticket to Penn Station.  Follow the signs to get to the LIRR. The LIRR fare is either $7 peak or $5 off peak. Make sure you buy your tickets before boarding the train as there is a $5 surcharge to buy tickets on the train. If you know you will be taking the LIRR, consider ordering your tickets from their website as you receive a 5% discount with free delivery.

If you are going into Lower Manhattan use the Howard Beach Station route on Airtrain.  Once you are there buy a $7 metrocard for the subway and Airtrain.  Then go through the fare gates to the A train.  Make sure you get on the train into Manhattan.  Then be aware of your stop to get off.  For more information about Airtrain go here.

Subway Into Manhattan from LaGuardia Airport (LGA)

There are a few options to use public transportation if you are arriving at LaGuadia Airport (LGA). They are all fairly easy and very cheap ($2 - even less if you factor in the 20% bonus). They all involve taking a NY City bus which stops right outside your terminal to a connecting subway. The transfer from bus to subway is free if you have a metrocard. If you do not have a metrocard, buy one from a newstand. Travel time for the first three options is about an hour. The M60 to 125th will take longer.

  • Q48 to 111th Street. Transfer to the #7 Manhattan bound train. If you are arriving in the morning, stay on the Q48 to the last stop (Flushing Main Street) and take the #7 Express train. The #7 can drop you off at Times Square, or Grand Central.
  • M60 to Astoria and 31st Street. Transfer to the Manhattan bound N train. The N can drop you off midtown east, or midtown west, or downtown.
  • Q33 to 74th and Broadway (in Queens). Transfer to the Manhattan bound #7, E, or R train.
  • M60 to Lexington and 125th Street. Transfer to the downtown 4/5/6 train. Good only for the upper east side as your bus ride is very long. (The M60 does continue to connect to west side subways, but the N train connection above is faster.)
Keep in mind that most of these options are using standard NYC buses that don't have extra space for luggage.