I used to be really frightened of the New York City subway system. I had lived for a while in Boston previous to moving to NYC and Boston’s simple 5 line color coded, reliable system seemed like a whole other futuristic world compared to the horror stories I’d gotten into my head about New York’s canceled subway lines, indecipherable radio announcements and stopping service on random days to leave people stranded … not to mention Godzilla.
Luckily, I was forced by sheer necessity to start using the subway and I found it to actually be quite nice and organized. I don’t expect you to just take my word for it though, so here are some great tips I found to make me feel more secure and prepared to use this huge underground transit system.
1. Look for online resources to help you out – I doubt anyone, even people who have lived in NYC their whole lives, have memorized every subway line’s stops and times, so don’t be embarrassed to help yourself out: look at maps or plan a route in advance. I found hopstop.com which tells you how to get from any address to another address in New York City by subway. It even asks you the day of the week and time you are traveling so it can take into account diversions from the normal schedules. AND you can specify whether you would prefer more walking time and fewer transfers or less walking time and more transfers. I’m sure there are lots of other sites that are helpful as well.
2. Pay attention to posted signs – Yes, occasionally certain lines are taken out of service or changed or expressed when they used to be local, etc. However, in almost all cases, these changes are made on a specific schedule and are clearly posted. Look above the platform you are standing on for notices about weekend vs weekday vs evening times – if the line you were getting ready to take isn’t operating, the sign will tell you which to use instead (often it just means using the track behind you). If you still feel nervous, you might also want to check to see if any posters were put up with changes, they are usually next to where you would buy a ticket – although I find these overwhelming since they’re usually crammed in next to flyers for lost dogs and pianos for sale. As a last resort, you can always ask the person in the ticket/information booth for help or someone else waiting on the platform (not all New Yorkers are as mean as their reputation, but you’re probably still better off making this a last resort anyway).
3. Remember that not all subway stops are alike – You can save yourself a lot of hassle if you choose the right steps to walk down from the beginning. First determine what line you need to take (it can be a number or a letter). Next figure out if you’re going uptown or downtown. Once you see a subway entrance, check the sign above the stairs of the stop to see if it’s the correct one you need. If not, there should be another subway entrance on the opposite corner of the street for you to use.
4. You usually do not have to pay again if you go in the wrong entrance – If you do happen to go down the wrong flight of stairs and you already put your ticket or Metrocard through the turnstile only to look up and realize you’re on the wrong platform, don’t freak out! Look up and see if you see a sign directing to another subway line (not an exit to street). If you don’t see any signs, walk towards the other end of the underground platform to see if you find a flight of stairs, usually these will lead to the other side of the tracks (the platform for trains going in the opposite direction). Just make sure you don’t go through a turnstile of any kind, because that means the exit goes towards the street and you will have to pay a second time.
5. When you hear a train coming, keep your eyes open – As the train approaches, look at the front of it (where the driver sits) as it moves towards you and you will see a number or letter in a circle posted on it. That tells you which train it is. This is important to take note of because sometimes multiple trains will use the same track at once (For example, first an A train will pass, then a C and then finally the E train you wish to take). If you miss the beginning of the train, you might also see paper signs or computerized signs on the sides of the cars that will let you know which train it is. If you don’t even see one of those signs, no, you don’t have to wait 8 hours for the next train, hop on really fast and look at the map on the interior of the subway wall – it will tell you what the next stop is (if you know what stop it should be for the train you need to take) or you can scan it to see if your stop is listed for that line. If not, get off!
6. If you do get on a wrong train, it happens to everyone. Get off at the next stop and pull out your map to find the next closest stop for the line you were supposed to take so that you can continue your trip. While you’re waiting for the next stop to arrive though, you may want to check to see if the train you’re on stops anywhere near where you were trying to go, many stops are within a few blocks walk from one another; you may be able to stay on the train you’re already on. If you end up far from any other subway station, you can also try backtracking, but remember to keep an eye on those signs!
Once you’re safely on your way, find an available seat or stand up and hold on to a pole for a real New York subway experience. I hope you wore comfortable shoes. Enjoy your trip to the big apple!
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