I know, my first blog post in a long time. And it’s a how-to guide for tourists? Seems cheap, right? Well, too bad. I haven’t written a darn word in MONTHS other than being obnoxious on Facebook and a secret twitter account, so this post is mostly some kind of warmup.
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It’s summer in New York City, and that means the commute of everyone who actually lives and works here just got a little more hellish. The subways will be filled with clueless tourists trying to navigate our 600+ miles of subway tracks through 450-some stations.
This post is my public service for those tourists. You don’t need to act like a New Yorker, but there are ways to navigate the system efficiently without feeling overwhelmed, getting lost, or enraging a local. Here we go:
1) Know the difference between an unlimited ride MetroCard and a pay-per-ride MetroCard. The unlimited ride card seems like a great way for a family to travel around to your tourist destinations in NYC, until you actually try to use it to swipe your entire family into the subway. See, the unlimited ride card can only be used once every 18 minutes. If you swipe yourself through, the card won’t work again for a third of an hour. The unlimited ride card really benefits us local folk, who use the subway to go everywhere, all the time. It’s cheaper for us. Buy a pay-per-ride MetroCard. But even with the ppr, you should be aware that if you’re traveling with a group of 10 people, only 4 of you can swipe in with one card.
How to swipe: watch how the New Yorkers do it. Fast, but not too fast. Go too slowly, which seems to be more prevalent, and you will get the dreaded “Swipe again at this turnstile” message. And “Swipe again at this turnstile” means exactly that. If you move to another turnstile, the MTA loves you, because they will take the fare from the first turnstile AND the fare from the 2nd turnstile. They’ve just made a profit off of one fare.
2) There are maps in pretty much every subway station. Use them! Usually, there is a subway system map next to a neighborhood map. Orient yourself before you leave the subway station. Being the low-tech gal that I am, I still use the neighborhood maps all the time.
3) When traveling in a large group, try not to become a massive, platform-hogging, stair-clogging scrum. Break yourself up into groups of three or four to leave space for other people (me) to get past you.
4) People need to use the stairs to go up AND down. Go single-file. DON’T HOLD HANDS ON THE STAIRS. Trust me, your 10-year-old isn’t going to lose you on a staircase from one train to another, and all you are doing is making yourself an impediment to the flow of people in an already-crowded situtation.
5) Subway seats are for asses, not your stuff. Put that shit on the floor or your lap where it belongs.
6) NO MILLING. Milling is one of my biggest pet peeves, and people seem to be unable to avoid doing it. Here are some typical milling situations:
- Turnstile Milling. People swipe themselves in, and then just stand there, waiting for their fellow travelers to swipe through. I’ve seen groups of a dozen people come to a dead stop JUST INSIDE THE TURNSTILE. People, when you do this, no one behind you can get onto the platform. Swipe and STEP ASIDE, well away from the turnstile, to wait for your companions.
- Stairway milling. What is it with groups of people who get to the bottom or top of a stairway and just stop? Keep moving and get out of the way. Other people are behind you.
- Subway car milling. When you step onto a subway car, do not just stand there at the door if there is room in the car. Assume that there are other people behind you who also need to get onto the subway. Standing in the doorway and making people shove PAST you to get into the car makes you an inconsiderate asshole.
- Subway platform milling. Same thing. At your stop, step briskly off the train and MOVE AWAY FROM THE FREAKIN’ DOORS. There are people behind you trying to get off AND people waiting on the platform to get on. When you step through the doors onto the platform and just stand there, you are blocking traffic. Think of it this way: when you drive to your local mall, do you turn into the parking lot and just stop your car and sit there, or do you keep moving? KEEP MOVING.
- Corollary: If you are standing by the door on a crowded car, and the train pulls into a station that is not your stop, do NOT just stand there blocking the door, forcing a carload of people to funnel through a 1-person opening. Step OFF the train and stand just outside the door (if there is someone waiting to get on, they will back the fuck up, trust me). Old school conductors will announce, “Let them off!” Let them off, I beg you.
7) Traveling with your luggage: Look, I understand that you have just spent thousands of dollars on your NYC vacation, and don’t have any money left for a cab to the airport. Honestly, you should have tucked 60 bucks in your shoe to use as your last cab, car service, or airport shuttle bus fare, but instead you spent it on a round of drinks to celebrate your last night in New York City. Now you and your hangover are trying to get to the airport via public transportation, which is admirable because it’s both frugal and environmentally friendly. It’s also foolish, but admirable. I’ll be perfectly honest, the Port Authority and MTA haven’t done the best job at making any of our 3 airports accessible via public transit. Unlike some cities like Chicago, there is no train that takes you right into the city center. You will need to take subways and buses with multiple transfers, hauling your luggage up stairs, down stairs, on escalators, ugh. If you’re doing it during rush hour, good luck cramming your giant 30-inch wheelie bag onto the uptown R train. Further good luck getting on that M60 bus in Queens, which is nothing less than a nightmare. Trust me, I’ve done it without luggage when going to pick up a friend at the airport. It. Just. Sucks. Plus, it takes HOURS. Plus, given that the entire subway system is still recovering from Tropical Storm Sandy, you never know when you will be unceremoniously booted off a train with nothing more than the announcement: “This train is now out of service.”
Take a cab or call a car service. Those commercials for Carmel Limousine you’ve been seeing on your hotel TV? Call 777-7777. You will thank me. Just make sure if you call a car service, you get a quoted price from the dispatcher ahead of time, and if you take a cab, your fare to LGA should be no more than $35-40 bucks (with tip) from midtown, no more than $50-60 bucks to JFK. Even better, the Super Shuttle van will pick you up at your door, and it’s $15 bucks from midtown to LaGuardia.
8) If you’re riding the subway in a group, make sure everyone in your group knows where you are getting off. The newer subways have nifty next-stop signs inside the cars, as well as automated announcements. The older trains will have conductors making next-stop announcements, which can be challenging to hear/understand (consider decoding argle-bargle conductor announcements part of your New York adventure).
9) The subway map does not in any way represent real distances or geography! Just thought you should know that. If you get it in your head that you want to “jaunt” to Coney Island, you will be on the subway for at least an hour and 15 minutes. From midtown to Yankee Stadium will take about 45 minutes. If you are going to Citifield to see the Mets (though why anyone would do that is beyond me), your best bet is paying a little bit more to hop on the LIRR instead of the 7 train. The 7 is tortuously slow; the LIRR will get you there in air-conditioned comfort in about 15 minutes.
10) The best places to transfer trains are Times Square and Union Square.
11) Uptown = toward Queens and the Bronx. Downtown = Brooklyn.
12) MTA.info. Bookmark it. The MTA does a great job of updating service status for all the different train lines. Hopstop is also a great resource. Use it! The only thing I would recommend is that if you are going somewhere with a designated start time, like a play, give yourself an extra 15 minutes beyond what Hopstop tells you.
13) Be careful. Seriously, something like 30 people have become subway hamburger this year. 55 people died in 2012 – more than one a week! Don’t run on platforms, don’t hang out over the edge of the platform to look for trains, and for god’s sake, if you drop your wallet or iPhone on the tracks, don’t jump down into the track bed to get it. (PS, on rainy days, those knobby yellow safety strips on the edges of the platforms are slick as hell! Avoid walking on them at all costs!)
14) If you are totally confused, ask for help. We don’t bite. (mostly)
15) In your travels, I hope you have the good fortune to encounter some of our amazing underground musicians. I’m not talking about the guy drumming on the 5-gallon paint buckets (he’s just annoying and loud, and honestly, he’s been doing it for TWENTY YEARS) or the old man playing the accordion very badly in Union Square, but sometimes you will stumble upon someone truly extraordinary, like Theo Eastwind. I see some of these acts and wonder why they aren’t famous while Katy Perry shouts her way to millions. Here’s Theo, performing in his milieu:
Side note to the underground performers: feel free to spit on the shoes of the gangs of teenagers who swarm onto a subway car and shout “What time is it, folks? It’s SHOWTIME!” They will then hijack the entire subway car and hold it hostage with a boombox and acrobatic tricks. It’s amusing/cute once, but every time after that it’s okay to want them dead. I have spoken.