The first time I visited New York City was overwhelming. I’d dreamed of a magical weekend full of the best food, amazing sightseeing, and soaking up all the multicultural goodness of the Big Apple.
Another thing I shed a few tears about? How long it took to get everywhere. The immensity of the city was undeniable as I felt our time slipping away as we trekked from point A (our Airbnb in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn) to point B (various destinations in Manhattan). Our weekend was over before we knew it, and we only saw and did a fraction of what we’d intended to.
Of course I wished I’d spoken to a New Yorker who could’ve revealed everything we needed to know about transportation in the city. Luckily, these locals’ tips will help new-to-New-York travelers make the most out of their time there.
“NYC Is A Walking City”
Carly Ettinger, a writer from Minnesota who’s lived in New York City for 10 years, told us, “You could easily walk over 10,000 steps in a day. Bring very, very comfortable shoes for walking! Sneakers are best, but you can bring foldable flats in your bag as well.”
Shelley Clark of Platform Communications agrees. She said, “The best, most enjoyable way to get around is to walk, which is what New Yorkers do -- a lot. It’s a great city for walking because there is always something to look, marvel, or wonder at.”
Watch out, though! Ettinger said, “One major difference with NYC walkers is that when they are at an intersection, they watch the traffic -- not the light -- to see when they can cross the road.”
Some might categorize this as jaywalking and be a little put off or overwhelmed by it. “When in doubt,” Ettinger said, “wait for the light to signal you can cross.”
“Don’t Be Intimidated By The Subway”
This tip comes from Edward Sturm, a Brooklyn-born-and-raised director of marketing. “Before I learned them myself, I remember being intimidated by all the lines, crossovers, and different platforms. I was always confused.”
Chizoba Anyaoha, who was born and raised in New York City and is the founder of TravSolo, said he’s “very grateful to live in a city with mostly reliable public transportation and no need to drive,” especially when he compares living in NYC to his time in Miami, “where you have to wait an hour just for one bus and it’s important to have a car or else your life will be miserable.”
Our takeaway: No need to rent a car or rely solely on taxis or rideshares during your NYC getaway. Give the subways a try -- it’s part of the New York City experience!
But Know That The MTA Has Its Issues
The usefulness of New York-City subways, which are run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), is a contentious issue among locals.
Publisher Kate McCulley told us, “After years of being underfunded, so many lines are slow, broken, or out of commission on the weekend. It's smart for travelers to prepare for this.”
What’s an NYC first-timer to do?
Ettinger urges visitors to “check the MTA website before commuting to learn the subway service status,” especially “since some tracks have construction during the weekends, which could impact your commute.”
There’s An App For That
Clark said, “Using the various real-time bus and subway apps like Tiramisu (for Apple and Android), MYmta (for Apple and Android), MTA Bus Tracker (for Apple and Android), MTA Subway, et cetera, keeps people abreast of when to expect the next train or bus.”
New Yorkers also love Google Maps just as much as we do. When asked “What's the most efficient way to navigate the city?” travel photographer Becca Siegel -- who was born in Queens and lives in Brooklyn after returning from time abroad that spanned numerous countries and continents -- told us, “Google Maps, of course! More recently, it's been very up-to-date with knowing which trains don't run on weekends and which ones are really delayed.”
Liz Kupcha, who’s lived in New York City for 46 years, told us she swears by Google Maps as a primary source of navigation and uses the MYmta app as a backup to check on service notifications. Ettinger also told us, “The Google Maps app is amazing.”
Download all the apps you need at one of these 10 places with free wi-fi in New York City.
“New York’s Subway Needs To Improve Its Access To People With Disabilities”
In addition to voicing her concerns about the subway’s weekend runs, Kate McCulley said, “Another major area where New York's subway needs to improve is access to people with disabilities. It's shameful how few stations have elevators, and those that do are often out of service.”
You can find a list of accessible MTA stations, and details about their ADA compliance, here.
“NYC Has A Lot Of Things Going For It, But The Weather Is Not One Of Them”
James McGrath, an NYC real estate broker makes a good point. New York can be brutally hot in the summer and uncomfortably cold in the winter. He told us, “A great tip is to utilize the underground tunnels that connect subway stations and adjacent buildings. For example, there’s a tunnel between Times Square and Port Authority. There’s another route through Rockefeller Center station (47th to 50th Street) over to 5th Avenue and another on 14th between 6th and 7th Avenues.”
He said, “The Times Square to Port Authority tunnel is the best for tourists because of its location and how easy it is to find.”
Taxis And Rideshares Are Optional
Siegel said she and her boyfriend wish tourists knew that the subway will take you almost everywhere you need to go. “It's rare that you'll need to take a taxi or Uber as a guest visiting NYC. The subway runs 24 hours a day, and the buses connect all the missing dots that the subway leaves as gaps.”
That said, if you opt for a private car, Ettinger urges you to buckle up. “If you take a car service or taxi, wear your seatbelt! With some NYC drivers, you're certainly in for a ride.”
She also spoke to taxis’ yellow lights, which is helpful, especially for those who are unfamiliar with hailing a cab. “When the yellow light on top of a taxi roof is on, that means the car is available to pick you up. When the light is off, that means it is already occupied.”
Biking Might Not Be The Best Option For Out-Of-Towners
Clark told us “With the city’s burgeoning bike lane expansion and the continual expansion of the Citi Bike sharing system, bicycling is becoming an increasingly popular way to navigate the city.”
What she wishes tourists knew, though, is that “it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk and riding on the walking paths that meander through Central Park is also forbidden.”
She’s noticed that rental plates on bikes from programs not related to Citi fail to mention these laws. “They do cite the Central Park rules -- probably because so many of them are located near the park.”
Since sidewalks and walking paths are off-limits for bikers, biking in the city is best left to those who are experienced enough to keep up with NYC traffic and stay safe while doing it.
More New York City Subway Tips
By now, we hope you’re committed to trying the subway. To make your first subway experience as enjoyable as possible, keep these additional tips in mind:
- Anyaoha said you should avoid rush hour, 8 a.m. to 9 a.m, and after-work hours, between 5 p.m and 6 p.m.
- He also said that the best spot to board the trains are the front cars. “You’re more likely to get a seat than the other ones.”
- Ettinger said you should “check both sides of the train tracks to see which is local and which is express. If you accidentally hop on an express train, you could end up in another borough pretty quickly!”
“If you’re confused, don’t be afraid to ask for directions.” Sturm told us. “People walk fast in subways to convince themselves they’re busy, [but] will actually take joy in stopping to help a stranger find his or her way. Do not be afraid to ask, ‘Does this train go to Brooklyn? How do I get to the Path?’ et cetera.”
Getting To And From The Airport
McGrath asked us to stress that “taking a cab from JFK in particular is a waste of money. The AirTrain plus subway will cost less than $10, not take much longer, and avoid the risk of getting stuck in traffic.”
He said that you can take the subway and bus to LaGuardia, but that the value isn’t as compelling, and it’s a bit tricker.
When McCulley flies into the city, she opts for a shared ride via Uber Pool or Lyft Line. “About 75 percent of the time, I have a solo journey.” From JFK to Harlem, it costs her about $35 rather than $60, the cost of an individual Lyft, Uber, or cab.
Siegel says her favorite airport to fly in and out of is Newark (EWR) “because you can take an NJTransit train there out of Penn Station. To get to LaGuardia, it's either taxi or public bus, and to get to JFK, it's either A or E train, or a taxi all the way.”
Personally, I preferred the descent into LaGuardia during my second trip to NYC because I was treated to amazing views of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan Island that I didn’t see flying into Newark the first time around.
Whichever airport you choose to fly in and out of, If you opt for a taxi, brace yourself for traffic!
Know Your Portmanteaus
Ettinger filled us in on something I left New York not knowing: “Many NYC neighborhoods have portmanteaus, blending two-word meanings or sounds to form a new word. Examples include SoHo, South of Houston Street; NoHo, North of Houston Street; Tribeca, Triangle Below Canal Street; Nolita, North of Little Italy. Dumbo is an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.”
Last But Not Least, Count Wisely And Keep Your Eye On The Time
Kupcha said, “Remember that building numbers increase when heading uptown, but if you're heading crosstown, they decrease as you approach 5th Avenue.”
Also -- this advice from Ettinger was heartening for me -- “Give yourself more time than you expect to get anywhere. There can be traffic, construction, subway delays, motorcades for political figures, and more.”
New York City bound? Read up on these 25 things to expect when visiting New York City for the first time.