Using the subway is the quickest and cheapest way of getting round New York City but given that it is a part of a very large transit system it be daunting for a first time visitor to the City.
The cost of using it is cheap. A single trip costs $2.25 but trips are cheaper if you buy an unlimited Metro card (good for all of one day) or you load $20-$50 onto the card which entitles you to some discounts. Loading your card up like this is a sensible thing for you to do if you are staying in NYC for a week or so.
There are machines for buying Metro cards at all stations and they take cash and cards. The machines are easy to use but ask for help if you find getting a card difficult in any way.
Apart from a Metro card your other requirement for travelling the subway is a map. To help you read it pay attention to the color of each line and the number or alphabet character on it. The number or alphabet character identifies the line and the map will show you where each line goes. Then pay attention to the white dots on each line, they are express stops. If a dot is black that means it is a local stop. Before you get on a train you need to know which line will get you to your destination and whether you will be getting off at an express stop (white) where that train will defintiely stop or whether you want a local stop (black) in which case you need to make sure you are on a train that will stop at a local stop.
To get to where you want to go you may need to transfer from one line to another. Check you map, black or white ‘bars’ show stations where you can catch trains on multiple lines.
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Will you be going uptown (North) or downtown (South), as opposed to crosstown (East, West)? These terms are used all the time in NYC to indicate direction. Here’s a quick way to work it out. Anything to the Bronx is uptown and anything to Brooklyn is downtown. If you’re standing in front of an uptown subway entrance and you want a downtown train look across to the opposite corner of the road, and you will find the subway entrance to the train you want.
There are apps that are very helpful. The app Hopstop, which is available for iphone, ipad and ipod touch lets you map directions via subway, bus car or foot and gives you updates and delays.