1. Check the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Website to print out maps, plot your route, and find out about expected delays and service changes.
2. Subway tokens have gone the way of the bowler hat. You need to buy a MetroCard to get through the turnstiles. A single ride is $2, but unless you plan on using the subway just once (unlikely), you can save time and money by putting multiple rides on one card. You’ll earn a free ride for every five you buy. You can also get unlimited ride cards for one-, seven-, and thirty-day intervals.
3. If your MetroCard swipe gets rejected, read the message on the turnstile screen. If it says “Insufficient Fare,” add more money. If it says “Swipe Again,” just swipe again. Whatever you do, don’t jump to another turnstile—you’ll lose your fare (and probably your cool).
4. Most subway stations run 24/7, but not every entrance stays open all night. From the street, look for stations marked by green globes, which means that the entrance is open around the clock and probably has a station agent. Stations with red globes only operate at certain hours. Lit red means the entrance is closed; dark red means you’ve got a chance.
5. Some lines don’t run as regularly scheduled after midnight, on weekends, or just because. Allow for at least a half-hour extra travel time late at night. Or just do what the locals do and cab it when you’re exhausted, drunk, or in a rush.
6. Long-time city residents have figured out precisely where to stand on the platform for each train. For visitors, it’s best to wait near the middle of the platform because (a) a conductor is usually in the middle car ready to field your questions and (b) some lines operate fewer cars during off-hours and will leave you running if you’re beyond the first or last car. (Side note: If you’re taking the 1 train to the South Ferry stop, make sure to board one of the first five cars.)
7. If you end up on the wrong train (happens to the best of us), just get off at the nearest stop, cross the track, and double back. Some stations don’t allow crossovers, in which case you should find a station agent and explain your mistake. Or just stay onboard and get off at the next transfer stop that lets you cross over.
8. Bring along your own subway map. Wall-mounted maps are frustratingly scarce, and booths often run out of foldable ones. While most subway cars are adorned with a map or two inside, chances are it’ll be obstructed by the largest, meanest-looking guy in the car.
9. If you see a subway car that is nearly empty on an otherwise packed train, it’s not divine intervention, it’s a broken air conditioner, or worse, an unpleasant stench. Follow the wisdom of the crowd, and get on the next car instead.
10. Panhandlers on the subway are like naked people in Times Square. They pop up all the time. While it might seem like good karma to give money, don’t feel pressured to do so. Most commuters ignore panhandlers about as much as they ignore each other.
11. If you left something behind on the train, contact the MTA’s Lost and Found: 212-712-4500/01 or 212-424-4343; Monday through Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon; Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Weekends, you’re plain out of luck.
12. If you’re trying to fit in like a local, you may as well learn the lexicon: It’s the F train, the 1 train, and the L train, not the “orange line,” the “red line,” and the “gray line.”
13. Subway etiquette involves a complex set of social contracts that have evolved over a hundred years, but it can all be boiled down to a few golden rules. Don’t block the doorway. Don’t take up unnecessary seating space. Don’t stare. Don’t spill food or drink. And don’t lean up against the pole.
14. The most important thing: If you feel lost, threatened, or you can’t decipher what the voice on the loudspeaker just said, don’t be afraid to ask someone for help. Contrary to their reputations as hurried, loud, and obnoxious, most New Yorkers are actually hurried, loud, and courteous.