8 Tips To Read A NYC Subway Map

I’ve taken the subway for a very long time now and every time I get on it for the life of me, I don’t understand how people new to New York are thoroughly confused by how to read a NYC Subway map. There have been rants written about it by visitors from other cities. I’ve written posts about the horror of the subway in Summer here, and the 25 characters you’re likely to meet if you take the subway for an extended period, here. That being said getting around on a weekday (weekends are admittedly harder because that’s when construction takes place) is relatively simple.

Here are my tips for the most pleasant and efficient subway ride:

  • Get a subway map! They’re free at every token booth and visitor’s center. Get multiple copies is you know you are going to lose it. They’re also posted on the wall of every car of the subway train near each end. Get accustomed to it without the pressure of having to get somewhere right at this moment. So look at it way before you decide to go somewhere. Or if you don’t live here do it at MTA.info 
  • You can also get apps for your phone, so you can act cool about being lost. I have the map downloaded onto my phone for new places I’ve never been, yes that does happen. Also, when the map is downloaded on your phone, you don’t have to worry about not having a signal. The apps I’ve found most useful are Hopstop (IOS only), Citymapper, Moovit, MyMTA, and MTA trip planner online. The MTA is always adding apps so look on Google Play and the App store regularly.
  • It’s best to always plan an alternate route because there can be delays due to a sick passenger, weather, weekend construction, etc.
  • I always carry my headphones and I’m not alone, it’s not sociable but when it comes to the train, I don’t care. Between the dance troupes yelling “Showtime!”, panhandling and inappropriate conversations, there is so much I want to block out, so I can successfully decompress from my day, on the ride home. A little anecdote to prove my point; recently on the train an R&B singer/Broadway actor was so excited to take the train and living in New York that she felt like giving an impromptu concert when she hopped on the train. Her feelings, I’m sure were hurt because New Yorker’s don’t like to be annoyed during the rush hour ride home, no matter how special you think that you are at the moment unless you are giving them money. No one paid any attention to her performance and there’s video to prove it.

    Brandy sings in a New York Subway but no one… by MisterBuzz
  • And on the Subway map, each subway line is designated by a color and a route is either a number or a letter, for example, the A, C, and E lines are colored blue on the map. The history behind the numbers and letters is too long and won’t really help you read the map better so let’s move on to how to read a NYC subway map.
NYC Subway Map, How to use the subway map
NYC Subway Map
  • On the map, the train I ride is colored in blue which is the “A” line, it is also the longest train line. It starts at one end of the five boroughs and goes through all of them (except Staten Island and the Bronx).  Each colored line on the map has an express line and a local line. So if you live near the “A” that’s how you’ll trace where you need to go next and pay attention to the transfer points. I’ll pick a popular station to state my point. The West 4th street station on the “A” line to use for this explanation. The A, B, C, E, D, F, M trains all stop here and the letters are written next to the station’s name on the map, this means it is a major transfer point. And Uptown and Downtown are orientations to know which direction you are heading, for instance, if I am at West 4th and I want to go to Central Park, “I need an Uptown train to Central Park.”. This terminology is used in the subway signage when standing on the platforms and on the display signage on the sides of the trains.

NYC Subway map with ink

  • The “A” is an express train, which means it has limited stops and the other blue line trains ( called local) that also run on the same line, which means they stop at the stations between the stops that the “A” doesn’t. This rule applies to each one of the colored lines on the map.
  • And the darkened circle bullets, on the map, are served by local trains (C,& E) and open circle bullets along the line are major transfer points served by express and local trains (a transfer point are stations where you can access another train without leaving the subway system) to continue to your destination. Beside each bullet on the map, the map designates which train stops there, so you can tell which trains are available for transfer. Using the West 4th example again, if I start out on the A train and want to go to Bryant Park as my destination, I would ride the A train until West 4th and “transfer” to the F train going uptown in the direction to Bryant Park. Or maybe, I want to go to Grand Central Station…First, find that station on the map you want to travel to and see what trains service it (in this case it is the 4,5,6, and 7 trains). Then go to the train line you are beginning your travel on( in this case the A-line). Where do the A-line and the 4, 5, or 6 intersect on the map? There’s no rush. Hopefully, you’ve gotten the same answer I have, the Fulton Street station. That is where you would get off the A train and take the Uptown 4 or 5 train to Grand Central Station.

I think those are all the main points of traveling on the subway. It just takes practice. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of your fellow riders and token booth clerks, they are all happy to help you.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention don’t try to be so cool. And do yourself a favor, hold onto the metal poles on the subway car and not people who you are traveling with. You’ll look like a complete ass when you go flying when the train picks up speed. The poles are there for a reason.

Do you travel on the subway where you live? Do you have experience traveling on the subway in NYC? Were you confused? What confused you? Do you have any tips to make the ride easier? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Ride the NYC Subway Rendezvous En New York
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Rendezvous en New York

Until our next rendezvous…



35 thoughts on “8 Tips To Read A NYC Subway Map

    1. You can look me up no problem. Here I was thinking that I was clearing things up and now I’ve confused you more. Sorry , it really is easier than you think, not everyone here has a PHD in subway travel and we make it.

  1. Thanks. I needed this information.

    Every single time I’ve taken the NYC subway I have either gotten on the wrong train or off the wrong stop. I’ve also driven over the Brooklyn Bridge on accident more times than I care to remember and gone through the Lincoln Tunnel more than once accidently.

    Now I only ride the subway with people who know where they are going. 🙂

    1. Going through the Tunnel, by mistake,would scare the crap out of me! I understand your hesitance, but planning before you even leave the house/hotel really helps.

  2. Riding the subway is not an option for me any more, being geographically challenged in NC, but you make it sound easy. The first time I rode a train by myself to meet my husband, he was late. I swear 2 million people whizzed by me, and I was terrified that he wouldn’t show up.

    1. There have been a lot of upgrades to make it easier as well, they have touchscreen info wall that tell you when the next train is coming in the major stations , and help stations that have operators in multiple languages. So it’s not as scary as it once was for newbies.

  3. I’m a New Yorker who wears what I call my Street Face (what others call RBF) above and below ground. But that does NOT mean I won’t help you on the subway OR the street. Ask me for help, and I’ll give you directions — and a big smile to go with ’em 😘

  4. Most maps of subways are similarly tagged but you are right that if one knows in advance, they don’t have to worry. Great tips and I wish I had seen this post before I visited NY some 8 years back.

    1. Thank you. Also the apps that are available are super easy but I know that a lot of people don’t want to pay for data while they’re vacationing here.

  5. The other thing I tell visitors is what ‘Queens bound or Brooklyn bound’ trains mean. Because that isn’t telling you what direction you are going in, but when looking at a map and hearing “This is a Brooklyn bound F train” if you are standing at 14th st for example, that means ‘South’. And Queens or Bronx bound means ‘North’. So at least you can get them going in the right direction! Great post by the way. I know its from the archives but this was very well done!

    1. Thank you, Rob! Way back in the archives… I looked at it and cleaned up the spelling and fragmented sentences. I would’ve made a GIF for the up and down issue but then I thought that it might be too complicated for a novice, because I forget which way I’m going with certain lines because of North Queens and South Queens.

      1. Right, I mean its still confusing. But for most tourists, its Manhattan-centric directions they need most. Couple of weeks ago I had to navigate from work to Williamsburg. Its very true even New Yorkers need help sometimes too!

        1. Yes, I’ve gotten lost in Williamsburg and in Northern Queens! It makes me realize that I have so much more to explore in NYC

                  1. Right? Thing is too in Queens its so spread out and tough to know where you are. Manhattan is linear, square blocks…you don’t get confused. Other boroughs not so!

  6. Umm … I can see why people can get confused – there is a lot to understand on the map. On the London Underground the map doesn’t seem so chaotic! I think the terminology Uptown & Downtown is difficult for British & Europeans to comprehend as the terminology we use on our subway in London : Eastbound, Westbound, Northbound and Southbound. All subway trains running on a particular line stop at each station and some stations have more than one line tooso that you change train lines (like in NYC). Thanks for deciphering your subway map – really useful.

    1. The thing is that they do equate Uptown as North and Downtown as South. Also A lot of the train don’t keep to one direction for the duration of the line. For example, the “A” train will Uptown and Downtown when traveling in Manhattan only, when it travels in Brooklyn or Queens it will tell direction by destination because it is no longer traveling in a straight line. I think that’s why it isn’t often used explicitly. I hope that makes sense.

    2. Oh and I forgot our railroads, different from the subway, uses North South East and West only. So that could be another reason.

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