Tips for First-Time NYC Travelers

A friend of mine is headed to NYC for her first-ever visit this summer (woo hoo!) and so I figured it was about time I dusted off the “things I’ve learned over the years about traveling to NYC” list and turn it into a post. Since I’m the sort of traveler who likes to blend in at my destination, anything I can do to remove the idiot/tourist factor is good, and so that’s what I’ve included here: all the things I wish someone had told me before my first visit.

Airport Transportation

You can take a taxi from JFK to Manhattan, but that will run you about $52.00 + toll/tip (or more, depending on your destination). If you’d prefer a more economical approach and have time to burn, take the train. It’s $5.00 for the AirTrain (connects the airport to the subway system) and $2.50 for the Blue A train into Manhattan. Travel time from the airport to 42nd Street/Port Authority (a good central hub that connects to just about everything else) takes a generous hour; more if you’re riding during peak times.

If you’re heading back to the airport by train at the end of your stay, make sure you hop the Blue A Express train that reads “Far Rockaway” or “Rockaway Beach” as the route; otherwise, you’ll end up at Lefferts Boulevard with no access to the airport. It’s easy enough to backtrack, but it takes time – sometimes a lot of time, and that’s not always a luxury you have when you need to catch a flight on time. (Update as of May 2014: NYC Transit is getting better about labeling JFK routes in stations that service the A trains, which is really helpful.)

Dealing with Luggage

Pack smart and bring the smallest bag you can get away with – and make sure it has wheels. Your bag will be following you on all of your transportation adventures (which, for most people, means a lot of trains and buses). If you hop a New Jersey transit bus (the big Greyhound style), simply make the driver aware that you have luggage so it can be stowed in the compartment underneath the bus (accessible from the outside). Some drivers will hop out and help you; others will expect you to do it yourself. For city buses within NYC, your luggage comes on board with you.

If you use the subway, you will be lugging your suitcase up and down lots of stairs. (Elevators are a rare and precious jewel indeed.) If you have a tiny suitcase that can easily be lifted above a turnstile, you can enter/leave a station that way; if it’s too big for that (most are), you’ll need to use the Emergency Exit/alarm-will-sound gate. Ask or gesture to a ticketing attendant to open it when entering a station (they’ll need to see you swipe your ticket in a turnstile first). When leaving a station with luggage, push the gate open yourself. The alarm will go off, but that’s okay – no one will bat an eye, and the noise will stop after a few seconds. You should also use these access gates with wheelchairs or other accessibility needs, strollers, bicycles, and large/awkward objects you wish to bring on the train with you.

Undergound Navigation

Above ground, I am an expert navigator. Drop me in the middle of any city and I’ll orient myself with ease. But send me below ground on a subway line, and suddenly my navigational awareness goes out the window. It’s an entirely different beast underneath the streets. Once you wind your way down several flights of stairs, turn corners and pass through a turnstile station, chances are good you’ve lost your sense of direction. The reason this can mess you up is because in your head you are carrying a map of Manhattan, and you know you need to head south towards Battery Park. Yet you swear the train you’re about to board is pointing the wrong way! You have to go south, yet the train appears to be going north. It’s confusing and utterly disorienting if you try to get around by what you are visualizing in your head. Instead, you have to trust the signs in the station. It doesn’t matter if it seems counter-intuitive – if the platform says the train is heading to Battery Park, believe it. Trying to out-smart this by using your navigational instinct will only cause you to make many annoying and time-consuming corrections.

If you aren’t sure which direction you need, you can always wait for a train to stop and peek inside at the route map. It will list or show the next stop in sequence. If it’s heading where you want, you’re good. If not, hop out and grab the train going the other direction (sometimes you have to go up and around to get to the platform on the other side). When in doubt, you can always ask other travelers in the station (or on the train). People are generally happy to help.

Forget Your Compass

This is a corollary to the above. Since the island of Manhattan sits at a slight angle on the map, directions (north, south, east, west) are relative to the island, not necessarily to the Earth’s poles. For most people, this won’t be an issue, but if you’re a faithful compass user, you’ll have to relax your standards. West will be more west-ish. South will be more south-ish. Navigating is generally done with landmarks and subways in mind, anyway (see below), which will all make sense once you look at a map and navigate for awhile.

Train Lingo

The subway system is easy to follow once you understand the layout of Manhattan and the meaning behind the dots. First off, the area people think of as NYC is actually Manhattan – one of the five boroughs that comprise New York City. The others are Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Navigationally, south is the tip of the island (Battery Park, Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn – “downtown”). North is Harlem and the Bronx (“uptown”). Times Square and the Broadway theatre district are in Midtown. Queens is east (eventually) but trains for this will also go north/northeast, too. West is New Jersey and the Hudson River.

As for the dots on a subway map, white designates express trains and black designates local trains. Express trains only stop at the white dots. Local trains stop at every dot, black or white. MetroCards are sold in every subway station and you can refill them with just about any amount (it never seems to work out evenly and you may not want to “strand” money on a card). Lastly, note that some trains don’t run late nights or weekends, or change during late hour service. Signs will be posted in applicable stations if there is maintenance happening or a route change is in effect. See the section on smartphone apps below, too.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

The public transit system is wonderfully convenient, but it can also be really time-consuming. At rush hour especially, things can become completely packed, and it may take 2-3 trains before there’ll be room for you to squeeze onto one. This may not seem like a big deal until you realize that could mean an extra 30-45 minutes of wait time. Late nights and weekends can also be tricky, as some trains cease service, run infrequently and/or alter routes after a certain time. Bottom line: if you need to make a show or event by a specific time, either plan to leave really early so you’re in the area you need to be ahead of time, or take a cab. Except when it’s raining. When it’s raining, an available cab will become the single scarcest resource on the planet.

Cabs

To hail a cab, step off the edge of a curb (but not out into the street) and hold your arm in the air until a cab pulls over. You’re looking for one where the medallion number on top of the car is lit. If it’s not, the cab already has a fare. If the medallion number is lit along with the side lights, the cab is off-duty. Cabs are an affordable way to travel when you have a small group of people (max four – one in front, three in back), as fares are calculated based on distance, not number of people. It is customary to tip (usually 15-20%, but you’re welcome to adjust as you wish – it’s your ride!). Most cabs take credit cards now, so you can conduct the whole transaction (including the tip) from the screen in the back of the cab. Tolls during the ride are the responsibility of the passenger. Also, don’t grab a cab in gridlocked traffic – the meter keeps on ticking whether you’re moving or not!

Smart Footwear

There is a lot of walking to do – topside on the streets, underground in the subway stations, stairs that connect the two, events/attractions you wish to see, etc. – so be smart about footwear. This doesn’t mean you have to wear the white I’m-a-tourist tennis shoes, but you will undoubtedly do more walking in NYC than you’re used to at home, so wear something that accommodates this: cute flats, sandals, low heel boots, comfortable wedges, or artsy sneakers. Also, topside walking surfaces are not always smooth and even – there are lots of grates, cellar access panels, dips, uneven stones, cracks and seams that could make walking in fussy shoes dangerous.

However, for special occasions where you just can’t imagine going without those sexy, four inch heels (which absolutely make your outfit, of course!), then implement a sneaky trick: buy a pair of foldable flats. Wear those to/from the venue and carry the heels. When you arrive (and leave), switch. The flats will fit in your purse or clutch.

Dress in Layers & Bring a Bag

From air-conditioned restaurants to sweltering subway stations to windy streets to lots and lots of walking, you may find yourself alternating between getting the chills and breaking a sweat. Weather conditions/temperatures can change quickly, too, so it’s best to wear a variety of layers so you can adjust as needed. Most travelers are staying in a hotel or similar lodgings, which means that once you set out for the day, you probably won’t return until the evening – it’s just too time-consuming and impractical. It’s not like being at home or having a car, where you can just stash an extra coat or a lighter shirt in case you need it. In NYC, you carry what you need each day with you. A backpack, tote or large purse is standard fare for locals and tourists alike. Myself, I carry a backpack. They’re convenient, hold a lot (and hold it securely), and are comfortable to carry for extended periods of time.

Smartphone Apps Are Essential Gear

Here are three apps I use religiously when I’m in NYC. There are lots of other options out there (availability may vary by OS), but these are the only ones I can speak to personally. Note: links are all for iTunes.

NYC Subway contains subway maps, which is really handy to have on your phone instead of trying to wrangle a paper map. (See also: not looking like an obvious tourist.)  The app doesn’t require WiFi or phone service to view the maps, either, which is ideal. This app also has a section for “Lines” that provides up-to-date information on the service status of all lines (including delays, construction, reschedules, etc.), which can be a real time-saver.

HopStop is your pocket routing specialist. Type in your destination, let GPS determine your origin, and voilà, it will tell you exactly how to get there. This app does require phone service or WiFi, though, so use caution when setting up a route. Once you are below ground, you will rarely have connectivity of any kind, so be sure to plan things out beforehand and then leave your route info open in the app – it does not seem to cache well, so if you click away from the active screen or try to view more information, you will probably lose access to your route instructions.

Yelp will not only tell you what’s around – activities, food, lodging, etc. – but it’ll also give you reviews and a map to guide you. You can even orient the map to show you which direction to walk (that is handier than you might think).

Pack an Extra Battery

Few things will soak up your smartphone battery faster than being in Manhattan for the day. Not only are you clocking up usage in looking at maps, taking photos, planning your train rides and finding a great place for lunch, but having to constantly query for tower service in such a dense population takes what is normally good battery life and sucks it dry. And don’t count on using an outlet in a coffee shop or restaurant somewhere, they can be really hard to find. (Plus, you have to sit there while your phone charges – so inefficient!) My advice: invest in a case that contains an extra battery, or buy an external battery pack. I love Mophie’s Juice Pack Powerstation Mini – it’s about the size and weight of a deck of cards, so it fits easily in a purse or backpack and can charge your phone on the go. This trick has saved me many times. Then at night, just be sure to charge it back up again so it’s ready for another day (it’s an easy thing to forget).

Staying Safe

It wouldn’t be a post about New York if I didn’t address safety. NYC gets a bad rep for this, but it’s entirely unfounded in my opinion. Sure, bad stuff can happen, but that’s true of any large city. The biggest key to safety, no matter where you’re traveling, is just to be aware of your surroundings at all times. I also recommend never storing your wallet or cellphone in your back pocket (too easy to lose or be lifted); instead, keep your cellphone in your front pocket, separate from your backpack, wallet or purse. You tend to use your phone all the time, anyway, and this keeps your valuables separate. That way, if you should ever be relieved of your bag, at least you’ll still have your cellphone – something that can be an important lifeline in a pinch. (But chances are good you’ll have no issues on your trip.)

Pronunciation

For most of us, the word Houston brings to mind a large city in Texas. However, for New Yorkers, it’s a large street (and a subway stop) on the red line. The surest way to sound like a tourist is to pronounce it HEW-stin, like the city, instead of NYC’s version, which is HOUSE-tin. A couple other common mispronunciations: Greenwich Village (GREN-itch) and the Flatiron Building/District (literally “flat iron” – you just smoosh the two words together).

A Cool Freebie

If you’re interested in seeing the Statue of Liberty but don’t want to purchase the ticket/wait in long lines, take the ferry to Staten Island. It runs often, it’s a quick ride, and it’s completely free. The boat takes you right by Lady Liberty, too, so even if that doesn’t make for a great photo, the southern tip of Manhattan will – it contains a lot of the iconic skyline, including the new World Trade Center. Also, while not quite a free activity, be sure to grab a hot dog from a street cart vendor somewhere – it’s just part of the NYC tradition!

Off to the Races

Okay, you now know way more about your first trip to NYC than I did. I hope you find it helpful to have this information in advance and that it makes for a smoother and more enjoyable trip overall. (It also pleases me to know that my hard-won “derp moments” can actually be good for something…) Now get out of here and go have fun!

7 Comments Tips for First-Time NYC Travelers

  1. Sabsi

    Carrie Bradshaw did not get your memo about footwear in New York. ;-)

    The underground line stuff all sounded very much like London.

    I’m sure I could hail a New York cab like a boss thanks to SATC, but I actually wouldn’t have known how to spot an off duty one it seems. Without your post, I would have probably accused every poor cabbie on lunch break of being very rude (“because your sign is lit and you don’t carry a passenger and still you won’t stop for me, you t$!& !!!”) ;-)

    I have to ask about the backpack. One of the easiest ways to spot a tourist for me is when they carry a big backpack. I’m talking about those actual travel backpacks in particular, the ones that will inevitably hold a water bottle in one of those little nets on the side of the bag?! ;-) Over here, only two types of adults carry those backpacks: tourists or cyclists. With men there might be exceptions, but women usually wouldn’t be caught dead with ANY sort of backpack unless they fall under one of the aforementioned categories. But maybe that’s really a German thing and not, like I always thought, universally true. :-)

    Reply
    1. Kristin Smith

      Haha. Carrie was also not a tourist who spent 8 hours a day walking around the city doing things. ;)

      As for the backpack, I think NYC is one of the places in the world where a backpack does not immediately signal a tourist (or a cyclist, or any other “type” of person). People who live in NYC all carry something: briefcase, large purse, backpack, messenger bag, or a tote of some kind. Visitors probably favor backpacks because the storage space is needed. I always carry a variety of things around with me each day to combat contingencies. This doesn’t mean it has to be the traveler-type backpack with the water bottle pockets on the side. (It could be, though, and you wouldn’t look weird at all for carrying one.) Mine is a black Herschel backpack. It’s also my carry-on bag for airline travel, so it does double-duty, and the interior is plenty big to fit a water bottle alongside everything else.

      Either way – whether you choose to bring a backpack or some other type of bag – the “rules” that apply at other destinations don’t apply in NYC. There are so many tourists there every second of every day that I often wonder what percentage are actually locals. Everywhere you look someone is stopping to take a picture of something, talking in a foreign language amongst themselves, or standing in the middle of the sidewalk staring up a building. The locals – however many there are – don’t even bat an eye.

      Reply
    2. Kristin Smith

      I should probably add that the difference with other destinations is that you may not be away from your hotel/lodgings ALL day. Sight-seeing might be broken up into chunks of time, or only done for a couple hours here or there. In that case, a purse would be fine for me to carry. But in NYC, where you leave in the morning and don’t return until very late, you have to bring everything with you that you might need that day – which sometimes includes a light jacket, umbrella, possibly another change of shoes depending on the activity, camera, water bottle, chargers/cords, personal affects, wallet, etc. In a lot of ways, NYC is just its own microcosm of all things.

      Reply
    1. Kristin Smith

      Of course – I’ll even give you the family discount (someone said that means I will be charging double, but don’t listen to them). We can go whenever you’re ready!

      Reply
  2. Alan

    Public transport or walking is the key. I lived on buses last time I visited. I’d also agree it’s safe if you’re aware. We changed buses in Central Harlem (going to Bronx Zoo), and I felt less safe on the bus than the street.

    If you’re going to do the Empire State (everyone should) go towards the end of the day. You can get up there, look round, watch the sun set, then look round again in the dark. 2 for 1 value!

    Reply

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