Whenever I travel, I try to use public transit as much as possible. When I first started traveling, this was usually the only way I could afford to get around, but even though I’ve now moved a few steps above half-starved backpacker level in my travels, I still take public transit as much as I can. Part of this is because I’m cheap; $20 less spent on a taxi means $20 more in the travel budget. But I also like to travel on public transit because it’s a great way to be a temporary local and get out of the tourist bubble a bit.
The subway system in New York is well known by everyone who has any knowledge of popular culture. It had a reputation in past years for graffiti covered cars and high rates of crime, but in the last decade or two the subway system has seen the same sprucing up and reduction in crime as has the city streets. While it’s not exactly pristine, I’ve never felt unsafe or threatened on the system during the day or evening on any of my previous trips to New York.
So when we planned our New York City family adventure, the subway system seemed like the obvious way to get around. We bought a $40 Metrocard at JFK airport (less than the cost of a one way cab ride to Manhattan) and used it for the next four days. We only had to top it up by fifty cents to make it back to JFK on the same card. We rode the subway pretty much every day, as far north as the American Museum of Natural History and as far south as the Staten Island ferry. And for the most part it worked very well for us. So what did we learn from four days of trekking around the New York subway system with a three year old and a five year old? Well, here’s a short list:
1) Small kids are free
I found it a little hard to find info about child fares. One place said that kids under 44 inches were free, so I assume that means that taller kids pay full fare? I didn’t worry about that too much since both my kids were under that height and no one ever stopped us. There didn’t seem to be any measuring devices anywhere, so I’m not sure how the height thing is enforced, but it worked out for us, anyway.
This guy, on the other hand, should have paid his fare!
2) The system in not at all stroller friendly
We had our mid sized umbrella fold stroller with us since we were doing so much walking, and boy, was I glad we hadn’t brought anything bigger. There were hardly any elevators anywhere and even escalators were rare. My husband definitely re-affirmed his title as The World’s Most Patient Man as he lugged that thing up and down stairs in pretty much every subway station in mid town Manhattan. And to top it off, most entrances had a wheelchair entrance beside the turnstiles, but no one to open it. I suppose there was some sort of a system to call someone to activate the door, but we ended up creating our own system. I would send the kids under the turnstile, then I would swipe myself though. My husband would then half fold the stroller to make it narrow enough to fit through and I would swipe a second time for him to go through with the stroller. A little inefficient, but it worked for us. I guess if you lived there you’d figure out which entrances were more stroller friendly pretty quickly.
And speaking of entrances…
3) Not all entrances are for all directions
Most of the time, you could go down into a station, and once you were in you would follow signs for uptown or downtown, or east or west to get to your platform. In some places, however, the station for one direction would be on one side of the street and the other direction would be on the other. For example, if you wanted to go uptown you’d go into the station on one side of the street, but if you wanted to go downtown, you had to cross the street before going down into the station or else you’d find yourself staring at the platform you wanted from the wrong side of the track. I eventually learned to check the signs carefully before entering, but not before I once dragged my entire tired family (including stroller) down two flights of stairs, only to have to go back up and repeat the process on the other side of the street.
Oh, shoot, I needed to be…..over there.
4) Be prepared for delays
Yes, the system is quick and efficient, but you do have to allow for some delays. One day we waited 25 minutes for a train on a line where the trains were supposed to be five to ten minutes apart. Another time, we were stopped at a station when they announced there was a problem with one of the doors. We sat at the station for about 10 minutes while listening to people gripe and mutter about the delay. We were quite happy to just hang out and wait it out, but I could see how it could be a bit stressful if you had somewhere you had to be or if it continued for more than a few minutes. I didn’t think one mechanical delay in four days was too bad, but be aware that it does happen.
That’s okay, we’ll all just hang out here for a while…
5) If one car is nearly empty while the rest are full, don’t get in it.
If there’s a car with no one in it, it isn’t because Divine Providence has left it empty just for you. I actually learned this on a different trip, but trust me on this one. You don’t want to be there.
And that’s what we learned from exploring the New York subway system with kids. I’d recommend it to anyone who goes to New York, even with kids. Just don’t bring the SUV stroller and don’t get on that empty car and you’ll be just fine!