New York on a budget: The Metrocard

New York City as number of ways to get around for tourists and locals alike.  For parts of the city, the best way is to walk.  But outside of a few key areas, faster transport is needed.  There are bicycles for rent,  over 10,000 cabs in the city, rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, limo services, double decker tour busses, ferries, commuter trains and even helicopter transport.

But generally, if you want to get somewhere fast, by far the most efficient mode of transport is also NYC's most iconic--the subway.  And the key to using the subway is the Metrocard--one of the best values for money in NYC.

The first thing to point out is that the Metrocard is not just for the Subway.  It can also be used for all MTA city busses, so it's of even more value!  It can also be used on the PATH trains to New Jersey and on MTA express busses.

A metrocard vending machine.  They can generally found at all subway stations and they take cash, credit or debit.

A metrocard vending machine.  They can generally found at all subway stations and they take cash, credit or debit.

The cost of a single ride on the subway or a city bus (as of 2015) is $2.75--more on that later..  To enter the subway or a city bus you'll first need to have a metro card, which you can purchase at any subway station.  The easiest way is to use the machines (which take cash and credit) but you at most stations you can also buy your ticket at a ticket window from living person, and get useful advice as well.  

The card itself costs $1.  When you purchase the card, you have two options.  You can by an unlimited use card for a period of a week or a month (NOT a day, unfortunately).  Or, you can simply put money on your card and pay per ride.

The best value for many tourists staying for more than a few days is the one week pass, for $31 (that's on top of the $1 for the card).  That gives you unlimited rides on the subway or city bus (not express busses) for 7 days.  Even if you're not the city for 7 days, it may be of value if you use it a lot.  The 7-day pass costs about the same as 11 rides.  You can easily make use of that in only 3-4 days.

If you choose to pay per ride--you should note that by putting at least $10 on the card at one time, you get a 10% bonus amount added to your card.  Also, when you take a single ride on the subway or bus, you are entitled to a free transfer onto a(nother) bus within 2 hours (it's possible to even travel somewhere, exit the transportation, do some shopping, and take a bus on the free transfer!).

A pay per ride ticket (only) is also valid on the PATH trains to New Jersey-useful for visiting Hoboken and Jersey City.  The cost is also $2.75 per ride but you can't use the unlimited-ride ticket.  Also, you can use a metro card on MTA express busses.  Perhaps the most useful express bus for tourists is the BxM 11 which goes to the Bronx Zoo from Midtown.  But express busses can be great ways to get to other outer reaches of the city and they will be the subject of a separate column at a later time.  A single ride costs $6.

The bottom line is that the metro card is a tremendous value and is an essential purchase for any budget traveller looking to really get around NYC.  The get the maximum bang for your buck it's worth studying where you want to go in advance.  You can download subway and bus maps from and you can ask for free maps at any subway station.  Most major attractions will have useful info on the best way to arrive via public transport on their website.  In 90% of travel situations in NYC, the subway represents the most efficient mode of transport by far both in time and money.  And if you use city busses as well you get even greater value. (City busses will be the subject of a future column as well--watch this space).  I generally think that the unlimited-ride option is by far the best option if you're staying for at least 4 days.