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New York City Subway: Which type of MetroCard is right for you?

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MetroCard machine
Don't forget there's now a surcharge on MetroCard purchases. Photo: Suzanne Russo

Last week, a (not so) funny thing happened on the way to work. When I went to renew my 30-day MetroCard, the usual $104 fare had gone up to $112, as part of the subway and bus fare increases that went into effect on March 3, 2013.

Many “straphangers” are incensed about yet another fare hike, and some have gone so far as to start a SwipeBack campaign, in which riders leaving a subway station offer a swipe of an unlimited card to a fellow commuter entering.

Pay (more) as you swipe

But what does this all mean for travelers?

Well, the per-ride fare has jumped from $2.25 to $2.50, and the pay-per-ride bonuses (added to your card based on the amount you put on it) have dropped from 7 percent to 5 percent.

In short, you’re paying more to get around the city. The bright side, though, is that public transit still costs far less (and is often quicker, given traffic) than cabbing it everywhere. And, you have options.

Click the map to download a PDF map of the New York City subway. Photo: MTA

Click the map to download a PDF map of the New York City subway. Photo: MTA

A little background

Before I go on about making the most of your MetroCard, let me give a little love to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”), which runs the subway. Yes, it has its flaws, but on the whole New York’s subway system is a wonder—extensive, reliable (for the most part) and affordable, even with the fare hikes.

It’s pretty impressive that, in an age of rampant inflation, fares have increased less than $3 total in the subway’s 109 years (in 1904, rides were $0.05). And at $2.50 a ride, regardless of distance traveled, they are among the cheapest transit fares worldwide. (Compare, for example, to £4.50 for a one-way fare on the London Underground).

To walk or ride? That is the question.

New York’s public transit system differs from many throughout the world in that it charges a flat fare rather than a charge by distance. So whether you travel one stop or 21, you’ll still pay the same rate. This means that long distances are an especially good value, but short distances are best avoided.

New York is an immensely walkable city, and hoofing it provides the added bonus of sightseeing as you go. For example, instead of taking the train a few stops from Union Square to Soho, you can take a nice stroll stopping to watch some street performers in Washington Square Park and cruising through the adorable streets of the West Village along the way. The journey, not much longer than the train would take, becomes half the fun, and you avoid waiting on the subway platform and crushing into a crowded car.

General rule

My general rule, given bearable weather conditions (anything but raining or freezing): If the subway journey is two stops or fewer, always walk.

That number will obviously go up on the local lines that stop every few blocks—or depending on your energy level. Just keep in mind that 20 street blocks (north-south) equals a mile. Avenue blocks are longer, and it can thus feel a bit longer when walking east to west. The two-stop rule, however, still holds relatively well.

Which MetroCard is right for you?

You get to the card kiosk and the big dilemma hits: Do you pay as you go or purchase an unlimited card? It all depends on how much you plan to use public transit.

Pay-as-you-go is exactly as it sounds. You load a card up with a desired amount, and $2.50 is deducted every time you ride. Conversely, a seven-day MetroCard costs $30 and is good for unlimited rides on the subway and non-express buses.

The verdict? To maximize value, pay as you go if you’ll make fewer than 13 journeys. For 13 or more rides, an unlimited will equal savings.

The MTA’s website is quite helpful when it comes to figuring out which card to purchase. For example, this table breaks down the options:

Metrocard options

Pay-as-you-go bonus and MetroCard surcharge

Another part of the new fare increases is a standard $1 surcharge for every new card purchased.

Note to groups: Buy one MetroCard to share. A pay-as-you-go card can be swiped for up to four people at a time. (If you go with an unlimited card, however, you’ll each need your own.) That means you save on three surcharges, and, given the five percent bonus added to whatever you put on your MetroCards, groups can save a (very teensy) bit by sharing one card.

Let’s say, for example, that your family of four puts $50 on a MetroCard. That’s 20 rides total, or five rides per person (you’ll take at least that if you’re in the city two to three days). On top of that, the 5 percent bonus means your $50 card is worth $52.50, adding an additional “free” ride to your total. And you said there’s no such thing as a free ride in New York City.

Your New York City subway tips

Have some advice or questions about riding the New York City subway? Ask away in our comments section below.

About the author

Suzanne Russo

About the author: Suzanne Russo thinks of herself as equal parts California Girl and New Yorker. She moved from San Francisco to New York four years ago to pursue her MA in English, and her obsession with all things New York life and history hasn’t dwindled yet. She is a freelance writer, director of the San Francisco-sponsored, New York literary pub crawl, Lit Crawl, and constant wanderer.

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