New York Subway MetroCards: How To Buy the Best One

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New York City Subway MetroCards: Your Keys to the World Underground

The two main questions when selecting a MetroCard are:

  1. Where am I going?
  2. How often will I need to use public transport?

There are two general types of MetroCards:

  1. Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards (also known as Regular MetroCards)
  2. Unlimited MetroCards

Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards

Most New York City visitors buy Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards for infrequent to moderate subway/bus use.

You load the card with the amount you want to spend. The cost of each trip is deducted form the card’s balance.

Important things to know about Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards:

  • An 5% “bonus” is automatically added to your card’s balance (See example 1A below)
  • A $1 new card fee applies when buying MetroCard for the 1st time
  • Avoid re-paying new card fee by refilling/reusing an existing card
  • MetroCards allow free transfers from: subway to bus, bus to subway and bus to bus
  • Transfers must be completed within 2 hours of swiping your card
  • Up to 4 people may use the same MetroCard
  • They expire after about a year; machine informs you of approaching expiration
  • Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards can be used to purchase Unlimited Ride MetroCards (i.e. 7-Day or 30-Day Unlimited)
  • A MetroCard’s time value is always used before its cash value (See example 1B below)

In addition to subways, local buses and express buses, Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards can be used for:

  • NJ PATH trains
  • JFK AirTrain
  • Staten Island Railway
  • Westchester County Bee Line Buses
  • the Roosevelt Island Tram
  • NICE bus network (Nassau Inter-County Express)
  • MTA Bus Company

2 Examples of Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard Math

Example 1A: Bonus & Carryover

You buy a $20 MetroCard. It is your first time buying a MetroCard.

$20 MetroCard – $1 new card fee= $19

Your 5% bonus is based on $19

5% of $19= $0.95

$19 plus $0.95= $19.95

You can make 7 trips with a balance of $19.95:

7 x $2.75 per trip= $19.25 ($0.70 remaining balance)

If you refill the same MetroCard with $20, you will then be able to take 8 trips instead of 7:

$20 MetroCard plus 5% bonus= $21

$21 plus $0.70 carryover balance= $21.70

Avoid new card fee by reusing your MetroCard.

Hate numbers? Use the MetroCard Calculator.

*Note: Prices and bonuses are subject to change. Use MetroCard Calculator for accuracy.

Example 1B: Cash Value, Time Value & Countdowns

You have a MetroCard with a $10 balance. This same MetroCard can be used to purchase an unlimited-ride MetroCard. For this example, let’s suppose you decide to buy a 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard.

The remaining cash balance on your card is called its cash value. The remaining number of days on your unlimited card is called its time value. In this case, your MetroCard would have a cash value of $10 and a time value of 30 days.

The card’s time value is always used before its cash value. The MetroCard’s $10 cash value will remain untouched during the 30 days its being used as an unlimited-ride MetroCard.

On the 31st day, since the time value of 30 days has run out, the cash value ($10) will automatically be used to pay for fares.

When you buy an unlimited-ride card, the countdown begins with your first swipe after purchase.

If you buy an unlimited-ride card on Monday, but don’t use it until Friday, the countdown begins on Friday, not Monday.

 

Image of a subway ticket from the 1920s or 1930s showing a paper ticket issued by the New York Rapid Transit Company. Ticket has holes punched into it, most likely made by the conductor's hole puncher.

The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation merged in 1923 to form the New York Rapid Transit Corporation. This paper ticket is the grandfather of today’s MetroCard. This ticket is likely from the 1920s or 30s.

 

Unlimited MetroCards

Plan to go up, down and all around New York City? Consider an Unlimited MetroCard.

There are 5 types of Unlimited MetroCards:

  1. 7-Day Unlimited
  2. 30-Day Unlimted
  3. Express Bus 7-Day
  4. JFK-AirTrain 30-Day Unlimited MetroCard
  5. JFK-AirTrain 10 Trip MetroCard

7-Day Unlimited MetroCard

  • 7-Day Unlimited MetroCards allow unlimited subway/bus trips during a 7-day period.
  • Use this option if making 13 or more subway/bus trips in a 7-day period (per current prices).

30-Day Unlimited MetroCard

  • The 30-Day Unlimited MetroCard allows unlimited subway/bus trips during a 30-day period.
  • Use this option if making 43 or more subway/bus trips in a 30-day period (per current prices).

Express Bus 7-Day MetroCard

Express Bus 7-Day MetroCards allow unlimited rides on express buses, local city buses and the subway during a 7-Day period.

Express buses are a separate network of buses that travel between Manhattan and NYC’s other four boroughs: the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

Unlike regular city buses, express buses make few, if any, stops while traveling. Commuters and those without easy access to regular public transportation use express buses often.

JFK-AirTrain 30-Day Unlimited MetroCard

  • Valid for 30 days of unlimited JFK AirTrain trips after first use
  • Cannot be used for Newark Airport AirTrain

JFK-AirTrain 10 Trip MetroCard

  • Valid for 10 trips on JFK AirTrain within 6-month period
  • 6-month period begins after first use
  • Cannot be used for Newark Airport AirTrain

Important Things To Know About Unlimited MetroCards

  • You pay a fixed fee for them. The more you use them, the less your per-ride cost.
  • Only buy 30-Day Unlimited and Express Bus 7-Day MetroCards at vending machines using credit/debit cards.
  • Doing so provides automatic loss and theft protection.
  • 7-Day Unlimited MetroCards are ineligible for loss/theft protection.
  • You can purchase Pay-Per-Ride MetroCards using your Unlimited MetroCard
  • Your unlimited card’s time value is used before its cash value. (See Example 1B above)
  • 7-Day and 30-Day Unlimited Metrocards CANNOT be used on: express buses, AirTrain or PATH trains
  • Compare the costs and benefits of each type of MetroCards here.

In addition to subways and buses, Unlimited MetroCards can be used for:

  • the Staten Island Railway
  • MTA Bus Company
  • Westchester County Bee Line buses
  • NICE bus network (Nassau Inter-County Express)
  • Roosevelt Island Tram
Image of the first version of the MetroCard, the plastic card that is used to access the New York City public transportation system. Card has blue blackground with yellow and blue lettering. Dark black strip across the bottom.

I.D.? Check. Keys? Got’em. MetroCard? Right here. So goes the daily mental checklist for millions of New Yorkers before leaving home. The MetroCard allows those who possess it to transition from the world above ground to the subterranean world. Today’s MetroCard is mostly yellow with some blue and black. Here we see the first version of the MetroCard from 1994. (Image courtesy of NYC MTA)

Notes on SingleRide Tickets

  • Valid for just 1 trip
  • Cost more than regular MetroCard fare
  • Can only be purchased at vending machines
  • Use this option only if you are certain you will make just 1 trip

Where To Buy MetroCards

Don’t Lose Your MetroCard

Gotham (New York City) profits when some poor soul loses his card or someone’s card expires or visitors leave with balances still on their cards. The M.T.A. banks on those unused balances.

Like a seasoned casino dealer, the city stoically accepts unused balances left on MetroCards, averaging about $50 million a year. 2012 in particular was filled with roses: over $95 million1.

Las Vegas isn’t the only place where the house always wins.

Image of a

Before MetroCards and after paper tickets, there were tokens. These were placed into turnstiles, allowing riders into “the system.” This “Y-cut” token was used from about 1970 to 1980. If you remember the movie “The Warriors,” this would have been the token in use then. Not that The Warriors paid for subway rides very often. (Image courtesy of NYC MTA)

Walk More, Ride Less: The Case For Using Your MetroCard Sparingly

Legend has it someone once asked Sylvester Stallone how to achieve a physique like his. He supposedly responded, “Move more, eat less.” I’d like to paraphrase that memorable line. In New York City: walk more, ride less.

It surprises me how short some of the subway trips visitors take are. Almost as if they believe New York is so huge that any distance whatsoever must be conquered with public transport.

A few days ago I was in a subway station looking at a wall map. Two young women stared at the same map with confounded looks. I helped them figure out that the train they needed was on the other side of the station. They would have to go back upstairs, cross the street and descend again.

When they told me their destination, I was the confounded one: it was just one stop away. It would have required less time, effort and money for them to have walked for five minutes.

Walk the city. Study it. Absorb it. Feel it. If the weather is bad, or you’re carrying luggage or you physically can’t walk much, fine. Otherwise, walk more, ride less. On second thought, make it: walk more, ride less, see more, spend less.

References:

  1. “Unspent MetroCard Money Means Millions For M.T.A.,” by Sam Roberts. New York Times, January 16, 2014.

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