29 insider New York City tips everyone should know


Chris Walters

Chris Walters

Blog author Chris Walters

Chris Walters writes for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He previously wrote for The Consumerist.

Published September 9, 2014|11 min read

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Updated June 3, 2018: Let's say you've just moved to New York City and you want to master it like a veteran New Yorker. And you don't want to waste any more time than necessary on this project.

If that previous sentence makes your heart sing, then congratulations! You're already on the path to becoming a native NYC resident. Tip number one: you are always in a hurry. Usually because of the subway.

But there are plenty of other, more useful things to know if you find yourself in the Big Apple. Here then are 29 insider New York City tips, good for both new residents and tourists.

Insider New York City tips for subways & other transportation

1. Never get in the only empty subway car.

You know how odors are made up of molecules? (They are.) Imagine a concentrated miasma of stench molecules in that "empty" car. Then imagine all of those molecules sticking to you for the rest of the day, and possibly knocking you unconscious in the process. Then wedge yourself into one of the crowded cars on either side and be thankful.

2. Get a subway app for your phone.

There are a ton of choices out there. You can read about our favorites here.

3. While you're at it, get a bike map for your phone, too.

Whether you use Citi Bike or your own, it's helpful to have an up-to-date copy of the city's bike lanes. Ride the City Maplets * Or you can download an official PDF map from the city, but make sure your phone can handle large PDF files first.

4. Learn the difference between express & local trains.

You've probably noticed by now that the subway lines are grouped in colors—green for the 4, 5, and 6 on the east side, blue for the A, C, and E on the west, and so on. In each of these color groups, one of those trains (the "express") will skip a bunch of stops and make your travel time a little shorter. But to make the most effective use of this, remember that on late nights or weekends, some express lines will switch to local—so you might not gain anything by ignoring a local and waiting for an express on that late night trip home.

5. Avoid the bus if you need to arrive on time.

Look, we're not anti-bus. The buses in NYC are usually clean and cool, and many of the routes are conveniently mapped. Here, in fact, are some reasons why you might want to take the bus over the subway: (1) you're really early for your appointment and need to burn half an hour, (2) it's too hot/cold/wet outside to keep walking, or (3) you have a good book you want to read.

But notice how "you need to get somewhere on time" isn't on that list? You'll figure this out on your own the second or third time the bus driver puts the bus in park, walks to the rear door, and manually operates the hydraulic door lift for a passenger. Or you can take our word for it and get to your destination on time (more or less) using some other form of transportation.

6. Take a ferry

There are lots of ferry services all around NYC, although they go unnoticed by most people unless they're trying to find a way to get to IKEA from the lower tip of Manhattan. (Hint: it involves a ferry.) The easy win if you just want to mark it off your list is to take the Staten Island Ferry, which is free, and if you're old enough to remember the movie "Working Girl" you can pretend Sigourney Weaver is your boss. Who knows, maybe she is. I don't know your life. The more interesting and potentially useful approach (assuming you don't live on Staten Island), is to try one of the ferries that runs between Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. NY Waterway's East River Ferry will take you from 34th Street in Manhattan to Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Wall Street, and the fare is as little as $4 one way on a weekday ($5 if you bring your bicycle with you).

7. Don't forget about NYC taxis!

We live in the age of Uber and Lyft, but that doesn't mean you should ignore a good old-fashioned taxi if you need to get somewhere. NYC taxis are, dollar per mile, the cheapest taxis in the US. Don't waste your time trying to hail a cab that's off duty or already occupied—look for cabs where the numbered sign on the roof is lit up, but the little "off duty" sections on either side of the number are dark. Once you get used to the pattern you'll be able to spot an available taxi a block or two away, even if it's 1:30 in the morning and you're slightly drunk. (Hey, it happens.)

Insider New York City tips for the sidewalk & street

8. Memorize the hot zones for foot traffic so you can avoid them

Times Square before midnight. The streets around Macy's and Penn Station on weekend afternoons. Penn Station itself during rush hour. Grand Central during rush hour. Sheep Meadow and the Great Lawn in Central Park on sunny weekend afternoons. Canal Street most of the time.

9. Use the "long gaze" technique for cutting through crowds

At Prince and Broadway? In Grand Central or the Union Square train station? Use the "long gaze" technique: focus your eyes at least 50 feet ahead of you, then remain LASER focused on this spot as you walk. This takes confidence to pull off, because the moment you look unsure, the crowd will swallow you up—and even if you're a pro at it you may sometimes be thwarted by other long gazers who are more committed to their long gazing than you are (which is evident by the fact that you noticed them first). But it's pretty amazing when you pull it off, because you'll slice through large crowds like a knife through warm butter.

10. Use these tricks for instant street orientation

North of Houston (pronounced "HOWston"), the city uses a grid system. Here are some memory tricks that might help you get your bearings.

  • Although Manhattan is actually tilted toward the northeast, everyone here uses north/south, or uptown/downtown.

  • Avenues run north/south, aka uptown/downtown. Remember this by thinking of the "A" and the "v" in the word "Avenue" as arrow heads pointing up and down.

  • Traffic on 1st Ave, 3rd Ave, and Amsterdam Ave goes north, aka uptown. You can remember this by picturing the number 1 as a rocket (it goes up), the number 3 as two balloons (they go up), and the letter "A" as an arrow head pointing up.

  • Traffic on 2nd Ave, 5th Ave, and Columbus Ave goes south, aka downtown. You can remember this by thinking of the numbers 2 and 5 as being s-shaped (for "south"), and the word "Columbus" as the country Columbia, which is south of NYC.

  • Streets run east/west. Even streets run east, which you can remember by thinking of how "even" and "east" start with the same letter. Odd streets run west.

  • Street addresses use "west" or "east" depending on which side of 5th Avenue you're on—for example, 157 E 68th Street and 157 W 68th Street. A rookie mistake is to walk the wrong direction along a street because you're looking for the address on the wrong side of 5th Avenue.

South of HOWston, the grid falls apart and things get wacky. If you're heading down there be sure to bring a modern phone that can access Google Maps. And maybe a compass.

Insider New York City tips for apartment living

11. Be prepared & aggressive when apartment hunting

NYC is a consistently bad market for renters, and the rents keep going up. There's a reason the "Rent Is Too Damn High" party is based here. If you need to find an apartment, be prepared. Have your deposit and first month's rent money on hand, and make sure you have references and proof of a steady income. Use whatever social networks you have here to find out about places that haven't been listed yet, or try some of these no fee apartment sites. You can find some more ways to save on rent in New York City here.

12. Play nice with your building's super

This is the person who will make sure you've got hot water, so don't take him or her for granted. In particular, remember that it's customary to tip your super between $100-$200 around the Christmas holiday season. If you can only afford a smaller tip, it's still a nice gesture.

13. Get some renters insurance

As a New Yorker, you'll probably move around a lot. You'll also probably carry some of your most valuable possessions with you (like your laptop and phone). Renters insurance is cheap and easy to buy. It travels with you from apartment to apartment, and it covers your belongings whether you leave them at home or not. We can help you find cheap renters insurance in your area here.

Insider New York City tips for eating and drinking

14. Go to a deli for a budget breakfast

A bagel or breakfast sandwich plus a coffee in any deli is cheaper than the combos on the McDonald's and Burger King breakfast menus.

15. If you're a heavy coffee drinker, try CUPS

It's a flat-fee coffee membership program—pay once a month for unlimited coffee at participating indie coffee shops. The more coffee you drink, the more you'll save with this strategy, and you'll be patronizing small coffee shops and chains if that's important to you. But be sure to check the map on the CUPS site first, because the network of participating locations is still a bit spotty right now (although it's getting better by the month).

16. Learn what a 'regular coffee' means

If you buy a coffee from a sidewalk vendor or a deli and you're asked if you want a regular, odds are that means two big spoonfuls of sugar and some milk. Just a warning.

Insider New York City tips for entertainment

17. Enjoy cheap comedy

Upright Citizens Brigade is NYC's answer to Second City. You can take improv classes at UCB, but they're not cheap. However, the long running UCB shows Whiplash (Monday) and AssssCat 3000 (Sunday) are free, or at least cheap. (Some AssssCat shows are $10, while others are free if you're willing to arrive early and wait in line.)

18. Enjoy cheap other events

Everyone will tell you that if you want to see a big fancy schmancy Broadway play or musical, you should go wait in line at one of the TKTS booths. But while it's true that those tickets are cheaper than going to the box office, they're still pretty expensive. Try TimeOut's free theater events calendar instead. There's always Shakespeare in the Park, but it's so well known that getting tickets can be a challenge.

If you can't get into a UCB show and don't want free theater, here are some other resources to help you find free or cheap events throughout the city.

Insider New York City tips for general living

19. Watch NY1 at least once

New York 1 is sort of the city's local news channel. Its long-running shows include On Stage (for theater nerds and the massive local industry) and Inside City Hall, but the show you should watch at least once is In The Papers, where the news anchor will just read you headlines from the day's papers.

20. Know where the bathrooms are

The bathroom situation in NYC is pretty tragic, so it's important to learn where the available (and semi-clean) ones are located. The proliferation of Starbucks throughout the city has expanded the number of public bathrooms considerably, but not every location has one, or at least one that works. A good tool for tracking down other locations is NY Restroom.

21. Get yourself a good Humans of New York story, just in case

If that guy with the camera comes up to you one day, you'll want to be able to tell him something interesting. You can only pull the deer-in-headlights stunt once, and this man has already beat you to it.

22. Rats! Learn all about them

A lot of people hate rats. If you're one of them, you probably already grimaced or shivered in the past couple of seconds. But rats, like pigeons, are an unavoidable fact of life here. However, if you take the time to learn a little more about them, you'll be a lot less likely to scream and ninja-jump into the air if you see one cross the sidewalk 20 feet in front of you.

Here are some basic tips for dealing with rats in NYC.

  • Use the city's Rat Information Portal (yes, it's a real thing) to find out where the rat hotspots are in the city. This can be useful when you're apartment hunting, for example.

  • NEVER use the Rat Information Portal on your current address, unless you want to risk the creeping horror of knowing that you're living directly over a Rat King. You also probably shouldn't click that link, to be honest.

  • If you're stuck waiting for a delayed subway, check the tracks for rats. They tend to scamper about down there, and can be a free source of entertainment while you wait a safe distance away.

  • Learn this bit of trivia to astound your friends and out-of-town visitors: there are three rats on the Graybar Building just south of Grand Central.

23. Do your laundry on Friday night or early Sunday morning — or just get someone else to do it

If you have time on a Friday evening, do your laundry then. No one else is, and since you're not home you'll feel like you're being social. Or force yourself to get up early on a Sunday morning and head to the laundromat—odds are you'll pretty much have the run of the place.

If laundry isn't your thing, drop it off at your neighborhood laundry or dry-cleaner and pick it up the next day. The cost is only slight more than using the machines yourself and you'll save a couple of hours each week. Or let the service come to you:

24. Find free Wi-Fi at independent coffee shops, McDonald's & the library

In theory, Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, but good luck getting more than a trickle of connectivity there. Your best bet is to find an indie coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, because those networks are usually not as overloaded with simultaneous connections, and the vibe will be more relaxed than any NYC Starbucks.

The next best source is your nearest NYPL branch, which offers a great wifi network for free, no library card needed. If all else fails, head to a McDonald's.

25. Don't be afraid to use the city's 311 info line

Big city governments aren't generally known for easy-to-use public services, but NYC's 311 help line (and accompanying 311 website and mobile app is an exception. Use it to find out about parking rules, recycling schedules, nearby services or even to file a noise complaint about a neighbor or business. (You'll know you've become a real New Yorker once you've officially complained about the noise someone is making.)

And remember that anything can be delivered:

26. Food

Services like Seamless or Postmates will deliver breakfast, lunch or dinner to your place, but order carefully because fees add up. We've got some ways to save on Seamless here.

27. Alcohol

Check out services like Minibar.

28. Groceries

Most grocery stores will deliver your groceries for a small fee, so you don't have to lug them home yourself. Or you can try one of the following:

29. Random stuff

Try Amazon Same-Day Delivery or Google Shopping Express.

Finally, be friendly! There's this rumor going around that New Yorkers are rude, but long-time residents are happy to give a tourist directions or make small talk while waiting in line. Once you've found yourself commiserating with a stranger about the wait time for the A train, you'll know you've officially made it.

Pigeon photo: Kirsteen