Taking the subway from JFK airport to anywhere in New York City is the cheapest and most reliable option. Subways run on a schedule and are not affected as much by weather or traffic. If you are comfortable riding the subway and are OK with walking up and down the stairs to the subway stations, they are really the best way to navigate the city.

For those of you who are not as adventurous, we’ve got you covered with a guide to all of your options.

Cost of riding a subway in New York City

From JFK, you will need to use a metro card for a $7.75 each way fare on the Air Train, which takes you from the terminals to the actual subway station. In addition to the Air Train fare, you need a fare to ride the subway into the city. Each ride on the subway is $2.75 per person.

Your total cost per person will be $10.50 using the subway from JFK into the city. Note that children under 44 inches (1.2 meters) tall ride free on the subway.

Subway strategies

When riding the subway from JFK airport only to and from the city, it is best to just buy exactly what you need and the MTA machine makes that easy for you, as shown in the images in how to purchase a metro card section below.

If you plan on riding more, you can load your card up with more money. If you plan on riding the subway more than 12 times within a week, I recommend loading your card up with the 7-day unlimited option for $33.00. 

Note that if you have a card loaded with value, you can use the same card for multiple people in the same subway station. If you have a card loaded with unlimited rides over time, you cannot swipe multiple people into the same station.

Google maps

Never underestimate the value of Google Maps. To this day, I still use Google Maps to double-check I am taking the right train wherever I am going. There are often multiple options to get from point A to point B and Google Maps will always highlight the best option based on traffic and other conditions. There are other apps as well, but Google has always worked for me.

Below you can see what shows up for me from Terminal 8 heading into Manhattan. You can see there are multiple options, and notice that Option #2 is AirTrain -> LIRR -> Subway, and it takes only 4 fewer minutes to get to Times Square and you still have to ride the subway anyway. This is why I think the LIRR is a waste unless you’re going somewhere further away deep in Long Island.

When going to Times Square, we want the recommended route, which is AirTrain -> E train.

Google Maps from JFK to Times Square

Google Maps Pro Tip

One pro tip when traveling to NYC or any destination is to always download the local map data into Google Maps while you’re on the free WiFi at the airport. This way, if you ever happen to lose cell signal for any reason, you’ll have the map to reference. Usually, most smartphones can still use GPS even without cell service.

How to get to the subway station from JFK airport to Manhattan

If you are looking for the subway from JFK Airport, follow signs for the AirTrain. Note the AirTrain will seem free, until you try to leave, at which point you have to buy a Metro card and pay before exiting the turnstiles.

There are three AirTrain lines at JFK. If you are traveling to Times Square, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, or anywhere near Midtown Manhattan, the Bronx or Queens, the line you want is E train via the Jamaica line. Additionally if you want to take the LIRR, take the Jamaica line.

If you are traveling to the financial district in Manhattan or most places in Brooklyn, you’ll want to take the A train on the Howard Beach line It is easy to tell which line arrives on each track based on the screens above the loading zone.

JFK AirTrain Sign.  To Times Square, use the Jamaica Line

Whatever train is listed on top is arriving next.

Once you are on the train, you want to get off at the either the Jamaica stop or the Howard Beach stop. There should be an announcement on the train for each stop, but just in case you want to be double sure, there is also a screen at the front and back of each car that says what stop is next. I’m on the Howard Beach train below. Generally, the train line is on top and the next stop is on the bottom though.

Signage inside the AirTrain from JFK to Manhattan

Once you get to the station, follow the signs to the subway.

Purchasing your metro card from JFK airport to Times Square

At the exit, there are machines for both the LIRR and the MTA Subway. MTA Subway machines look like the image below.

Don’t ask me why, but you can’t even purchase a 7-day pass from the MTA machine near the airport. Ask any New Yorker their top 5 biggest frustrations and MTA stupidity will be listed in every single person’s top 5, but I digress.

Anyway, from here, choose your language, then choose the Metro Card option, and then choose AirTrain + Subway. If you want to add an unlimited 7-day pass, I would pick the $10.50 option now to get you to your hotel and then refill your card before you leave the station at your final stop.

How to fill your metro card from JFK to Manhattan

Navigating to the subway

The next step is to follow the signs for the subway, which at the Jamaica station is on the same path as the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR). It looks like two different walkways, but it is literally the same. Once you get to the LIRR platform, however, just walk all the way to the other side for the elevators to the Subway from JFK airport. In this case, I am going to take the E train into the city. The signage is very similar at the Howard Beach station.

Exiting the AirTrain station at JFK, on your way to the subway into Manhattan
Elevator to the subway on from the LIRR platform on your way from JFK to Times Square

Getting on the right train!

Now, very important, and probably the most common mistake I hear from tourists coming to NYC, is make sure you get on the train going in the correct direction! The easiest way to tell which direction a train is traveling are the signs above the boarding area. For subway from JFK airport to Times Square, you want to take the E train to Manhattan!

Subway Signage

Another place to look is right above where the subway doors open. At other train stations in the city these signs aren’t as obvious, but they are always there. You may just have to walk up and down the platform a bit before you see them. At a lot of train stations, one side of the street is uptown and the other is downtown so just check the signs before you walk downstairs.

Where to get off the train

You’re almost there! Check your Google Maps for your final destination. Most E Trains will be newer and will have upcoming train stops listed on the LED screen above the seats. If your stop is more than 10 stops away, your stop may not show up right away. Keep an eye on the “Further Stops” section because it will rotate through all future stops on the train.

Older train cars

If you happen to get stuck on one of the older train cars, you won’t see the convenient LED display of train stops overhead. In this case, you will have to pay closer attention to the stations. On these older cars, however, you can also be on the lookout for train maps that will display all of the stations on your line, just in case your google maps or whatever phone app is not working under ground.

You made it!

For me, heading right to Times Square I got off at 50th Street. For you, to your Midtown hotel might be anywhere from 7th Ave-53rd Street to PABT (Port Authority Bus Terminal). Either way, hopefully this guide will get you to where you need to go near Times Square.

I hope it helps and I hope NYC isn’t overwhelming. I can tell you as a native Midwesterner living in the Big Apple, to this day Times Square is still overwhelming to me.

Mike in Times Square - Oh boy!