Helpful Tips and Unspoken Guidelines
If you've ever heard the impatient exhale of a commuter behind you, you've experienced a classic city moment. New York City is indeed a friendly place but its inhabitants move quickly and knowing a few things about how the city has worked out maneuvering around and among each other will go a long way in giving you an experience that is invigoratingly pleasant. You will laugh when you read these tips, either because you are not from the city and they will seem too subtle to be worth talking about or because you are a native and you know the truth of these words and have gotten caught up in many of them. Once you've seen them in print, you will start to notice these things happening all around you...
Sometimes you will be able to walk three abreast. Mostly, however, this will cause havoc and you'll begin to notice faster walkers snaking around you. That's when you will want to break into twos and even single file if you are late for the theater. This may sound severe but please consider it and never, ever walk in sideways conga lines of 4 and 5. You'll use up the whole breadth of the sidewalk and won't be able to hear each other speak anyway. Switch out who's walking in pairs and you won't miss out on any scintillating comments from your traveling companions. You'll get where you're going faster and then you'll have time to talk and laugh. If you absolutely have to show or tell everyone something, pull over to the side and have a pow-wow. New Yorkers are seasoned walkers and you can't go faster than them but you can clear a path for them and enjoy your stroll all the better.
Walking like a tourist is expected (if not happily) in the Times Square area where commuters mostly march under 42nd Street via an underground walkway that connects the subways in Times Square to Port Authority. Commuters that come up for air know they can expect a maze of tourists with no place urgent to go enjoying the lights and sights of the city's midtown hub. Elsewhere in the city, keep to two abreast as much as possible.
And if you want to talk on the phone while you walk, be aware of the effect on those in front and behind you. Dialing, talking and texting all slow you down and make you weave instead of walk. Fine at home but with 80,000 people jammed on the sidewalk with you, this won't cut it. Plus you have to shout a bit to hear over the noise of the traffic. Sound stravels forward and everyone in front of you will hear your side of the call. If you need to share the moment, text a friend, search for an address or take a photo, pull over and out of the flow of foot traffic.
Our custom is to stand on the right and walk on the left on escalators especially those long ones going into the subways. This allows commuters who are late for work to run at top speed up and down flights of moving stairs without ramming into you. If you want to talk to your companions on escalators, make sure you are both on the right side and any bags are in front of you and out of the way of the left aisle. Eventually most people get this one (especially after being jostled a few times) but it doesn't hurt to be aware of it from the get-go.
These are funnel points and you don't want to get hung up here. There is a very natural tendency to stop and look before entering and exiting some of NYC's grander spots and even humbler ones like the subways and restaurant entrances. You and your party may need to get your bearings before moving forward and left or right. That's fine, but try not to do it in the middle of a doorway. We say, Please get lost over to the side. That means, enter and move out of the flow of people before stopping and staring or checking your map. A few feet makes a world of difference and there will be 500 grateful people right behind you. This is a good idea on busy streets too. Pull over, away from the heavy flow of foot traffic to get your bearings. You won't get knocked into at full speed and you'll be able to ask a question of a calmer passerby more easily.
Their purpose is to maintain a more even temperature barrier in climate-controlled buildings by allowing a large number of people to pass through entryways without great variation to the indoor temperature. A few years ago, a friend who lives on the west coast pointed out to me that the northeast, including and especially New York City, has more revolving doors than most other parts of the country. As a consequence, visitors sometimes struggle with them. This sounded unlikely to me at first but casual observation while traveling in other cities has indicated that there is less experience with revolving doors than I would have supposed. Here are the things to know: Some of revolving doors are heavy and you need to overcome inertia to get them revolving. So rather than ladies first, send your strongest in first. Don't double up (except in the ones at the Hilton on 6th which are huge, automated and slow). If the door is already revolving and someone is coming towards you, walk in as they exit or in the quadrant just before and please don't stop walking until you are on the other side and several steps away from the door to allow for people behind you (see Exits and Entrances above.)
Several years ago the Economist's website city guide reported that New Yorkers think smoking is a sign of weakness, unlike their European counterparts who still tolerate the habit as somehow worldly. This was an astute observation of a cultural difference that visitors from other American cities where the question smoking or non-smoking at restaurants is still asked should heed. The theory is that anyone who has to leave a meeting, take frequent smoking breaks from their desk and jump up after a meal for a cigarette is not in control of their day and may not be able to control a company or major merger. (Tough town, huh?)
There is no smoking in office buildings, restaurants, bars and most clubs. This year, there has been piblic discussion of banning smoking in residential buildings . Smoking New Yorkers have been relegated to areas outside their office buildings and many of these require smokers to congregate away from covered entryways where fumes tend to gather and create a nicotine-laden greeting to building visitors. If you are a smoker, the best places to get your fix are open-air public break spots and parks. You can check these out in the Take a Break section of this website. I'm sorry to say you'll be chilly but there it is and we like that way.
I can always tell when I'm on a website about the city designed by a non-native. The addresses are, shall we say, incomplete. When New Yorkers give each other directions, we remember to add the cross streets wherever possible. In a city with a grid system this saves all kinds of time asking for directions. So instead of 1232 Fifth Avenue, we add between 53rd and 54th Streets. This works for any kind of directions, including named as well as numbered streets and is really helpful in cabs.
Cell Phones — Can you hear? It is loud on the streets of the city. If you are struggling to hear, try a phone booth spot in a hotel lobby for a call from your cell phone or mobiel device. These were designed long before cell phones and provide a buffered space between you, the lobby and the street noise.
And if you've noticed that people can't drive and talk at the same time, wait until you see pedestrians trying to talk/text and walk in the city. You may think you are doing it well but the person in front of you is not interested in your day (sound travels forward) and the person behind you is not impressed by your slower pace. So give the people in front and behind you a break and pull over to chat and text. I know this was mentioned in the sidewalks section but it's a New Yorker's pet peeve so it bears repeating.
Have a plan and place to meet if you get separated. This is as true in the city as it is in the woods. Everyone in your party should have a number to call and/or a place they know how to get to where the group can meet. New York office buildings always have a plan in place for employees during fires and other emergencies so do like they do and pick a spot. (We used the carousel at Bryant Park when I worked in the Grace Building on 42nd Street. Instead, we gravitated to Bryant Park Grill's outdoor bar the one time we needed to evacuate during a city-wide power outage. It was not far from the carousel, but we learned to pick a realistic gathering spot where people were able to sit, stay and relax while regrouping.)
Sometimes things go really wrong. For a list of Police Precincts in NYC, go to
http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/home/precincts.shtml. Remember that 911 is for real emergencies. Almost every other issue can be handled by dialing 311. Operating 24/7 this is great number to call about any city service including requesting help for a homeless person or items forgotten in a cab. Outside NYC call 212-639-9675 to reach the service.
If you are carrying a large bag or parcel, some stores will ask you to check it in order to protect their merchandise from being damaged by inadvertent knocks and to minimize shop-lifting concerns. If you are carrying something large, organize your bag or backpack so that you can pull out your essentials (wallet, keys, ID, phone) easily. We like a small zipped bag or clutch inside a larger bag.
We also like the idea of shipping purchases home if you are on real spree. Most stores can arrange this (and sometimes gift-wrapping) or you can stop at any UPS store to have things packed and shipped. The one at the concourse level in Rockefeller Center is an old hand at this.
Hailing cabs has gotten much easier in New York City, especially for visitors who used to be plagued by self-appointed cab concierges at train stations and other crowded spots. Still there are some unspoken rules, especially if there is no line for taxis. If you are near Port Authority (one block west of Times Square on 8th Avenue) or Grand Central Station (42nd Street east of Vanderbilt) use the manned taxi lines to get a cab. If you are in a real jam, ask (and tip wildly since you are not a guest) a doorman at a hotel for help.
On your own, you need to know some cab hailing NYC etiquette and strategy. First, select your corner. Pick one that is a) going in the direction you want to go b) gives you an opportunity to hail from up/down traffic and east/west traffic maximizing your chances of getting a cab quickly. The best scenario is after the light since you will get the more assertive drivers who've crossed the corner and you won't have to pay the meter while you wait for the light to change. (The meter goes on as soon as you get in.)
Strategy gets lower priority if you are on a corner with lots of other people and it is raining. This is when the etiquette rules get serious. Before selecting your corner, always check for other cab hailers. If someone is already hailing, step to a secondary place or even stand next to them making it clear you know they were in the spot first and will take the first cab. Also check midway up/down the block for anyone hailing from mid-block who is in front of you. All this may sound hard to do but in practice it becomes very obvious who arrived in the general area first and it is not unheard of to be scolded if you unwittingly grab a cab that arrives at your feet where others have been waiting. It is also not unheard of to be given a cab by someone who realizes they are not first. Do the same and the city's karma will smile upon you delivering a shower of taxis to your spot and clear traffic before you.
Once in the cab give the address and if at all possible, name the cross streets. This will help the driver identify a route quickly and establish you as a bit more savvy. Cab drivers are required to drive the most direct route at any given time. Since the city's streets clog up at important moments, ask your driver to go the fastest way, not the most direct way and you may get there sooner and with less on the meter.
As you approach your destination, your driver may ask you which corner you'd like to be dropped at or what side if mid-block. If you know, you can say it several ways: the northeast corner for example or the very local phrasing: near corner, right hand side or far corner, left hand side or a variation of same. If you don't know, don't sweat it, ask to be dropped in the safest spot and if you open the door and find a gutter at your feet, close the door and have the driver move up a few feet. Be aware that drivers will avoid stopping where city buses are stopping. Get out a bit further down the block than a bus stop.
Finally, be smart and stay inside the cab to pay and put your change back in your wallet. The driver is happy to wait, especially if you remember to tip (about 10% is typical). If you get out to pay, you'll make your driver nervous and you are likely to have your change blow out of your hands and into a nearby gutter. Also ask for a receipt, even if this is not a business expense. If you lose something you'll be able to track the cab you were in. Before closing the door, look inside on the seat and floor for any forgotten items like gloves, hats, shopping bags or — please no- a wallet or phone. (Call 311 if you realize you have left something in a cab, the sooner the better and now aren't you happy you asked for a receipt with cab number and time stamp on it?)
One last thing about cab culture in NYC. It seems that most cab companies are based in Queens. Drivers often share a vehicle and need to return to the garage at the shift change. This can make hailing a cab around 4pm tough and you may see many cabs indicating they are off duty. If they stop for you, ask where you are going and decide that it's on their way, they may turn the light back on. Enjoy the moment. If however, you are asked where you are going while the on-duty light is on, get in the cab before you tell the driver your destination thus taking possession of the fare and thus discouraging the driver from selecting a better fare. Many cabbies do not want to do an airport run so if you have a suitcase with you, don't flaunt it while hailing.
Every city child learns to Double the Tax and so should you to help you figure out the tip at restaurants. This will give you a good starting point at a 16.5% tip level from which you can move up or down. If you are calculating it on your own, remember to base it on the total line before the sales tax is added in. At bars, the typical tip is about $1 per drink.
Tipping is your way of regulating good service so if you are not happy with your server or bartender let it be known with a smaller tip. This is more effective than leaving nothing since the server may just assume you have continued to be a troublesome tourist by forgetting to tip. If you are really unhappy, do not wait for the bill to express displeasure. Ask for the manager and explain (calmly) your complaint. Be prepared for an improvement (meaning don't continue to fuss if they have remedied your situation.) Dining is big business in NYC and restaurants know that a customer who had a ball will tell one or two people but a disastrous dinner story will get told many times over.
If you are with a large group remember that many restaurants will include the tip in your bill. You may adjust it up if you've been made very happy, noticed a great number of helpers in attendance or realized that everyone in your group asked for something unusual and not on the menu but don't make the mistake of adding the whole tip in again. Now you're looking sophisticated!
We have a lot more in store for you on what to wear and how to be comfortable on your urban trek but we'll top line it for you here.
Most important, wear comfortable and well-supported shoes. This is not the time to show off your hand-made leather or high-heeled shoes. Even if you are not a walker, you will put in some mileage while here. We also discourage sneakers (aka tennis shoes and trainers). They may feel supportive but they really mark you as a newcomer and you'll discover that walking shoes and boots not only look better but hold up better on the concrete sidewalks. Wear sneakers only if you can get your hands on a cool pair (like leather ones) uptown or downtown that don't look like you just popped off the tennis court at your local club. Points for avoiding a fight with your teenager if he/she insists on wearing theirs. (Enjoy a quiet chuckle late in the day when their feet hurt.) There are some really great brands of good looking walking shoes and boots these days with under a 2 inch heel in all price ranges including Merrell, Clarks, Rockport, Aerosole right on up to Taryn Rose and the Mephisto brand, ultimate walkers. You will look and feel fabulous. This year for women there are really nice low-heeled boots and lace-up oxfords are hitting the stores.
Outerwear: For everyone natural fibers (cotton, silk, wool) keep you warm and feel good. Synthetic miracles like Gore-Tex® will help on a wet day.
For men, a pair of warm wool slacks or khakis on warmer fall days is what most men walk around in and depending on the temperature a jacket, sweater and jacket or a hooded storm coat are just right. Men also sport leather jackets and the very hip (as well as Wall Street) can carry off an overcoat. If you don't wear hats consider a scarf and bring gloves. Many businessmen sport wool earmuffs, the type with the connector across the back of your neck. A good look when it's freezing.
For women, we recommend a layered approach that will move you from inside cars and trains to the city sidewalks to heated stores to restaurants and home again. Trousers and mid-calf skirts look great with most footwear suitable for walking. They work well with layered light shirts, vests and sweaters. If it's really cold we recommend an overcoat or warm and hooded jacket, with scarf, gloves and hat. A shawl-like scarf is versatile and pashminas roll up into small parcels that fit in your bag. Gloves are warm and so nice on the subway when gripping handrails gripped by thousands before you. We can't say enough in support of hats. New York women really know how to wear them and if you follow their lead you will stay quite warm and protect your ears from wind. Berets, wool ear muffs, wool caps all look good and stuff into bags easily when not worn. If you really hate hats, definitely do not forget a light wool shawl/scarf to protect your ears and cold head when the temperature drops and the wind kicks up. A chic look too.
Your older children should be steered to practical shoes and layers as above to be comfortable and warm. This applies to little ones too where you will likely have more success.
If you absolutely cannot convince anyone in the household to dress properly for the weather and walking, do not despair. When it rains, umbrella salesmen come out of the woodwork in Manhattan chanting UMbrella-UMbrella for about a buck. Street vendors also sell hats, scarves and gloves. (Note: We don't condone brand theft so if you see a designer label being sold on the street, put your nose up and move on please.)