December 2010

The sign outside of the MTA museum.

Two weekends ago I was in New York City for 33 hours, thanks to the ridiculous deal that popped up. This was my second visit to NYC, as I spent about a week there during the fall last year. For this quickie trip, I wanted to get off the beaten path a little bit and see parts of the city that tourists might not normally venture into. I also wanted to spend some time in one of the city’s other boroughs besides Manhattan.

While looking up some information about the NYC subway system, I found a page on the Metropolitan Transit Agency’s site that mentioned their Transit Museum. The museum is located in Brooklyn, not far from the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. The museum features exhibits about the NYC subway system from its beginnings to the present day. I was intrigued since I find mass transit systems fascinating (probably because my beloved hometown doesn’t really have one beyond a basic bus system). There’s just something fun about stepping on a train and ending up somewhere new and interesting a few stops later. Plus, transit systems provide lots of interesting people-watching opportunities.

From the website, I wasn’t sure if there would be enough in the museum to keep my attention for more then 30 minutes. But since it was located near the A train I would take back to the JFK airport and I was planning a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I wouldn’t have to go far out of my way to get there. Besides, at $6 for adult admission the price was right.

So after my brisk Brooklyn Bridge stroll I descended the steps into the museum. I almost walked by it at first- it’s located in an old subway station and the entrance looks like all the other subway stations around the area. Inside, the museum has an opening exhibit about what it took to build the subway system. From digging up streets to elaborate pressurization systems that sometimes gave workers the bends, it’s no easy task to build a subway through a busy city. The exhibit lets visitors peer through a hole to see the different layers of dirt and rock workers had to dig through. Visitors can also try lifting heavy wheelbarrows filled with rocks that workers had to haul away from work sites.

An Altoids ad on an MTA metro card from 2006.

Other exhibits show how the payment system and turnstiles for the subway have changed over the years. From nickel fares that were paid at turnstiles monitored by humans to tokens that were often swapped out with counterfeits to the modern-day swipe cards with turnstiles designed to foil people who would try to jump over them, the changes to the payment system reflect the rise in fares and the improvements in technology that makes the system easier to use for both the passengers and the MTA. The museum has a collection of items like all the tokens and cards used through the years and a selection of “slugs”- counterfeit tokens- that people have used.

The museum also has an area devoted to the bus system that the MTA also runs. It has several models of buses that people can sit in and pretend to drive or ride in. The bus exhibit talked about the history of the bus system and included some interesting facts. My favorite fact was when the bus system’s payment system was integrated with the subway system’s, ridership soared since riders needed just one card to use both systems.

One section that I enjoyed was the subway art section. I enjoy seeing the colorful displays, like the tile art depicting revelers at a Times Square stop, or the playful metal figures on the floor of the 14th St./8th Ave. stop along the A line.

But the best part of the museum was downstairs. Since the museum occupies a decommissioned subway station, the

A public service annoucement ad on a MTA train.

old tracks are still connected to the rest of the subway system. Which means that the museum could roll in trains used in decades past for visitors to step on and walk around in. The museum had over a dozen cars, each one showing the evolution from the earliest wooden designs to today’s metal cars. They’re like time capsules- right down to the advertising on the walls. Some of the ads were aimed at housewives who wanted whiter clothes or to men who might find Jane Fonda’s latest role in “Barbarella” interesting. Others were PSAs encouraging people to get chest x-rays or to vote for the next “Miss Subways”. But my favorite ad features a man on his front lawn dashing to get inside his house to answer the ringing phone. The text reads “When you call someone by telephone . . . Please give him plenty of time to answer.” It just seems so quaint. It was easy to imagine myself as a subway rider from some bygone era in those trains.

Besides the trains downstairs, there’s a control center that shows live where some of the trains on the A and C lines are moving and includes communications between those trains and dispatchers. The center also shows some of the safety measures the MTA employs to prevent accidents, such as emergency brakes on the tracks that will stop a train that goes through a red light.

Old trains in the MTA museum

The museum is a very kid-friendly one. I happened to be visiting when a birthday party for a 7-year-old was being held, complete with tablecloths and cups with the MTA subway map on them. The kids really loved the bus and train displays where you could pretend to be a driver and ringing the bell on the trains downstairs.

Overall, the museum is worth a visit if you have any interest in learning more about NYC’s transit system or are looking for a fun place to take the kids for a couple of hours. Or if you happen to be stuck in a blizzard as many folks were this past weekend and need something fun to do.

I was able to look at everything in the museum in about two and a half hours. The museum is located in Brooklyn at the intersection of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn St. near stops for the 2,3,4,5,M,R,A,C and F trains. If you’re walking or driving, it’s just a couple of blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. For more information about the museum, visit their page on the MTA site.


The screenshot of my deal, with all the exciting naughty bits censored out.

Two weekends ago I got to take advantage of a crazy deal where I got to book a quick one-night trip to New York City for a whopping 22 cents. It came courtesy of (the Canadian site of Expedia) and they were offering $300 off coupon for flight+hotel packages to New York City, Las Vegas and Cancun. This meant that with the right combination of flights and hotels, a trip could be virtually free.

The terms and conditions specified that the coupon could only be used for “Canadian bookings”. However, the fine print didn’t specify what that meant. Did it mean trips had to start in Canada? That it could only be used by Canadians? That you needed to sing “O, Canada” and be eating poutine while clicking the buy button? In this case, the terms and conditions were so vague that anyone booking through the Canadian version of Expedia could use this coupon. Thanks to the relatively cheap airfare in the US compared to Canada, people were booking trips essentially for free. Expedia could have limited use of the coupon to flights out of Canada, which would have mean cheaper but not free trips, but for whatever reason they didn’t. Expedia eventually pulled the coupon, but not after hundreds of free trips were booked.

Another deal that happened earlier this week was when American offered flights to various cities in Europe from the US for as little as $97 one way. Getting $200-$400 roundtrip airfare to Europe is very good, especially as airfare often runs closer to $1000. The sale only lasted about 12 hours though, and it appears to have been unintentional as the fares didn’t include a fuel surcharge that normally raise the price by $100 or more.

Of course, such deals and mistake fares like this don’t happen every day. But they do happen, and they happen more often then you might think. But how do you find out about them? Here are some of the places I like to check frequently.

Flyertalk- This is the forum for all things travel-related. It’s also the place where most deals first surface before spreading to the rest of the internet. The main focus of the site is on airline frequent flyer programs and how to get status and lots of miles. But the site goes much deeper then that, providing mountains of information on airports, airlines, airplanes and destinations. Most importantly, Flyertalk has a vibrant community that is well-informed and often happy to answer questions if you do your homework first. When the Expedia deal was happening, I used Flyertalk to find out what other people were booking and engage in wild speculations like whether Expedia would really honor the coupons or not (they are). The downside to the site is that it can sometimes be hard to read if you don’t know what all the abbreviations or nicknames mean (it’s a good excuse to brush up on your knowledge of airport codes).

Slickdeals This site is the newest addition to my deal-finding arsenal. The list-style forum layout and detailed headlines makes it easy to skim through the list and see if there’s anything interesting out there. The deals listed are not just limited to airline and hotel deals, but also often include sales on tourist attractions, luggage and other travel-related goodies. What I like most about the site is that it’s all about the deals- there’s little discussion of the best mileage strategy or which airline has the best program. If I need to know what’s hot right now and don’t have the time to plow through pages of forum posts, this is the place I’m go to. The one downside to the site is that it’s fairly US-oriented, so it may not be as helpful if your next trip doesn’t involve North America.

Blogs- I first found out about the Expedia deal through Gary Leff’s “View from the Wing” blog. Another blog that frequently post good deals or sales going on is Ben Schlapping’s “One Mile at a Time” blog. If you’re into credit card promotions, churning or other tactics involving using cards to get miles, Rick Ingersoll’s “Frugal Travel Guy” blog has all the details. The blogs don’t always post on every deal and promotion out there, but they’re great for getting a good understanding of more complex promotions and how to leverage a program to your best advantage.

If you do find a good deal, act quickly. A deal can die fast (that coupon code was pulled 36 hours after it was released), especially if it turned out to be an error made by the company. In other cases, there may be only a limited number of rooms or seats available so it might sell out quickly. Good luck and happy deal-hunting!