NYC => DC: Train or plane?
May 28, 2010 2:49 AM   Subscribe

I heard the Oil Barons destroyed trains in the 70s in the US. Should I let this get in the way of a trip by train from NYC => Washington DC and back (just one night in DC)? Or are flights + security + not-dodgy company better? I have no idea. A previous AskMeFi thread suggested that in 2008 trains were slow but reasonably enjoyable. What's the Q2 2010 view?
posted by to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Apart from price, the train is definitely the best way to get from NYC to DC. Most comfortable, least hassle, and arguably the fastest (considering delays and the security lines involved in flying).
posted by semacd at 3:07 AM on May 28, 2010

Trains running between NYC & DC are pretty reliable (they have dedicated tracks, as far as I know, so you're not running into problems with freight trains causing delays) and really, with travel to and from the airport and security/etc., you're not losing any time (and maybe gaining some -- it takes about 3 1/2-4 to go from NYC to DC). Usually no dodgy company and pretty comfortable seats.

(The cost is probably about the same as flying, depending on how far in advance you're able to book.)
posted by darksong at 3:19 AM on May 28, 2010

It was earlier than that. Standard Oil, in concert with several other companies that would benefit from the rise of the automobile, bought up light rail and trolley networks in most major cities in the 1910s, IRC. They were caught, and fined, I believe, $5000 for destroying infrastructure that has yet to be fully replaced.

For the most part, my travels with Amtrak were pretty nice. More comfortable, no real 'dodgy' company to speak of. Much better than plane, if you can be flexible about time (delays are a part of train life in the US), and usually friendlier too.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:26 AM on May 28, 2010

Acela (the "express" train on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and DC) has electrical outlets and wifi, plus comfy seats. Since the time and price are about the same, and (if this matters) you're going from city center to city center, I would take the train.

Actually, thinking about it, I don't recall ever taking the plane from NYC to DC. We'd always drive or take the train.
posted by chengjih at 3:32 AM on May 28, 2010

Two words: leg room.

Plus, looking out the window is fun.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:39 AM on May 28, 2010

I travel between New York and DC regularly, and being carless, I find the train to be an advantage over flying and the hassles of getting from the airport into the city on both ends (although, on both ends, airport wise, there are better choices than others - National is right on the Metro into DC and physically close).

The train is great. The Acela, if you can spring for it, is even more great. From city center to city center, through many other city centers. The Acela has free wifi, Amtrak stations now have free wifi (at least Union Station in DC does), as well.
posted by mjb at 3:48 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Take the train. Travel along major cities on the East Coast in any other mode is inferior and more foolish.
posted by millipede at 4:28 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The train between NYC and DC is great. Lots of legroom, plus there's power outlets. And while the time of the flight is a lot shorter than the time of the train ride, once you factor in getting to the airport an hour early, security lines, etc., then it balances out.

My only issue with the train is the cost; gonna be more expensive than you expect. I don't think the Acela is worth the extra cost, but ymmv.

The other good alternative are the many chinatown buses. Super cheap. I just wouldn't necessarily do it if you're traveling during rush hour.
posted by inigo2 at 4:37 AM on May 28, 2010

I too like the train. Re: the cost--I had been purchasing my ticket on the day of travel, then later learned from the Amtrak site that the cost is lower if you purchase your ticket in advance.

I'm considering making a significantly longer trip by train this fall: DC to Atlanta, coach.
posted by apartment dweller at 4:55 AM on May 28, 2010

On the idea of "dodgy" train company:

In my experience I only had dodgy train company on one stretch of a ride from Albuquerque to Upstate New York by way of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington and NYC. It was when I couldn't sleep (didn't get a sleeper cabin) and was up all night in the observation/snack car with some folks who were just on for a stretch between somewhere and Kansas City. (Not that I can knock anyone traveling that stretch - but these dudes were "off.")

Or taking Metro North or LIRR at an odd hour... but that's not quite the same thing.

There's potentially dodgy company on anything and I think it's more likely to be seen on a long haul, regardless of the mode of transport (I've been bothered by "dodgy" characters in airports in the secure terminal, on long layovers).

On a plane, everyone is pretty much obligated to stay in their seat and behave -- especially on approach to DC. But you're not going to have any problems on the train between New York and DC. You'll enjoy it.
posted by mjb at 4:55 AM on May 28, 2010

Tons of people use that particular leg of Amtrak. A whole different userbase than the other Amtrak routes.
posted by gjc at 5:00 AM on May 28, 2010

On the East Coast, trains aren't actually all that slow. You can get from NYC to Philadelphia in a little more than an hour, which is a little faster than you can drive that under the best of circumstances, and significantly faster than the total time it takes to fly, what with getting to and from the airport and getting through security.

Elsewhere... not so much. You can drive from New York to Chicago in about twelve hours. The train takes about twenty-seven. Going from Chicago to Seattle takes almost three days.

They are expensive though. A one-way Acela ticket from NYC to DC will set you back $100.

Still, if you've got the time and the money, train travel is incredibly comfortable.
posted by valkyryn at 5:00 AM on May 28, 2010

Best answer: The Bolt Bus will get you there for about $20, and is generally quite comfortable and punctual. They've also got free wireless internet on board. Most of the buses are direct nonstop routes (the NYC->Greenbelt route stops in Baltimore, but I'm pretty sure the rest are direct).

It's still a bus, but it's definitely one of the nicer long distance buses I've encountered.

As long as it's running on time, Amtrak is a more comfortable ride, and won't be subject to traffic. It's silly to even consider flying, given that you'll be spending more time getting through the airport and clearing security on either end.
posted by schmod at 5:12 AM on May 28, 2010

Trains are night-and-day easier for the part of the trip that's usually most hectic: leaving & arriving. If you have the time, I'd take the train. They're so much more comfortable.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:28 AM on May 28, 2010

There are multiple Amtrak trains that run on the Boston-New York-DC corridor. The Acela is the "high-speed" rail option, which is business class only. It is a VERY nice way to travel. The Northeast Regional / Northeast Corridor trains make more stops and run slower. There are also "long haul" trains such as the "Silver Meteor" (which goes all the way to Orlando) or "Palmetto".

Because I live slightly south of DC, I take the Northeast Regional to NY. I believe it has excellent on-time records. (The only time I've had delays was during a blizzard.) The price of my ticket is roughly the same as flying in to NY. I regard the timing as roughly equal, too -- because Amtrak gets me into Penn Station in Midtown NY while an airline would require me to find my way to Midtown/Downtown from LaGuardia or JFK. (If you factor in the cost of ground transportation there, Amtrak is actually cheaper.)

There is no TSA hassle. "Coach" class on the NE Corridor has as much leg room as business class on an airline. Each seat has AC power. I have mobile broadband, so I can be online and doing work / reading MeFi the entire trip.

I am a frequent flier, and I have changed my travel habits because taking Amtrak to NY is a more comfortable way to travel.

Other travelers have cautioned me, though -- the Northeast corridor is very well run and heavily traveled and the on-time performance (and amenities) available on other Amtrak lines is NOT comparable.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 5:38 AM on May 28, 2010

Plane: 1.5 hours (realistically: 3 hours), 100$.
Fast Amtrak: 3 hours, 135$.
Cheap Amtrak: 4 hours, 50$.
Bus: 5 hours, 20$.

These are all based on going down on a mid-June Saturday, time and prices are one way. Just for me, Amtrak misses the mark all around. If you really can't sit still, the plane is better (and cheaper). If you can travel early/late and sleep, you might as well spend an extra hour on the bus and save. I personally go with the bus (and it's not unreliable, in case that's what you're thinking, there are some very, very reliable cheap buses, like Bolt).
posted by anaelith at 5:40 AM on May 28, 2010

The MVP or Bolt bus is definitely the cheapest way to get to DC from NY and doesn't take that much longer than the train. Last time I took Amtrak round trip to NYC it cost about $160.
posted by electroboy at 6:15 AM on May 28, 2010

Plane: 1.5 hours (realistically: 3 hours), 100$.
Fast Amtrak: 3 hours, 135$

Keep in mind that for the plane, a good chunk of those hours are standing in lines or standing in transportation between terminals.
Also, if you take the plane, you best off taking a regular book, since you can't use electronics for a good chunk of the flight (probably 20 minutes or more of the flight during take off and landing). Plus, you can't make any calls on the plane either.

With the train, you get there, wait for the train, walk on and relax. I want to make a call, use my laptop, or whatever, it's all good.

I live very close to Dulles Airport, but if I need to go to NYC, I'll make that trip to DC to take the train every time.
posted by forforf at 6:27 AM on May 28, 2010

Also, I think both Bolt and MVP have free wi-fi.
posted by electroboy at 6:57 AM on May 28, 2010

Also keep in mind that there's no New York airport that has a good subway connection (and some of them don't have particularly good bus connections either!). Only one of the DC airports is hooked up to DC's metro (DCA/Reagan National). The train leaves Penn Station in the midst of Manhattan and goes to Union Station, in the middle of DC. Both stations have hookups to the local subway system. And in both cases, you can walk into the station 10 minutes before you leave and get on the train. Try that in an airport!

Definitely go to Amtrak's web site ( beforehand. Book with more than three days' notice and you'll get a better rate. Monday mornings and Friday nights tend to fill up fast (and be expensive). While the Acela is nice, you can take the non-Acela trains and still find power outlets for a laptop. Not so much with the Wifi, though. Grab a window seat and watch the east coast go by. It's really the best way to get from NY to DC or back.
posted by aureliobuendia at 7:13 AM on May 28, 2010

The oil barons were eliminated with the introduction of the Sherman Antitrust Act in the 1920s, among other legislation.

You may be referring to the car and oil industry's lobbies having convinced government to gut funding for rail travel in the 1970s (I don't know if this is correct or not.) But the oil barons, such as they were, stopped being barons before the Great Depression.

As to the question of riding the train between NY and DC: It's a comfortable ride. The food on the train is awful.
posted by dfriedman at 7:16 AM on May 28, 2010

The train is far and above the best way to from DC to NYC. It's comfortable, takes almost no time, and well, you get to show up, get on, and go. No flight-related hassles.

However, Bolt Bus is SO much cheaper, and not a bad ride at all, that it's the only way I go. Free wi-fi and outlets are also a boon. I think Acela has launched wi-fi on its trains, but not the standard Amtrak.

So, the bus will take an hour-or-so longer to get there, but you'll be basically comfortable and have wi-fi. And, it will cost a LOT less.
posted by General Malaise at 7:18 AM on May 28, 2010

Oh, and never fly. The airports aren't conveniently located, it's expensive, and not comfortable. But that seems to be the general consensus of the thread.
posted by General Malaise at 7:20 AM on May 28, 2010

The NYC-DC stretch of the Amtrak route is nice, especially on the Acela. Once you extend it to Boston, it's not as nice, because you have the long stretch of slow travel and potential delays on Metro North's track through the more built-up parts of western CT.

Pack your lunch, take a water bottle.
posted by holgate at 7:27 AM on May 28, 2010

I take the train regularly NYC - Boston and NYC - Washington. The Northeast corridor on the way to Boston is absolutely breathtaking. Make sure you sit on the South (righthand on your way to BOS) side to enjoy views of Long Island Sound.

These past weeks there has been significant track work, so what is typically a 4hr Amtrak to Boston (not Acela) has been 4.5 - 5hr. This is a pain in the *ss if you're trying to keep to a schedule but otherwise not too much a bother.

Company is just fine. Business class is always very professional, and if you want a more sedate trip, I suggest the Quiet Car. It is usually behind business, and all cellphones must be turned off and conversations kept to a minimum. This usually keeps away families and loud, boisterous travelers.
posted by keasby at 7:58 AM on May 28, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. you guys rock. thanks!
posted by at 8:45 AM on May 28, 2010

I'd take bus or train over the plane from NY to DC. As many other have mentioned, the northeast corridor cannot be compared to travel by train in other parts of the country. (I wish the rest of the country could make train travel that nice.)
Also keep in mind that there's no New York airport that has a good subway connection (and some of them don't have particularly good bus connections either!). Only one of the DC airports is hooked up to DC's metro (DCA/Reagan National). The train leaves Penn Station in the midst of Manhattan and goes to Union Station, in the middle of DC. Both stations have hookups to the local subway system. And in both cases, you can walk into the station 10 minutes before you leave and get on the train. Try that in an airport!
This is incorrect. I got from JFK to Jamaica in about 8 minutes on the airtrain which ran I think every 10 minutes directly from the terminal I was in. If you've got someone picking you up in a car, it can take you 8 minutes to leave the airport, depending on which terminal you were in. From Jamaica, you can take an E train to the city, if that's heading more in the direction you want to go, or hang tight another 25 minutes or so and you'll be in Penn Station via the LIRR.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:57 AM on May 28, 2010

Be aware that there are some unpredictable delays at JFK now through summer because of the closure of their largest runway. I got caught up in this a few weeks ago and spent an extra four hours on the ground because of it.
posted by speedgraphic at 11:01 AM on May 28, 2010

Also echoing Brian... the AirTrain is a great way to get from the city to the airport. If you're looking to save a few bucks, take the subway from Jamaica instead of the LIRR. I took the LIRR to Penn Station, and then the subway back a few days later and it was nearly as fast. Plus, if you're going to purchase an unlimited use MetroCard it becomes even cheaper to take the subway.
posted by speedgraphic at 11:03 AM on May 28, 2010

I love the train for that route. It's a bit more expensive than the bus, but so comfortable.
posted by Nothing at 1:00 PM on May 28, 2010

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