The Penn is mightier than my patience
November 25, 2013 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Two adults catching a mid-afternoon Amtrak from New York Penn station on Wednesday. Looming weather disasters aside, what's the best way to make this as stress-free as possible? Travel pros, share your Penn station hacks!

All I'm hearing this week is what a travel nightmare the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is, which is great, because I have to travel that day. How do I ease the pain?

I've read about and seen the lower concourse where you don't have to queue to get your tickets checked: does that trick still work? I'd normally plan to arrive 20-30 minutes before the train: should I give it more time on a busy day like Wednesday? My travel companion and I would love to sit together on our train: is there any hope? What factors am I not thinking about that are going to be an important factor in using Penn Station on the travel nightmariest day of the year?
posted by Theophylactic to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (16 answers total)
I don't think getting there very early will help much. In my experience, as soon as the track is announced, everyone rushes towards the entrance where you get your ticket checked and then go down the escalator (I'm not familiar with getting in at a lower concourse, just the main floor). Maybe you can get seats together in the cafe car?
posted by exogenous at 7:31 AM on November 25, 2013

1. It won't be that bad. I've taken Amtrak from Penn Station the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and it certainly sucks, but it will be a short and bearable experience.

2. Get there ~45 minutes early, just in case boarding happens early.

3. Be prepared for delays. Bring snacks and drinks.

4. But, pack lightly. If you just have a small duffel, you can move through the herds much, much faster than with a roller bag. And, space will be at a premium in the car—people will likely be standing—so smaller is better.

5. Know your train's usual track and queue closer to that one. The Amtrak folks probably won't tell you what that is, but maybe you could find out via some other means. That will help you be in the best possible place for when the track is actually announced (via the big board). It's not guaranteed that that will be the track on Wednesday, but it's a best guess.

6. Just give up on sitting together. If you can find a pair of seats together, AWESOME! The likelihood is higher if the train is departing from NYC (e.g. Keystone trains), but still unlikely. If it's obvious that it's not happening, split up ASAP and find seats alone, and look at the little paper tags above the seats: they have destination on them. Look for ones not too far from NYP: north Jersey or southern CT, depending on which way you're going. Then just hold the seat when that person leaves and your companion comes to you (or vice versa).

But, worst case, you'll sit alone for a few hours and wade through a crowd or three, and then it's over. No big deal. It's just a character building experience.
posted by The Michael The at 7:37 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Which direction are you going? Last time we came home from New York on the Northeast Regional, they had kept all the cars behind the cafe car empty and there ended up being plenty of space for everyone getting on at Penn. Just listen to the conductors and don't follow the crowd blindly, since they'll all just try to board at the first open door.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:49 AM on November 25, 2013

One of you can zip down bagless, weaving in and out of travelers, and hold two seats, while the other brings the bags more slowly.
posted by xo at 7:55 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've read about and seen the lower concourse where you don't have to queue to get your tickets checked: does that trick still work? I'd normally plan to arrive 20-30 minutes before the train: should I give it more time on a busy day like Wednesday? My travel companion and I would love to sit together on our train: is there any hope?

I've done this several times. I've never heard of this trick but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I would expect the worst. One year, I almost got crushed in the line down to the train. (I am small so it's hard for me to push back against the crush of bodies). Traveling on this day is worse than on holidays or in rush hour Tokyo. One year I had to sit on the toilet for the majority of the ride to Boston (they wouldn't let me sit on the floor and I have a physical condition that prevents me from standing for long periods). I wouldn't expect to get seats together unless you are very aggressive.

20-30 minutes before the train is fine in theory but if you have any problems getting your tickets or any last minute holdups you will be cutting it close. If the train gets there early they'll open the gates and it will be madness. Of course everything will be running late most likely.

It will probably be a terrible experience, but at least you won't be alone.

If I were you, I'd get there even earlier and have a festive drink or two at a nearby bar.
posted by vincele at 8:01 AM on November 25, 2013

On preview: I like xo's idea! Let the stronger and meaner of you zip down bagless to defend the seats.

I'm usually on my own. It's vicious if you're by yourself on that particular day. I know I sound melodramatic but trust me that I am no stranger to Penn Station, Amtrak or travel on that particular day.
posted by vincele at 8:05 AM on November 25, 2013

May be obvious, but in your waiting and hopefully snacking/drinking, make sure you both visit the toilet in the half hour or so before the train is supposed to board. When the trains are that crowded, getting to the bathrooms is awful, and they aren't the best at normal times. I like the Jersey Transit waiting area bathrooms, personally.
posted by theweasel at 8:07 AM on November 25, 2013

One of you can zip down bagless, weaving in and out of travelers, and hold two seats, while the other brings the bags more slowly.

Be careful with this - as someone who travels the NE corridor alone a lot, it's really annoying when people are all "excuse me" and muscling you out of the way just for something like "We need to sit together." i think a really good "hack" is respecting your fellow travelers and not disrupting getting-on-the-train traffic too much.
posted by sweetkid at 8:18 AM on November 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Camp out by the Club Acela in the corner closest to 31st/8th. They announce track information inside the Club Acela before its posted to the big board. When the Club Acela doors open and a herd of folks rush out, follow them or ask which track they announced.

You can go down to the lower level and access the tracks via stairs, that avoids the massive crush of folks at the escalators from the main level. You will have to carry your suitcases down the stairs yourself. Using the lower level means you should get seats together, I'm usually one of the first on.
posted by BigVACub at 8:19 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's been a couple of years since I did this on Thanksgiving Eve, but assuming the lower level is still a thing, that's definitely where you want to be. Better still if you can find some way to figure out what the likely track will be and wait near there, but pretty much anywhere on the lower level will get you on the train faster than if you were upstairs and stuck in the bottleneck.

If everyone is clustering at the very front of the platform, move toward the back and plan to get on a car other than the very first one.

Getting there early won't do you too much good since you won't know what track to wait by. But you could get there a few minutes early and make sure you know the layouts of the different track entrances, so you'll be ready to make the dash when the time comes.

But if you don't bring several huge bags, and are willing to sit separately if needed, it's not going to be terrible. Bring a snack, bring a book, be prepared to move fast but don't be the jerk hitting everyone in the face with your bag as you elbow people aside to get to the perfect seat. You'll be fine.
posted by Stacey at 10:25 AM on November 25, 2013

There are no good hacks. Penn station blows hairy donkey balls.
posted by postergeist at 11:16 AM on November 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, the desk at the Club Acela area has a screen that indicates what track the incoming train is using. There's also another one of those screens by the Northern 8th Avenue entrance. It's not always 100%, but it's better than a blind guess. Ask whoever's at the Club Acela desk, that's your best bet. Good luck, you poor bastard!
posted by whuppy at 1:25 PM on November 25, 2013

Best answer: You want to be on the lower level, near the giant black sign. The trick to getting a seat is to correctly guess which track the train will arrive at before it's even announced. You need to be in line before there is a line. Pay attention to which tracks people are leaving from, and where staff is beginning to accumulate.

Get there early and use small, mobile luggage. Bring snacks, be polite, and be prepared to move quickly.
posted by topoisomerase at 3:26 PM on November 25, 2013

Best answer: I've compiled some data on what tracks different trains have been on in the past, taken from photographs of the main departure board posted around the Web. While this is a fairly limited dataset, hopefully this will give you a starting point for choosing a part of the station/gate to wait at as well as some of the potential for variance.

From there, as topoisomerase says, observe any activity occurring around the gates, and any lines that may be forming. For some trains, the most frequent track is well-known enough that a 50-person line can form before the track is even announced. In case that is not actually the track that day, though, still keep a close eye on the departure board, which sometimes updates 10 seconds or so before the intercom announces the gate, so you can immediately start moving to the correct gate; if you're on the main level, that head start makes a substantial difference in your place in line. (I can't speak to the lower concourse method, not having tried it myself.)
posted by beryllium at 5:47 PM on November 25, 2013

I've done Amtrak from Penn for the last ~5-6 years and will do it again tomorrow. It's crazy, but not unbearable.

-Print your tix ahead of time as most of the machines are a) broken or b) in use by people who don't travel and the lines will be ridiculous.
-Amtrak's food choices leave a lot to be desired. Bring food (and drink, much cheaper at KMart in the basement of Penn) or buy it at Penn. Plenty of options for all dietary needs.
-Assume the WiFi won't work. Be pleasantly surprised if it does.
-Bring your patience and a good book. Unwind if you don't get to travel with your friend. You'll see them on the other end.

, thanks for that awesome resource.
posted by TravellingCari at 8:09 PM on November 26, 2013

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