Baltimore to Boston Road Trip: Costs?, Tips?, Anecdotes?
December 11, 2013 6:53 AM   Subscribe

Hi all, We're going to be renting a car in Baltimore around December 20th and taking it for about a week (till approximately the 27th), with the intention of driving down to Boston and back. Has anyone done the trip? Any thoughts on good local dealerships to rent a car from? What about how long it will take? Routes to avoid? General cost of tolls? Places to stop and eat lunch? Any help is appreciated!
posted by Violet Blue to Travel & Transportation (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Stay off I-95!
posted by something something at 6:54 AM on December 11, 2013

Is there a reason you're driving? Boston is a great city to walk and take public transit in, and can be a PITA to drive in. You might consider taking the train, as it takes you right into South Station.
posted by canine epigram at 6:58 AM on December 11, 2013

White Manna in Hackensack, New Jersey is at about your halfway point. If you like burgers from a hole-in-the-wall, that's where you oughta stop.

There are a lot of tolls.
posted by entropone at 6:59 AM on December 11, 2013

Response by poster: The end goal is to get to New Hampshire (right near Maine) for the holidays, and from initial price estimates it's going to work out considerably cheaper for two of us to travel by car than by train—at approximately half the cost. It's also far more convenient than the bus—and neither of us is much of a bus fan, either.

Thanks for your answers so far. Keep 'em coming!
posted by Violet Blue at 7:01 AM on December 11, 2013

I've never driven that route, but I'd be tempted to get an E-ZPass transponder for the toll roads. You get a discount on the tolls, get through the gates more quickly, and it is indeed easy to set up. Connecticut is the only state along the route that doesn't accept E-ZPass.
posted by jon1270 at 7:07 AM on December 11, 2013

A word to the wise--you might want to confirm with your rental place whether they'll ding you for taking what I guess will be about a 1,000-mile road trip. I've neglected to do so and been hit with over-mile fees.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:09 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Driving is cheaper than the train. I drove RI to DC and back twice this year, and I did 95 basically the whole way (I did take the Tappan Zee northbound, though.) Depending on when you hit rush hour, you can go north through Hartford to the Mass Pike, or take 95 though RI. I'd rather go through Providence in rush hour than Hartford. You're looking at 6 1/2 - 7 hours.

There are a lot of tolls, and we do have an EZ Pass, which is awesome. Although we live in RI, we have our EZ Pass through the state of New Jersey, because we get discounts for the Turnpike, Delaware Memorial Bridge and the GW Bridge, which is a way better deal than the RI Newport discount.
posted by Ruki at 7:09 AM on December 11, 2013

My brother lives in Baltimore, so we've done this trip. I don't exactly remember the route we took, but I believe we ended up (from Boston) taking the Mass Pike to I-84, then getting on I-81 in Scranton and I-83 in Harrisburg. It took us 10 hours to drive down and about 8.5 hours to get home. It was... not pleasant. There's not a whole lot on that route that was good to stop and eat.

In general, it takes 4-5 hours to get from Boston to New York, but with holiday traffic factored in you could see 6 hours or more just for that leg.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:20 AM on December 11, 2013

Connecticut is the only state along the route that doesn't accept E-ZPass.

I don't believe Connecticut has tolls.
posted by lalex at 7:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do this trip multiple times a year (from D.C. though), and always at that time of year. I always rent from Enterprise, and they've never dinged me for mileage.

People will say avoid 95. They're pretty wrong. Just pick the right time of day to get you to New York. Get on, go over the Delaware and roll up the Jersey Turnpike. Take the George Washington (you'll probably hit some traffic here, but as long as it's off-peak, it won't be the worst thing ever). Get on the Saw Mill to the Hutchinson to the Merritt Parkway. In Hartford, grab 91 and then 84, which will take you to 90 into Boston.

If somebody tells you to go through Pennsylvania, that will take a lot longer, and some of the route is pretty bad in inclement weather. But, even if it takes longer, at least you maybe won't hit some traffic? I don't get it, but some people really hate the idea of traffic even if it gets them there quicker.

There are a lot of tolls on the way, but I really don't think getting an EZPass for one trip is worth it (I don't have one, and again I do this all the time). Just make sure to have plenty of cash on hand.

It takes me about 7-8 hours to get from D.C. to Boston if I drive off-peak times. The longest it ever took me was 12 hours driving the Saturday after Christmas during a snow storm at peak hours the whole way down. That was an extreme outlier.

The Delaware rest stop is the best one on the way, but sadly, it's right at the beginning of your journey.

Fill your gas tank in New Jersey at one of the rest stops. It's cheaper. Also, it's full-service.
posted by General Malaise at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done this trip several times, it's not awful, but it's not fun. Use your smart phone to check for traffic and switch routes as necessary.

There are a Lot of tolls, mostly in NJ and Delaware, like Delaware's 20 miles costs something like $8.00?. The main places where I avoid 95 are Philly (take 476 north to 276, maybe? we get on the PA turnpike somewhere in there) and between NY and Boston, where I usually go up 684 to 84 - it's a little longer, but so much less stressful.

It's 8ish hours in good traffic, approximately, but it's a lot better if you stop somewhere along the way for something fun like a museum or tourism.
posted by ldthomps at 7:44 AM on December 11, 2013

Honestly, weather-and-construction-permitting, I would leave in the middle of the night. It's a lousy drive in the best conditions, and there's nothing much to see along the way anyhow. And definitely get an EZ Pass. You can breeze right through some tolls without stopping nowadays with one.

Driving from NY to Boston, which I've done more times than I can remember, I generally take the Hutchinson Parkway to the Merritt, which connects to 91 and then 84 in Hartford, then come into Boston on the Mass Pike. It's (generally, but not always) about half an hour shorter than taking 95. Check the traffic and construction schedules. (I also might want to cross the Hudson at the Tappan Zee, but that whole area is sort of a crapshoot.)

For what it's worth, we drove NY to DC and back over the summer and it was horrendous. Something like 9-10 hours one way. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if holiday traffic was similar, but if you time it right, you can do the whole thing in 7 or 8.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:46 AM on December 11, 2013

Oh hey!

We will be doing this in reverse, as we do every Christmas time!

We typically go through Pennsylvania because it is prettier and has fewer tolls, though on the way home, we'll sometimes take 95. Due to the heavy traffic this time of year at all hours of the day, it comes out as a wash about how long it takes. The PA rest stops are much nicer, too, and we once met this charming guy who was responsible for upkeeping certain ones and he regaled us with some amazing history and tales for an hour while we let our then only little one run around. So essentially, I disagree with General Malaise. PA in our experience isn't any longer or shorter TIME WISE than 95.

We leave the Boston area around 6 or 7 in the morning and due to stops with small children the entire thing takes us 9-10 hours. When it was just the husband and I, it'd take a pretty good 8 or less.

I will send this question to dr.e for his input since he usually plans the route. But we are all too familiar with this.
posted by zizzle at 7:48 AM on December 11, 2013

I'd cross the Hudson at the Tappan Zee unless you need to be in NYC. If you're doing that and heading up I-84 in CT, you may as well stop at exit 65 on I-84 and go to Rein's Deli. Nom.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:58 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another route option:
I-95 North to Delaware
I-295 North through South Jersey to Trenton, where it turns into I-95 South
as it wraps around the north side of Trenton
stay on I-95 South for just two exits, to NJ Route 31
Route 31 North to Route 202 East
Stay on Route 202 East (31 and 202 are the same road for a few miles)
from Flemington to I-287
I-287 North through North Jersey to I-87 (NY Thruway)(toll)
I-87 North to Exit 21A which connects to to I-90 East (toll)
I-90 East to Massachusetts and Boston

You can just take the NJ Turnpike directly to I-287, but the Turnpike is awful and there are few opportunities to get off if traffic is at a standstill. You will see some traffic where 202 meets I-287, but there are a couple of malls there, and since you'll be traveling the weekend before Christmas, that can't be avoided.

Taking the NY Thruway all the way north to I-90 (almost to Albany) is longer by mileage than taking I-84 (exit 17 on the Thruway) through Connecticut*, but history has taught us that I-84, especially from Danbury to Hartford, is a horrible experience in every way (poor road conditions, tight curves, traffic). After looking at a map, most will find it hard to believe that this way is often quicker. The only way I'd take I-84 over the northern route is if weather is particularly bad, because it will be much worse on I-90 through the Berkshires. It's much easier to get off the highway in Connecticut.

I-87 and I-90 are toll roads with limited exits and rest areas with horrible food, but the decreased driving stress is well worth it to us.

Your total route is seems to be about an hour or hour and half longer on both ends than ours, but using this route, we reliably get from near Northampton, MA to near Haddonfield, NJ in 5-5 1/2 hours, regardless of time of day or year.

*We have an intense hatred of driving on highways through Connecticut, as it is scientifically proven that inside its borders it is the size of Montana and you are stuck in it for what seems like forever.
posted by otters walk among us at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

We used to drive Boston - Annapolis every year for Christmas, 8 hours is about the shortest time we could manage it (including food & bathroom breaks).

We used to go through Pennsylvania but stopped after we got caught in a major blizzard that forced us off the road to a hotel for a night. This time of year it can get bad fast if snow starts falling. Traffic on the NJ Pike and Garden State Parkway usually isn't too bad, we like going up that way and going over the Tappan Zee, though we have also gone over the GW bridge just fine. 95 really gets hairy if you follow it up the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island, it's much better to cut up Connecticut through Hartford.

Food, if you care purely about pushing through the finish the drive, is serviceable but obviously not fantastic at the rest stops. NJ has tons of rest stops that are easy on-and-off, we usually go for convenience over taste. If you get to the last NJ rest stop and are hungry you're best served stopping there because there aren't easy options after that for a while. That's also a pretty good time to pause for a driving break anyway. The last leg of the trip on the Mass Pike can also feel interminable after a long day of driving, the first rest stop on the Pike is a good place to stop for a stretch and cup of coffee.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2013

If you end up taking I-84 through Connecticut, stop at Traveler Restaurant and Books to eat if you can.
posted by mkb at 8:36 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do this trip more than I want to admit. From the Harbor Tunnel I would take 95N to the Deleware Mem Bridge to the NJ Turnpike. I would switch to the Parkway at Exit 11 and take that to 287 to the Tappan Zee Bridge. Continue on 287 to either the Saw Mill to 684 or go all the way across 287 to 684N. (Saw Mill is a nicer in terms of scenery road) Take 684 to 84E to 90 and you are there. EZ Pass is the way to go. Can buy one at most toll booths.

The most traffic I encountered on the trip when I did it last month was in the construction zone at the beginning of the NJT. Timing is EVERYTHING. I also think taking the NJT all the way north to the George is a reasonable way to go. Rather than take the Cross Bronx to 95 from there, consider taking 87N (right off the bridge) to 287E --see above.

NJ gas is cheap.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:06 AM on December 11, 2013

I do this drive a few times a year. My preferred route right now is not to take the GW bridge, but to take the Garden State Parkway to the Tappan Zee bridge and go around NYC. This adds 30 miles on the map, but I've never, under any circumstances, lost less than 30 minutes to traffic on the GW bridge / cross bronx. Some traffic hot spots: near NYC generally (obvious), CT near Stamford, CT near New Haven on 95, sometimes CT near Hartford on 84. Note that the Merritt allows you to skip some of the bad parts of 95 in CT, that is why people are advising it (I'll be taking the Merritt this year). I would arrange to leave early or late enough that you do not hit these areas during rush hour.

E-Z Pass: Maryland E-Z Pass charges a monthly fee if you don't use it regularly, so I don't think it is really worth it unless you are commuting on a toll road or can buy it in another state that doesn't have fees (Delaware?). Just bring plenty of cash, and possibly a roll of quarters if you want to be able to use the cash-only lanes on the Garden State Parkway.
posted by advil at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2013

I drive NYC to Boston probably 4-6 times per year, and always take the Hutch out of the city, then the Merrit-91-84-90/Mass Pike into Boston. You're less likely to hit traffic this way and it's actually more direct than taking 95.

Coming at NYC from the south, do not take 95 through Philly, or do any 476 nonsense. Take the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the NJ Turnpike. I'd guess you could take 295 through South Jersey once you get over the bridge, if you want to avoid tolls, but I'm not familiar with that route. Really, you're not likely to hit much traffic on the Turnpike going north until you get close to NYC.

If you want to avoid the George Washington Bridge and don't mind lots of tolls, you can switch to the Garden State Parkway in central NJ and take that up to 287, over the Tappan Zee and then to the Hutch. If go over the GW, the advice above to get the Henry Hudson/Saw Mill to the Cross County is solid. I would avoid the GW near peak hours, and avoid taking 95 through the Bronx at any time.
posted by breakin' the law at 9:11 AM on December 11, 2013

Yeah, if you go over the GWB definitely DON'T get on the Cross Bronx. HH-Saw Mill-Cross County to the Merrit is 100% the way to go.
posted by entropone at 9:19 AM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Been there, done that. New Jersey Turnpike is a horrible shithole that will make you want to kill and I drive in DC traffic. 95 is not better. Going through Harrisburg, PA and then Scranton is actually often better. The trip beyond NYC has always been a toss up. You can hug the coast or wind your way across Northern Connecticut/Western Mass, either way is not great, but still not as maddening as the Baltimore to NYC leg (if on the turnpike or 95).
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:59 AM on December 11, 2013

Try not to drive through Connecticut. The entire state basically functions as a commuter route from NYC to Boston and is generally a giant clusterfuck. You will be stuck in traffic in Conn. for longer than it would take to go around through NY and drive through western MA. Also, western MA is a beautiful and enjoyable area to drive through anyway, and you'll get to see the interesting civil setup of MA as you move from extremely rural farmland in the West, the decaying center of the Industrial Revolution in central MA, and the vibrant urban areas of eastern MA.

Have fun! Boston is probably my favorite city in the US. When you get to the outskirts of Boston though, ditch your car at the Alewife station on the redline of the MTA subway and just take the subway to travel through Boston. You do not want to drive through that city. The streets were designed in the 17th century for horses and are difficult to even Boston natives to navigate.
posted by WhitenoisE at 10:09 AM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to college in Boston and my family lived in southern NJ; they probably drove up a couple times a year. Some routing advice (this is all secondhand - I didn't have a car, so I took the train, which would be my recommendation if you didn't have to continue on further north later):
- It's not a bad drive but time it to avoid rush hour in NYC (and even then you might hit it).
- People will say to take the Tappan Zee over the Hudson, but coming from the south you have to go out of your way to do that.
- the best route that my parents found through the New England segment is 95 to New Haven, then 91, 84, 90.

As for the "avoid the New Jersey Turnpike" advice - it's not bad in south Jersey, and you're rolling the dice north of exit 7 or so - so you probably want to cross the Delaware on the Delaware Memorial Bridge and take the Turnpike all the way up. Any plan to cross further up at one of the bridges from Pennsylvania to New Jersey (Commodore Barry, Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin) will be foiled by the fact that none of those bridges have direct highway connections to the NJTP. (You'd think there would be a direct, all-highway route from Philly to NYC, but there's not.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:52 AM on December 11, 2013

One of the primary reasons to get E-Z Pass other than the discounts, is the time savings at the tolls. For that trip, I think at the right (wrong?) time you can save almost 15 minutes in time by using EZP. That is one gas and bathroom break for free.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:06 PM on December 11, 2013

My preferred route would be: I-95, Del. Mem. Bridge, NJ Turnpike, GW Bridge, Hutchinson Pky, Cross County Pky, I-684, I-84, Mass. Pike. (Anybody want to sound off on I-684 vs. Merritt + I-91?)

Any time I've tried the Tappan Zee as an alternate, it's usually because I'm coming up on the GS Parkway anyway. IME, it's not much of a win over the GW.

Timing is everything. Do the drive at night. I can do NYC to Watertown in under 3 1/2 hours easy when there's no traffic. Driving with other cars on the road can add 45 minutes to an hour. That goes double for a long trip that starts in Baltimore.

Do your service plaza stop in North Jersey. It's roughly half way and there're no more good ones until the Mass Pike. And gas is cheap.

N'thing E-Z Pass.

Do not, under any circumstances, drive on I-95 between New York and Boston.
posted by whuppy at 2:23 PM on December 11, 2013

Anybody want to sound off on I-684 vs. Merritt + I-91?

Not super-familiar with 684 but I usually avoid the Merritt, and would definitely avoid it at night. Large stretches of the Merritt are totally unlit, there's lots of deer in the area, and some of the entrance ramps are scarily short.
posted by lalex at 2:36 PM on December 11, 2013

I am on 684 regularly. It is a 3 lane highway with average speeds of around 70mph. People move on that road. I would take it over the Merritt almost anytime but a nice spring afternoon (Merritt has good scenery but is a 2 lane road with many twists and turns and as noted short entrance and exit ramps.)
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:46 PM on December 11, 2013

People haul ass on the Merritt, too, which makes it quite exciting. I've never seen so many Ultimate Driving Machines trying to live up to the name.
posted by whuppy at 3:00 PM on December 11, 2013

If you do get gas in New Jersey (which you should, because it'll be the cheapest place to get gas): ALL GAS STATIONS IN NEW JERSEY ARE, BY LAW, FULL-SERVE. It is illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:13 PM on December 11, 2013

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