Plane? Train? Automobile or bus? With airfares on the rise, we look at the pros and cons of various travel modes
April 7, 2013 4:00 AM
By Gretchen McKay Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Not too long ago, flying from Pittsburgh to New York City was cheap enough that you could do it, without too much planning, just for the weekend. I paid around $550 for four round-trip tickets to Newark Liberty International Airport just after Thanksgiving on United, and I booked the coach fares a mere 2 1/2 weeks in advance.
With several airlines offering flights to New York's JFK and La Guardia and nearby Newark airports several times a day, there was true competition for your travel dollars.
It's a different story this spring.
When discount carrier JetBlue Airways ended its two daily flights from Pittsburgh International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at the end of February, prices quickly shot up, in many cases by hundreds of dollars. Today, a flight booked just a few days in advance can easily cost you $500 or more per ticket -- and it won't necessarily be nonstop.
Even trips booked several weeks out on discount travel sites such as Travelocity or Expedia will cost you about 25 percent more than it did last fall. If you were to book a flight to the New York metropolitan area today for a weekend in mid-May, for example, you'd pay about $200 per person on US Airways or Delta to JFK or LaGuardia; it's about $33 more to Newark -- an increase of more than 50 percent over what I paid last October.
PG graphic: Big Apple travel (Click image for larger version)
So what's the penny-pinching traveler to do?
Below, we offer several travel options that will get you to the city, along with the pros and cons of each method. To price it, we chose a weekend a month away -- leaving on Friday, May 10 and returning Monday, May 13. (Prices are as of press time, and subject to change.)
Pros: It's fast, once you're in the air.
But a 90-minute flight is bracketed by the expense, time and hassle of getting to the airport the recommended hour or more before takeoff (which might delayed). Plus, there's the stress of going through security -- you never know how long the line will stretch, and flying is the only mode of travel where you have to seriously wonder if you're going to be strip searched.
Cons: Unless someone's chauffeuring, you'll pay to park ($13/day in the airport's long-term lot, $8/day in the extended lot, and $8.95/day in off-site lots such as The Parking Spot; flypittsburgh.com or theparkingspot.com). In addition to the $25 per bag most airlines charge for checked luggage, you also need to factor in the cost of getting into Manhattan once you've landed. A cab from JFK to midtown costs $52 and $35 from LaGuardia, plus tolls and tip; it's $13 to $20 per person for an airport bus or shuttle. Granted, the 60-minute AirTrain/subway ride from JFK to Manhattan (www.mta.info; www.panynj.gov/airports/jfk-airtrain.html) is a mere $7.50, but do you really want to deal with the masses when you're lugging a suitcase or herding children?
You might think it would be cheaper to fly out of Erie or Cleveland, but not really: a 31/2-hour flight from Erie International (erieairport.org) that connects in Cleveland runs about $200, or the same as an advance fare from Pittsburgh. A flight from Cleveland (clevelandairport.com) to LaGuardia is a bit cheaper at $170, but remember -- like Erie, it's two hours and around 125 miles each way, which AAA estimates will cost $40 in gas (fuelcostcalculator.aaa.com). Plus, you'll have to pay $10 or so a day to park. So add another $80 to the bill.
The verdict: All the convenience of air travel can be offset by the inconvenience of the ground travel. For two people flying out of Pittsburgh, we estimate the trip costing around $540 ($400 for the flights, $40 to park and $100 for round-trip cab fare into Manhattan) and taking 4 1/2 hours each way (1 hour to drive to/park at the airport, 1 hour to get through security, 90 minutes actual flying time and 1 hour to get into NYC). To fly out of Cleveland or Erie, add another 2 hours for travel.
Pros: If you haven't been on a bus in a while, you might be pleasantly surprised. They're more comfortable than ever before and equipped with state-of-the-art amenities such as electrical outlets at each seat and Wi-Fi Internet access (in theory, anyway; more on that later). Plus, bus travel is easy, inexpensive and if you choose the right route, fairly direct.
My son who lives in New York is a huge fan of Bolt Bus; another son who resides in D.C. likes the budget Chinatown bus line. In Pittsburgh, there are two companies to choose from: Megabus (us.megabus.com), which started service here in 2007, and Greyhound (greyhound.com), which has been around forever.
Fares on Greyhound start at $64 roundtrip (advance purchase) but can climb to $146. Double-decker Megabus costs anywhere from $5 to $49 each way, depending on your travel date, time and how early you book it. Megabus also occasionally holds special promotions where tickets almost are free: I paid just $10.50 for two round-trip tickets in February. Plus, there was no traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel the day we traveled so we got into the city a half-hour early.
Cons: Unlike Greyhound, which has a fairly new terminal on 11th Street at Liberty Avenue, Downtown, Megabus passengers get on and off the bus streetside -- in front of the David L. Convention Center in Pittsburgh and at Seventh Avenue at 28th St. (arrivals) and 34th St. between 11th and 12th avenues (departures) in New York. So if the weather's crummy, you're out of luck. In addition, seating is first come, first served, so if you don't queue up early, you might get that lousy seat next to the bathroom.
One way to get around the long line in Pittsburgh is to get on the bus at the Lenzner Coach Lines depot in Ohio Township, where service originates (www.coachusa.com/lenzner). Just know you have to be there at least an hour before departure (be sure to check in at the office) and there's no parking.
Megabus from Pittsburgh to NYC has two pit stops in eight hours, but horror stories abound about buses being late or leaving early without customers or breaking down. Greyhound can stop as many as 14 times and take a whopping 13 1/2 hours.
Another downside is that rest stops are not always at the nicest spots, and you might have to sit next to a college student with smelly feet and a huge backpack. You also have to live with whatever food your seatmate carries on, and listen to their cell phone conversations. My biggest beef with Megabus is that it promises Wi-Fi, but never delivers, which is frustrating if you haven't downloaded your favorite TV show or movie.
The verdict: Bus travel is pretty cheap, but it takes the better part of a day. You'll pay around $60 to $65 round trip, and the trip takes between eight and nine hours or more each way.
Pros: Traveling by Amtrak (amtrak.com) is more civilized and comfortable than riding a bus, and you also can move around whenever you like, going to and from your seat to the lounge (snack) car, where wine and beer are served alongside pizza and sandwiches. There's also free Wi-Fi service in select cars (look for hot spot stickers in the window) that supports general Web browsing activities. The restrooms are nicer than on the bus and riders have access to waiting rooms before boarding and after disembarking.
The biggest draw, however, is the scenery. The train passes through the picturesque Allegheny Mountains before hitting the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona (an engineering marvel), and it also runs through Pennsylvania Dutch Country. In short, it's relaxing.
Cons: Amtrak is not inexpensive. The cheapest round-trip ticket costs $144 for reserved coach and $216 for business class ($72/$108 each way). Nor is it quick. Because the Pennsylvanian line travels through Philadelphia on its way to New York's Penn Station, with 17 brief stops along the way, it takes more than 9 hours. If you end up on the Capitol Limited line, which departs at 4:50 a.m. and requires changing trains in Washington, D.C., the trip will take you 13 1/2 hours and cost $228 roundtrip for coach.
The verdict: The train is better than taking the bus and deposits you right in the center of town, but it will take you longer. Plan on spending at least $144 and 9 hours each way in transit.
Pros: For people who like to make their own schedules, this may be the best method of transportation. You can stop when and where you want, stretch out with your shoes off and listen to your own music. Once you get onto Interstate 80, it's pretty much clear sailing. And while getting into the city via the George Washington Bridge or Lincoln or Holland tunnels ($13 toll) can be a nightmare, it often isn't. An added bonus: You'll have a car to get around city instead of paying for taxis or the subway, and it won't even cost you if you street park on the Upper West Side for free, and take the subway to your hotel; just remember you might have to move your car for street cleaning.
Cons: Someone gets stuck behind the wheel for 8 hours. You might encounter horrible traffic. Once you get to New York, you have a car to worry about if you can't find free street parking. Parking will cost you anywhere from about $28/day to more than $50, depending on the lot (nyc.bestparking.com), tolls, $43 (turnpikeinfo.com/pennsylvania/tolls; www.panynj.gov/bridges-tunnels) and gas for the 725-mile round trip will run about $132. And driving in the city isn't for the faint-hearted.
You sometimes can find deals on parking on sites such as groupon.com or local.amazon.com, so be sure to check when you know your travel dates.
The verdict: Driving is a bit shorter than the bus or train, and allows you to travel on your own schedule. Expect to spend at least $275 ($132 for gas, $100 for parking and $43 in tolls) and 7 hours in transit each way.