Raleigh and New York City are a mere 486.6 miles apart, at least according to Google, and yet there’s no easy or time-efficient way to get where you’re going.  Consider the details of a trip I made over two days this week to visit the vast worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters on the Hudson north of NYC.

First, the planning:  If Stewart Airport in Newburgh, NY had direct connections to RDU, my trip certainly would have been a snap, since the vast worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters is located not too far away.  But it doesn’t, and that meant I’d have to fly into one of the New York area airports and then take a train up the Hudson Valley.  Online research showed Metro North commuter trains at regular intervals originating from Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street in Manhattan, so that became my anchor point.

La Guardia was closer to GCT than either Newark or JFK, and I found a $155 round trip fare on American that worked.  I bought it immediately before it disappeared into the ether of the airline websites, as so many reasonable airfares seem to do if not purchased at once.  Now I had to figure out which trains I might be able to connect to from LGA given that getting into the city by any mode of travel is a crap shoot.  The time required to get into Manhattan is always indeterminate.

Metro North, I discovered, doesn’t care which train you take, but it does care what time you take it.  They have peak and off-peak fares, but they are not train-specific.  I bought two peak fare tickets (one for each way) to be safe at $17.75 each.  Buying tickets on the train is much more expensive, so I’m glad I got them in advance.

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Now that I had figured out Metro North pricing and scheduling from GCT up the Hudson Valley, i turned my attention to the last puzzle piece; that is, how to get from La Guardia to Grand Central Terminal.

Not long ago on a similar trip I took the public bus from LGA to the subway in Queens to get to the city.  It was raining, but not badly, yet the bus was delayed by slow drivers and heavy traffic going the few blocks from LGA to connect to the subway stop, and I lost about a half hour (not counting the long wait at LGA for the bus to arrive).

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Once I was on the train, the subway crept along between stations because, they announced, there were many trains ahead of us.  I lost another half hour before getting into the city.  Then the subway driver announced that my connecting station in Manhattan (I don’t recall which) was closed “due to track work” and that it would be bypassed.  I was advised to get off at the stop before the one I wanted but which had no connecting subway service.  I did get off, and I ended up walking 15 blocks in the rain with my luggage to get to the hotel.  It wasn’t pleasant, and it took a long time.

The problem is that there is no perfect way to make the city-airport connection in New York. The choices are private limousine, taxi, private bus, public bus, or public bus to the Queens subway, then a subway train into Manhattan.  All those modes except the subway share the same highways which are chronically congested and stall completely at the first hint of rain or snow.  Therefore, why pay for an expensive limo or a cab with the meter running while you wait in traffic when you can pay a flat rate for a private bus?

Thus I opted this trip for the NYC Airporter bus.  Its website said it runs every half hour between LGA and Grand Central, so I booked an online round trip for $26.  Turns out there’s no discount for buying on the web, and I could have purchased my ticket on the spot for the same fare. No matter how slow the traffic getting into Manhattan, though, it would never cost me more than the $13 one way price.

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With my air ticket RDU/LGA, bus ticket LGA/GCT, and Metro North commuter rail ticket Grand Central up the Hudson, I was finally ready to go.  All that planning had taken a good chunk of my morning.

The day arrived, and I dutifully arose at 4:30 AM to make my 7:15 AM departure on AA to LGA (I don’t like to be late–it stresses me out).  I dressed and drove the 20 minutes to Raleigh-Durham Airport, swept my “RDU Passport” card key to enter the terminal-side parking garage, and locked my car.  Even at 5:20 AM there were long lines at security, but my Global Entry card allowed me access to the Pre-Check portal which had no line whatsoever.  I didn’t have to take my shoes off or remove my plastic bag with liquids, either.  I put only my cell phone and bag through the machine, and i breezed through with no delay.

I was in the Admirals Club by 5:25 AM asking if there was an earlier flight I might stand by for.  The nice lady working the desk smiled and handed me a boarding pass for the 6:15 AM flight, saving me an hour.  I even had time for a glass of orange juice and to browse the paper before heading to my gate.  We left on time.

As we descended into LGA the pilot announced snow was flying in New York but that we were cleared to land.  He opined that later flights would be subject to lengthy slowdowns, so I was relieved to have made the earlier flight.  The snow was beautiful as we landed, but I knew already that landside travel would be at a crawl due to the both the time (morning commute) and the weather.

After wandering around aimlessly in the cold for 15 minutes outside the baggage carousel area trying to locate the NYC Airporter bus signs, I finally ran into one of their employees (but never did see any signs).  She was helpful and knowledgeable and said the bus to Grand Central was coming in 10 minutes.  Her information was accurate, and soon I was sitting in one of their small buses on the Grand Central Parkway.  Only it didn’t look like this picture below; traffic was creeping.

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The snow fell softly on the stop-and-crawl vehicles, and I watched it accumulate on the stretch limo next to the bus.  God knows what the guy had paid for it, but for all that privacy and luxury, it wasn’t moving any faster than my flat-rate bus.

Finally on 42nd Street the bus pulled up at the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt to drop us off.  I asked the driver as I exited if that was where I should come the next day for my return trip to LGA.  He said yes.

It turned out that he was wrong, a fact which cost me time and frustration the following day, but I’ll get to that.  I think the bus driver let us off as close as possible to the train station entry as a courtesy because of the cold, snowy weather.

My train going north left from Grand Central track 37, just two over from track 35 where the New York Central’s famous 20th Century Limited once departed.  The “Century” ran NYC-Chicago in 16 hours along what the NYC Railroad called the “Water Level Route” along the Hudson to differentiate the comfort of its opulent service from rival Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited between the same cities (but the PRR train followed an up-and-down route through the mountains of Pennsylvania).  Here are two vintage 1930s ads of the Century:

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Fans of Alfred Hitchcock can see Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint aboard a Pullman on the 20th Century Limited in “North By Northwest.”

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When the 20th Century Limited was running, the New York Central rolled out a red carpet to those lucky passengers boarding the train’s luxurious round-end observation lounge car parked on GCT’s track 35:

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Back to my less romantic trip through Grand Central Terminal, I boarded the Metro North train just 8 minutes before it departed, and a bit over an hour later I was getting off at my station stop.  As we dashed along the Hudson I thought how great the commuter train service was.  There are some 70 passenger trains on this corridor each day, the old New York Central main line, and most of them are full.  The trains I rode were clean and well kept, warm, and on time.  I was impressed in both directions.

Speaking of the return, next day I began my homeward journey, beginning with a similar superb Metro North experience back to GCT.  It was a peak hour train that arrived Grand Central just before 8:00 AM, so every seat was taken.  The train was comfortable, quiet, on time, and arrived on the same track 37 I’d departed from the previous day.

Once off the platform I made a beeline for the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt adjacent to the corner of Grand Central where I expected to catch my NYC Airporter bus back to LGA.  I couldn’t find any signs, but that seemed consistent with my first experience with the service the day before.

After waiting a half hour in the freezing cold, however, I called the experts at the vast worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters to see if they knew what was wrong.  They did:  I was supposed to walk a half block to Pershing Square between 42nd and 41st Streets where I located the NYC Airporter signs just where the good folks at the vast worldwide JoeSentMe headquarters said I would.  Trouble was, no one was there, even though the sign read “NYC Airporter to La Guardia” and a red velvet rope was set up beside it.

I stood by the Airporter LGA sign for 10 minutes before one of their employees saw me and moved me to 41st between Pershing Square and Lexington Ave.  Turns out that’s where their buses actually pick up.

When I asked why they have signs and ropes adjacent to the bike rentals at Pershing Square instead of where the buses actually pick up, the fellow said the City of New York made them stop only on 41st, but he never explained why the ropes and signs hadn’t been moved. When I asked him and another Airporter employee why yesterday’s driver dropped us at the corner of Vanderbilt and 42nd street, they wanted to know the driver’s name (like I took note; I hadn’t).

The bus finally arrived for LGA, and I got on. They kept saying they were going to leave but didn’t.  The bus finally left 15 minutes late for LGA and stopped three times before Lexington to let on stragglers, delaying us even more.  Traffic into the tunnel was backed up (10 minute delay) and then the automatic toll booths weren’t working on the Queens side (another 5 minute delay).  Once at LGA we first stopped at the Marine Air Terminal before threading the needle back to LGA Terminal B (another 8 minute delay).

Thus I have few accolades for Airporter efficiency or sense of urgency.  In fact it seemed to be run at the street/bus level by morons, albeit very friendly morons.

Despite my impression, I’d happily ride the NYC Airporter service again simply because it’s the least-worst alternative.  Really I would. In fact I thought it much better than an expensive cab or limo or the bus-subway fiasco.  For the record, ninety minutes after arriving GCT, the Airporter bus dropped me at LGA terminal B.

Once there, American courteously moved me to an 11:15 AM flight instead of my scheduled 12:05 PM departure, and my Global Entry card allowed me to zoom through the TSA barrier again.  Walking to my C concourse gate, I noticed an 8:30 AM flight to RDU was delayed and was about to board.  After a chat with the nice AA gate agent, she put me in seat 2B, and I arrived home to RDU by 11:40 AM.

Altogether, everything worked out fine, and the uncertainty and challenge was sort of, well, fun. Just the same, it was a lot of work in planning and execution for a pretty simple itinerary.  After all I wasn’t going to Bhutan.

POSTSCRIPT:  A NY-area friend suggested that the three airport-specific buses are now so bad that business travelers traveling light might want to consider using public transit instead. Following is his advice to/from each airport.

NEWARK

The airport-specific bus service claims it runs every 15 minutes, but that’s untrue.  Even when things are running right, it’s about every 30 minutes. When things are running poorly, it’s anybody’s guess when the bus might arrive.  Recently, my friend arrived at Newark’s Terminal B and found several dozen people waiting for the bus.  That meant it must have been chaos at Terminal C, which is the busiest (being the primary United terminal). The waits approached one hour. The Yelp reviews reflect the bus service lies:  http://www.yelp.com/biz/newark-liberty-airport-express-elizabeth.

If you arrive EWR and have to get into Manhattan, a better option is to take the Air Train to the Newark Train Station stop and, for $12.50, catch the TNJ (Transport New Jersey) train to Manhattan Penn Station. That takes about 45 minutes, faster than the bus, and cheaper. If you want to drive your cost down further, you can take the Air Train to Newark Train Stop, and catch the NJT train to Newark Penn Station. From there you can catch the PATH train to several Manhattan stops, including World Trade Center and Herald Square. Total cost is about $10.

LA GUARDIA

As I’ve already said, the problem with the LGA bus is that the traffic is awful, and the public bus makes too many stops.  So it can be a very long ride.  A better option, so my friend recommends, is the M60 Bus that runs between LGA and Columbia University, then jump on the New York subway system anywhere in New York. Cost is less than $5 total.  From Columbia, you can also transfer to other city buses or take a cab.

LGA/JFK

Yelpers aren’t big on the LGA/JFK shuttle buses: http://www.yelp.com/biz/new-york-airport-service-new-york-2

KENNEDY

If you’re looking for a public transit option to Kennedy, it’s the A train to Howard Beach/JFK station. You then transfer to the JFK Air Train system that stops at all of the Terminals. Costs: under $10.

 P.P.S.

I want to thank everyone who has commented so far (I write this Sunday evening, November 17, three days after my post above was published.)

First, I corrected my friend’s typo re the bus from LGA to Harlem.  It’s the M60 bus, not the M66 as originally published.

Second, I highly recommend to readers that they peruse the comments below.  They each contain valuable insights regarding city-airport transportation options.

The comments were very helpful.  Thank you all again.

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