- The New York-Boston sector of the Northeast is short enough where train travel actually rivals air travel in time and cost.
- Five airlines now fly between the two cities from three airports in the New York area and compete with Amtrak's Northeast Regional and Acela services.
- While each traveler has their own preference, the pandemic has forced flyers and riders to factor in health and safety when making their travel choices nowadays.
- I flew up to Boston and took the train back and saw why Amtrak is the better option during the pandemic.
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Less than 200 miles separate New York and Boston, and there's no shortage of transportation options to get between the two cities.
Travelers can drive, fly, take the train or a bus between the two cities and each will often cost less than $50 in each direction.
The two fastest methods, however, come to to flying or taking the train. Flights routinely take less than an hour once airborne, while taking the train is a four-hour affair.
But when factoring in externalities such as getting to and from the airport and delays, both modes often even out time-wise. And during the pandemic, travelers now have to weigh the health and safety aspects of each mode of transportation while booking, which greatly varies between Amtrak and the airlines.
Read more: Airline CEOs say it doesn't matter how well they protect passengers from COVID-19 — travel demand won't bounce back until the pandemic ends
The New York-Boston corridor now has a new entrant bringing prices way down, below even Amtrak's fares. Spirit Airlines now serves the two cities with flights from Newark Liberty International Airport and the lowest fare is $18, rivaling the $39 fare for the Northeast Regional and $79 for Acela.
On a recent trip from New York to Boston, I flew up and took the train back to see which one was a better option during the pandemic, and surprised even myself by preferring the rail journey over flying. As an aviation enthusiast first and foremost, I never thought I'd be singing Amtrak's praises as the company and its services aren't always perfect, but I am going to.
Here's why I'd choose Amtrak again for the 200-mile journey.
Amtrak has better social distancing policies than most airlines
Amtrak is blocking capacity on its trains at 50% so all adjacent seats are blocked and riders don't have seat neighbors. On the other hand, only one airline serving the busy Northeast Corridor is blocking seats, Delta Air Lines, while the rest are allowing their aircraft to be filled to capacity in 2021.
On its higher-speed Acela trains, Amtrak is now assigning seats that can be changed through departure to ensure getting a seat away from other passengers. I even witnessed a passenger being moved back to his assigned seat by the conductor on a separate trip.
Passengers can also see how full their train is when booking. Mine was less than a quarter booked when I checked the night before.
Face coverings are currently required on both Amtrak and airlines.
Getting to a train station was more convenient than going to an airport
I live about 20 minutes from my nearest airport — John F. Kennedy International — by car, and 45 minutes by rail. LaGuardia Airport, however, has the most flights to Boston and that's 45 minutes away by car, or over an hour by a combination of trains and buses that I prefer to avoid. Parking at both is also an expensive proposition.
New York's Pennsylvania Station, however, is just a one-hour drive or train ride away, and it's cheaper (free) to park at my local train station than it is to park at an airport. Each traveler is different, but train stations usually have the benefit of being more centrally located in big cities, making them more easily accessible.
Plus, I didn't have to pack extra time into my trip to account for going through security and boarding at least 15 minutes before my departure. Boarding on Amtrak usually starts 15 minutes before departure and travelers can pretty much board right up until the train starts moving, just like a commuter train or subway.
There's no reason to show up extra early and that meant more time at home and in bed, getting some extra hours of sleep.
Taking the train is less invasive than flying
Not having to go through security saves time and a lot of hassle. Screening involves emptying one's pockets into shared-use bins and getting into close proximity with fellow travelers — even with programs like TSA PreCheck that allow some passengers to leave their shoes and jackets on.
Taking the train means skipping the security screening and walking right into the station and onto a train without even having to show a ticket in most cases. Amtrak staff doesn't typically don't check tickets until after passengers are on the train and even then, there's often no identification check and the conductor simply scans the ticket without touching it.
There's more time to work or relax when riding the rails
I was constantly moving on my journey from New York to Boston going from one train to another, followed by a short plane trip, and then a city bus. While I had some downtime, it never amounted to more than an hour of pure rest.
The Amtrak journey was completely the opposite and consisted of four-hours of pure relaxation as we made our way down the coast. There was no turbulence to worry about and I could shut my eyes for more than just a few minutes. Case in point, the nap that I took was longer than my flight from Newark to Boston.
For a business traveler, that time could be used to finish up a presentation or using Amtrak's free WiFi to listen in on a meeting. I even tuned into a Zoom meeting towards the end of my ride using the 120v AC power outlets to charge my laptop.
Trains offer unbeatable downtown-to-downtown service
Pennsylvania Station is located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan just eight blocks from Times Square. Most office buildings are less than a half-hour away by subway and many suburbs are conveniently accessible by commuter rail services with easy transfers that don't require stepping outside.
The situation is similar in Boston as South Station and Back Bay are also located in the city center with connections to MBTA Commuter Rail and subway lines. For travelers that live in the suburbs, Amtrak offers local trains that make stops outside the city in places like Stamford, Connecticut; New Rochelle, New York; and Westwood, Massachusetts.
Airports along the Northeast Corridor are typically located near the city center but getting from the gate to the city is often an expensive and time-intensive endeavor. Trying to get from LaGuardia Airport to Times Square could very well take longer than the flight from Boston.
There are downsides to Amtrak
While the train is undoubtedly a great option, Amtrak isn't without its problems. Perhaps most notably, the Northeast Corridor is known for its dilapidated infrastructure, especially around the New York area, which often causes delays and prevents trains from achieving their top speeds.
Acela is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the trainsets show it. On a separate trip, I had to bounce around the car to find a working power outlet, for example.
Rail travel is also undoubtedly slower than air travel, even with the extra inconveniences of the latter. I started my journey at Pennsylvania Station and it took less time to take two trains to Newark airport, wait around an hour for my flight, fly up to Boston, and take a city bus to South Station versus taking Acela from Boston back down to New York.
Amtrak's new Alstom Avelia Liberty train cars may help speed up the service but the current state of the Northeast Corridor tracks makes it difficult for a high-speed train to achieve its full potential. Though, air travel isn't immune to delays, especially when bad weather strikes.
As life returns to normal in 2021, it's possible Amtrak will abandon its social distancing policies and increased ridership may result in delays and crowded trains. But, at least during the pandemic, it's the way to go when traversing the Northeast.
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