Pietro Rea

Traveling from NOVA to NYC

September 06, 2023

I’ve traveled up and down the northeast corridor for over 15 years — as a Princeton student, as a New York transplant visiting family, as a consultant, and finally for quarterly Meadow on-sites. These are some guidelines I’ve developed for myself about making this trip.

First, take Amtrak if you can. Taking the train is the best way to go from northern VA to NYC. The Acela will get you from Union Station to Penn Station in a bit under three hours. The regular Amtrak train gets you there in 3 hours and a half.

Taking the regular train is still more expensive than taking the bus, but booking far in advance (4-6 weeks) can lower the price significantly. My upcoming roundtrip on the Northeast Regional train was $90 (the bus is $80). Certain fares (Acela or business class) let you select your seat post-booking. Some of these seats have tables in front of them, which is helpful for working on the train. Going south, if you take the Palmetto, Cardinal, Silver Star, Silver Meteor, or Crescent you’ll ride in Amfleet II cars, which have more leg room and larger windows since they are designed for longer train rides. Of these I’ve only ridden the Crescent.

When booking Amtrak, it’s always better to depart from and return to Union Station. There may be stations closer to you in Virginia (e.g. Alexandria or Woodbridge), but the train always stops in Union Station to change the crew and the engine, which takes longer than just taking the metro to Union Station. If you do have to pick another station, don’t go south to go north. For example, don’t go to the Woodbridge station if you live in Alexandria, as it unnecessarily increases travel time. This sounds obvious, but I’ve made this mistake a few times. Beyond efficiency, Union Station is beautiful and, despite some pandemic-related decay, is still my favorite spot in D.C.

Once you’re in Manhattan, the fastest way to get to your final destination is often the subway. A big advantage Amtrak has over the bus is that it drops you off inside Penn Station, where you can connect directly to the subway. The subway is much easier to take these days, since you can just tap your credit card on a terminal instead of getting a metro card.

As of other modes of transportation, don’t fly, maybe take the bus and only drive if you’re coming with a group. Travel to and from the airport both in Virginia and New York negate the speed premium of flying. It could make sense to fly if you’re headed somewhere close to the airports, such as Queens, White Plains or Newark.

I’ve taken the bus plenty of times. It’s cheaper but not my top choice. It’s a highly competitive market, where companies differentiate themselves by pickup location. The bus could make sense for you if one of these non-standard pickup locations is close to you, such as Lorton, Bethesda, Vienna or Springfield. There are “premium” offerings such as Vamoose Gold, BestBus Prime or the Jet. None of these get you there faster or avoid traffic. On a good day, expect the ride to take 5 to 5 and a half hours. With traffic the bus can take up to 8 or 9 hours.

Update (2023-12-31): I don’t recommend taking anything other than the Northeast Regional or Acela anymore, especially going south. I’ve experienced consistent delays on the Vermonter. Apparently, it’s because Amtrak does not own the tracks north of New York and freight trains have priority.

Pietro Rea
Written by Pietro Rea, a software engineer, engineering manager and author from northern Virginia.