I remember how amazed I was, many years ago, when it first dawned on me that a plane between cities could be the cheap option.
It was around 1999, the dawn of European discount air travel, and I had to figure out the cheapest ride between Paris and Nice. The train cost over $200; the flight, about 20 percent less, and it shaved six hours off the trip.
Since then, a plethora of transportation options has exploded connecting big cities in regions from California to Japan — and figuring out the best, most logical way to make those connections can be tricky. I realized this while doing research that recently took me up and down the Northeast corridor.
In this column, I’ll concentrate on the corridor between Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — trips we all make often, for bar mitzvahs and conferences and school visits, and where there are more transit options than ever.
In Europe, more and more, flying is the cheapest way to connect two points — but not so in the U.S., where buses clearly rule and discount flights are rarely shocking bargains.
The most obvious air choice is U.S. Airways, which operates a long-running shuttle service beloved to generations of businessmen, with flights between the major Northeastern cities. Fares tend to be slightly higher than Amtrak, occasionally much more.
But to my way of thinking, air travel also makes little sense for the short distances between Northeastern cities, where lengthy check-in times and the airport schleps on both ends nibble away at the time advantage. The shuttle had the clearer advantage a generation ago, before the advent of bullet trains and hour-long security lines.
You already know that booking that plane ticket in advance can frequently (but not always) save you money, but you rarely know how much you’re saving. I snagged a $200 roundtrip flight to D.C., but how much would I have paid if I’d dawdled until the last minute? (And alas, that's what I usually end up doing.)
Many people don’t realize, however, that buying a bus or train ticket in advance can also be cheaper — and more transparently so.
Advance fare or not, in almost every case, buses are the cheapest way to get there. And they land you in the heart of a city or transit hub. But they are also slow, get caught in traffic, and — as nice as some of the posher models may be — let’s face it, buses just ain’t got the romance of trains or the glamour of airplanes.
But they are cheap — cheaper than ever, in fact.
Sometime in the 1990s, I remember hearing about friends taking mysterious “Chinatown buses” to visit sweethearts in Boston. The advantage of these buses was the cheap price; the disadvantage was having to navigate a ride from drivers and ticket-takers who did not necessarily speak English, and whose adherence to safety standards — or any standards riders looking for a deal might have expected — was dubious.
But the fares! For those of us who considered Trailways pricey, Chinatown buses let us take our chances, get there and still have cash to go out for dinner.
Today the fares are still excellent, the English still dubious, and debate lingers over what degree bus companies prioritize safety. But there’s no denying that when it comes to prices, Chinatown buses are some of the last Manhattan bargains. New York to Boston runs about $15; you can get to Philly for as little as $10, and D.C. is less than $20 one-way.
In response, Peter Pan — the establishment choice for Port Authority travelers — has fares so competitive I did a recent double-take — $18 to Boston on an express bus? When it costs $29 to go half as far to visit family in southwestern Connecticut? With gas at $4 a gallon, that bus fare is an increasingly attractive option.
On Amtrak’s Acela express train, Boston is about $100 one-way, and it's slightly cheaper on the slower regional train. For what can amount to a very tedious bus trip, the splurge may seem worth it. Philadelphia, though, is so close to New York City — just over an hour from the Verrazano-Narrow Bridge, a cinch for Brooklyn drivers — that the $100-plus Acela fare feels awfully expensive.
Amtrak’s regular regional line makes more stops and does the trip for as little as $48, but to get that fare, you’ll often have to travel at inconvenient times; otherwise, $83 is a more realistic price. (Stay on this line an hour past Philly and you'll go right to the Baltimore-Washington Airport — not a bad way to start an international trip with a great fare.)
But if cash is less important than time and comfort, Amtrak is a terrific way to visit the City of Brotherly Love. The hour whizzes by with just a few stops and before you have time to get bored with the songs on your iPod, you’re strolling off the car and into the soaring, gilded lobby of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
Savvy commuters, though, take advantage of the two cities’ relative proximity and split the trip on the respective commuter lines. They take New Jersey Transit as far as Trenton, then transfer across the platform to a SEPTA train (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) for the trip into Philly, all for less than $30. This is a great strategy for those with more time than money — it’s around three hours, depending on how close you can wrangle the connection. Even a slow train arrives on time, while the bus might still be stalled on the turnpike, with no café car.
It's too bad another ethnic group can’t move in on the tracks with competing train fares, giving Amtrak the equivalent of its rival Chinatown bus. For now, at least, know all your options; reserve as far in advance as you can, even for short trips; and if you’ve got more time than money, learn to love the mid-Atlantic countryside.