New York has welcomed two new symbols of hope in the past month, both riding on shiny rails -- and both potentially a boon to travelers. The new JFK AirTrain makes it a lot easier to get from Manhattan to New York's major international airport, as long as you don't have a lot of luggage or a passel of children. The new World Trade Center PATH train station, meanwhile, is the deepest you'll get into Ground Zero for a while -- and has some surprising uses for travelers.
We're On A Train To Nowhere ...
New York's JFK Airport, the nation's busiest international gateway, has for years been the nation's worst major airport to travel from. Traffic-clogged internal roadways and the lack of a train to the airport haven't helped.
The city's solution to this is the JFK AirTrain (www.jfkairtrain.com/airtrain/jfk_broch1.html), a speedy little light-rail system that connects the airport's terminals to each other and to two stations in southern Queens. "Wait a minute," you say, "southern Queens? Why doesn't it go to Manhattan?"
Trust us, you don't want to get involved in that mess. The tortured history of the AirTrain, which was supposed to launch last year, involves community boards, transit budgets, and a fatal accident in 2002 in which a train driver was crushed by concrete blocks that were being used as ballast.
What we have today isn't perfect, but it isn't bad. The AirTrain runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It connects to the E, J, and Z subways and the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) commuter rail in Jamaica, Queens and to the A subway at Howard Beach, Queens. Glittering, silvery AirTrain stations squat above those existing train stations like giant robot spiders, carrying travelers up broad escalators and through gates onto the comfortable, nearly-silent monorail.
Especially during rush hours, we'd consider the AirTrain superior to taking the bus to Manhattan, because it avoids the horrendous traffic that can gridlock the freeways around JFK. We rode the AirTrain from Manhattan to Howard Beach and back to Manhattan via Jamaica, and here's what we found.
- To get between terminals, the AirTrain is a slamdunk. It's free to use within the airport, and makes terminals 1-8 minutes apart on trains that come every few minutes. Compare that to the old shuttle buses, which sometimes came every 20 minutes and could take half an hour to cross the airport.
- For comfort and speed from midtown, take the LIRR commuter trains from Penn Station to Jamaica and switch for the AirTrain. The whole trip should take 45 minutes from Penn Station to your terminal, including transfers. Trains to Jamaica leave from Penn Station every ten minutes during most of the day. It'll cost you $9.75 each way during non-rush hours, $11.75 during rush hours.
- From downtown Manhattan, take the A train to Howard Beach and switch for the AirTrain. That'll cost you $2 for the subway, and $5 for the AirTrain. It took us exactly one hour to get from Ground Zero to Terminal 1 this way.
- Late at night, on weekends, or to Midtown, you can also take the AirTrain to the E subway train at Jamaica. The E provides a more direct ride to midtown than the A, through less creepy neighborhoods. That'll also take you an hour or a little more, and the subway trains aren't as cozy as the LIRR.
- Total cheapskates will be annoyed that the free shuttle bus from Howard Beach is now gone. But there's still a way to get to the airport for $2 if you have plenty of time: take the E subway to Kew Gardens and there get on the Q10 bus to the airport. The bus is a free connection if you used a MetroCard on the subway. Allow an hour and 45 minutes from midtown to your terminal. Yes, we've done this before.
The AirTrain is serves its purpose, but it can be a little confusing. Some trains go to Howard Beach, some to Jamaica, some run clockwise around the terminals and some run counter-clockwise. When we were riding, many travelers onboard the trains seemed perplexed. Feel free to rely on the red-jacketed attendants on each platform, and keep an eye out for the LED displays at the ends of each car.
Also, riding the AirTrain requires dealing with lots of escalators and corridors, so if you're mobility-impaired, have a lot of luggage or a gaggle of tots, this train isn't for you as one of our readers has already declared on our Message Boards (click here to read the comments). If you're loaded down in any way, take a taxi or SuperShuttle.
WTC Memorial, Or Train Station?
Floating like giant, arcing wings over the edge of the World Trade Center pit, the entrance to the new PATH station heralds one of the city's spookiest and most sobering experiences.
The PATH train (www.panynj.gov) runs from deep within the former basement of the WTC, but the "underground" station is open-air -- the trains arrive at "ground level," which is actually 30 feet or so below ground level. Walls that don't go quite all the way to the ceilings let you see snow falling on the Ground Zero pit and the lights of buildings all around you as you descend farther into the former Trade Center than civilians have ever been allowed before.
Huge blinds emblazoned with famous sayings about New York serve as exterior walls showing the Trade Center pit through their semi-transparent surfaces. The station itself feels like a work in progress, with floors of unfinished concrete and metal I-beams used for supports. It's a deeply moving place to be, whether or not you pay the $1.50 to go down to track level.
But PATH isn't just a symbol. It's also a way to get to cheap hotels, a shortcut to Newark Airport, and a big relief for smokers.
The new PATH station makes Exchange Place in Jersey City a four-minute subway ride from Ground Zero, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Directly above the Exchange Place station is the Hyatt Regency Jersey City (http://jerseycity.hyatt.com/property/index.jhtml), one of the area's best hotel bargains. Not only does this high-quality hotel charge $149 a night on weekends and sometimes lower (we've seen $115), many rooms have breathtaking views of the New York skyline. Here, you'll pay half what you'd pay across the river for a room of equal quality.
About 700 yards north of the station is the Candlewood Suites (www.candlewoodsuites.com), a clean and comfortable suite hotel where every room has a full kitchen and rates are as low as $89. If you don't feel like walking the few blocks to the station, the hotel has a free shuttle.
The area immediately around the Exchange Place PATH station, the two hotels we listed above, and the nearby Newport-Pavonia Mall is deathly dull, but safe. Don't go wandering elsewhere in Jersey City, which has some very unsavory neighborhoods.
If you're staying in a downtown Manhattan hotel like the Millennium Hilton, Club Quarters, Cosmopolitan or Tribeca Grand, the PATH is also a shortcut to and from Newark Airport. Just take the PATH from Ground Zero to Newark's Penn Station, where you can connect to the Newark AirTrain. It'll save you 10-15 minutes over having to go up to midtown to catch the Newark AirTrain.
And what about those smokers? Well, New Jersey still lets people smoke in bars. Take the PATH train to Hoboken station and walk up Washington Street for an excellent stretch of bars and restaurants inhabited every evening by a well-to-do crowd in their 20s and 30s. Frank Sinatra's hometown is a lovely place to walk around, too, with adorable rowhouses on tree-lined streets and an immaculate waterfront promenade with a great view of Manhattan. Focus on the area from 1st to 8th Streets, from the Hudson River to Willow Avenue; Washington is the city's main commercial drag. Make sure to wave hello to all of us at Frommers.com in our offices at 1st and River Streets.
Have you ridden these trains? Tell us your experiences and tips on our Message Boards today.