Getting to JFK: Here Are Your Options

Posted on Posted in American Culture and Holidays, English lessons in New York, ESL tips, New York Culture

“Why isn’t there a direct subway line to the airport?”

“Why is it so expensive to get to Kennedy?”

“I always take Uber, but how do you New Yorkers get to the airport?

I get these questions a lot. Many of my English language students are here on work transfers, or they are the spouses of someone with an L-1 visa. They love to explore U.S. destinations, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles . They enjoy going back home for the holidays. Some of them have a “revolving door” of visitors crashing on their couch. They often lament the high cost of getting to the airport, and are surprised that a major city like New York, doesn’t offer better options. Usually, they take Uber.

Today I’m going to give you some other options for getting to JFK. I will follow up with posts on getting to Newark Airport and LaGuardia.

Method #1: Yes, you can take the subway!

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a direct train that went all the way out to the airport? There’s not. There never has been. However, there are several subway lines that go to the JFK AirTrain, which will take you to all of the terminals! While you do have to pay for both the subway and the AirTrain, this is still the least expensive option.

Cost: $7.75 per person

Cost is calculated based on subway fare of $2.75 (or lower depending on the type of MetroCard you are using) PLUS $5 for the AirTrain. Note: It is a separate $5 fare! You can use a regular (not unlimited) MetroCard to pay the fare or you can add $5 to your unlimited card.

Advantages: Inexpensive, available 24 hours a day, no traffic, no need to buy tickets in advance. This is a practical method that can be used almost anywhere in Manhattan. It will take less than an hour from Midtown.

Disadvantages: Stations or transfer points might not have elevators or escalators, making lugging around suitcases difficult. While there are moving walkways and escalators helping to connect the subway stations to the AirTrain, it is still, as we say in New York, a schlep! You won’t be dealing with traffic, but sometimes the subway system experiences delays. If you have mobility issues, or problems hauling luggage, this method is not for you. Warning: It is not practical to take the subway to the airport from some neighborhoods in the boros. You won’t be able to go to the lines that go to the airport without backtracking and adding many miles to your journey! Check Google Maps to make sure this is a practical method for you.

New York Native’s opinion: Most tourists avoid taking the subway to the airport, but if it works from your neighborhood, and you’re traveling light, this is a reasonable option, especially if you travel a lot, and want to save money.

What is the AirTrain? Which subway lines go there?

The AirTrain is a monorail train that runs in a circle. It stops at all JFK terminals. You can catch it at (or near) two completely different subway stations that are several miles from each other — the Sutphin Blvd/Archer Avenue/JFK station, and the Howard Beach/JFK station.

E trains go from downtown Manhattan through Midtown on the west side of Manhattan. Then they cut east at 53rd street and head into Queens. They go to the the Sutphin Blvd/Archer Avenue stop. Below is a screenshot from Google Maps showing the route from Midtown:

 

A trains (Far Rockaway/Mott Haven branch) go to Howard Beach. The A train is the longest train line and goes from the northern tip of Manhattan down through Brooklyn and then into Queens to the Howard Beach station. Below is a screenshot showing the route the A train takes from the Financial District to the Air Train:

The J and Z trains wind through lower-Manhattan and then into many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens before finally getting to Sutphin/Archer. Because the route is very indirect and makes many local stops, Google recommends transferring from these lines to the A train from lower-Manhattan and some parts of Brooklyn.  Always check your route on Google Maps to see what makes the most sense.

How long will it take?

Google is your friend. You can get a very good idea of your options by checking Google Maps. The subway was built long before the airports, so the routes aren’t direct. From some neighborhoods this is a convenient choice, but from others it can be a nightmare! Per above, it takes under an hour from Midtown. On the other hand, if you ‘re staying someplace else, and have to change trains,  it will take you well over an hour, as you’ll have to get to Midtown first to get the E train.

If you are staying in Brooklyn, or Queens, it will probably take you less time than from Manhattan, unless you live in one of those neighborhoods far from any of the subway lines that go to the airport. Again, in some cases it is simply not practical to take any form of mass transit to the airport.

ProTip: Combining a short bus or car ride to a subway line that goes directly to the AirTrain will help from some neighborhoods. For instance, it will cost you about $6 to “Uber it” from Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg to the Court Square Station in Long Island City to catch the E train!

Which train should I take?

Here is where it gets a little tricky.

If you are in Manhattan above Canal street, it is better to take the E train to Sutphin Blvd. This is true even if you need to transfer from another train line (including the A) to get the E.

If you are below Canal street, it might be better to take the A train to Howard Beach, but you should check Google Maps!

Bottom Line: Always check out the options on Google Maps to find out which train is best. Check right before you go to get up to date information on system problems and delays!

Things you should know about the subway:

(1) Unlike most places in the world, New Yorkers never use colors to describe train lines. If you ask for directions to the “Blue line” people will look at you like you are crazy. This is because several train lines use the same colors but have different routes. If you are asking for train directions, always use the number or letter of the train and the direction it is going in, which is not necessarily the final stop.

(2) There are two Jamaica stops on the E, J, and Z lines. The last stop is Jamaica Center. The stop before Jamaica Center, known as Sutphin/Archer is the stop where you can walk to the AirTrain. People refer to both stations as “Jamaica.” Remember you are leaving the train at the second to the last stop.(It is almost a mile between these two stations!)

(3) If you are taking the A train: The A train is the longest subway line in the system. Near the end of its run, the line branches off. Only one of these branches goes to the Howard Beach/JFK station. Make sure to get on an A train that is going to the “Far Rockaway/ Mott Haven”. If you get on the wrong A train, you will need to transfer before the lines branch off at Liberty Avenue.

Bottom Line: Is taking the subway to the airport dangerous?

New York is one of the safest cities in the world. The subways used to have a terrible reputation, but generally it is safe to take the subway to the airport. However, some of these subway lines go through sketchy neighborhoods. You might not feel safe. Personally, I wouldn’t take the subway to the airport alone late at night, or before 5:30 in the morning.

Method #2: LIRR (Commuter Train) to the AirTrain 

Cost: $9.25 -$15.25 or higher.

The cost is difficult to calculate because the LIRR charges different fares at different times of the day and different days of the week! Also if you buy your ticket on the train, it costs even more! The calculation above includes the LIRR fare PLUS the $5 AirTrain. There are no combined tickets for the LIRR and the AirTrain. If you are not able to walk to the station, you will need to pay more for a car ride, bus or subway train to the station, so the real cost could be more.

What is the LIRR and where do I catch the train?

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the commuter light rail into Manhattan from Long Island. There is only one station in Manhattan — Penn or Pennsylvania Station at West 33rd Street. There are stations in Queens and Brooklyn as well. The main transfer point for many suburban trains is the Jamaica LIRR Station in Queens. Almost all the trains leaving Penn stop there. You can walk to the AirTrain from the Jamaica LIRR Station.

Advantages: Potentially, this is the FASTEST way to get to JFK — at least from Midtown West. You completely avoid auto traffic. Trains take between 19 and 25 minutes to get from Penn to Jamaica. It’s nicer than the subway, and still relatively inexpensive. Even if you take a cab to Penn Station from somewhere else in Manhattan, this will still cost considerably less than a cab to the airport. It is also a bargain on weekends when the “City Fare” is in effect. This is when it’s only $4.25 to get from Penn to Jamaica. This is also a great option if you are staying on Long Island.

Disadvantages: This still involves lugging around your bags and a fair amount of walking. Penn can be a confusing and chaotic place. Finding your train and buying your ticket can be time-consuming. If you need to take a cab or other transport to the LIRR station that adds to the price. If you are traveling with one or more people, each one of you will pay a separate fare. Trains to Jamaica run frequently during the day, but they don’t run often at night or in the early morning hours, so this might not work 24/7.

Pro Tip: Buy your ticket online in advance or from a vending machine at the station, as it costs more to buy your ticket on board the train!

Pro Tip: You can combine a short cab ride with a train ride to Jamaica and still save money compared to a taxi. For instance, an Uber from Williamsburg to the LIRR station at Hunterspoint Avenue in Long Island City costs about $6.

Pro Tip: Go to the LIRR website to plan your trip! The system runs 24 hours a day, but very few trains go out late at night, so this might not work for you if you have to be at the airport before 6 AM.

New York Native’s Opinion: If you are near Penn Station or an outer-borough LIRR station, such as Hunterspoint, Woodside, Forest Hills, or Atlantic Avenue, this is a reasonable option that is quicker and nicer than the subway, will cost less than a cab, and won’t subject you to New York traffic.

Method 3: Buses to the Airport

There is a bus to JFK from the Port Authority Bus Terminal on West 42nd Street and from Grand Central Station (East 42nd Street). This is a private company authorized by the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. This service is available 7 days a week, but only from about 11 AM to 7 PM.

Cost: $19. Less with a round-trip ticket.

Advantages: The buses are reliable and run on schedule. They go straight to the terminal. Unlike the shuttles, they don’t make a lot of detours.

Disadvantages: If you aren’t nearby, you’ll have to find transportation to the bus. You’ll need to leave extra travel time because of traffic. For two or more travelers the cost might be close to what you would pay for a shared ride. The times of day when you can use this option are limited.

New York Native’s Opinion: For one person this is a reasonable option, especially if you happen to be near Grand Central or the Port Authority. The bus costs more than the LIRR plus AirTrain,  but you won’t need to change and you won’t have to deal with Penn Station. Personally, if I lived in Midtown, and a friend was coming to visit in the middle of the day, I might suggest he/she use this method instead of taking a taxi.

Method 4: Shuttle

Shuttles are mini-buses (vans) that pick people up at their homes or hotels and take them directly to the terminal at the airport. This is a door to door service. Vans take up to 10 passengers, and may make up to 5 stops to pick up passengers.

Cost: This service is offered by several private companies, so prices may vary. Generally, the cost is around $23 each way, but less if you buy a round-trip ticket. Sometimes there are offers or discounts.

Here are two companies offering this service (NOT an endorsement):

Go Airlink

Go Airport Shuttle

Advantages: You can’t get lost! The driver will pick you up at your hotel or home and take you to your terminal. If you are a solo traveler, this will cost less than a shared ride using Uber or Lyft.

Disadvantages: These services demand your flight information when you book. You have to reserve a ride that leaves several hours before your flight leaves, as the trip may take a long time. There is no way to know whether you will be the first person picked up or the last, so your ride can feel interminably long. If you read reviews for these services, you’ll see lots of complaints about the time it takes. Two people traveling together will not save much money compared to a shared ride. For more than two people, you should just take a taxi or use a ride service.

New York Native’s Opinion: This is the worst! Most of the passengers are tourists. They are encouraged by people at the airports to buy a round trip ticket, or the hotel arranges this service. For two people an Uber Pool or SharedLyft might be cheaper, or at least not much more.  Based on personal experience, even for a single passenger, on a tight budget leaving late at night, I’d consider other alternatives.

Method 5 — Shared Ride using UberPool, SharedLyft or Similar Service

Cost: Approximately: $37 – $69

The cost is going to vary depending on time of day, your location, traffic conditions, etc. You can calculate the cost using the ride app before you decide. Lyft prices tend to be a little less than Uber prices although they often use the same drivers.

What is a shared ride?

A shared ride is a ride you share with strangers. The driver may already have a passenger or passengers when he/she picks you up, or the driver may stop to pick up more passengers. The passengers may or may not be going to the same destination you are. This service is NOT available through New York City yellow and green taxis.

Advantages: Uber and Lyft are the two most popular ride-sharing services in New York. You probably won’t have a problem getting a ride this way. The driver will come to you. The price will be less than if you request a private car. It’s the same price for one or two people, so you can share your shared ride with a traveling companion. There is a maximum of 4 passengers, so unlike a Shuttle, you won’t be making many pick ups.

Disadvantages: Your price may vary. Sometimes there is little difference between the price of the shared ride and a private car. You have no way of knowing if you’ll be the first passenger or the last. The ride may be longer because the driver is picking up other passengers from different locations. You may have to wait to get your ride. Some people are not comfortable sharing a ride with strangers and not having control of the route.

Bottom Line: Sometimes there is less than a $10 difference between the shared ride and a private ride. It might not be worth it to take the shared ride. Check your options before you click.

Local Knowledge: While Uber is better known worldwide, Lyft is Uber’s major competition in New York. Lyft prices are usually a little lower than Uber prices even though they use many of the same drivers. It’s worth it to download the Lyft app so you can check both prices.

New York Native’s Opinion: I have never used this method to get to the airport. I’m not going to talk you into anything.

Method 6: NYC Taxi — Yellow or Green Cabs

Cost: $62-75 — using flat-rate, depending on time of day, tolls, tip.

Cost calculation: The flat rate to Kennedy including subsidies is $52.80 from anywhere in Manhattan or the boros. There is an additional $4.50 surcharge between 4 PM (16:00) and 8 PM (20:00). Many times the best route to the airport includes bridge or tunnel tolls, which adds  $5.76. You are also expected to tip the drivers 15%-20% of the fare. The tip is customary and it is an important part of the driver’s wages, so please do it.

If you are staying in Queens or Brooklyn, it is possible that a metered taxi will cost less than the above flat rate. You can compare fares using this site. Please be aware that that site might not include the customary tip or traffic conditions in the estimated fare.

Pro tip: You can download the Curb App which makes it easy to pay online and order a NYC taxi to pick you up at your location.

Local information:

The iconic New York City taxi is still the top choice for most New Yorkers. You can hail a yellow cab in most parts of Manhattan. In upper-Manhattan, and the boroughs there are few yellow taxis, but you will see green taxis also known as “boro taxis.” You can take either a green taxi or a yellow taxi to the airport. However, green taxis are NOT allowed to pick up passengers from the airport.

Advantages: You can easily find a yellow taxi in most neighborhoods in Manhattan. Since the introduction of the boro taxis, it’s now even easier to find a cab in the outer boroughs and Upper Manhattan. The Curb app can be used to help you order a taxi, but even without the app, you simply go to the corner and wait. Taxi drivers are licensed professionals. You will not need to share the cab with strangers. Drivers usually know the best routes to save time. The fare may actually cost less than what Uber and Lyft are charging. If you are trying to use all your U.S. cash before you leave, this offers you a great opportunity because you can use cash to pay your fare or you can leave your tip in cash.

Disadvantages: The flat fare can be confusing since it doesn’t include all of the costs. Many people from other countries find this complicated or simply don’t like the tipping system here. . In some neighborhoods there aren’t many yellow cabs. Green cab drivers are not always happy about airport fares because they cannot pick up passengers at the airport. Taxis can get stuck in traffic. Taxis are expensive. Sometimes, especially in bad weather or during rush hour, it can be difficult to find a cab.

New York Native’s Opinion: Usually, we say we’re going to take the LIRR or the subway, but we wind up grabbing a cab. Please tip your driver, even if it’s not what you do at home.

Method #7: Ride app — UberX, Lyft, or other ride app

Cost: Variable depending on location, time of day, traffic conditions. From Midtown approximately: $74 taking the 59th street bridge — no tolls. Quoted prices include tolls if there are any. Uber also offers fancier cars for more money.

Advantages: Reliable. Comes to you. Usually short waiting times to pick up. You probably already have the app!

Disadvantages: Prices vary. Expensive. May cost more than an NYC taxi.

New York Native’s Opinion: I completely get why this is easy for you, but it’s not the only way.

(I hope you’ve enjoyed and found it useful. If you’ve got an questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. You might need to wait till they are approved.If you are interested in English lessons, please check out the main site.)

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