Train Review: Amtrak to New York City

As part of our 36 hours in New York, we traveled from Albany to New York with Amtrak.

  • Trip Report: 36 Hours in New York
  • Train Review: Amtrak to New York City
  • Hotel Review: The Ludlow Hotel

Perhaps a better title for the review would be "A Tale of Two Trains" as Amtrak provided a wildly different experience between our departure and return trips. I'll get to that in a bit, but first, why did we choose Amtrak?

Options from Albany, NY to New York City

In planning a quick weekend getaway, we had to travel from beautiful Upstate New York down to Manhattan. Leaving from Albany, that left us with three choices: 1) Fly, 2) Drive, or 3) Train. 

Option 1 - Fly

Noted that it is a short trip, it made no sense to to connect from Albany to a hub (e.g., Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore) so we focused solely on the only nonstop to New York, 4x daily service to Newark (EWR) with United. 6 weeks out, the round-trip was running $362 per person for Main Cabin in a cramped Q200 Turboprop or an equally uncomfortable Embraer 145 regional jet. At over $700 for the two of us, a paid flight was out of consideration.

 United Express ERJ145. Photo courtesy of FlightRadar24.

United Express ERJ145. Photo courtesy of FlightRadar24.

Hmm, what about points? Our dates actually showed United saver award availability at 20,000 miles and $11.20 in taxes per person round-trip. Having a stash of transferable Chase Ultimate Reward points, we easily could have transferred 40,000 points to United and snagged those flights. However, valuing Chase UR's at about 2.1 cents each, this would have been a poor redemption (see, $840 worth of points). Combine this with the approximately $130 round-trip Uber/Lyft from EWR to Manhattan, flying was not the answer for our weekend getaway.

Option 2 - Drive

Situated on the Hudson River, Albany is under 3 hours to the East Village of Manhattan (pending no traffic). At first, this seemed like the winning option. However, we realized we needed to consider the absurd parking rates when driving to the city. Our hotel did not offer parking, but a public lot across the street was $70 for a 24 hour period. With the additional time needed, parking would have come to $102 for 26 hours in the garage. In addition, we both really despise driving and would rather relax en route. So, on to the last option: Amtrak.

Option 3 - Train

Train travel is certainly not a viable option for many places in the United States, but New York state has a fairly comprehensive Amtrak network. Looking into Amtrak leaving Albany-Rensselaer station (ALB) arriving to Penn Station (NYP), we were able to find convenient timing. With our AAA member discount, we bought round-trip tickets for $89.80 per person (total of $179.60). Paying with the Sapphire Reserve, we earned 538 UR points (about $11 in value). For frequent travelers, being a AAA member at $59 is a must. Even without the added benefits that come with the membership such as roadside assistance, the membership can save hundred of dollars a year on hotel and train bookings. The ALB train station has minimal parking fees of $7 per day. In addition, transportation ran $2.75 per person using the subway to East Village and less than $15 with Uber on the ride back to the station.

 Albany-Rensselaer (ALB) Amtrak station

Albany-Rensselaer (ALB) Amtrak station

Amtrak Empire Service - ALB to NYP

The Empire Service train connects Manhattan to Upstate NY from Penn Station to Niagara Falls. As a standard short to medium range train used by Amtrak, the seats were comfortable enough with decent legroom for most. At 6'3'' though, I always wish for more legroom!

 

 Definitely more leg room than Spirit or Frontier!

Definitely more leg room than Spirit or Frontier!

During the three hour trip, we decided to try the snack bar for a coffee and trail mix. It was enough to hold us over, but the coffee was horrible and the trail mix was a small bag at a high price. In addition to snacks and candy bars, the dining car had several hot options including hot dogs and microwavable cups of noodles. Since you can bring large bags on the train with you, I certainly recommend packing your own food and drink and avoiding the dining car.

 The snack and food options in the Amtrak dining car. Best advice? Bring your own food!

The snack and food options in the Amtrak dining car. Best advice? Bring your own food!

We arrived into Penn Station a few minutes late and ready to go find a real lunch!

Amtrak Lake Shore Limited - NYP to ALB

The Lake Shore Limited train connects New York City and Boston to Chicago. Noting the long distance of the route, the trains used are much more comfortable than those on Amtrak's shorter routes (like the Empire Service). Specifically, the train offered substantially more leg room, padding, and recline with the seats than on our trip down. It certainly made the three hour trip north comfortable and quick. This time, we opted to avoid the dining car and just rest up. Before we knew it, the train pulled into ALB station just a few minutes behind schedule.

 Look at that legroom! A very comfortable ride for a short train trip.

Look at that legroom! A very comfortable ride for a short train trip.

The Prof's Grade - B+

Despite the wildly inconsistent product between the two trips, Amtrak provided the easiest and most convenient travel option at an affordable cost. I would not necessary avoid the Empire Service trains, but if your schedule is flexible, certainly look for the Lake Shore Limited trains for extra space, larger seats, and a more comfortable ride. So next time you ride with Amtrak, sit back, relax, and definitely bring your own food.

- A