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Racing to the capital: What's the fastest way to get from New York to Washington, DC?

Aug. 03, 2022
13 min read
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Some people run marathons. Others speed around NASCAR tracks. At TPG, we race each other on various forms of public transportation.

It has been too long (three years) since members of the TPG team have hopped on planes and trains to race from New York City to Washington, D.C. So, during a summer of travel meltdowns across the country, we decided to put different methods of transportation to the test.

What's really the fastest way to get from New York to D.C.?

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We decided to focus on speed rather than cost, targeting routes that business travelers may take between the two cities. So, we left New York during the morning rush hour on a weekday to simulate a realistic trip. Racers split up between two trains — the Amtrak Northeast Regional and the Amtrak Acela, both departing from New York's Penn Station — and two planes — United and Delta flights, departing from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and LaGuardia Airport (LGA), respectively.

As we started our race, we couldn't help but wonder: Is taking a plane faster than a train when there are so many delays due to East Coast thunderstorms? Can the Amtrak Acela beat the Amtrak Northeast Regional if it departs New York significantly later? And what are the major differences among these forms of transportation?

Related: The great race to JFK — what’s the fastest way to catch your flight?

With these questions in mind, we sent four fearless teammates off to the races. TPG's summer interns, Michaela Barrett and Halle Newman, were joined by senior reporter Zach Griff and executive editor Scott Mayerowitz, respectively. (After all, the best way to learn the tricks of the trade is from an experienced mentor.) Meanwhile, TPG's features writer Lynn Brown and SEO senior associate Hannah Streck traveled alone.

May the best woman win.

(Photo courtesy of Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Racers: Hannah Streck (Amtrak Northeast Regional), Lynn Brown (Amtrak Acela), Halle Newman (United Airlines from Newark) and Michaela Barrett (Delta Air Lines from LaGuardia).

Starting point: Lincoln Center on New York's Upper West Side at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. This spot is in a largely residential neighborhood that is equidistant from LGA in Queens and EWR across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Finish line: Washington Monument.

9 am

Amtrak Regional: Hannah dashed to the subway station at 66th Street and Lincoln Center, where she encountered a major roadblock right off the bat: The MetroCard scanners were out of order. The 1 train was just two minutes away, so Hannah did what she had to do and jumped the turnstile. She rode the train to 34th Street and Penn Station and walked through the underground tunnel to the beautiful Moynihan Train Hall with time to spare.

Amtrak Acela: Lynn ordered an Uber to Penn Station, where she'd board a 10 a.m. Acela in business class. The Uber ride should have been about 15 minutes, but in the throes of rush hour, it took Lynn 25 minutes to reach Penn Station. Upon reflection, Lynn should have opted for the subway.

United Airlines: Halle raced down Columbus Avenue to her preordered Blacklane car. She was not going to get behind in the race waiting for an Uber and paid nearly twice the price to guarantee a ride. The sleek black Mercedes E-class was a splurge, but it came with free bottles of water and an experienced chauffeur.

Delta Air Lines: Michaela checked to see whether an Uber or Lyft would be the fastest (and most affordable). UberX won out, and by 9:04 a.m., the driver pulled up to the Lincoln Center steps. There was heavy traffic, but the 9:38 a.m. arrival estimate made her hopeful.

9:30 am

Amtrak Regional: Hannah hoped her train's five-minute delay wouldn't affect her chances in the race. She hustled to the track and boarded the regional train, scoring a seat without a neighbor — a saving grace for elbow space on the closely configured seats.

Amtrak Acela: Upon arrival at Moynihan Train Hall, Lynn explored the selection of restaurants and cafes, wishing she had access to Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge; it's only Amtrak Guest Rewards Select Plus and Select Executive members who get unlimited access to the lounge, as well as first-class Acela passengers. Lynn could have paid $50 to enter but felt she didn't have sufficient time to make it a worthwhile splurge.

United Airlines: After a scenic ride through New Jersey, Halle arrived at Terminal A at EWR with time to spare. Four days prior, she applied for TSA PreCheck and received her known traveler number in time for the trip. She breezed through expedited security and made it to her gate in just six minutes. Even though the regular line wasn't that long, the green check mark on her boarding pass allowed her to keep her shoes on. Once a PreCheck skeptic, Halle was converted.

Delta Air Lines: At 9:40 a.m. Michaela arrived at LaGuardia's beautiful new Delta terminal. By 9:50 a.m., she was through the short security line, pleased to have (so far) escaped the airport chaos afflicting summer travelers.

10 am

Amtrak Regional: Hannah whizzed by Newark, hard at work typing on her laptop. There was a plug right next to her tray table, making it easy to work on the go. She was happy to be on the ground where Wi-Fi was available for the entire trip, and she didn't have to pack up her laptop to run between security checkpoints and boarding gates.

Amtrak Acela: By 9:54 a.m., Lynn boarded her train, pleased with the Acela's business-class car. The cabin was far from crowded, so she didn't have to worry about sharing the seat next to her with a stranger.

Delta Air Lines: The new Delta terminal at LGA requires a little more walking than some people may be used to, but by 10 a.m., Michaela was at the gate. Shortly following her arrival at the gate she boarded her third-row seat (a free upgrade thanks to her travel companion's Diamond Medallion status).

United Airlines: The airport's workstations were too crowded to allow for much productivity. So, pressed for choice, Halle grabbed an overpriced bottled ice tea to sip on while she indulged in some quality plane-watching. She wished she'd brought a snack from home.

Related: Delta’s new LaGuardia terminal is a major upgrade — see for yourself

10:30 am

Amtrak Regional: Hannah's train stopped at Princeton, New Jersey. As the train began to fill up, and she lost the prized empty seat next to her, she started to wonder if that ticket price of $137 had been a false economy.

Amtrak Acela: Meanwhile, Lynn's internet speed was going in and out, hovering between 2 and 3 Mbps on her laptop and 3 and 4 Mbps on her phone. This slowed down her productivity — she'd counted on working on the train. But the comfy and spacious business-class seat, with a charging port, was a major step up from her experiences on the regional train and well worth the $48 extra.

Delta Air Lines: Michaela's flight was the most expensive option ($273). It was a little over half full, allowing for a quick, calm and uneventful boarding process. At 10:46 a.m., the Embraer E170 took off. She soared over Newark and couldn't help but think that somewhere down there, Halle was still on the ground.

United Airlines: Halle boarded her flight at 10:30 a.m. sharp. She sank into her first-class seat (a free upgrade courtesy of Scott's status) and hoped it would be a flight worthy of the $257 expenditure. Certainly, a CRJ-550 would not be considered luxurious by the standards of most frequent flyers, but this was Halle's first time not in coach.

11 am

Delta Air Lines: Michaela enjoyed an inflight ice water but didn't get offered a snack. With just over 15 minutes of Wi-Fi activity — too slow to even register on a speed tracker — she began descending into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). Suffice to say, she didn't bother taking her computer out to catch up on work.

Amtrak Acela: A few miles north of Philadelphia, Lynn's train passed Hannah's. At 11:01 a.m., she pulled into the station, eight minutes ahead of Hannah. Lynn contemplated all the times she'd taken the regional train for the lower price tag — now an Acela convert, she knew those days were over.

Amtrak Regional: By the time the Northeast Regional stopped in Philadelphia, there was not an empty seat on Hannah's train. Eager to escape the confines of her cramped window seat, she ventured to the cafe car and scored a free seltzer from a friendly attendant. Nervous about her unattended bags and laptop, she hurried back to her seat.

United Airlines: After a quick taxi to the runway, the CRJ-550 climbed into the sky at 11:11 a.m. Halle watched New York shrink below her as she sailed through a (thankfully) thunderstorm-free sky.

Related: Amtrak’s Acela line is speeding up thanks to infrastructure improvements in New Jersey

11:30 am

Delta Air Lines: The wheels of Michaela's plane touched down at 11:32 a.m., and four minutes later, the doors opened. With time to take photos, she strolled to the pickup area and ordered an Uber.

United Airlines: Halle's complimentary first-class snack was a cup of apple juice and a bag of Pirate's Booty. While the Wi-Fi was working, it was too slow to do anything more than check emails and send text messages.

Amtrak Acela: Lynn hit Wilmington, Delaware, around 11:25 a.m. and went to the cafe car. While there was a large selection, the food was overpriced and, $19 later, Lynn was unimpressed with her wrap and iced tea.

Amtrak Regional: Hannah passed Wilmington at 11:33 a.m. She had packed a ham-and-cheese scone for lunch, knowing from experience she'd be dissatisfied with the onboard options.

12 pm

Delta Air Lines: Michaela hopped in her Uber at 11:48 a.m., and eight minutes later, with the sweet taste of victory in her mouth, she arrived at the Washington Monument.

United Airlines: Halle's plane touched down at DCA at 11:58 a.m. She ordered a Lyft and sped off to the Washington Monument.

Amtrak Acela: Lynn reached Baltimore. She noticed that while the bathroom on board was pretty spacious (especially in comparison to a plane bathroom), it was also pretty gross.

Amtrak Regional: Hannah watched Maryland zip by outside her window, once again wondering how she drew the short straw with the regional train.

12:30 pm

Delta Air Lines: At the Washington Monument, Michaela wondered if her victory was simply due to Halle's flight taking off later.

United Airlines: With "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis playing in her head, Halle arrived at the Washington Monument at 12:20 p.m., claiming silver.

Amtrak Acela: Lynn's Acela pulled into D.C.'s Union Station at 12:47 p.m. She packed away her laptop, satisfied that she had achieved her work goals during the train journey.

Amtrak Regional: Hannah reached Baltimore at 12:21 p.m. and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) at 12:39 p.m.

Related: Amtrak claims eminent domain to gain control of Washington, DC’s Union Station for necessary repairs

1 pm

Amtrak Acela: Lynn caught a taxi to the Washington Monument and sped through the busy streets of the capital. She reached the finish line at 1:18 p.m., claiming third place.

Amtrak Regional: Hannah arrived in D.C. at 1:09 p.m. and took a cab from Union Station. She got to the finish line at 1:21 p.m., the last to arrive.

Cost and time breakdown

(Image by The Points Guy)

Pros and cons

Key takeaways

Trains: Trains might take an hour or two longer than planes, but they have the potential to be more relaxing and productive, with operational Wi-Fi. Trains are generally more reliable than flights, as they aren’t subject to air-traffic delays, inclement weather and the airport chaos that has been especially disruptive in 2022.

Lynn’s train arrived an hour and 46 minutes later than Michaela’s flight, but Lynn felt confident that her train would get to D.C. around 1 p.m. and she’d be able to work consistently in the process.

Planes: Flying was the fastest and most expensive option. Luckily for Halle and Michaela, there were no air traffic control delays or ground stops. But, for business travelers hoping to work, it's not the most productive option. While the lack of crowds traveling on a Tuesday at midmorning might be a fair simulation for business travelers, weather and other airport-related delays are completely unpredictable.

Bottom line

While we tried to make our race as real --and fair-- as possible, there were several variables in our experiment that might play out differently in real life. We started from the same place at the same time for the sake of the race, but Lynn, for example, might have realistically left her house fifteen minutes later to catch her 10 a.m. Acela, and Halle might have left thirty minutes later to avoid waiting around for her plane in the crowded terminal. And some variables were just out of our control, like traffic, weather, security lines and transportation delays. If we had done our race in the afternoon (of the same day) instead of the morning, a series of thunderstorms over Washington and New York would have delayed or canceled our flights, making the train a faster option.

Assess your travel needs when deciding which method is best for you. If you prioritize comfort, amenities, reliability and consistency, the Acela might be your best bet. Trying to save money? The regional train may be the solution for you. And if you're willing to spend up and gamble on the chance to get to D.C. as fast as possible, planes are the way to go.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases