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Planes versus train: What's the fastest way from Boston to NYC?

Sept. 20, 2019
19 min read
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We've raced to the Hamptons on a Friday afternoon in summer. We've raced to D.C. during morning rush hour. Now the TPG team is racing on another popular route, from Boston to New York City during the afternoon rush.

The contest had four contenders: three airlines — Delta, JetBlue and United — to two different airports, LaGuardia and Newark, and one train, the Amtrak Acela from South Station to Penn Station. Boston-NYC is a popular business route and many businesspeople do it as a day trip. However, after one of those "quick" business trips, all you want to do is get home. So we put the airlines to the test and threw in the Acela to see if it could compete. To our surprise, it wasn't too far off.

Our race started at 2:15 p.m. on a sunny Monday afternoon from Faneuil Hall and ended at Rockefeller Center at the height of NYC's rush hour. The racers were TPG staffers Brendan Dorsey, on JetBlue; Liz Hund, on Delta; Victoria Walker, on United; and Dan Rauchwerk, on the Acela.

Here's how it went.

Initial Thoughts

JetBlue: After getting stuck on the Megabus on the Race to D.C., Brendan was excited to hopefully have a clear win in a TPG race. Better yet — JetBlue arrives in the uncrowded and construction free Marine terminal at LaGuardia so he was ready for smooth sailing ahead.

Delta: Liz felt confident that she could finish at or near the top when she found out she was flying Delta with its on-time reputation, but worried about the time it would take by Uber for the last leg of the trip from LGA to Rockefeller Center because of the notorious construction at the airport and its effect on traffic. With a scheduled 4 p.m. departure in Boston, just behind Brendan at 3:32 p.m. and right ahead of Vikkie at 4:05 p.m., she thought she had a fair shot at first place, although second felt most realistic.

United: Victoria didn't have high hopes for beating Brendan, the JetBlue flyer, but she was confident she could finish at least second by flying United. She was scheduled to depart Boston at 4:05 p.m., later than Brendan and Liz, but felt sure she make up the time by hopping straight in an Uber from EWR.

Acela: Dan knew it would be a long shot to beat anyone, given the nearly four-hour estimated travel time, but he's a huge train fan and had never traveled on Acela before, so he was excited for a pleasant afternoon ride before the sprint to the finish.

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JetBlue: Since Brendan's flight was scheduled to depart at 3:32 p.m., he knew he'd have to rush to Logan Airport and race through security. He immediately ordered a Lyft since he gets 2x Delta miles on all rides to and from the airport. His ride took a few minutes to show up, but his fears were relieved when the app's ETA said it would be just a 12-minute journey to the airport.

Delta: Liz tried to call an Uber as soon as the clock struck 2:15 since she had a discount on her rides, but her app was having issues loading so she ended up booking a Lyft, which still earned her Delta and Hilton points. She finally got into a Lyft at 2:27 and also made it to Logan in no time.

United: Vikkie called an Uber as soon as the race began but then her phone died. She was successful in calling an Uber but didn't remember the car make or license plate number before her phone gave out. Dejected, she made her way over to the taxi stand a block away and settled in for the 18-minute journey to the airport.

Acela: Dan's train wasn't scheduled to depart until 3:05, so he walked the 0.6 miles to South Station. He arrived at the station around 2:30.

JetBlue: After being dropped off curbside at Boston Logan at 2:32 and making it through security by 2:39 thanks to a short TSA PreCheck line and only traveling with a backpack, Brendan kicked back and enjoyed some planespotting. The gates at Terminal C were full of Airbus and Embraer aircraft in assorted JetBlue liveries, in addition to a lone Aer Lingus Airbus A330 widebody. His 2:57 boarding call was only minutes away.

Delta: At 2:45 Liz was still waiting in the security line since she didn't have PreCheck or Global Entry -- her Global Entry interview isn't for a few more weeks. It took her 15 minutes to get completely through security, which wasn't bad, and she still had plenty of time before boarding.

United: At 2:45 Vikkie cleared security and made her way over to the gate after shopping for snacks. She caught a glimpse of a United plane through a window and wondered if it was her flight.

Acela: Dan had some time to kill before his track was announced so he bought a phone charger while waiting. At 2:55 the train started boarding and he was able to score himself two open seats.

JetBlue: Boarding went smoothly. Passengers filed down the single-aisle E190, filling the plane about halfway. The captain made a few announcements regarding the weather and predicted an early arrival at LGA, which made Brendan giddy with the thought that he'd finally be crowned champ of a TPG race — it would only take three races for him to taste victory! The doors closed at 3:20 and the jet pushed back from the gate just 11 minutes later.

Delta: At 3:15, Liz was waiting at the gate and was wondering why the flight before hers hadn't left yet. A few minutes later, the gate agent came over the speaker to announce a 10-minute delay, but assured travelers that it wouldn't affect the arrival time.

United: At 3:15, the gate agent made several pleas to passengers on the Newark-bound flight to consider complimentary checking for their bags. Vikkie chuckled, knowing that the request didn't apply to her as she was flying basic economy and didn't even have the option to bring a bag into the cabin. She decided to catch up on some reading on the TPG website as she caught a glimpse of her plane for the afternoon, a pretty Boeing 737-800.

Acela: The train was supposed to leave at 3:05, but at 3:15 was still standing still. As a veteran New Jersey Transit rider, Dan wasn't fazed. The power kept cycling on and off and the conductor made an announcement about technical difficulties, but eventually they fixed it and the train starting moving at 3:20.

JetBlue: The E190 lined up on Runway 9/27 and revved up its engines, lifting off from Logan at 3:45 on the dot. After a bit of a bumpy ascent but with great views of Boston Harbor, it leveled out for the quick hop to LaGuardia.

Delta: At 3:45, the boarding process started and per usual, everyone flocked to the gate despite the fact that priority boarding was first. Liz was flying basic economy, so she refilled her water bottle one last time.

United: Boarding went fairly smoothly, and by 3:45 Vikkie was on the plane and certain she'd have an on-time departure. She was feeling a little less confident, knowing that Brendan was probably already in the air.

Acela: Dan was somewhere between Route 128 (a suburban Boston stop) and Providence. He made the rookie mistake of sitting facing the back of the train, and the backwards motion combined with the train rocking from side to side made him a bit nauseous.

JetBlue: Before he knew it, Brendan was listening to the pilot announcing that JetBlue flight 1231 would be starting its descent into the New York area. Brendan connected to the aircraft's Wi-Fi to test the service, which is free on all of the carrier's flights. It was working, albeit a bit slow. It's uncommon for a regional jet to have inflight entertainment but this bird had another feature to make it stand out from the competition, live TV! Brendan flipped through the channels and with daytime TV in full swing, watched Judge Judy dole out justice.

Delta: While Brendan was starting his descent into New York City, Liz was still in Boston and her pilot was announcing another delay because of technical issues. Thankfully, the plane was equipped with IFE, but unfortunately Liz had forgotten her compatible headphones, so she decided to charge up her phone and played a game instead. At 4:24, Liz's plane finally pushed back and took off shortly after.

United: By 4:10, Vikkie's flight was pushing back from the gate and she expected to be in the air shortly. At exactly 4:15, the captain came over the intercom and told passengers that they were being held because of air traffic. Vikkie could see her lead over Liz slowly but surely fade away. She prayed that she'd get to New York before Dan.

Acela: At this point, rolling through Rhode Island, Dan was starting to get bored. Looking around for something to distract him from the work he was supposed to be doing, he became fixated on the blue window curtains. He thought they were way classier than the plastic shades on plane windows. He couldn't remember if they had the same curtains on regular Amtrak trains. Dan began to wonder if his newfound admiration for curtain design was the development of a new hobby or just a sign of him going stir-crazy on the train.

JetBlue: A smooth landing and quick taxi got Brendan to the gate at 4:39. Since he was in Row 5 and the aircraft was half empty, he was off quickly and made it curbside to LGA's Marine Air Terminal by 4:45. Then he made a grave commuter mistake that cost him minutes of valuable time. He ordered a Lyft which took a few minutes to get to him, while a dozen yellow cabs sat waiting empty, ready to drive straight into the city. Still Brendan knew he was well ahead of the pack and hoped rush-hour traffic wouldn't crush his chances at first place.

Delta: Liz had been in the sky for only about 10 minutes when the flight attendants came around to offer drinks and snacks.

United: The flight was scheduled to depart BOS at 4:05, and after a delay Victoria was in the air. At 4:45, Vikkie stared out the window somewhere over Rhode Island and decided to just enjoy the ride. After all, there was nothing else to do. The flight attendants came around to offer orange juice and she gratefully accepted.

Acela: Somewhere between Providence and New Haven, Dan was enjoying the New England scenery flying by him — wetlands, forests and brick buildings.

JetBlue: Traffic wasn't kind to Brendan. After avoiding the Queens Midtown Tunnel bottleneck, the Lyft drove through the upper tip of Manhattan and by 5:15 his ride was nearing Midtown, but still on the FDR Highway on the East Side. By 5:20 he was making his way across 49th Street. At 5:27 his cab arrived at 30 Rockefeller Center, making Brendan the first to arrive. His impressive time, start to finish, was three hours and 12 minutes.

Delta: At 5:15 Liz's flight began its descent into NYC, just 45 minutes after takeoff.

United: Grateful for the strong inflight Wi-Fi, Vikkie decided to check out TPG's guide to using the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. She hoped that her next United flight would be booked in Polaris, using points and miles, and not in the last row of the plane in basic economy.

Acela: Dan was approaching New Haven, not too far from the Big Apple. While still admiring the Acela curtains, Dan realized that his tie matched them. He began to wonder if the tie designer was a frequent train rider or if the curtain designer was a frequent tie wearer.

JetBlue: Brendan explored 30 Rock and eventually made his way into the Saks Fifth Avenue megastore where he killed some time while the other slowpokes made their way to the finish line.

Delta: By 5:45 Liz was outside of LGA, waiting for her Uber to arrive. This time her app was working so she was able to take advantage of the Venmo discount with Uber. Liz had been at LGA the night before and had issues with multiple Ubers cancelling at Terminal B, so she was worried the same would be true for the race. She was thankful when there were no issues to report at the Terminal D pick-up spot.

United: Vikkie's flight was on the ground by 5:45 in Newark. It waited briefly for a gate assignment but she was off the plane quickly. She learned after touching down that Brendan had already gotten to 30 Rock but hoped that she could at least beat Liz.

Acela: Dan was passing through Bridgeport, Connecticut, and started to get annoyed at the people taking business calls on the train. That was probably due to his fatigue and boredom though.

JetBlue: Waiting on Liz, Vikkie and Dan.

Delta: By 6:15 Liz was just a few blocks away from 30 Rock at 49th and Park. She arrived at 6:18.

United: By 6:15, Vikkie was ensnared in traffic between Newark and the city. She decided to snap a selfie to pass the time.

Acela: At 6:15, Dan was just leaving Stamford, Connecticut — the last stop before NYC.

JetBlue: Waiting on Vikkie and Dan.

Delta: Same.

United: At 6:45, Vikkie finally arrived in the city and passed through Tribeca. At this point, Liz had arrived at 30 Rock but Vikkie still held out hope that she wouldn't come in last. She hit traffic between lower Manhattan and Midtown. Learning that Dan had arrived to Penn Station, she knew she had to pick up the pace. She asked her Uber driver to pull over and she booked it three blocks to 30 Rock. At 7:06, Vikkie arrived (out of breath).

Acela: At 6:45, Dan was passing through the Bronx — he could taste freedom. Dan got the update that Vikkie was stuck in traffic and his competitive streak set in. When the train pulled in at 6:50, Dan jockeyed for position (basic New Yorker move) and booked it to the 34th St.-Herald Square subway station, which he entered at 32nd Street and Broadway for maximum efficiency. A Queens-bound F train pulled in just as he arrived. Dan spent the five-minute, two-stop ride savoring the potential glory of third place. He sprinted out of the station and then got lost. After living in New York for seven years, you'd think he'd know how to find 30 Rock, but by the time he oriented himself and found the group, Vikkie had beaten him.

JetBlue: 1st place.

Delta: 2nd place.

United: 3rd place.

Acela: 4th place, just barely.

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Key Takeaways

JetBlue: Because of his early departure time, a short TSA PreCheck line and landing at LaGuardia's less-busy Marine Air Terminal, Brendan enjoyed a quick journey with no hiccups. Had Brendan not waited for a Lyft, taken a yellow cab and faced less traffic getting into Manhattan, he likely would have finished under three hours. However, not everyone may be as lucky, as delays are common when flying into LaGuardia.

JetBlue offered great prices, a solid onboard product with good service and landed ahead of schedule — hard to beat.

Delta: Liz's only complaints about the flight were that the Wi-Fi didn't work and it was delayed. Overall, the service was great and the short flight made the middle seat much more tolerable.

United: Flying United to Newark is a great option...if you live in New Jersey or lower Manhattan, but it's a hike to Midtown. Compared to an Uber with rush-hour traffic, mass transit would have accomplished the trip into the city in roughly the same amount of time. She did appreciate the solid service, IFE and Wi-Fi on this short flight. Even in basic economy, she had a good flying experience.

Acela: The train trip was long but mostly comfortable. The Wi-Fi and outlets worked perfectly, so Acela is a good option if you need to get work done while traveling.

Cost and Time Breakdown

JetBlue: Brendan likely got the best bang for his buck. His airfare was even cheaper than the Acela ticket, his total cost was lower than both United and Delta and he came in first place by a long shot. He could have saved even more by taking public transit from LaGuardia to Manhattan, but taking a bus to the subway would have significantly hampered his speed.

Delta: The flight times for Liz and Brendan were the same, but the different departing and arriving times, combined with the delays on Delta, made it fall behind JetBlue. For $64 more, it wasn't more convenient than JetBlue, which proved to be the fastest and most convenient, given its terminal location at LaGuardia.

United: Vikkie was fine with basic economy as this was a short flight, she had no bags and didn't mind being at the back of the plane. For a one-way ticket, the cost was acceptable. What killed her budget was the Uber from Newark, which would have been nearly $70 without a ride credit.

Acela: Dan's trip was the longest but the least expensive overall. Although Acela was the second most expensive for most of the trip, the end stations are both conveniently located and Dan was able to save a ton of money by walking from the starting point and taking public transit to the finish.

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JetBlue: JetBlue did have free live TV, but the screens were really showing their age. However, it was great to have free Wi-Fi that actually worked, considering how short the flight was. The snacks and drinks were an added plus.

Delta: Liz really appreciated the charging ports aboard Delta and would have enjoyed the IFE much more had she brought the proper headphones, but she had forgotten that the latest iPhone headphones won't work on airplanes. Personal TVs are great... unless you can't listen to them. The soda and snacks were standard but nice, considering they're not always offered on short flights.

United: Vikkie enjoyed the Wi-Fi and IFE. For such a short flight, she didn't use the IFE but she was able to get work done and Slack her fellow racers and other TPG colleagues.

Acela: Dan didn't get any free snacks or drinks, which would have been nice on the long train ride, but the Wi-Fi and charging stations made for a convenient and pleasant ride.

Bottom Line

While all of these routes were relatively affordable for the business traveler, we wanted to focus on which was the fastest and that proved to be JetBlue. However, had the other flights operated on schedule and had there been less idle time at the airport, the results could have been much closer. American Airlines also flies from Boston to New York, but we didn't include them in on the race because the departure times didn't line up with our timeline.

There were pros and cons to each mode of transit, so it's important to consider what's most valuable to you — speed, productivity, price or comfort. And don't forget to factor in any extra travel time depending on where you begin and end your journey. Another factor that could impact your travel is the weather although this is a bit out of everyones control. On the day of our race, we got lucky with clear blue skies, which isn't always the case — especially for Boston.

We hope you enjoy this race, follow TPG for future exciting races, and let us know what you thought of our race from Boston to NYC!

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Feature photo by Denis Tangney Jr/Getty Images.

Tables created by Orli Friedman.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto