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Planes, Trains and a Bus: We Raced From NYC to DC to Find Which Was Fastest

May 14, 2019
17 min read
10 Things Nobody Tells You About Washington DC.
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Everyone has their preferred method of transit for the ~220 mile journey between New York City and Washington, DC. With a plethora of options including multiple hourly flight departures, 24/7 trains, and lots of buses, many business and leisure travelers often debate which option is the fastest, most affordable and provides the best "bang for your buck."

TPG decided to answer just those questions. We chose five different travel methods for our race, held Monday, May 13: a 7am Amtrak Acela, a 7:05am Amtrak Northeast Regional, an 8am American shuttle from La Guardia to Reagan National, a 7:59am Delta shuttle on the same LGA-DCA route, and finally, the 7am Megabus. We strategically chose to start our race at the southeast corner of Central Park and end at the White House so that no one had a geographical competitive advantage.

My fellow competitors were TPG staffers Brendan Dorsey, Danielle Vito, Jessica Puckett and Scott Mayerowitz. At 6am, all five of us met to begin the race to the White House. What follows is our tale of Monday morning's adventures.

Amtrak Acela: As one of the first scheduled departures, Danielle knew she needed to dash right from the start. Danielle hopped in a Lyft and headed down to NYC’s "glorious" Penn Station. She arrived at the Amtrak terminal at 6:20am with enough time to grab an iced coffee.

Amtrak NE Regional: With competitors on the Acela and shuttle flights, Zach knew he wasn’t going to win this race by taking the Northeast Regional. What he wanted, however, was to show that he wouldn’t be that much slower than the speedier options, while saving a bunch of money. So he chose the cheapest option -- the subway -- to get to Penn Station ahead of his 7:05am train.

American Shuttle: Scott was booked on the 8am American shuttle. Given the 6am start, his initial game plan was to go standby on the 7am shuttle. It would be tight but doable, and there was plenty of space available. Then he could enjoy a leisurely breakfast in DC while all the other racers slogged through their journeys. But a crew left out of place first pushed that flight back to 9am and then led to an overnight cancellation. It wasn’t meant to be.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica dashed to her Lyft and headed to Delta Terminal C. It wasn’t quite rush hour yet, and the Lyft app was predicting she’d be at LGA by 6:38am for her flight departing at 7:59am.

Megabus: Since Brendan was taking the 7am Megabus, it only made sense to stick to public transit to minimize his trip cost. Brendan headed to the 5th Avenue N/Q/R train stop and rode the subway to his starting point: 34th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues.

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Amtrak Acela: Danielle noticed a long line forming outside Track 13/14 West. While the track hadn't officially been announced yet, she suspected and confirmed that the line was for the Acela train to DC. Danielle joined the end of the line and boarded shortly after, at 6:53am.

Amtrak NE Regional: Even after missing the first subway, it only took Zach 21 minutes to get to Penn Station. During his 27-minute wait to board the train, he contemplated whether there were longer lines at Starbucks or at the Amtrak boarding gates.

American Shuttle: There was no problem getting a yellow cab at that hour and the ride to LaGuardia took just 18 minutes. If the 7am shuttle had been operating, it would have been no contest. Instead, Scott had breakfast at the American Express Centurion Lounge thanks to his Platinum Card® from American Express.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica got dropped off at LGA even earlier than expected. The TSA PreCheck line at Terminal C was short, and by 6:38am Jessica had cleared security and was on her way to the gate.

Megabus: After a train transfer at Times Square, Brendan disembarked at the 7 subway line's Hudson Yards station. With some time to kill, he headed to a nearby bagel spot and dropped $10 on an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese and an orange juice.

Amtrak Acela: The train departed on time at 7am, which made Danielle the first one on her way to DC. She quickly connected to Wi-Fi and found it decent enough for her to be productive for the ~3 hour journey.

Amtrak NE Regional: Zach learned something new today: Gate lice are not just confined to the airport. After skipping the insane Starbucks line, Zach made his way to the Amtrak boarding area. He was shocked to see a long line of people waiting to board well before the track of his train was even posted.

American Shuttle: Scott's Centurion lounge experience matched that of previous visits. There wasn't anything amazing being served for breakfast, but it was certainly better than what would have been offered in the AA Admirals Club.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica stopped for breakfast in the concourse. The bland oatmeal, weak coffee and bottle of San Pellegrino were not worth the $24 tab. She then proceeded to reevaluate her credit-card strategy, since she could have accessed the Delta SkyClub had she been a cardholder of the Platinum Card® from American Express or the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express.

Megabus: With bagel in hand, TPG's sacrificial lamb braved the misery that is the far west side of midtown Manhattan, not to mention a cold and wet day only made worse by a mild wind chill. A line of about 50 people waited for eight minutes until the bus showed up to whisk off its passengers. By 7:13am, it had pulled out and started its journey towards DC.

Amtrak Acela: While the airplane people were busy with airport lines and boarding, Danielle was settled in and worked on uploading the DC race updates to the TPG Instagram story. (If you missed out on watching this epic race unfold live on Instagram, you should give us a follow so you don’t miss out on other fun adventures!)

Amtrak NE Regional: By this point, things were going smoothly. Zach had boarded an Amtrak car with newly upholstered seats and even had an empty seat next to him. It was clear that many business passengers chose the 7am Acela and the overflow ended up on Zach’s train.

American Shuttle: The TVs in the Centurion lounge that livesteam the TSA security lines weren't working on Monday, which turned out to be an issue. Scott left the lounge at 7:10am only to find a giant line for TSA PreCheck. He cleared security at 7:30am, just as boarding was starting for the shuttle flight to DC.

Delta Shuttle: Boarding for Jessica’s flight started right on time, and before long, she was luxuriating on board the Delta Embraer E-170 in first class (which does not, by the way, grant access to Delta lounges on domestic flights.)

Megabus: Brendan was chowing down his bagel and, at this point, was just nearing Newark.

Amtrak Acela: Danielle relaxed in her business class seat as she tracked the American and Delta flights. The Acela train was just pulling into Philadelphia's 30th Street station as the flights started taxiing to the runway.

Amtrak NE Regional: Despite the early hour, work was just picking up. Zach connected to the Wi-Fi network but was disappointed to find it continually disconnecting. He switched to tethering from his phone, and when that didn’t work either, decided to catch up on some shut-eye.

American Shuttle: In typical American Airlines fashion, the door closed a few minutes early. After some alleyway congestion cleared, Scott’s jet started the slow taxi to Runway 13. Out the window, Scott could see Jessica’s plane, two ahead of him for takeoff. By 8:28am, he was airborne and starting to make up some of the distance that the Amtrak and Megabus travelers had already covered.

Delta Shuttle: The flight pushed back from the gate at 8am on the dot, but there was a line on the taxiway to get to the runway, and the plane didn't get airborne until 8:24am.

Megabus: After settling in, Brendan was pleasantly surprised with the Megabus. Maybe because it was still quite early or because New Yorkers had somehow become more courteous, the bus was incredibly quiet which made it easy to doze off. He also didn't have anyone sitting next to him so he could stretch his legs.

Amtrak Acela: Danielle decided to check out the Café Car. She didn’t want to eat anything too heavy, so she went with a cheese plate. “It’s never too early for cheese,” she reassured herself.

Amtrak NE Regional: After dozing off a bit, Zach woke up in his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia. Unfortunately the train was too early for a quick Zahav pit stop, but he promised he’d be back soon.

American Shuttle: It was a bumpy flight. The Embraer E-190 hovered just above the clouds. The Wi-Fi was slow and no drinks were served given the turbulence.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica’s flight reached cruising altitude and shortly thereafter flight attendants began serving the first class drink service. She ordered a Bloody Mary and felt a (brief) pang of guilt for her coworkers on trains and buses.

Megabus: Nap time! Anticipating the long journey, Brendan packed a few tools, like an eye mask and neck pillow, to make the ride a little more comfortable. Can you say economy chic?

Amtrak Acela: When not working the TPG Instagram feed, Danielle enjoyed the Medium cheddar, Vermont sharp white cheddar and two Babybel cheeses served with crackers.

Amtrak NE Regional: After dreaming of a meal at Zahav in Philadelphia, it was time for breakfast. The Amtrak Café Car selections weren't great. Zach hated the microwaved bagel, munched on the average fruit bowl and enjoyed the caffeinated hot tea.

American Shuttle: The 54 minutes in the air were uneventful, but not the most productive. Scott had very little time to have his laptop out, and sending or receiving even the shortest email was painfully slow.

Delta Shuttle: The flight crew announced that due to technical difficulties, the onboard Wi-Fi would not be functioning, which meant that Jessica wasn't getting any work done on her flight. Time to order another Bloody Mary.

Megabus: Brendan tried out the Wi-Fi — speeds were so slow it was practically useless.

Amtrak Acela: At 9:25am, the Acela pulled into Baltimore's Penn Station. Danielle had a great head start, but her lead quickly shortened when the flights touched down at DCA while she was still 30 minutes away from DC. She started praying to the traffic gods that Scott and Jessica would get stuck in some rainy-day rush hour traffic. This was going to be close.

Amtrak NE Regional: At this point, the Northeast Regional was only a few miles from Baltimore. Zach had conceded the race though, as he had received word that Jessica and Scott had just touched down at DCA.

American Shuttle: The American shuttle touched down at 9:22am, just a few minutes behind the Delta shuttle. A quick taxi to Gate 33, and Scott was in the terminal by 9:28am. With the tail end of the rainy rush hour traffic still jamming some of Washington’s streets, Scott chose public transit for the last segment of his journey to the White House. Just four minutes after leaving the plane, he was on the Metro platform; four minutes later, he was on board a Blue Line train with plans to sprint – ok, walk really fast – from the Farragut West station to the White House.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica’s flight landed at DCA at 9:15am, making her the first of the TPG crew to arrive in DC. After a brief wait for a gate assignment, the plane pulled into the gate and Jessica deplaned triumphantly. Jessica tried to call a Lyft but after much confusion couldn't find her driver at the designated car services pickup spot. She decided to ditch the car apps and wait in the taxi line, even though it was long. She felt her lead in the race slipping through her fingers.

Megabus: Brendan was now about halfway through his journey, snapping a pic from the interstate in Port Deposit, Maryland.

Amtrak Acela: At exactly 10am, the Acela train pulled up to Union Station. Danielle called an Uber so it would be waiting outside by the time she made it out of the station. When she got into her Uber at 10:03am, however, she was defeated to see a photo of one of the other racers already in front of the White House.

Amtrak NE Regional: They call this the final approach: only a few miles left in the journey. Unfortunately, this was when the train came to a halt. The conductor got on the PA and explained that there were no tracks available in Union Station, so the train would need to hold 10 minutes before continuing.

American Shuttle: The 19-minute Metro ride had no hiccups and Scott sped into the lead. A quick walk around the corner and at 9:56am – less than four hours after leaving Central Park – Scott was snapping a selfie in front of the White House.

Delta Shuttle: Jessica finally got in a cab and headed toward the White House. According to Google Maps, the drive should have taken 20 minutes. At 10:06am, Jessica finally arrived at the White House and snapped her second-place selfie.

Megabus: The Megabus was approaching Baltimore and Brendan was finding his initial dread misplaced. No traffic and a quiet and clean bus made for a smooth ride. The bus paused in White Marsh, MD for its first and only stop to let off passengers. After seven minutes in the parking lot, the blue behemoth made its way back to I-95.

Amtrak Acela: Danielle jumped out of the Uber at 10:17am and strolled over to the White House, recognizing that fourth place was at least 30 minutes behind her. She clocked in at 10:20am, giving her third place in the race.

Amtrak NE Regional: Zach arrived at Union Station at 10:33am, hopped onto the Red Metro line, and walked the last few minutes to the White House, where he arrived in fourth place at 10:59am.

American & Delta Shuttles: Scott and Jessica were already inside, warming up and catching up on emails.

Megabus: Brendan broke out an old amenity kit from when he had flown Tap Portugal business class a few months ago, hoping to elevate his experience.

Megabus: Brendan discovered Megabus’ surprisingly robust IBE (in-bus entertainment) which streamed two dozen movies and TV shows straight to his phone in HD quality without any hiccups. Unfortunately, a faint but putrid smell started to waft throughout the cabin. Brendan knew he wouldn’t be getting out of this trip unscathed. At 11:32am, the Megabus pulled into Washington DC’s Union Station.

Wanting to at least win on the fun factor, Brendan took a brisk 10-minute walk to find a dockless Lime Scooter. After a 13-minute scooter ride covering a mile and a half that cost just $2.95, Brendan parked his scooter a block from the White House. Six hours after departing Central Park and with $27 less in his wallet, Brendan snapped his selfie in front of the White House at 11:59am.

Everyone Else: Counting their blessings that they weren't assigned the Megabus.

Key Takeaways

Train: While the trains were slower than the flights, they afforded a nice long, uninterrupted block of time to work or relax. Trains are generally much more reliable than flights, as they aren't subject to air-traffic delays. If you aren't pressed for time, you can even score a deal on the Northeast Regional by booking a few weeks out.

Plane: Flying in the morning was the fastest option, even without going standby for an earlier flight. Traffic was light in New York and the morning rain turned out to be a non-issue. There were no air traffic control delays or ground stops. But it was not the most productive way to travel. Between the taxi, the airport lounge, security, waiting for takeoff and landing, the plane travelers were working in a series of short bursts.

Bus: Arriving two hours after the first place winner but only an hour after fourth place, the bus traveler felt it wasn't such a horrible option considering the cost and what was overall a peaceful journey. If you aren't in a hurry, can avoid rush hour traffic and prefer to save some money, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend taking the bus.

Cost & Time Breakdown


Overall Thoughts

Although the winners panned out exactly as one would have predicted based on scheduled arrival times, your transportation method of choice shouldn't be as clear-cut as our race winners. Air traffic delays tend to grow throughout the day, slowing down the plane journey. In fact, there was a 39-minute ground delay at LGA when we departed DC at 2pm, making the train journey faster in the reverse direction.

You'll also want to consider your options relative to where you live. The train-plane-bus calculus (well, really the train-plane equation) shifts depending on the starting and ending location. Live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the train has an edge. Live on the East Side or Queens or some of the suburbs, and flying begins to make more sense.

Regardless of which option you choose, make sure to follow TPG for future exciting races, and let us know what you thought of our race to DC!

Tables created by Orli Friedman

Featured image by Photo by uschools / 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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