If you’re flying into JFK Airport and looking to get to Manhattan by rail, you have two options. You can take the cheaper route by using the subway, or the faster one by taking the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). While taking a taxi, Uber or Lyft is also an option, it can be quite expensive, with fares ranging from $60 to $100. So unless you’re willing to pay a premium, I’d recommend avoiding those options.
To get to either the subway or LIRR from JFK, you’ll first need to take the AirTrain (that’s the train that will take you from terminal to terminal, to rental cars kiosks, parking lots and the train/sunway stations). If you want to take the LIRR, you have to take the train going to Jamaica Station, so make up your mind which service you want to use before getting on the AirTrain.
What are the differences between the two services?
Faster Option (Long Island Railroad – LIRR)
The LIRR travels from Jamaica Station to Penn Station and now also to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The LIRR offers both direct trains and those with a few stops along the way, with the entire trip taking around 25 minutes. The LIRR sells a CityTicket that costs $5 for off-peak hours and $7 for peak hours, making it an affordable choice for many travelers. You can purchase a CityTicket at a ticket office, ticket machine, or on the MTA TrainTime app on your phone.
Trains run regularly between Jamaica Station and both Penn Station and Grand Central Station, so you won’t have to wait long to catch your ride. Once on board, you’ll find rows of seats, usually three across, and an LIRR employee will collect tickets from passengers during the ride.
This isn’t a fancy train like the Brightline in South Florida. Its goal is to get you from point A to point B in the quickest way possible. It’s “just a train,” with so special services onboard.
Once at Penn Station or Grand Central Station, you can get a taxi, Uber or Lyft to your destination or connect to a subway (which will cost you extra, as the two services aren’t linked).
While the LIRR is no doubt the faster way to get to Manhattan from JFK, there is a cheaper way. The New York Subway.
I’ve detailed how to get to the subway from the AirTrain at Jamaica Station. The current fare for any subway ride is $2.90, while the fare for the AirTrain is $8.25. You can pay for the subway using an OMNY Card or contactless payments, but for the AirTrain, you’ll still need a MetroCard. Even if you’ve used up the fare, keep the Metrocard as getting a new one will cost you $1.
If you want to travel to Manhattan via the subway, the E train is the main way to get there. The train departs from Jamaica Station and makes its way through Queens before entering Manhattan at around 53rd Street. Along the way, it passes through Grand Central Station and then heads downtown along 8th Avenue. You’ll go by 42nd St/Times Square and Penn Station, before ultimately reaching the final stop at the World Trade Center. Depending on your destination in Manhattan, the ride takes at least 1 hour, sometimes closer to 90 minutes.
There are stations where you can connect/transfer to other subway lines, making it possible to get to other areas of New York for the same $2.90 fare.
While riding the subway may be exciting for a first-time visitor to New York, it’s not the easiest system to navigate. Having an app like Google Maps, which provides information on which subway to take and how many stops until your destination, makes things much easier. There are also now electronic signs at the stations telling you when a train is due to arrive, unlike when I was younger and you just needed to stand there wondering when, if ever, would the train you needed appear from the tunnel.
Subway trains, unlike the LIRR, have a single bench seat lining the walls. The rest of the space is standing room only. For a normal commuter, this is fine but if you’re traveling with luggage this can become a challenge to keep everything together when the train starts to get crowded. Subway drivers can also have a heavy hand on the throttle and brake, making standing a challenge to all but the most experienced subway passengers.
Also, many subway stations require you to walk up several sets of stairs to get to street level (only about 20% of NYC’s subway stations have elevators, and even when they do, they don’t always work). This is another problem when traveling with luggage.
So, I’ll say that the LIRR besides being faster, is also the easier of the two to use.
For me, I’ll usually take the LIRR when going from JFK to Manhattan. With the introduction of CityTicket, the price difference between the two services isn’t that much. It’s a quick car ride from Penn Station or Grand Central to most locations in midtown so we’ll take an UBER or Lyft to our hotel.
If you’re going to other areas of Manhattan, taking the subway may be a reasonable option and there are cost savings to consider. However, think about this before making your decision. A trip to New York City isn’t cheap. Is your trip from the airport to the city really the place where you want to save a few bucks? I’ve learned that while it’s good to be cheap and frugal when traveling, you need to be smart about it. If you want to ride the subway just to say you rode it, maybe the trip from the airport isn’t the place to cross that thing off of your to-do list.
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