Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.

Costs

Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.

Conclusion

Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.

Transcending time in a New York cab

It’s 4:20 in the morning and I can see the stars. This is a bit glamorous, I think as I flag down a taxi on a nearly deserted Third Avenue below our apartment.

I have had plenty of early morning flights, but this will be my first pre-dawn departure since moving to Manhattan over three years ago. I imagine the Chrysler Building winking down on me from further uptown, sprinkling me with moonlight New Yorkiness for being hip enough to be up at this hour.

The night before, I imagined in my mind’s eye recapturing a few minutes of lost sleep as the taxi took me to the airport at the speed of Robert Moses’s dreams, 1960s-era highway speed. That was a dream.

Back in reality, something is wrong: we are headed downtown. LaGuardia Airport is uptown or over, being that it’s in Queens. We are heading south, though the driver seems totally certain of it.

After second-guessing myself several times, I finally ask, “Why are we headed downtown?” The driver responds, “This is super secret shortcut, we take the Williamsburg Bridge. This saves twenty minutes.” Trusty Google Maps said the entire trip would be 23 minutes.

My thoughts are the only other vehicles on the road. Indignation: This guy has no idea where he’s going. Doubt: Don’t second-guess a cab driver. He’s a professional. Self-doubt: Am I too nice? Is this how Canadians feel? Resignation: I’m stuck here, just relax. You planned for spare time.

At this point we have crossed the East Village, turned left onto Houston Street and are now ascending the Williamsburg Bridge. The driver assures me this is a shortcut once again as he accelerates. As if to prove himself right, he keeps his foot on the gas well past the 45-mph speed limit: 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 72.

Our presence expands to two bridge lanes as we challenge the laws of thermodynamics. New York drivers “take the lane”. This is normal, right?

Wrong. Suddenly, honking as we’re passed in our right-hand lane. My brain turns on and activates its next emotion: Fear.

We are a pinball sent ricocheting up the expressway. The concrete retaining walls guide our path. I hope he’s better at pinball than I am.

I am sure the driver will activate the Flux Capacitor and my wristwatch will start running in reverse.

Moments later I check my phone: He’s done it, he has transcended time. The last hour has actually only been 15 minutes.

We continue to exist in two lanes, for stability, I assume, as I gird myself for takeoff. Hours or minutes pass. Not soon enough we angle off towards the airport and promptly pull up at the wrong gate.

Screech.

Wait, this guy doesn’t know directions? He knows the super secret shortcut. He has the flux capacitor. Reality begins to creep in, though it’s still black as night outside the window.

We make the rounds of the entire airport to circle back around to the proper gate at a reasonable pace. It’s 4:50am. The light of day has still not shown on any of this adventure.

Quick escapes from New York City by bus

There’s nothing quite like stepping off the bus onto the street of a new city on a Friday night to face its new sights, sounds, and smells.

We like to get out of New York for the weekend from time to time, and the cheaper and quicker we can do it, the more time and money we have left to spend on food, sights, and the next weekend getaway. That’s why we often travel by bus. The bus has had a renaissance as of late, with cheaper tickets and more competition leading to a virtuous cycle of more and better service.

I have to say, I like the train, when it’s convenient and we can afford it, though the bus station is often similarly located and less expensive, with a wider variety of destinations.

Considerations

In order to maximize our vacation time, our primary considerations for any mode are:

  • Trip time. We like to take trips that can be completed in a few hours, so that we can depart after work and arrive with some time to enjoy the evening.
  • Stops. If we can find a nonstop, that’s the best, though sometimes having an extra stop can work in your favor, e.g. on our way up to Syracuse, the 3:45pm bus always stops at Syracuse University, which saves time getting to our final destination.
  • Connections. We avoid connections if at all possible, since it’s one more thing to coordinate that could go wrong.
  • Local transit. The best destinations are either walkable or connected to public transit when you arrive. Luckily, we live in the Northeast, where the larger cities have both. If we have to rent a car upon arrival, we don’t travel by bus, we leave by car.
  • Cost. Generally, we like to pay $20-30 each way, per person. Any more and it’s something we feel the need to plan out and schedule instead of a spur-of-the-moment decision.
  • Reliability. Good transit has backup when something goes wrong. That’s why we tend to take Greyhound, which has spare drivers and buses, instead of Megabus or the Chinatown bus, which do not.

Destinations

Given these considerations, we always return to a handful of places:

  • Philadelphia (2 hrs, $10-15). Great food and beer, cheap hotels, tons of history, and the closest big city to New York.
  • Washington, DC (4.5 hrs, $15-25). Amazing free museums and monuments, cheap hotels over holiday weekends, good food, beautiful neighborhoods, slightly better weather.
  • Syracuse, NY (5-6 hrs, $35-45). Great food, nature, and good people. My parents and a number of friends live here, though you really need a car or a bicycle, depending on the weather, to enjoy it fully.
  • Boston (4.5-5 hrs, $25). Walkable downtown, tons of Revolutionary War-era history though different than Philadelphia, beautiful university campuses and neighborhoods. Slightly harder to find a hotel, from what I recall.
  • Montreal (8-9 hrs, $60). Feels like you’re in another country because you are, interesting food (poutine), Canada’s curious use of the 20-oz imperial pint when serving beer, tons of arts and culture including weekly festivals during the summer months. No other city I know enjoys their short summer months more than Montreal. This also happens to be the longest direct bus that you can take from New York.

This is just an overview. I’ll be taking on each of these destinations in the future (as well as a return to Montreal).

Good luck planning your next escape from New York. Let me know your favorite destinations in the comments.

 

 

New York State Campgrounds and the Adirondacks

Camping at a New York State campground is a balance between nature and comfort at an attractive price point. You can reserve and research online, though until you’re there, you’re not quite sure what you’ll get.

We had a lot of questions and everything turned out fine, so this is my effort to share what we learned to help others plan or prepare their first trip.

Location

Over the July 4th weekend we went up to the Adirondacks with some friends and booked several nights. Our criteria was to find a site near Old Forge and Blue Mountain Lake that had boat rentals and swimming. This placed us near the towns and hikes that I remember from my years as a Scout. Old Forge in particular stood out in my mind for its lake, ice cream parlor, and vintage movie theater.

Out of a half dozen options we chose Limekiln Lake. It was one of the only sites with space on such a popular weekend and turned out to be an excellent choice.

That’s not to say that we had a short list of options. New York State has dozens of campgrounds with tent, RV, cabin and “rustic cabin” sites. There are roughly 40 in the Adirondacks alone. NYS Parks manages all the sites except those in the Adirondacks and Catskills, which are managed by New York State DEP.

Reservation

Sites are reserved through this third-party site called ReserveAmerica. They charge you $10 per reservation and in our case you could only book one site at a time. The interface displays the essentials: price, availability, map of sites, and booking limitations. It even has an option called “Camping This Weekend” which shows you availability for a quick weekend getaway. Prices are around $20/night for tent camping and $80-100/night for cabins with a big weekly discount. There’s a PDF guide to NYS campgrounds that goes into more detail.

When reserving, it’s good to know the booking window. For all the New York City-area parks out on Long Island, the summer weekends book up months in advance, probably right when they become available. For DEC campgrounds, bookings start 9 months in advance. Elsewhere in the state there is usually no problem with availability unless it’s Memorial or Labor Day Weekend.

One thing we hadn’t considered when looking at the website that the campsites are not all uniform in size. Some are nicer than others, and by the time we reserved, all the ones with lakefront views were taken. Calling the landline of the campsite ahead and talking to the park rangers would have given us some insight into which ones to choose.

Campsite

Regardless of our choice, which included a neighboring swamp, the sites are nice and kept clean and dry. The surface is sandy soil, which helps with drainage. Each site includes:

  • Space to park one or two cars
  • Space for two tents
  • Picnic table
  • Grill and fire area
  • Tree cover
  • Bear lockers*

*Bear lockers are bomb-proof metal boxes large enough for several coolers and cooking supplies. Bears are wild animals and being in contact with humans and human sources of food causes them to become dependent. This makes them more likely to have to be put down for threatening humans or even to be accidentally hit by a vehicle. Thus, these lockers protect both humans and bears by discouraging the animals from finding human food.

Each site is also within walking distance of:

  • Flush toilets
  • Clean running water

As someone who has done plenty of camping in the woods, it’s nice to spend a weekend in a tent and not have to cut your fingernails to get the dirt out. Access to running water for cooking and cleaning is why. These aren’t the world’s best toilets, but they’re clean, well-lit, and have running water to wash your hands.

Each site is within driving distance or a long walk of:

  • Showers
  • Beach and boat rentals
  • Trash and recycling facility with warm running water

As much as I wish you could get around these campsites solely by walking like a true mountain man, a desire to keep things private and surrounded by trees makes it impractical to fit everything in one small space. A car is often needed to get from the gate to your site and usually from your site to any of the camp’s shared facilities.

Having a big trash facility with recycling for propane canisters, beer bottles, cans, and big sinks for washing dishes was the best surprise of the trip. I’m used to heating water and painstakingly rinsing dishes in tubs. Being able to use soap and warm water made things feel more like home.

Activities

This is where the Adirondacks really excel when compared to other camping areas. At Limekiln Lake, which was way larger than expected, there are:

  • boat rentals
  • swimming
  • hiking trails

Curfew is at 10pm and things get really quiet, still enough to listen to the loons on the lake. Since you’re in the Adirondacks, there is no ambient light and you have a great view of the night sky. It’s a perfect antidote to spending too much time in the city.

Within 15-30 minutes driving, there are:

  • picturesque little towns with ice cream stands, shopping, and summer treats
  • small grocery and hardware stores
  • easy day hikes, we went up Bald Mountain, for example (see photos below)
  • the Adirondack Museum
  • dining and a vintage movie theater

There aren’t many other places in the country with the same mix of wilderness, modern comforts, e.g. running water and toilets, and small town amenities.

Conclusion

In short, you’ll find what you’re looking for, if what you’re looking for is nature and small-town charm.

Here’s the best part:

No cellphone service

It’s vacationing like our mid-20th century forefathers would have experienced.

If you’re looking for a “digital detox”, you won’t really have a choice. Where we were, we had to drive nearly 20 miles to Old Forge, the biggest nearby town before we could make a cellphone call or use the internet.

Hope you remember how to use a payphone!

Weekend Getaway to Storm King Art Center

Imagine you could book a semi-organized day trip outside New York without getting in a car or bus. Well, you can, with Metro-North Getaways, which offer round-trip on the train and discount museum and event tickets. We’ve been big fans of the Metro-North option for some time, having done the Farm Fresh tours twice, Dia:Beacon, and an impromptu trip to Peekskill.

We’ve been watching Master of None on Netflix and it reminded us that we really needed to get back Upstate to visit Storm King. This giant sculpture garden set in the Hudson Valley is even more impressive than what you’ve seen on film. It’s expansive, majestic, pastoral, and it made one of the most beautiful sunny day escapes from NYC we’ve had to-date.

Getting There

Metro-North to Beacon is 10 miles from Storm King across the Hudson. It takes around 1.5 hours. Normally it’s $33 round-trip off-peak and the Storm King ticket is $18. Through Getaways, it’s $40.50 for both (saving $10). If you leave on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll be on a packed train with day hikers heading to Garrison, Breakneck Ridge, and the surrounding area, which are all in the vicinity of Beacon. It’s a cool vibe. Get there early to get a good seat or just head towards the front two cars of the train. If it’s your thing, you can drink coffee, beer, or eat on the train as well. Picnic!

Once you arrive at Beacon, check out the town (see my post for some ideas). You can check out the beautiful Dia:Beacon modern art museum which is in a former factory and also makes use of the light and shadow of the Hudson Valley to accentuate its artwork. Call a cab or use a ride-hailing app, which are newly legal in Upstate New York. Ours took 20 minutes to arrive and it was around a 25-minute, $25 ride. We had no problem finding a cab in both directions, as it’s a popular destination for day-trippers. It’s also not far from Stewart Airport, which just started offering cut-rate flights to Europe on Norwegian (see link).

Getting Around

Storm King is huge, so you can walk, rent a bike on-site, or take their tour tram. We took the tram, got off on the far end, and walked back. It took quite a while to see everything, when we return we’d leave at least 3 hours to see it all. Fridays and Saturdays in the summer they’re open until 8pm, while they close at 5:30 on Sunday.

It’s really worth seeing rather than explaining, so the rest of this post is photos.