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.

 

 

Not a Train: Taking Greyhound NYC to Montreal

Take the bus to Montreal. It’s direct, it’s frequent, and it can be done last-minute. While riding the Jazz Train is still on my bucket list, we headed up to Montreal over the Fourth of July long weekend by Greyhound, which was relatively efficient and a great deal. Here are the details:

Trip time: 8-9 hours
Cost: $120 round-trip ($60 if companion fare LINK)
Amenities: Wi-Fi, Power Outlet, seat with Paola (wife)

On the weekend we chose, July 1-4, the once-daily 10-hour Penn Station-Montreal Amtrak route, roughly $150 round-trip, was already sold out. Holiday weekend, it figures.

Greyhound it was, and it wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d expect for 8 hours in a vehicle, definitely an improvement over a car, since Montreal is more of a biking, walking, and transit city where I’d rather not search for parking. Here are the details:

Route

Greyhound has 12 daily departures direct to Montreal from NYC, roughly on an hourly basis. We chose the 11pm departure, which arrived late at roughly 8am.

On the return trip to New York there are 13 daily departures on a Sunday, with most buses either before 9am (for daytime arrivals) or after 9pm (for overnight, arriving in the early morning). We chose the lone 5:15pm bus, arriving at 1am.

Departure

Port Authority is one of my least favorite places in New York City, but I will begrudgingly admit that it is convenient. Its dungeon-like bus loading areas enter and exit directly into the Lincoln Tunnel, saving time in traffic.

On this particular evening, which was Friday, July 1, i.e. Canada Day, we were roughly 45 people back when we arrived at 10:15, 45 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. As we waited the line behind us doubled, and then wrapped around the back wall and tripled. Amazing. There were about 150 people in line for Montreal.

Luckily, we caught a seat on the first bus after a lengthy process in which a Greyhound attendant checked each and every passenger’s passport and travel documents and stamped their ticket. He informed me that the bus company is fined thousands of dollars for each infraction at the border, so they carry out this a pre-departure check.

Trip

Paola bought us those funny travel neck pillows that everyone has these days, only ours were made of memory foam and fleece-lined. Bus seats aren’t the most comfortable, but they’re bearable if you can lean or sleep on your fellow passenger and have some neck support.

We stopped briefly in Albany at 2am to refuel, which was announced in advance, and I felt we had stepped back in time to the 1980s. Everyone filed off the bus, waited in the fluorescent glow of the bus terminal, and then filed back on.

At 5am, we reached the Canadian border. Little did we know, we would spend the next two hours there waiting to go through customs. Three customs agents in a little shack processing bus after bus of travelers, 50 passengers at a time. As the sun came up we waited, and waited. It took an hour and a half in line and then 30 minutes to get through at the border, after unloading all of our belongings and taking them inside.

Arrival

The Gare d’Autocars sounds classy in the way that French can when you don’t speak it. It’s right next to downtown Montreal and on top of the Berri-UQAM station, which is the central node in Montreal’s subway station. It’s clean, light-filled, new and easy to reach from anywhere.

Departure from Montreal

Given the pergatory-like feeling you get in Port Authority, it’s never too fun to arrive early for a bus. Montreal’s station is light, clean, has amusement park-like line dividers, and is a pleasant experience. We arrived 30 minutes early for our 5:15pm departure and were in an even better position than we had departing New York. A quick document check and we were off, together with a dozen choice Canadian craft beers from Dieu du Ciel as souvenirs.

Return to New York

Believe it or not, the return trip only lasted 8 hours. We arrived at the US-Canada border and the new and well-staffed Customs and Border Patrol post processed us quickly and efficiently with 5 agents on staff and others standing by. We were asked to leave everything on the bus, which probably saved us another 10 minutes at the border.

If border crossing was a hockey match, Team USA won this one.

Our preoccupied bus driver, hoping to make it home to catch his last train home, brought us safe and sound into Port Authority at 1am, 45 minutes ahead of schedule. This left us enough time to rush home and get a normal night of sleep before work on Tuesday morning.