It’s about that time again for a vacation. I realized that I never took a formal vacation in 2018. Although I did take a business trip to Atlanta and did the required two Summer and Winter jaunts to the Owens Valley, I didn’t an actual vacation. So I vowed to take one. To my chagrin, my U.S. passport expired in January (with only two countries visited, and one of them was just Canada), so this trip will have to be another domestic one.
For the past few half decade, my usual travel destination was New York City, mainly to visit my (then-) baby niece. Since she’s turning five, it’s another visit during an odd-numbered year to NYC, but since I’m King of The Sidetrip, where I need to visit someplace new, this vacation will also include the city of Pittsburgh, PA.
Now, I have been to NYC seven times — in 1991, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2014, 2015 and 2017. All of those visits, save for 2003 (where I flew into Providence, RI and visited NYC via car) and 2014 (where I took a cross-county, 3-day, 2-train Amtrak trip by rail) involved flying into Newark Liberty International Airport. It just seemed logical to fly into an airport where you can see the NYC skyline, plus JFK seemed so far away looking at a map. But this time, I just wanted a different experience, so JFK was it.
Also, in my 2017, 2015 visits and 2014 flight home, I’ve flown Virgin America, LED lighting and in-flight safety video and all. But due to Alaska Airlines’ acquisition of Virgin, and because I have some semblance of frequent flyer mileage with them, I flew Alaska.
It’s Time To Fly
Being someone who doesn’t fly too much, I’m not as jaded about flying as most people are. I always think of flying in an airplane as a special event. I was able to get to LAX Terminal 6 two hours before flight time and had a lunch/dinner at The Habit’s in-terminal location, feasting on an Ahi Tuna burger and some sweet potato fries (not bad, actually, and not as expensive as I thought).
That gave me time for a brief wait to board Flight 468 to JFK. The actual flight was okay, save for a few things:
- Due to my Saver fare, I had to settle for the middle seat.
- This was a Boeing 737 and not an Airbus A320, thus a noisier ride and no video screens. 🙁
- Because of no video screens, no more Virgin America safety video, or any safety video for that matter. Also, no flight tracker. None of that.
- I had to settle for a very expensive ($39.95) Gogo in-flight internet. Which wasn’t very fast, and wouldn’t allow any streaming. Bleah.
- They served me a ginger ale and a small pack of cookies.
On the positive side, there was a very strong tailwind that had us arrive at JFK almost an hour earlier than scheduled. Also, aside from flying over Chicago, it was pretty much all clouds below us, so there was nothing really to see out the window during most of the flight anyway.
JFK, Blown Away, What Else Do I Have To Say?
Flight 468 touched down at 11:05 p.m. EDT. There was some mighty long taxiiing involved. Right away, my preconceptions about JFK were wrong: I can also see the NYC skyline from the airport. As I disembarked the plane and felt my first whiff of terrestrial air (and a sense of the weather from the jetway gap), I noticed the jetway led to a long, winding set of ramps to the actual terminal waiting area, which was unusually small. After a quick restroom break (which helps pass the baggage claim waiting time), it was on through a narrow hallway, and some stairs going down a level to the baggage claim area. As expected, I found my bag already on the carousel and went on my way. I was looking for the AirTrain, which leads me to the Jamaica, Queens train station. It was pretty dang straightforward, with some good wayfinding and some pretty nice aesthetics, at least as far as this terminal was concerned. I followed the arrow and walked in a straight line and once out of the building, I crossed the road and into the AirTrain terminal to take the elevator up. Total time elapsed from wheels-down to AirTrain terminal: 25 minutes. Wow, I was blown away. Impressive.
Both the Newark and JFK airports are run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and both have an inter-terminal rail systems that connect to outside transit. In AirTrain JFK’s case, it’s an 8.1-mile system running since 2003 that connects to both an NYC Subway station (Howard Beach) and a joint NYC Subway/Long Island Railroad transit center (Jamaica Station). I headed for the latter, with the interest of taking a 23-minute LIRR commuter train into Penn Station. Aside from waiting twice the normal time due to maintenance, I was impressed. I also noticed JFK Airport was not so much a conventional airport, but a neighborhood of several terminal buildings. The train, which is totally automated and runs on conventional standard-gauge rails (i.e. not a monorail) really flew through the airport and over the Van Wyck Expressway. Finally, the tracks curved east onto the equally-impressive-looking Jamaica Station, where many passengers had to buy NYC MetroCards (a $5.00 fee) to leave the turnstiles. I also bought a $2.75 subway ride (a combo option exists on the ticket machines) for my connecting train after Penn Station.
Heading To Penn
Being off-peak, trains weren’t that frequent, and I just missed a Penn Station-bound train if it weren’t for still orienting myself with the station, I bought a LIRR ticket ($7.75) to Penn Station and got down to Track 2, where I had to wait 15 minutes for the next train. It was there I finally realized, looking across the tracks to a lonely street with a couple buildings, that I was actually in New York City. You just have to stop amidst the travel rigmarole to actually appreciate and realize where you are. The train finally arrived and I sat in a bumpy, mostly-empty commuter train through suburban Queens heading west to Penn Station, with one stop at Woodside. Soon enough, I was at the subterranean platform at Penn Station, and pulled my one checked luggage up the stairs into the terminal. It was familiar territory, although I had to quickly glance at a Subway map to confirm that I was getting on the 1 train. The Subway entrance wasn’t very far from where I got off at, as opposed to the NJ Transit train from Newark which alights at the opposite side of the station (and a long trek to the Subway).
Again dealing with an off-peak schedule, I had to wait some 16 minutes for the next Uptown 1 train. Finally, it took me on a half-dozen stop final trek to my destination, my sister’s apartment in the Upper West Side.
To my surprise I saw and smelled the fallen rain on the ground, which I did not see at JFK or Jamaica. This was already familiar territory and I was soon at my sister’s place, with my brother-in-law greeting me and helping me schlep the checked luggage up the stairs, where my kindergarten-aged niece was waiting for me to a big hug. Traveling involves the sight of many strangers, but it’s all worth it once you see some familiar faces.
I also realized that the total time from landing-to-final destination from JFK was exactly the same as from Newark: Two hours.