Amtrak NYC to DC: Why Taking the Train is the Best Way to Go

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Moynihan Train Hall in NYC, Amtrak NYC to DC
Moynihan Train Hall in NYC. Let the sun shine in! Photo credit: Judy Antell

Unlock the advantages of traveling by train from the bustling Big Apple to the nation’s capital Washington DC with Amtrak. Say goodbye to airport security lines and traffic congestion as you embark on a relaxing journey from New York’s new Moynihan Train Hall.

With frequent departures, a generous baggage policy and the ability to move around during the under four-hour trip, Amtrak offers flexibility and convenience. Sit back and enjoy the ever-changing scenery while enjoying the onboard amenities that make your trip comfortable and enjoyable.

Metropolitan Lounge, Amtrak NYC to DC
Coffee and soft drinks at Metropolitan Lounge. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Amtrak Advantages: Travel Time

Anyone who has ever tried to drive out of New York City on a summer weekend, holiday or random gridlock alert day knows that the soul-crushing traffic can put a damper on the trip.

A journey from New York City to Washington DC by car can take anywhere from four to seven hours.

There are two Amtrak options:

  • Amtrak Acela takes 2 hours and 46 (to 54) minutes. It stops at Newark Penn Station; Metropark, NJ; Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Penn Station, and the train can speed along at 150 miles an hour in some spots.
  • Northeast Regional takes three hours and 20-40 minutes. It makes all of the stops the Acela makes, plus stops at the Newark and Baltimore airports, and it travels at slower speeds.

You can save almost an hour on the high-speed train, and up to four hours of hair-tearing hysteria by taking the train rather than your car.

Plus, the Acela has a First Class option, with free meals and drinks served to you at your seat. Philadelphia celebrity chef Stephen Starr curated the menu. The food in the Acela cafe car also has more interesting options than the cafe car on the Northeast Regional.

Read More: 15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: More Than Just a DC ‘Burb

Bar car menu on the Northeast Regional Amtrak NYC to DC
Bar car menu on the Northeast Regional Amtrak. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Price: Amtrak vs Car

On a recent summer weekend, we paid about $40 for our roundtrip Amtrak tickets, bought well in advance. Had we waited to buy our tickets at the last minute, or planned to travel during the holidays, it would have been far more expensive.

When we realized we could take a morning train, getting us into Washington DC much earlier in the day than our ticketed departure, we learned that we would have to pay the difference in price. The morning train would have cost us more than five times the price we originally paid.

Driving to DC, the tolls can be $40, depending on route. And the gas? Let’s say you have a car that gets 25 miles per gallon. Gas will cost about $30 for the trip.

This is, of course, just one way, so you’ll spend another $70 to get back to NYC from Washington DC. But if 2 of you are in the car, the price per person drops. And three or four along for the ride? Even less.

But you have to weigh your sanity versus potential road rage. You do you.

Interior of the Amtrak NYC to DC
Coach Class on Amtrak from NYC to Washington DC. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Comfort in Coach

This is not your average airplace seat! Even in coach class on the slower Northeast Regional trains, there is plenty of legroom. You can put your bags up above, or in luggage areas at the end of cars.

Business class seats have the advantage of being assigned, so you don’t have to worry about dragging your suitcases through the train, looking for an available seat.

There is something weird with Amtrak train seats: If you have an aisle seat and don’t know the person sitting next to you, you have to run a cord across their seat to reach the power outlets.

And the free wifi isn’t really strong enough to do work on the train.

Quiet Car vs Other Seats on Amtrak Train

Now that my children are out of the house, I am a fan of the quiet car on Amtrak. Phone calls aren’t allowed and you have to use headphones if you use electronic devices, with the volume turned low.

But don’t take the quiet car with young children. Although you are allowed to talk in the quiet car, no one appreciates a loud child here. We once took this car because there were no other seats on the train. We were glared at until Philadelphia, when we escaped to the boisterous regular car.

Amtrak Pet and Baggage Policies

If you are bringing a dog, you might have to drive. Amtrak charges $26 for a dog, and it has to weigh under 20 pounds. My Labrador Retriever has plumped up to 70 pounds, so she is banned from the train, even though she works as a comfort dog. [Therapy dogs of any size are allowed].

Driving can also be the perfect option if you are schlepping a lot of stuff. Amtrak allows you to bring two pieces of luggage, and charges for oversized items like bicycles. On the Northeast Corridor, it costs $20 to bring a bicycle.

Though when I brought my daughter a folding bike, I didn’t have to pay extra.

Moynihan train station, Amtrak NYC to DC
Outside Moynihan train station. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Moynihan Train Hall, New York City

One of the best things about taking Amtrak anywhere from NYC is the new Moynihan Train Hall.

This glorious transformation of the historic Farley Post Office has transformed the former Amtrak area in Penn Station, which is across the street, to one of beauty and wonder.  You also have access to great food.

If you take the subway to Moynihan Train Hall, the walk from the filth of the MTA to the shiny new Amtrak station is like the change from black and white to color in the Wizard of Oz. Light streams in from above, brass gleams and the air is – or at least seems – fresher.

Moynihan Food Hall

The centerpiece of Moynihan Food Hall, the Bar at Moynihan, has lots of local craft beer on tap and classic cocktails. Sit at the wood bar while you wait for an evening train.

The food hall has easy to eat or carry out food, like sushi, chopped salad, pizza and burgers. Alidoro makes Italian sandwiches that travel well and Naya has Mediterranean inspired bowls, wraps and salads. A ramen shop is coming, but ramen is best slurped up before the train.

If you are visiting someone – say, your daughter – in Washington DC, and you’ve forgotten to bring her bagels, you can pick some up at H & H, along with a few cupcakes at Magnolia or chocolates at Maison du Chocolat.

Metropolitan Lounge at Moynihan Train Hall, Amtrak NYC to DC
Seating in the Metropolitan Lounge at Moynihan Train Hall. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Exclusive Access: Metropolitan Lounge

If you have treated yourself to an Acela train ticket, or you have elite Amtrak status, you get access to Metropolitan Lounge. Business class passengers can also buy a day pass to the lounge.

This expansive sanctuary has lots of clean, comfortable places to sit, and free (non-alcoholic) drinks and food. There is also a bar, but you have to pay for drinks.

Waiting area at Moynihan Train Hall, Amtrak NYC to DC
Amtrak waiting area at Moynihan Train Hall. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Even if you don’t have access to the Metropolitan Lounge, The Amtrak waiting area at Moynihan, for ticketed passengers only, has very clean bathrooms and power outlets at every seat.

Sign for the elevator to the train, Amtrak NYC to DC
Take the elevator to the Amtrak train and avoid the long line. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Getting to Your Amtrak Train

One issue the fabulous Moynihan Train Hall hasn’t addressed is the chaos that ensues when a train track is announced. There is only one escalator to the track and it’s a bloodsport to get on the line before it resembles a Black Friday queue.

But there are 2 semi-secret ways to avoid the line.

  1. When the train is announced, go to the elevator and take it to the track. Very few people do this.
  2. Passengers in the Metropolitan Lounge get an early announcement of the track number and can take the elevator before the line even forms.
Union Station in Washington DC, Amtrak NYC to DC
Union Station in Washington DC. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Union Station Washington DC

When you walk into Union Station in Washington DC, you are in a beautiful historic train station. Unfortunately, the Amtrak area, while not as grim as Penn Station in Manhattan was, is still pretty dismal.

There is an Acela Lounge at Union Station. For ‘regular’ passengers, there is a dim seating area and the usual scrum when the track is announced. One advantage here over Moynihan Train Hall is that the trains are on the same level as the waiting area. No crowded escalators, stairs or elevators to navigate.

Picking a Train

Some trains originate in NYC, which means finding a seat on the train going to DC is pretty easy. It also means that the train is cleaner. If the Amtrak is coming from Boston, people might be getting off in NYC. But they are not taking their garbage with them and no one is cleaning the train.

On our recent Amtrak ride, someone did come around collecting trash, but the guy next to me left a mess in his seat and no one addressed that.

And don’t even get me started on the bathrooms. I can’t imagine what the bathrooms look like on the trains going all the way to Miami or Chicago.

Walking trails at Tregaron Conservancy, Amtrak NYC to DC
Walking trails at Tregaron Conservancy. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Before Going to DC, Ask Yourself…

A lot of considerations go into a trip from New York City to Washington DC.

Q: Do you want to see the cherry blossoms?

A: Go mid-March to mid-April

Q: Do you want to take long walks around the National Mall?

A: Go late September to November or March to May

Q: Do you want to avoid tourists?

A: Don’t go to Washington DC

What to Do in Washington DC

Tour the US Capitol

The  US Capitol visitors center has an interactive gallery. There are also tours of the Capitol building, including the Crypt, the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall. Tours and exhibits are all free.

The rest of the National Mall includes the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument,  the White House and Smithsonian museums. Again, everything is free.

Stop and See the Flowers

See the green side of Washington DC at Tregaron Conservancy. It has walking trails, gardens, fields, meadows and a lily pond. The conservancy, between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park, is free. You can also see the free  National Zoo, near the conservancy

Read here for more things to do in and around Washington DC.

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