A Family Vacation by Public Transit

We took our six-year-old son to visit New York City; Montclair, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, leaving our car at home in Pittsburgh and traveling by train or bus the whole way.  It was great!  We felt it was more relaxing than driving, more pleasant than going by airplane, and generally pretty easy to do.

I’m not claiming that we saved time or money by taking transit.  That’s not the point!  Leaving our car at home reduced pollution, made getting there part of the fun, and allowed us to go 10 full days without driving, which made it a real vacation for us!

I’m going to give lots of detail about how this particular trip worked for me; if you’re more interested in tips for family transit traveling in general, skip down to the last headline.

(We did ride in cars at times during the trip, but not for the long-distance travel.  My uncle took us to two beaches in New Jersey that aren’t accessible by public transit.  We also got rides between our relatives’ homes and some transit stops–distances we could have walked, but it was hot and our child is small and we were carrying luggage some of the times–thanks for the rides, Dave, Elizabeth, and Elsa!  We brought a lightweight backless booster seat for Nicholas to use in the cars.)

Total travel time (including waiting at stops) and cost, for two adults and one child:

  • From Pittsburgh to Montclair, 12 hours, $219.40
  • From Montclair to Philadelphia, 3 hours 45 minutes, $42.25
  • From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, 10 hours, $144.65
  • Within New York City, I didn’t keep track of the time, but we spent $70 on subway fare cards.
  • Back and forth between Montclair and New York (3 round trips), about 4 hours, about $120.

I can make a fair comparison to the time and expense of car travel only for the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh trip:  Via Pennsylvania Turnpike, it takes us about 7 hours 30 minutes (including rest stops); the toll is $23.80, and gas for our hybrid car over 296 miles is about $28, so $51.80.  The train tickets cost more than that for all three of us–but when one of us is traveling alone, the train or bus would cost less than driving.

These are the modes of transportation we used:

  • From Pittsburgh to Montclair:
  • Between Montclair and New York City (we took some day trips into the city while staying with my uncle and aunt in Montclair, and also we spent two nights in NYC with Daniel’s uncle and aunt) we tried both of these:
    • DeCamp bus between a transit hub in Montclair and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan
    • New Jersey Transit PATH train between the same transit hub in Montclair and Penn Station in Manhattan
  • Within New York City:
    • MTA subway in Manhattan, plus a ride on the elevated A train all the way to the end of the line in Far Rockaway, Queens
    • Liberty Island Ferry from Manhattan to Liberty Island and Ellis Island
  • From Montclair to Philadelphia:
    • New Jersey Transit bus from Montclair to Newark (Actually, although we had planned to do this, Uncle Dave kindly offered to drive us to Newark–about 10 miles–and we accepted!  It was a lot easier than taking our luggage on a short-distance bus with no luggage racks.  The fare we would have paid for this bus is included in my total above.)
    • Bolt Bus from Newark to Philadelphia
    • SEPTA Regional Rail train
  • From Philadelphia to Pittsburgh:

These are other modes of transportation we considered:

  • Greyhound Bus connects Pittsburgh to Newark and New York; both those routes stop in Philadelphia.  Prices are similar to Amtrak, but since Nicholas is such a train enthusiast and trains across Pennsylvania take the famous Horseshoe Curve, we chose the train.
  • Mega Bus connects Pittsburgh and New York, as well as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  We’ve never tried Mega Bus, but it sounds very similar to Bolt Bus.
  • New York City buses would be a better way to see the scenery between points in the city, but they’re slower than the subway (which doesn’t have to contend with traffic) and not as exciting, since we ride buses all the time in Pittsburgh.

PAT bus

We’re so accustomed to our local transit that I almost forgot to list it here!  For many city neighborhoods, PAT offers really good access to Downtown (where trains and long-distance buses stop), at least every half hour from 5am to midnight.  It can be crowded at times, but people are generally friendly and polite.

In fact, although we found that people in New York and New Jersey seemed less rude than they used to be, we did notice that they are less gregarious with strangers than Pittsburghers are.  We had a happy homecoming via PAT bus, where in 20 minutes my son got 4 compliments on his curly hair, someone noticing our bags asked where we’d been, and I was informed that I talk like Channel 11 meteorologist Julie Bologna. 🙂

Fares must be paid with exact change, but if you’re boarding in a group you can pay for your whole group together.  If your bus is outbound from Downtown, you pay when you get off–always make sure you have your fare before you get on the bus, but watch the driver for cues as to whether to pay now or later.

Always say “thank you” when disembarking from a PAT bus.  Nearly all drivers will thank you, too.  This is not the custom in many other cities, but it’s never going to hurt you to do it!


We rode Coach Class this time, so it was a different experience than our trip to Chicago when we had a sleeping compartment.  This train, the Pennsylvanian, was smaller than that one and didn’t have any sleeper cars or a dining car.  It did have a cafe car, where you can buy sandwiches, snacks, and drinks, and there are some booths to eat in.  (You can take food back to your seat, if you prefer.)  The cafe car has a decent variety of pretty good ready-to-eat and microwaved foods, but everything is very expensive!  At lunchtime we spent $27 just for two wraps, a little pizza, and one bottle of juice!! We brought bagels for the trip east and fruit for the trip west, but it would be wise to bring a full meal.

The seats in Coach Class offer about twice as much legroom as airplane seating, similar tray-tables and reading lamps, and two kinds of footrests.  The large windows have adjustable curtains.  Because the seats are farther apart than on a plane, there’s plenty of room in the overhead luggage bins.  (You do have to check your luggage if you have really big bags or lots of them.  We didn’t.)  Each car has two restrooms and a drinking-water dispenser.  There’s an electrical outlet for every pair of seats.  The seats recline pretty far, and with the attached cushy footrest up, you have a fairly large and comfortable area for sleeping.  (I hear Business Class is even nicer.)

A big advantage to train travel, compared to airplane or bus or car, is that you can get up and walk around whenever you like, and there is someplace to go other than just up and down the aisle and to the bathroom.  You can go between cars in a little tunnel with doors that open when you press a button; there’s one button at hand height and one at foot height that you can kick if you’re carrying something.  For a restless child, the train also offers the option of sitting on the floor in front of the seat.

On our eastbound train, we apparently chose seats in the refrigerator car; it was really chilly!  I felt totally stupid for deciding not to pack a jacket or long-sleeved shirt for myself or my son.  We survived, but we would have been more comfortable dressed in layers.

The train trip across Pennsylvania is beautiful, in many places cutting through forests far from any roads.  There are some lovely views in the misty mountainous part of the state and surprisingly little time going through tunnels.  Many of the small towns are charming, and some still have their old train stations with gingerbread trim.

It’s not a rapid trip, though.  The train moves slowly much of the time and makes many stops.  The part from Philadelphia to Newark went at a much higher speed, which was startling after the lazy pace of the day, but we were relieved to be finishing the trip that had started very early in the morning.  The Pennsylvanian runs only once a day, leaving Pittsburgh at 7:20am, so to make sure of arriving at the station 30 minutes in advance we had left our house at 5:40.  Yawn!  Still, it wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to expect by Pittsburghers complaining that the train “leaves in the middle of the night”; in my opinion, “early morning” travel departures begin at the point when you can get to the station/airport via city bus.  Coming home, we left Philly just after noon and got to Pittsburgh at 8pm, a pretty good schedule.

New Jersey Transit bus

This was much like a city bus anywhere else: full of assorted middle-to-lower-class people going assorted places bringing assorted things, lots of stops, lots of turns, assorted urban scenery, stiff narrow seats.  You have to put your luggage on your lap, on the floor by your feet, or, if the bus isn’t really full, on an extra seat next to you.  You’ll need to watch for street signs and have some sense of how long you’ll be riding before you get to your stop.  If possible, ask the driver to tell you when your stop is next.

I’d heard terrible things about Newark’s decline, and some of the areas we rode through looked awful, but we never felt we were in any danger.  (Other NJ Transit routes may be different, of course.)  We waited for our bus right outside the train station, and that area was pretty spiffy.  A lot of buses stop there, so we were confused about where to stand, but local people quickly stepped in to advise us.

DeCamp Bus

This is a step up from a standard city bus: taller, quieter, a little cleaner, all forward-facing seats with reading lamps and overhead luggage racks.  The price is a step up, too, and there’s no child’s fare.  This is something to consider if you’re going to save money on a New York City vacation by staying in New Jersey: traveling back and forth to the city will cost you $10-15 per person per round trip!  This bus also was late (by 10-15 minutes) all three times we took it from Montclair, although it left New York on time.

In my opinion, the Port Authority Bus Terminal is nicer than Penn Station (where the PATH train goes).  The bus arrives in an upper level that is just zillions of bus lanes with little sidewalks between them and stairs leading down and, for the departures area, an enclosed hallway in which to stand in line.  Below that are levels of sort of shopping mall with entrances to various forms of transit.  It’s all reasonably clean and well-lit and pleasant; even the restrooms are clean!  At the bottom is a subway station, so you can jump into your city adventures without even stepping outside.

PATH train

This is similar in price to DeCamp Bus, except that kids are half price.  However, if you pay on the train when leaving New York, they charge an extra $5 per ticket because you could have bought tickets in the station!  The trains are the type with triple seats along one side, double seats along the other side, and overhead luggage racks.  The one we rode seemed old and not especially clean, but it was okay.

This train is for commuters who live in New Jersey and work in New York, so it doesn’t run on weekends.

Having arrived at Penn Station just barely in time for the train, we didn’t look around much, but it seemed as grimy and hostile as I remembered from previous visits, which was a surprise since the rest of the city seemed so much more civilized.  There’s a convenient subway station in the basement of Penn Station, too.

New York City subway

The stations are filthy, the trains make loud rattles and screeches, the announcements are incoherent, and the entire system has a pervasive stench, but it’s a great way to get around!  It’s faster than any surface transportation in Manhattan.  The route map is very easy to understand, once you know which stations you want.  To connect the route map to the street map, there are many maps available for purchase in the city that show both and also show popular tourist destinations.  We got a TerraMAP from my sister-in-law, who visited New York a few months before we did, and it was very helpful!

My grandma used to take me on the subway in the 1980s, and we often saw unsavory things, but with tight grips on our valuables we felt safe enough.  Now, although there are plenty of shocking subway stories on Overheard in New York, we didn’t see anything more disturbing than a few non-aggressive panhandlers.

One crucial thing to know about navigating the New York subway is that “downtown” means “the direction in which the numbered streets have smaller numbers” and “uptown” means “bigger numbers”.  In other words, the farthest downtown you can get is the southern tip of Manhattan.  That confused me at first because in Pittsburgh, “downtown” means “toward the middle”!

Some of the subway lines become ground-level or elevated trains in the outer boroughs.  We rode the A train, which is underground through Brooklyn and then elevated across Queens.  It crosses Jamaica Bay on pillars above the water, passing little green tufty islands with birds nesting on them.

Liberty Island Ferry

The only way to get to the Statue of Liberty and/or Ellis Island Immigration Museum is by ferry boat!  It’s fun, and the view is great.  If you don’t like a breeze, you can sit indoors.  The boats even have restrooms and snack bars.

Bolt Bus

This is a low-cost bus on which each route is an express between two cities.  There is no waiting room, just an outdoor stop, located near a local transit center.  (Ours went from outside Penn Station in Newark to outside Thirtieth Street Station in Philadelphia; in both places, we could make our connection just by crossing the street.)  There are no tickets, just confirmation numbers you print after making your reservations online.  You walk up 15 minutes before departure, put your larger luggage in the compartment at the side of the bus, show your number to the driver, choose a seat, and put your smaller luggage in the overhead rack or next to your feet.  At departure time, the bus drives away.  When you reach your destination, the bus stops, and you collect your stuff and walk away.

The bus is a typical newish long-distance bus, with high-backed plush seats, reading lamps, and a tiny bathroom.  I’m told they have wi-fi, but I didn’t have any device to use it.  You are allowed to eat on the bus; we brought sandwiches and water.  The non-stop ride could get old on a longer trip, especially with kids, but for two hours it was fine.

The best thing about Bolt Bus is the low price! It can be as little as $1 per person, depending on how far in advance you make your reservation and how many people already have reservations.  I got tickets for the three of us for $26.

At least on the bus we rode, the driver did not make any announcements about rules or where we were going or anything–she didn’t speak unless someone asked her a question.  That fit the simple, no-frills style of Bolt Bus, but it felt a little weird!  We don’t know why a large part of our trip was along traffic-clogged strip-mall access roads instead of on the highway (construction or detouring around an accident, presumably), but that’s probably why we arrived in Philly half an hour late–just barely exactly in time to catch our train!!

SEPTA regional rail train

Daniel and I are very familiar with this train, which connects Philadelphia’s major train stations to the neighborhood where he grew up and his parents still live.  The insides of the train cars are identical to the PATH trains.  There’s a nice view of assorted neighborhoods, sometimes from an elevated track.  It’s a little more expensive than taking a SEPTA bus, but it’s faster if you’re traveling between two places near train stations.

Tips for family transit traveling

If you and/or your kid(s) are not accustomed to public transit, start with a short trip before you attempt something like our journey!  Sitting right near a lot of strangers for hours on end requires manners and tolerance that family car travel doesn’t.  Transit schedules require you to get out the door on time and prevent you from making rest stops whenever you feel like it.  When you’re used to the car and rarely take plane trips, a whole day on a bus or train feels weird!  So if you never use your local public transit, do some traveling around your home city before you go farther.  If you don’t have local public transit, start with a train or bus trip to a destination less than three hours away.

Remember the advantages of ground transit, if you begin feeling wistful for the car or airplane:

  • You don’t have to drive.  That means you can sit in more different positions, you can look at your family members’ faces and pay full attention to what they’re saying, and you are not responsible for controlling a two-ton killing machine–so relax!
  • Extra time together as a family means more conversation and shared experiences.
  • No annoying security screenings treating you like a criminal. The only mode of transit we used on this trip that subjected us to X-ray and metal detectors was the Liberty Island Ferry.
  • No arguments about where to stop for lunch.
  • You’re using less fuel and causing less air pollution.
  • You won’t have to find parking or pay for parking.
  • You don’t have ear trouble like on an airplane.
  • You’re less likely to die than in a car.

Read.  Read aloud in a quiet voice to your child, and bring plenty of reading material for older kids and yourself.  If you can’t read in a moving vehicle, bring books on tape/CD/pod and plenty of batteries.  For this trip, I brought 3 chapter books to read to Nicholas, but once we arrived in Montclair I put only the one we were currently reading in my tote bag so that I didn’t have to carry the others around the city.

Learn some games that use no materials or just pencil and paper.  Try these word games.

Bring some food.  You may not be able to avoid buying food, but if you bring some you’ll still save money and avoid getting too hungry (which puts most people into a bad mood!) at times when food isn’t immediately available.

Bring layers of clothing.  In summer, the clothes you wear on the way to the station may not be warm enough for the air-conditioning of the train or bus.  (I’ll remember that next time!!)  In winter, you may want to take off layers if the train or bus is very warm.

Use the POD Concept.  When two or more adults are traveling with the kid(s), sometimes the adult who sat with the kid at the beginning of the trip begins to feel trapped with the kid forever, while the other adult appears to be enjoying plenty of rest, uninterrupted reading, and freedom from jabbing little knees and elbows–no fair!  Have either a plan for who’ll be on duty when or a quick, clear way of expressing that you need to switch places.

A digital camera with plenty of memory is good entertainment as well as a way to preserve memories of your sightseeing.  While traveling, let your child (when he’s in a responsible, coordinated mood) take pictures out the window, extreme close-ups of the upholstery, etc.–or amuse yourself this way!  You may get some interesting artsy shots, and it’s a great way to learn more about what the camera can do, as well as keeping busy.

Don’t forget to look out the window!  Most people don’t feel like just watching the scenery for 10 hours straight, but make sure you take a look once in a while.  In addition to visiting a place, you’re getting to see everything along the way!


Visit the Everything Summer Link-Up for lots of articles on summer fun for families!

8 thoughts on “A Family Vacation by Public Transit

  1. I have often wished that we could take public transit to visit our family members that live two hours away. Something like a train would have a lot of benefits over driving, even if cost isn’t one of them.

    My kids like to take public transportation when they can out of sheer enjoyment. We don’t use it often where we live, but Chicago is the biggest city we visit on a regular basis, and it has excellent public transportation. I think riding the trains and buses while we’re there is one of the reasons my kids love that city so much!

  2. A lot of great tips! We’ve visited a few locations where we used bicycles (and occasionally transit) to get everywhere once we arrived, and it was liberating vs. trying to take a car everywhere. The layers of clothing tip also holds for that type of adventure. 🙂

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  8. Thanks for sharing at our Everything Summer link up! Public Transit is practically non-existing out where we live. But we’ve been kicking around the idea of driving to the city and then taking the train up to D.C. or Baltimore. We think it would be a fun adventure and your post has some great tips!

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