Thursday, June 26

How to always get a seat at NYC Penn Station on Amtrak and NJ Transit

Do you hate the crowds at NYC Penn Station?

Make Amtrak Travel Less Stressfull - Follow this Tip at NY Penn Station - Image of staircase underneath the Departures/Arrivals sign Leading Down to Platforms
Skip the Crowds and Lines with this Easy Tip to Get You to Your Seat Fast
One of the hardest things about taking Amtrak or NJ Transit trains from Penn Station in NYC is the boarding process. Hundreds of people are crowded around the departure board, waiting for the announcement of the track assignment for their train. Once the announcement is made, a huge line forms at the single escalator going down to that track number. On popular travel days and around rush hour, this quickly turns into a huge crowd. If you don’t manage to get in the front of the line, you will have a limited choice of seats available, often having to ask someone to share a seat with them. Luckily, there is a better option.

ClubAcela Lounge Passengers Can Skip These Lines…but So Can You!

Entrance to the NJ Transit and Amtrack Platforms at Penn Station NYC from the LIRR and 1,2 and 3 C and E Subway Lines
There are Multiple Official Entrances to Amtrak and NJ Transit Departures
How would you like to avoid all of this madness? I know when I am travelling with family, it is very important to me to get a seat together. Does that mean I have to fight my way through a mob of people the second the Amtrak gate is called out? Luckily there are a few options. If you are lucky enough to be an Amtrak Select member or have a first class Amtrak ticket, you qualify for access to the ClubAcela lounge at NY Penn Station. Apparently passengers in this lounge are given early boarding privileges, similar to first class boarding with airlines.  This is great for those who travel on Amtrak frequently for work, but what about the rest of us? Luckily there is a solution for us too. 

The Shortcut – The track entrances that everyone rushes to are not the only entrances

Departure and Arrival Monitors, pictured here, although old, Provide Up to the Minute Track Assignments - there is no reason to Wait Up in the Main Amtrak and NJT departure area upstairs with the crowds
Arrival and Departure monitors (although old) are Provided on This Lower Level
Pennsylvania Station in New York is one of the uglier train stations, constructed in the late 1960s. However, it was built on top of the existing tunnels and tracks from the original, historic Penn Station. This means that despite the best efforts to redo the design when constructing the current Penn Station, there are still a maze of tunnels and connections to train platforms and subways below the station. The trick is having an understanding of how to use this to your advantage.  

The Logistics – Where are these magical track entrances?

Tracks leading down to platform 13 East or 14 East at NY Penn Station - The shortest route down to the platform for Amtrak and NJ Transit Passengers
For tracks 13 and 14 - Go down this escalator or the stairs directly across the hallway
For each track assignment for Amtrak trains, such as 13 West, 13 East etc, there is an alternative entrance one level below the main departure area. These are stair cases leading you to each track, which are used frequently by those exiting trains. Because they are stair cases, they allow you to go down to the tracks just as easily as exit. This is in contrast to the escalators, where typically there is only one escalator switched to take people down to the tracks at one time. Usually by the time the track number has been announced for a particular train, passengers departing the train have already had plenty of time to exit, so you don’t have to worry about walking down while everyone who has just arrived is trying to leave the station. 

How to get down to these staircases?

Bottom of the staircase leading up to the main Am track and NJTransit Plaza/Ticket area - Skip the lines with this shortcut for your own early boarding
There are Multiple Levels to the Tracks and Platform Entrances at Penn Station
There are several routes down to these alternative platform entrances. The simplest is to take the staircase directly under the main Amtrak/NJ Transit Departures sign (see pictures above). This will take you down one level, to a hallway with various track entrances. If you’d rather have a little more space to yourself and not have to stand with mobs of people. You can simply wait on this lower level, for the last 10 minutes before your train departs. Amtrak even provides arrival and departure monitors on this level which tell you the same information as the huge departure sign upstairs that everyone is crowding around. 

How are these track entrances marked?

Each entrance Lists the Track #s
The tracks entrances on this lower level are marked with their track numbers. For example both 13E (east) and 13W (west) both lead to the same platform. Typically one side is an escalator and the other side is a staircase leading down to the platform. You may have to choose the staircase, but either way, east or west, they lead you down to the same platform. Even when the escalator has been set to bring people up, the entrance across the hallway will be a staircase leading down to the platform. Note that one or two of the staircases are around the corner, that has happened for me before with an Amtrak train. Just look out for signage pointing you to each of the tracks, they go in order.

Architect Jason Gibbs has created a nice diagram of the layout of track entrances on the lower level of Penn Station that might be helpful.

One Last Tip: Walk Toward the Far End of the Train for the Most Available Seats

The last point I wanted to mention is that even with being one of the first passengers to board the train, there will inevitably be some people who boarded before you. If you want the best chance of finding a train car with a large choice of open seats, walk to the far end of the train. In my experience over the years, people tend to initially take a seat in one of the train cars closest to the two staircases leading to the platform and you will find that it is less crowded as you move towards that end of the platform.

I hope you found these tips useful! I would love to hear your experiences in the comments below. 
For other useful tips related to save money on Amtrak, such as my step by step guide on how I have been taking Amtrak completely for free for the last 3 years, please take a look at the getting started page.