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If you have to leave this urban wonderland for the sticks (literally anywhere else) this holiday season, and you’re one of the majority of New Yorkers without a car, you’re probably taking public transit. 

If you’re like me, you’re worried you might be abandoned on the side of I-95 at 11:30 p.m. the night before Thanksgiving because your Boltbus (RIP) was leaking fuel and the driver told everyone to find their own way to Baltimore because a relief bus was at least three hours away. Yes, this really happened.

We can’t control what happens to you after you leave the city, but we can give you this cheat sheet that makes navigating our major transit hubs easier — and prepare you to have the right supplies on hand in case you get stuck on the side of the road. With a little help, you can turn a stressful trip through the transit maze into a more joyful celebration of Midtown hits, including a brand-new Veselka outpost, one of the West Side’s last great dive bars, a secret seating area at Moynihan and a new park named for one of New York’s legendary eco-feminists.

A line of people waiting to board a bus that waits at the curb during holiday travel in NYC
Photo by Kara Koch

The bus area by Hudson Yards

Where you catch a Megabus/FlixBus/OurBus etc. 

Many small-time budget bus operators stop all over the city, but the bigger names pick up around the Javits Center. Sadly, your $20 ticket to Philly means you’ll be catching your conveyance in the $25 billion wasteland that is Hudson Yards. The most expensive residential development project in U.S. history did technically improve the area: I guess an Equinox gym with a line of Rolls Royce SUVs idling outside is better than an empty lot. But there is a reason they had to close the Vessel to visitors.

If a convention is in town, you’re set: the public concourse of the Javits Center — with a lot of amenities, including food, water fountains, and clean bathrooms — will be open. Otherwise, you have to fend for yourself on the mean streets. There’s nothing scheduled for Javits next week so you’ll be out of luck for Thanksgiving, but if it’s open for future travel plans, you can take advantage.

Bella Azbug Park
Bella Abzug Park: a part of Hudson Yards that doesn’t suck! (Photo: Kara Koch)

Finding water, seats and restrooms
Bella Abzug Park — named after badass New York lawyer, eco-feminist and politician “Battlin’ Bella” Abzug who served as a U.S. Representative from New York from 1971 to 1977 — has a public restroom north of the playground, along 36th Street. It’s open 8  a.m.–4  p.m.

The Hudson Yards Mall (20 Hudson Yards) has public restrooms on the second, third and fourth floors. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Starbucks at 33rd and 11th has a restroom, but you will need to purchase something or find another way in.

Water: Bella Abzug Park has two water fountains, but they might not be functioning in autumn/winter.

Seating: Bella Abzug Park has unsheltered public benches. This area is close to the Hudson River so it can feel considerably cooler.

Bluestone Lane (55 Hudson Yards) and Starbucks (34 Hudson Yards) have ample indoor seating with purchase.

Grabbing food and beers for you trip 
When open, the Javits Center has a mini food hall with several pricey options. The cheapest we found was the five mini empanadas for $15 at Nucha.

Paradis in the Park (in Bella Abzug Park, near the public restrooms on 36th Street) sells $5 bagels and $9 breakfast burritos. They also operate a taco truck in the park on 33rd Street with $5 tacos to go.

The closest deli is 37th Street Food Market (480 10th Avenue), a 10-minute walk away. Typical Midtown prices for sandwiches, snacks, and drinks. No alcohol.

Whole Foods (450 W 33rd Street) sells food and beer to go at Whole Foods prices.

A bar to smash your frustrations
There are a few overpriced bars buried in the Hudson Yard Mall. We suggest Break Bar (458 Ninth Ave.), a 12-minute walk from Javits, where you can drink $9 drafts and then vent your holiday travel anger by smashing your glass afterwards — really!

One bus travel secret
Megabus employees told us “too many people show up” without a ticket. They implore you to purchase one beforehand and have it ready for the driver. Discount buses are often oversold, so get there early for a good spot in line — and dress warmly!

Need a last-minute gift?
Unless you’re interested in a Genesis SUV or a Cartier diamond bangle, Dylan’s Candy Bar is your best bet for a gift at the Hudson Yards Mall. If you want to avoid the generic luxury capitalism sinkhole, a pound of premium coffee beans at Aussie-style cafe Bluestone Lane in Hudson Yards is a worthy option.

Riders sitting on the floor at Moynihan Train Hall while dealing with holiday travel in NYC
A $1.6 billion train hall where we all sit on the floor. (Photo by Kara Koch)

Moynihan Hall and Penn Station

The current Penn Station has been much maligned since the criminal destruction of the original neo-Classical masterpiece in 1963. With the opening of Moynihan Train Hall, much of the manic scrum of passengers has shifted away from the nightmare under MSG, making Penn slightly more tolerable. Both stations are connected by an underground passage near the A/C/E subway entrance.

Remnants of Penn Station Tour

Penn Station Historic photo

Finding water, seats and restrooms
Moynihan has two restrooms. One in the food hall (next to Chopt) is open to the public. The Amtrak seating area has a restroom, but you need a ticket.

Penn has three restrooms, one in the Amtrak hall, one in the LIRR corridor and one in the NJ Transit corridor, all open to the public.

Water: Moynihan has a public water fountain and water bottle tap to the left of the Amtrak seating area. Penn has a public water fountain next to the LIRR seating area.

Seating: There’s famously no sitting in the open areas of Moynihan and Penn, unless you have a valid ticket. In Moynihan, the ticketed seating area is comfortable, but limited. Good seats with a view of the departure boards are hard to come by.

Train hall sign
You’re not supposed to sit here, but you can. (Photo by Kara Koch)

Moynihan occupies the former central post office building. The customer-facing portion of the post office still exists (through the entrance on Eighth Avenue) and offers a quiet respite from the cacophony inside the main hall. There is an alcove with chairs for passport applicants, which is empty when the office is closed. Stern signs warn the benches are off-limits, but we didn’t see anyone who would stop you from resting your feet.

Penn Station has three seating areas, one for Amtrak, LIRR, and NJ Transit each. Each requires a corresponding ticket to enter. Expect limited seats on busy travel days.

Grabbing food and beers for the train 
A basic take-away lunch in Moynihan’s food hall runs around $15-$20 a person. The cheapest option was a $6 hot dog at Pastrami Queen. Threes Brewing in Moynihan was the only place we saw beer to go: $17-$20 for four-packs of fancy tallboys.

Penn Station eateries have less pizzazz, but deals can be had. Don Pepi Deli in the Amtrak hall, a favorite of legendary transit scribe Jose Martinez, has a coffee and breakfast sandwich combo deal for $4.90 (until 11 a.m.). Beers to-go are sold at nearly every deli, but prices vary. The cheapest we found was Hudson News by the NJ Transit hall, with $5.50 24-ounce domestics and $3.75 tallboys.

A reminder that drinking your own alcohol in public areas of an Amtrak train is technically prohibited, so be smart about it. LIRR and NJT allow drinks. And don’t get so drunk you try to sleep on the luggage racks, like a friend of mine once did.

Bar at Moynihan Train Hall
The owners of The Dead Rabbit took over the bar in Moynihan. (Photo by Kara Koch)

Some bars to escape the scrum
Irish Exit, from the owners of lower Manhattan’s beloved The Dead Rabbit, has an imposing presence in the Moynihan food hall and is always busy. Expect to pay close to $10 for a pint of the black stuff.

Kabooz, just off the Amtrak hall in Penn, has $5 pints and half-price wine with purchase of any food item from 12-6 daily. There’s lots of seating and a sports-bar vibe, but service is slow.

COVID laid waste to most of the cheap dives in this area, but Billymark’s West (332 Ninth Ave.), one of Manhattan’s last famous dives, is just a five minute walk from Moynihan. The surly bartenders have been slinging boilermakers in this neighborhood staple since 1956. It’s definitely worth getting to Midtown early to down some well shots here before your trip.

Two travel secrets!
Unlike every other train system in the world, Amtrak requires travelers at Penn and Moynihan to line up and present their ticket before descending to the platforms. It takes forever and you’re guaranteed to be stuck at the end of the line. However, there are sneaky ways to bypass the bottleneck.

Corridor of Penn Station during holiday travel in NYC
The secret Penn Station boarding area the government doesn’t want you to know about. (Photo by Kara Koch)

In Penn, there is a concourse level under the Amtrak hall with direct access to the LIRR and Amtrak tracks (access is by stairs in the middle of the hall). At the entrance to track 8, there are two monitors with arrivals info. Camp out there and head down the appropriate stairwell when your track is announced, skipping the lines.

Moynihan lacks a secret concourse level, but there is one shortcut. Once your track is announced, jump on the corresponding elevator and you’ll be on the train before most people have even gotten in line. Of course, let those who need the elevator go first.

If you’re traveling NJT, you are SOL. The mad scrum in the mezzanine level is the only way onto those platforms. Secaucus-bound? May God have mercy on your soul.

Need a last-minute gift?
Skip the bland gift boxes from the shops and get a dozen round ones at H+H Bagels on the concourse level.

Recent renovations means retail options are currently limited in Penn. Transit Wine and Spirits near the NJ Transit concourse has a decent selection for around $15-$20 a bottle.

Grand Central Terminal
Photo by Kara Koch

Grand Central Terminal and Grand Central Madison

Grand Central, miraculously untouched for 110 years in an ever-changing city, recently underwent a shockingly expensive expansion. “Grand Central Madison” is a whole separate train station built under the current one, and was given that name to separate it from East Side Access, the name of the boondoggle that birthed the new station. (Entrance on the west side of the main hall. Follow signs for LIRR). 

Few agree on whether the $12.5 billion price tag was worth eight new train tracks and mere minutes saved on the average commute (spoiler: it wasn’t). Whatever. Jobs were created, debt was serviced, pockets were lined, blah, blah.

The Art of Grand Central Madison

Art in Grand Central Madison

Finding water, seats and restrooms
Grand Central has plentiful, well-maintained public restrooms in the Dining Concourse, below the main hall.

Grand Central Madison has two handicap-accessible restrooms in the passage to the new LIRR tracks, between 44th and 45th Streets and between 47th and 48th Streets.

Water: Several water fountains can be found around the outer edge of the Dining Concourse.

Seating: Grand Central used to have public seating but anti-homeless measures means everyone needs to stand everywhere forever. Same with Grand Central Madison. There are chairs in the Dining Concourse.

Grabbing food and beers for the train
There are many food options around the famous Dining Concourse, but you pay for the convenience. Shake Shack has $8-$13 burgers. Dirty Taco has three-taco combos for $10-$15. The closest deli is Everyday Gourmet Deli on 41st and Lex, but the food is meh and not much cheaper.

There are few options to buy to-go beers in Grand Central. Beer Table, a kiosk in the Graybar Passage sells fancier beers for $7 to $11 and hard seltzers for $5. Often there are beer vendors on Metro-North platforms, but these are usually limited to rush hour and we couldn’t find one to confirm prices.

An unnamed kiosk in the Grand Central Madison corridor had 24-ounce Stella Artois cans, but there was no price and no one was around to ask.

Bars to kill some time in
If you’ve never been, the stunning and elegant Campbell Bar (just off 43rd Street in GCT) is a must. Visiting this bar is like stepping into the late 1940s — and they just did away with their dress code, so slobs like me can finally belly up to the bar. Alas, the prices are more like the early 2020s, so it’s best for a one-and-done. 

For a more affordable drink outside the station, we suggest The Shakespeare (24 E 39th St.), a laid-back gastropub with wooden accents and friendly staff. Pints run around $8-$9.

One travel secret
There are tons of secret tunnels in Grand Central but none of these will help you get to your train faster (unless you’re the president).

However, there is a tunnel connected to the new Grand Central Madison passageway that drops you farther down the platform for Metro-North platforms 11-42. There are also two entrances onto each end of this passageway at 48th and Park and at 48th and Lex with Metro-North ticket machines. If you already know your track number, you can skip the madness of the Grand Central main hall completely. Was it worth $12.5 billion for this little shortcut? Ehhhh…

Grand Central Terminal food vendor
Bring the East Village classic to grandma’s house! (Photo by Conal Darcy)

Need a last-minute gift?
Grand Central has some high-end retail and a typical holiday market. For a real New York treat, East Village Ukrainian restaurant Veselka has a brand-new outpost in the Dining Concourse that sells a dozen ready-to-cook pierogies for $21 and large jars of pre-made soups and borscht for $15. You might as well get some delicious fried pierogies for your trip, too.

More luxurious gustatory gifts like caviar, aged cheeses, and spices, are available at the large Grand Central Market in the Lexington Passage.

Upon the tragic razing of Penn Station, the art historian Vincent Scully famously lamented: “One entered the city like a god … One scuttles in now like a rat.” As New Yorkers we must hold fast to this ideal: that divinity still lies within us. All existence is suffering when traveling for the holidays, but we must channel the Buddha when scurrying about: be patient, be kind, be flexible and be early. Accept that things will go wrong, but you’ll eventually get where you’re trying to go. Happy holidays!

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