Column: Ottawa to the Big Apple by bus? It’s worth it for those driven to save

After driving to Syracuse and busing from there to New York, consumer columnist Michael Prentice declares the journey a viable option for the budget-conscious traveller
Bus
Stock image, for illustrative purposes only.

Almost everyone, I suspect, dreams of visiting the Big Apple. But many never go. Why? Among the explanations I’ve heard: It’s too far; it costs too much to get there; and it’s too crowded, noisy, dangerous and expensive.

All the areas of New York City that you might want to visit are at least as safe as most parts of Ottawa, I believe. And getting to and from New York can be surprisingly affordable.

In more than 40 years of living in Ottawa, I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Big Apple – on leisure trips by car and occasionally by plane. But, until recently, it never occurred to me to look into going by bus.

You can forget about taking a bus from Ottawa to New York City. The best a clerk at the Ottawa bus station could offer was regular daily service with a change of bus in Montreal. But that journey takes about 11 hours. Eleven hours on a bus, compared with about eight hours by car taking a more direct route, is unacceptable to me.

Then I got to thinking: Surely there must be good bus service to New York City from Syracuse in upstate New York? And Syracuse is a very easy three-hour drive from Ottawa.

New  York

Bingo! There are up to 16 daily bus departures from Syracuse to the Big Apple. The scheduled journey time is about five hours, including a 20-minute rest stop, and the one-way fare is about $40 in U.S. funds or $50 in Canadian money.

I decided to try it for myself, first driving uneventfully from Ottawa to Syracuse. Then the bus journey to New York City turned into an adventure (or nightmare, some would say).

Soon after an intermediate stop in Binghamton, N.Y., the bus broke down and came to a juddering halt precariously close to the inside lane of the busy interstate highway.

There, I and an almost full load of bus passengers were stuck for close to four hours. It took almost two hours for a bus company mechanic to reach the scene and decide he could not fix the problem, which seemed to be a broken gas line. And then it took almost another two hours for a spare bus to reach us from Syracuse. We eventually arrived in New York City four hours late.

The passengers’ behaviour was exemplary. No one lost his or her cool (although I came close, feeling the police and the bus company could do more to get us out of harm’s way and speed up the arrival of a backup bus).

Such is life. These things happen. And it did not put me off bus travel or alter my view that the Syracuse-New York City bus link is a good option for budget-minded Ottawans.

Smooth return trip

After a little more than 24 hours in the Big Apple (and taking in two operas), I wondered what the return journey would be like. Our bus departed a few minutes behind schedule, but we arrived back in Syracuse right on time.

Is it worth the three-hour drive to Syracuse to take the bus? I think so, if you don’t have money to burn. If the bus stays on schedule, the total journey time is hardly any longer than if you drive all the way to New York. I estimate my savings on gas and parking in New York City were close to $200. (Parking in Manhattan can be as much as $80 U.S. per 24 hours.)

Quite a few Ontarians – no doubt mostly from Ottawa and eastern Ontario – have already discovered this. About 10 per cent of cars in the parking lot of the Syracuse bus station had Ontario plates on the day I took the bus to New York. The daily parking rate is $8 – one-tenth of what you could pay in Manhattan!

In case you are wondering, I do not believe it’s worth driving from Ottawa to Syracuse to catch a flight to the Big Apple. When I checked, JetBlue, a leading American discount air carrier, wanted $261 U.S. for a round-trip flight from Syracuse to New York City at the times I wished to go. That’s about $326 in Canadian money.

JetBlue

I asked my Ottawa travel agent for the best price he could find for a return flight from Ottawa to New York City on the dates I wished to travel.

He quoted me a price of $344 from Porter Airlines. And Ottawa-New York City economy return flights can cost $700 or more. That is seven times the cost of that return bus ticket from Syracuse to New York City, meaning huge savings for those prepared to make a three-hour drive to Syracuse to take the bus.

If you think about it, it costs more to take a 20-minute taxi ride to catch a flight from the Ottawa airport than it costs to take a 450-kilometre bus ride from Syracuse to New York City.

Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues. He can be contacted at news@obj.ca.