Written By David Greisman
The Big Apple for a day can keep the doldrums away.
The distance from downtown Westminster to the heart of New York City is some 215 miles, a four-hour journey by car beyond the beltway, up Interstate 95, onto the New Jersey Turnpike and either over a bridge or through a tunnel en route to the five boroughs.
The offerings are endless, a combination of culture, power, scenery and tourism: Broadway theaters, the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, Coney Island, Ellis Island, Harlem, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the United Nations, Wall Street, major business headquarters, museums, sports stadiums and so many restaurants that one could sit down to a different menu each day for more than 50 years.
But then there are the accompanying headaches — tolls, parking and skyrocketing gas prices — that can add up into a financial burden that lessens the overall experience.
It does not have to be that way. Why be driven crazy when you don’t have to do the driving?
In 2003, more than one million people traveled to New York City aboard Greyhound buses alone, visits that pumped upwards of $800 million into an economy that took in an estimated $18.5 billion in visitor spending that year, according to statistics kept by the American Bus Association and the city’s tourism organization, NYC & Company. The number of visitors and the amount they spend has only gone up since then, but specific totals are not available.
For those in Carroll County and surrounding areas who, like Frank Sinatra, want to be a part of It, the options include Bill Rohrbaugh’s Charter Service, Eyre Bus Tour & Travel, Rill’s Bus Service, and Superior Tours. All offer trips to the city that never sleeps, and a rough tally of the four bus companies reveals that they make upwards of 1,000 round trips a year to New York from the Baltimore-Carroll County area.
In addition, two new discount services, MVP Bus Line and Megabus.com, take riders from Baltimore to Manhattan for surprisingly low prices. MVP offers round-trip tickets for $35 and one-way trips for $20, while Megabus starts rides this month for as low as $1. (Yes, that is what their advertisement says.)
“You’ve got a very attraction-heavy destination in New York City,” said Eron Shosteck, senior vice president of the American Bus Association. “You’ve got a lot of places to see, a lot of things to do, and it’s a very short trip away to the largest city in the United States. The reason it’s such a popular destination for buses is it’s right where our sweet spot is.”
Places between 200 and 400 miles away, Shosteck said, are too far for many to drive to but too close (and too expensive) to fly into.
Prices for round trips from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport into one of the various airports serving New York City can run into triple digits – not including the $45 flat fare, plus tip, for a taxi from John F. Kennedy International Airport to any spot in Manhattan.
An Amtrak train trip from Penn Station in Baltimore to Penn Station in New York City can cost from $87 to $200 each way for a trip that can take as little as two hours and 11 minutes (Acela) to as much as three hours (regional).
Although a bus trip to New York can take from three to four hours (depending on point of departure), bus company officials say lower costs and various amenities more than make up for a slightly longer time in transit.
“The bus companies have gone overboard to make the motor coach comfortable. It is much different than it used to be where you couldn’t see over the seat in front of you,” said Ellen Kilby, tour planner for the Glenelg-based Eyre. “They have huge windows. There are video players on every motor coach. They have restrooms on board. They have climate control to make everybody comfortable. The seats recline.
“If you fly, you’ve got to get to the airport two hours early. There’s a good chance that the flight is going to be delayed, canceled or oversold,” she said. “The motor coach picks you up where you want to be picked up. It drops you off where you want to be dropped off. It’s foolproof.”
Starting June 28, and on the last Saturday of every month, Eyre’s Eyreliner service will offer a $60, one-day round trip, which leaves at the break of dawn from Glenelg, Ellicott City and White Marsh, arriving at approximately 10:30 a.m. at the intersection of 8th Avenue and West 51st St. in Midtown Manhattan. In November and December, Eyre plans to offer the service every Saturday.
“People can see Times Square from there so they know where they’re going,” Kilby said. “They know how to get back to what their departure point will be eight hours later. It sells out. People like to go up for the day. There are some people who want to go up overnight, but not so much that it fills the coach.”
Eyre sends between 100 and 150 charter and tour buses to New York City each year, Kilby said. Aside from the Eyreliner deal, packages can include seats at Broadway shows, tickets to the Rockettes or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, hotel stays for trips that last more than one day, and visits to the American Girl Place doll store in Manhattan.
“From young to old, everyone likes New York City,” said Lori Parr, charter sales manager for Bill Rohrbaugh’s Charter Service, which has offices in Manchester and Baltimore. “What I’ve been experiencing lately is the school groups that get an opportunity to go up to Broadway. Certain shows have workshops, and they get to see the shows in the evening.”
In recent years, the college activities programming board at McDaniel College has run spring and winter trips to New York City in which all of the seats end up filled.
“We try to go to a show, not that we don’t do shows in Baltimore, but just to add that out-of-the-classroom cultural component,” said Mitchell Alexander, director of college activities. “Everybody seems to love to go New York, the whole Times Square hustle bustle, the cultural Mecca feeling behind it. A lot of students like to go just to hang out with friends in New York. We give people time to mill around for two or three hours on their own, but the whole purpose is to go to the show.
“I think the students who have done it in the past capitalize on the fact that it is cheap,” he said. “In the real world, spending the money for a good seat in the theaters is going to run you a good bit of money, and then you have to pay to park and pay for dinner. They’re really getting a bargain.”
The Carroll County Arts Council used to run two trips a year to New York City, but that is no longer the case.
“Just getting a charter bus — with the gas crisis, it costs so much more,” said Sandy Oxx, executive director of the arts council. “It’s hard to make them financially reasonable.”
After trips in which she had found herself trying to scalp Broadway tickets, purchased in advance, that went unsold, Oxx now charters buses to closer destinations such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“All my trips are based on things that I think can sell to a broad audience, and so many of the regional museums are getting blockbuster exhibits,” Oxx said. “It’s just an easier trek. The touring shows are coming to the Hippodrome and Kennedy Center. It’s not like you have to go to New York anymore.”
But many still do.
“Some counties have a hard time selling bus trips to New York, but for some reason we’ve hit a niche,” said Barbara Lages, recreation supervisor for the Carroll County Department of Recreation and Parks. “We often have waiting lists of people who can’t get on a particular trip.”
The trips run about once a month. About half involve going to a show, while the rest let the visitors loose upon the city.
“You get on the bus in Westminster,” Lages said. “We stop for half an hour at the Delaware House, then we drop off in New York City right in the middle of everything. Then we pick you back up.”
“We get very good seats. We always have the most up-to-date shows,” she said. “I work with someone in New York who’s constantly keeping us abreast of what’s going on. We buy at least a year in advance for many of the things, so we have tickets for shows that haven’t even opened yet.”
One frequent traveler on the county-run trips is Roxanne Beaver, who has averaged two journeys to the Big Apple every year for the past decade.
“I’m always surprised we can get so much done from 7 in the morning to 11 at night,” said Beaver, 51, of Westminster. “We get on the bus, you don’t have to worry about anything. The bus lets you off as close to the theater as it can. You’ve got a couple hours to go sightseeing and do whatever. You walk out of the theater and literally walk right onto the bus.
“It amazes me how they get through the city with all that traffic,” she said. “I would never attempt it on my own.”