The Trip to JFK Airport

To make it to a 6AM flight out of JFK from the NJ suburbs while spending as little as possible on transportation, we decided to go the ultra-hard but super-cheap way: NJ Transit to Penn Station, LIRR to Jamaica, and AirTrain to the airport — leaving at midnight to catch the last of the NJT trains. (LIRR trains to Jamaica run all day and night so late night rides are not a problem.)

It is not a trip we will ever be repeating.

Things began to go wrong right before the first leg of our trip, waiting at the NJT station: a screw fell out of the handle of my heaviest rolling suitcase, so that I had to lug it from its lower leather handle, while holding a heavy duffel bag with a previously broken shoulder strap in another hand. Our bags, four pieces in all and ranging from 30 to 50 pounds each, took up a whole pair of facing seats all by themselves. (Fortunately, it was a mostly empty train.)

It was a grueling bag-lug through Penn Station (punctuated by the usual over-loud baroque guitar music) to the LIRR concourse, where we had to figure out that Jamaica-bound trains don’t say “Jamaica” on the sign, but the last stop on the line, necessitating a look at the large system map. When the train arrives at its designated track, you are not told that the elevators are way off in another concourse that descends to the same platform. Unlike the NJT, the LIRR train was quite crowded, without room for our massive and numerous suitcases.

At Jamaica Station, Metro farecards are needed to transfer to the JFK AirTrain, $5 to enter through the turnstiles. My card had only $4 on it, but gladly I had a dollar bill and the patience to navigate MTA’s annoying “PRESS START” farecard interface. Once through the turnstiles, a row of baggage carts brought sighs of relief, and we gratefully loaded our bags onto one, little knowing that the cart would soon be our undoing.

There’s something you need to know about the JFK Airtrain: it lists. Train cars lean in to each stop, forming a tiny step-up — not enough to trip up a person, but enough to catch the front wheel of a loaded baggage cart. The cart stops, bags piled atop it fly off, and suddenly one is trapped between train car and airport terminal, cart stuck in the gap, two errant bags strewn out on the station floor, train doors ready to close at anytime, passing security guard muttering oh-so-helpfully that “you should’ve pulled the cart.”

Somehow I managed to grab the bags that had flown off and pull the cart back into the train as the doors insistently attempted to crush all between them. While making sure the contents of a duffel bag had not been damaged, I closed its zipper with rather more wrath than was warranted in my anger at the cart-gap incident, and tore it clean off its teeth, leaving the bag gaping — for check-in. That was two bags broken.

We settled back to re-traverse the circuit of the airport to get to our target Terminal 7 — which it turned out was closed. Apparently certain JFK airport terminals have closing times — not just for shops and check-in counters, mind you, but the whole terminal is locked up, and people asked to leave. And that’s an international terminal. Fortunately Terminal 4 was still mostly open, with a 24-hour Sbarro which served crisply burnt day-old veggie pizza to tide us over at 3AM, and a SecureWrap outpost to mummify my zip-torn duffel bag in multiple layers of clear plastic.

At 5:15 AM Terminal 7 opened. We had circumvented United’s notoriously rude check-in service with online check-in, and needed only pause to drop off our battle-scarred bags at the check-in counter before going through the requisite laptop-shoes-belt-311-ziploc-bag dance of TSA Security Theater. We boarded, sat, sighed, and agreed to never go through JFK Airport ever, ever again, especially not coming from New Jersey.