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New York Travel Tip: JFK Shuttle Blues - or how I learned to embrace uncertainty and love the Big Blue Van

New York Travel Tip:
JFK Airport Shuttle Blues
Or how I learned to embrace uncertainty and love the Big Blue Van

To truly travel on the cheap, you need to cut costs at every turn.

I'm a longtime freelance writer based near Toronto and a frequent visitor to New York City. If you've ever tried to live on the earnings of the former and are familiar with the costs of staying in the latter, you'll know these assertions border on the mutually exclusive. But, poverty is the mother of many an invention and I've figured out how to save on exorbitant hotel bills by staying in apartments, which also cuts down on eating out.

Airport transfers are another matter - and one that annoyingly adds $100-200 to the cost of any trip. The hike to and from JFK to Manhattan (LaGuardia - please!) can be pricey by taxi and even more so by limo and a train plus long subway ride to my eventual destination in upper Harlem with luggage and laptop in tow is just too daunting a prospect.

Luckily, one of those friendly people at the ground transportation information counter turned me on to the Big Blue Van method instead.

What is the Big Blue Van?
Ah... this is something of an existential question. On the face of it, it is just that - a full sized blue van that roams the airport terminals picking up passengers until full - or up to 10 to 12 people including the driver - then to proceed on to The City. It's about half the price of fixed rate cab fare. It is also - depending on your frame of mind and agenda for the day:

  • a hellish and endless journey through the nine circles of NYC traffic hell or;
  • a zen-like odyssey through the nooks and crannies of Manhattan. All of them.

Surviving the Big Blue Van Experience
I'm cheap, so I've been using it regularly for some time and have become something of an expert in how to navigate the mysterious vagaries of the van system of ferrying passengers between the city and the airports. Having witnessed confusion and consternation on the part of both native New Yorkers and visitors to town alike on using the system for the first time, I'd like to offer a few practical tips.

  1. Dress warmly, even if it's hot outside. The drivers like it cold in The Van.
  2. When you book, they will allow a 20 minute window for pick-up. In reality, be ready at least 10 minutes before... and prepared to wait up to ten minutes after.
  3. Do not ask the driver how long it will be. He will always say 45 minutes. That's roughly the time it would take to get from JFK to the Manhattan city limits if there was no traffic on the Van Wyck. Ha ha ha. In reality, he does not know. No one knows. It is an unknowable truth, An Enigma. Yet, you demand an answer... so he says "45 minutes."
  4. In truth, if you are one of the first lucky passengers on the van, you may spend the first 45 minutes driving around to all the gates of JFK before you even get to the Van Wyck (and that's before you hit the nine gates of traffic hell, mind you).
  5. Do not ask the driver if you will be next one let off. You may, for example, naïvely assume that if you're already on 49th, it's not much of a hike over to 52nd and your hotel. Your driver may mutter something about entering the city on the east side - or not. If you press him, there will be some sort of explanation that involves the east side and the west side. I believe it may actually have something to do with the phases of the moon. You will not be next. And it is another one of The Mysteries. 

On the plus side:

  • You will see parts of The City that you never knew existed.
  • You will see much of Queens, including what seems to be endless sections of narrow streets lined with small warehouses.
  • You will know what they mean when people talk about "New York drivers" first hand - and if you're in the front seat, very first hand.

At worst, I've spent close to 4 hours in The Van on a day when President Obama came to town to screw up the traffic even more than usual. Once I narrowly avoided missing a flight because the driver forgot a passenger and had to backtrack 80 blocks in town... late in the afternoon on the Friday of a long weekend.

But it's cheap.

I have heard rumours of a White Van that picks up even more passengers and is a few bucks cheaper...

But I don't know if I'm quite ready for that much zen.

All images of NYC by me.


  1. This article is hilarious! Your description of what to expect on the ride and the driver's response made me laugh right out myself! I especially liked the part where you talked about how long the journey would take and the driver would always say 45 minutes and you shouldn't ask if you would be the next one out. Your way of telling the story makes the reader feel the actual experience themselves. Loved it.


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