Here’s a quick list of basics, because it was surprisingly difficult to find all the important information in one place the first time I tried to figure out how to do it. And for the record, taking the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station to JFK is absolutely more reliable than taking a chance on traffic — and much more affordable than calling a car — if you’re near the train station in Midtown West.
1. Most people just buy LIRR tickets right they need to get on the train ($7 off-peak and $9.50 peak). But if it really makes you feel better to have them ahead of time, the tickets are valid for 60 days, including the day you buy them. Just nip into the station unless you’re planning way ahead — web purchases have to be mailed.
2. If you’re running super late, the lines are long, and there’s a train coming, get on it. You can pay the conductor when he comes through, at a small premium.
3. Local trains on all routes out of Penn Station stop at Jamaica, where you have to transfer to the airport AirTrain, except for the Port Washington Branch. (This was the most confusing part for me the first time I took public transit to the airport. And it took an unbelievable amount of Googling to figure out what route to take, until I landed on… Jamaica Station‘s Wikipedia page.) And if it’s peak hour, be sure you’re not on an express train. In the event that you accidentally do get on one, let the conductor know you’re trying to catch a flight when they comes through for tickets. They don’t advertise it, but they’ll usually let you hop off real quick at Jamaica.
4. It takes about 20-25 between Penn Station and Jamaica.
5. Jamaica is one to three stops after Penn Station, depending on the train. If you can’t hear the conductor announcing the stops clearly, keep an eye out for the digital signs on the walls at the ends of the train cars, which will display the name of the upcoming station.
6. At Jamaica Station, you have to pay for the AirTrain with a Metrocard — and it has to be a pay-per-ride one, not a weekly or monthly pass. It’s $5 each way.
That’s all, folks! Once you know which train to get on — which, again, is most of them — it’s pretty straightforward. It took me all of a half hour to get to Terminal 4 on a cold, rainy Wednesday before Thanksgiving (though I’d suggest budgeting 45 minutes, especially if you aren’t right in T1 or T2, to be safe). Sure beats sitting in traffic for an hour and paying $70+ for the pleasure.