Pennsylvania Station is the main hub for subways and railways coming in and out of New York City. It is a huge underground maze of track lines and the place to catch a cheap and comfy ride to DC, upstate, Boston, or anywhere else the rail system goes.
Since this is such an important place for human transport – basically the train equivalent to New York City’s other hub – JFK Airport, and since JFK is so nice, and clean and modern, I assumed that Penn Station – with all its fame and business, would be just as nice…and would be a great alternative to the expensive hotels, for the 12 hours overnight I had in NYC.
Penn Station is GHET-TO!
Coming down escalators form the main street, like many other subway systems, you enter into a massive cavern. The hallways are huge, and clean. Stores and restaurants line the walls, but due to the hour I entered – almost 3 am – many were closed. I was still assuming there would be benches, or rows of chairs you could easily lay across, or a carpeted floor like the airport waiting rooms.
But as we got closer to the central Amtrak area, I found a few 24 hour restaurants, a bunch of homeless, and a waiting area, “exclusively” for people with Amtrak tickets. I write “exclusively” in quotes because the checking of tickets to enter the waiting area came down to:
1. Are you holding something white and ticket-ish shaped in your hand, and
2. Does the ticket “checker” even care enough to check if you have a ticket.
Multiple times I got in and out of the “exclusive area” without the ticket checker so much as looking up from the TV show playing on his or her tablet, phone, or mini TV. One woman was so caught up in conversation with what seemed like a friend who came to hang out with her at work, she became obviously annoyed when I stopped for her to check my ticket, and exasperatedly waved me in while snapping to ‘just go’. She never fully looked at me, and I never had anything remotely ticket-ish looking in my hand.
Later it became a game to me to see how many times I could walk in the waiting areas until I got checked. Answer: I don’t know. I never got checked and got bored with the game and carrying around my luggage (after 7 times).
So you can imagine how easy it was for all sort of random homeless and beggars to get in. The best though were these kids, probably 15 or 14, who proceeded to swear TO each other about a fight they almost just got in, in the “im going to convince you I’m tough” manner, while taunting train waiting passengers if they wanted “to f&*%ing go. Cause I’m all like let’s f*^&ing go b&%ch! Ya know? Yea, ya alllll know wha I’m sayin” and on for about 10 minutes at the top of their lungs. At 4:00am.
I, like many others, refused to look at or acknowledge them, and just keep pretending to be asleep with my jacket covering my head. Though under it, me and the passenger across were both rolling our eyes.
As for the seat themselves, they seem to be set up to purposely make you as uncomfortable as possible. When I arrived, only one section of the waiting area was open. This section had hard plastic seats with immovable metal armrests. The only way to lay down was to out my feet on my suitcase in front of me, turn half-sideways in the seat, and use the armrest as a makeshift prison pillow. I used my jacket as a blanket (and head covering) and attempted to keep my suitcase and backpack under me in a way that I could feel them, in case any of the lovely and demanding beggars tried to lift them. My attempts at real rest failed miserably.
I could see the other 2/3rds of the waiting room which had a few (not many but a few) bench chairs that were slightly cushioned and sans armrests, but you couldn’t get into that area without jumping the 3 foot wall. Which I was extremely tempted to do, but at the point I really noticed them some rail cops were wandering around, due to the awesome angry teens and the need to move the homeless sleeping next to the ticket windows (which were getting ready to open), and to scoot out the obvious thieves who were wandering the lobby scanning for sleepers they could steal from. I decided to go freshen up, grab some coffee at Dunkin Donuts (oh how a Dunkies can make things so much better!) By the time I caffeinated, the other half of the waiting area was starting to fill with people so I made my way into this side where I could lay more comfortably and charge my laptop and phone.
The whole area of Penn Station is nothing like what I expected. I expected the hallways to be dirtier, the reception area to be more inviting, and the entirety to be much more secure. I did expect homeless people waiting out the night and elements inside, and that’s fine, but I didn’t think that the waiting area would be so sketchy, AND so terribly uncomfortable!
The only redeeming thing about Penn Station is that there was an ample selection of food services and a few 24 options. The nice(r) side of the waiting area wasn’t as bad comfort-wise – but even less secure (at least the first side of the waiting area semi checked to see if I had a ticket-like thing in my hand once. Though, I could have been holding a receipt from dinner for all they knew).
If you HAVE to spend a night in New York City, Penn Station is an option. Whether it’s a good option is totally up to you, but it is not a $200 a night room or $50+ a night hostel dorm. It is free. It is not comfortable. It is not really safe either, and I would never stay their with children!
But if I were to need a night in the city before a train ride again, I would probably do what I did this time, go out with a friend and wander the streets until I’m exhausted then attempt faint rest in Penn Station until I can have good sleep on the train.
Penn Station is a sleeping option when in New York City. I’ll leave it at that.
About Dani Blanchette
I am a freelance travel and music photographer and creator of GoingNomadic.com.
I love music, food, and exploring cities without guidebooks. I’ve flown a helicopter, hitchhiked down the east coast USA, and once snuck into the back of a zoo (in Serbia) and pet a lion.
I am always up for an adventure, and sometimes I videotape them.