As a native New Yorker, I encourage people to take the Airtrain and LIRR trains when arriving into JFK. This guide will walk you through how to get from JFK Airport in Queens to Manhattan step-by-step with photos as there are a few steps involved. This is the best and fastest way to get to Manhattan from JFK airport as you avoid traffic that you’d hit if you took a cab.
Not everyone realizes how large New York City is, but the distance between JFK and Manhattan is about twenty minutes. Before think that this distance is good, keep in mind that it’s very easy to spend at least an hour and half stuck in traffic if you are traveling any time close to rush hour. By comparison, it should take around 47 minutes to arrive in Manhattan without any traffic by Airtrain and LIRR on a relatively clean and easy to navigate system. (It’s about the same amount of time to get to Brooklyn using the same LIRR/Airtrain combination with one small difference, which I’ll discuss within this post.)
Simply, the cleanest and best way to get to Manhattan or downtown Brooklyn is by LIRR and Airtrain. Some people prefer taxis, which have a set rate of 52 (plus a surcharge for rush hour) for going between JFK and Manhattan, but this public transport method should only cost you less than $16 per person. (You might need to take an additional bus or subway onwards to your hotel depending on the location. )
Land at JFK
Welcome to New York City. John F. Kennedy is the main international airport located in New York City and it’s pretty large. If you’re arriving from a domestic flight, you should be able to look for signs to the Airtrain (or public transit) after getting your bags.
Get through Immigration after getting your bags (if applicable)
If you’re taking an international flight to New York City, you’ll need to go through immigration. JFK has recently-ish rehauled their immigration in an attempt to improve efficiency. You’ll need to pick your bags first. As a friendly reminder, even celebrities have to pass through this area and I saw Yoko Ono at JFK some years ago!
Depending on your visa and whether you have US citizenship, you might be able to cut the queue by using the machines to answer the questions. From here, you take the slip printed by the machine and find the applicable line prior to being cleared by an immigration agent.
If you’re a US citizen returning, it can take only twenty minutes, not including getting your bags, although it took about forty minutes on my recent trip back. US Immigration will take longer if you’re not a US citizen and I still find this area a bit chaotic. There is staff there to help you figure out where to go if you’re not sure!
Look for signs to the Airtrain and find a ticket machine
Once you’re through Immigration, look for signs to the AirTrain. This is pretty simple. Unfortunately, the Airtrain is not free ($5), so you’ll need to find a ticket machine to purchase a ticket. Your ticket is a Metrocard and this is really useful to have in New York City. A Metrocard is, for now, the card that you swipe or insert (and remove) from the machine when you pay for subways and buses in New York City. (Fares generally cost 2.75, so add some extra money if you’ll be using the subway in New York.)
If you already have a Metrocard from a previous trip, you can save yourself $1 and you might be able to bypass the machine step if have more than $5 on your Metrocard. (Check the expiration date first.) Soon, it should be possible to pay with Apple Pay, a contactless wallet on your phone, or another contactless card, but this is not everywhere in New York City yet.
Buy an AirTrain ticket and Metrocard
If you do not have a Metrocard, you’ll want to tap AirFare fare, which will give you a Metrocard. If you’re traveling with a group, you can add multiple Airtrain fares to one card provided that there’s enough balance for each person ($5). (Children under 5 ride free on the Airtrain) If you’ll be taking public transit in New York with adults, I recommend having one Metrocard per adult. (Children below 44 inches ride for free on the subway and the bus.)
You’ll want to select how many fares you want to put onto this Metrocard. From here, you can hit pay, which allows you to pay with cash, a bank card (ATM card), and a credit card. You’ll need to dip your card into the machine and you should have your Metrocard.
If you see an “Exact Change” sign, you will not get change back if you insert cash. In this case, it’s best to use your cards to pay. (Notify your bank or credit card company about your travels in advance.)
From here, you dip your new Metrocard into the gated machines. It will come back up and you should take your Metrocard with you! The subways are one of the best ways to get around New York City.
Get on the Airtrain & arrive at Jamaica
The Airtrain is a one-way train that goes past all the terminals at JFK prior to stopping at Federal Circle and Jamaica. I recommend taking the Airtrain to Jamaica, which has both the LIRR and subway connections. (You can also check Google Maps to see if the A train, which can be reached via Federal Circle, is a good option for you. It’s much slower, but it will get you to Manhattan eventually if you’re on a budget and in no rush. I recommend the E for Midtown Manhattan.)
There are Airtrains very frequently and you can check the board for the direction (e.g. Jamaica) and when the next train will be. Make sure that you’re going to Jamaica, not other JFK terminals. This is a very common mistake that will waste your time!
The Airtrain has some areas for storing your baggage and you’ll want to find a seat. People often wait by the door although it’s generally unnecessary. Let people get off before you get on.
Buy a LIRR ticket from Jamaica to Penn Station
So, you’ve arrived at Jamaica. You’ll want to exit the Airtrain station and look for the LIRR ticket machines. If you’re confused, yes, this is a separate transit system. The LIRR is a train system often used by commuters living outside of New York City proper that has a quicker connection with Manhattan and Brooklyn. There are fewer stops.
Note: If you are heading to Brooklyn as your final destination, buy a ticket to Atlantic Avenue instead.*
If your final destination is located in Brooklyn, don’t take the train to Penn Station. Your final train station destination with LIRR is likely Atlantic Terminal in Downtown Brooklyn. This is a different route and it will bring you to Brooklyn faster than the subway or arriving into Penn Station and transferring. This is the same cost as Penn Station.
You’ll want to tap the LIRR screen. From here, you’ll tap one-way ticket or round trip ticket (the return ticket is valid for 60 days). If you are flying out of JFK within two months, I recommend getting a round-trip ticket as you won’t need to fuss with the machines on your trip back!
The machine will ask you Where are you’re traveling to? You’ll tap another station. (Penn Station sometimes comes up as an option at this screen.) Otherwise, search for P prior to tapping Penn Station. Then, it asks you which ticket you’d like. As mentioned above, you’ll need to tap peak or off-peak.
One important note about the LIRR is that there are differences in the fare depending on when you’re traveling. If you are taking a train to Manhattan or Brooklyn that will arrive between 6am and 10am on a weekday, this is a peak fare as this is when most commuters from Long Island arrive into New York City. It will be $3 more than the off-peak fare (all other times). You have to pay $3 extra on the train if you buy the wrong ticket and you’re traveling during peak hours.
Once you tap your destination, it will ask you how many tickets do you need?. You can specify how many adults and children (ages 5-11) you are traveling with. (Children under 5 are free!) Once you’re ready to pay, it will show your total. You can pay by cash, ATM, or credit card. Dip your card in and collect your tickets.
Some money saving tips for the LIRR
If you are Military, a senior, or disabled, you can get a discounted ticket, which will save some money! Similarly, children under 5 years old are free. Children between 5 and 11 have a cheaper ticket. Similarly, I should mention that if you are traveling with a family (with children between 5-11), I recommend getting the Family Fare, which is a good deal for families with several children.
It is possible to get on the train without a ticket, but you’ll pay almost double ($14/$17) when the conductor comes around. I recommend buying it at the ticket machine.
For those on a budget*
If you’re on a budget, you can get to Sutphin Avenue/Jamaica and get on the subway after topping up your Metrocard. This will take longer than the LIRR, but the subway ride will only cost $2.75 (versus $7+) to travel onwards towards Brooklyn or Manhattan. The J/Z train goes through Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan while the E goes through Queens to Midtown Manhattan before heading downtown.
Check the track numbers (or your phone) for trains and get on your train
Once you have your ticket, you’ll want to check the screens. These screens state where the trains head to. For Penn Station, you simply need to look for the track number of the train heading to Penn Station. These trains run pretty frequently (every 5-20 minutes depending on the time of day). There are elevators to get down to the train if you have a lot of items. Get on the train and wait until you arrive at Penn Station.
If you are heading to Brooklyn by LIRR, you’ll want to look for the train with the direction Atlantic Terminal. This train runs a bit less frequently, but the LIRR is the fastest way to get to downtown Brooklyn from JFK.
I recommend putting your ticket somewhere accessible as there are conductors who check the tickets. If you have a one-way ticket, they might take your ticket at some point, however those with a round trip ticket will get it back. Put it somewhere safe!
Arrive in Manhattan (or Brooklyn!)
Welcome to Penn Station. (It always smells terrible for some reason that I don’t understand.) Penn Station is located on 34th Street and 7th/8th Avenues. From here, you can top-up your Metrocard if you need to travel further Uptown or Downtown. (If you’re confused by these terms, click for my subway tips post). You can take the bus or subway from Penn Station elsewhere. Similarly, you can also catch a cab from outside of the station once you find the exit. I hope that you enjoy your trip to New York City!