Though New York is certainly a popular destination for Montrealers, not many New Yorkers realize how easy it is to get to Montréal. The drive is comparable in duration to Boston or Washington, especially when factoring in the heavy traffic along the Northeast Corridor.
Over the past seven years I have traveled between my hometown in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley and my university in Montréal countless times. Considering that you can get from one to the other by just about every conceivable mode of transportation, I thought I would outline the pros and cons of each one. I have been asked from time to time to recommend the best way, however the answer is highly dependent on your circumstances.
Flying is probably going to be your most expensive option, as well as the fastest, but not by as much as you may think. The scheduled flight durations are generally about an hour and a quarter and are offered several times throughout the day. However this does not consider the 2 hours in advance you must arrive at the airport for international flights or the time it takes to get to and from the airport. Round-trip tickets will cost upwards of $300, and it would not be uncommon to see them above $600. Options for getting to the New York area airports vary greatly by terminal, though in general the public transit is rather dismal. At the Montréal end, the 747 bus runs between the airport and downtown at a cost of $7 (includes an all-day transit pass) and takes about 30 minutes. Taxis offer a flat rate of $40 between the airport and downtown.
If money is no object, then by all means take a plane, but for the rest of us, they are generally only feasible if someone else is footing the bill.
Edit: these are the public transit options for the NYC area airports to the city:
JFK: The AirTrain to the Howard Beach Station on the A train is the most sensible route into Manhattan. Back towards the airport you must make sure the A train is going to either Far Rockaway or Rockaway Beach. There is another AirTrain station at served by the E/J/Z trains at Sutphin Blvd and Jamaica Station on the LIRR.
LGA: The M60 SBS will take you to 125th St in Harlem in Manhattan, and connects with the 4/5/6 trains on Lexington Ave, the 2/3 trains on Malcolm X Blvd, and the A/C/B/D on Fredrick Douglass Blvd. The Q70 Ltd will take you to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Ave Station in Queens, where you can connect with the E/F/M/R/7 trains.
EWR: Take the AirTrain to the Amtrak Station and from there take either Amtrak or New Jersey Transit into Penn Station.
New York City and Montréal are connected by Amtrak’s Adirondack Line. At $65 for a one-way ticket, it is usually the most affordable option. With termini right in the middle of both cities, it also saves you on transportation getting to your final destination. Its beautiful scenery through the Adirondack Mountains and along the Hudson River are certainly an added bonus, and it is always a pleasure to watch a bald eagle soar over Lake Champlain. The trains are quite comfortable, with ample leg room and a café car to visit if you’d like. In fact, at some times during the year there are volunteers from the Trails & Rails program that will narrate the geography and history of the Hudson Valley, between New York and Albany. Some cars have wi-fi, however the service is nonexistent Québec-side and only slow and intermittent throughout most of New York. The two largest downsides are the duration and frequency of the trip. The scheduled duration is 11 hours and 5 minutes, which factors in over an hour at the border, where customs agents make their way from car to car questioning passengers and collecting declarations. However, I have seen customs take up to 3 hours on occasion. Some of this time can be made up in transit, but it is markedly the slowest way to get between these cities. The corollary to this is that the trains only leave in each direction once per day. The train leaves from Montréal’s Gare Centrale at 9:30 AM and from New York’s Penn Station at 8:15 AM, meaning that whichever direction you are traveling, you are going to lose an entire day in transit.
The train is the best option for those traveling on a tight budget, those spending several days or more in the destination city, those looking for good transit at the terminal ends of the trip, those traveling alone, and those who enjoy comfortable, leisurely travel along a scenic route.
Short of flying, driving is the fastest way between these two cities. The travel time is about 6 hours, and is a straight shot along Interstate-87 in New York and Autoroute-15 in Québec. About 5 of these hours are in New York, with Montréal located less than hour from the national border. The biggest wild card is border traffic. It is almost always under 15 minutes, however I have personally been stuck for over 3 hours on select holiday weekends. This is primarily a concern around July with the holiday weekends of Canada Day (July 1) and Independence Day (July 4) spurring large amounts of travel. If you already own a car, the cost will be about a tank of gas in each direction (370 mi, 600 km), plus parking at each end, which could be quite substantial, especially if you are planning to stay in Manhattan. I would highly recommend filling up in New York (or better yet, New Jersey) if possible, because gas is substantially more expensive in Canada. Even without owning a car, renting one may be the most feasible option, especially if you a group, and especially if the driver is over 25. During my last trip, a 4 day car rental cost only $165. Of course this varies greatly by company and time of year. But split two ways, this made for a very reasonable option, considering the benefits of reduced time and increased mobility.
In summary, driving is probably the best option for groups, considering that it is the only mode where you can split costs. If you are renting a car for the trip, the duration of the trip is important when considering this option. That said, it is probably the best way to go for a shorter trip, on the order of a long weekend.
Usually the bus is considered against the option of the train, so I will specifically compare these two. Tickets will usually cost you $73 one-way, but could be discounted down to $124 round-trip, putting it in the same price range as the train. Buses travel between Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York and Gare d’autocars in Montréal, both centrally located in their respective cities. The trip is generally shorter than the train, but far more variable, typically between 7-10 hours. Customs on the way into the US is actually impressively quick, with dozens of customs agents going through the process in about 15 minutes. Canada-bound is substantially slower and can often take up to an hour. And whereas the agents will board the train and come to your seat, on the bus you must take your luggage into a nearby building and wait there until the process is finished. Just about every part of the bus is less comfortable than the train. The seating is more cramped, there is a layover in Albany where you must wait in a dismal bus terminal for about 30 minutes while the bus is refueled, and there is essentially no bathroom and no way to stretch your legs. Furthermore, the schedules and termini are generally more chaotic and confusing than the train. Who is operating which bus and which ticket you bought and at which gate your bus is seem to be ever-present issues with this mode. The main operators are Greyhound and Adirondack Trailways. Also, your spot on the bus is not reserved, so to ensure a seat you need to arrive and wait at least an hour in advance, especially during busy travel times. On the other hand, the option is better than the train when you want more flexibility as to what time of day you wish to travel, especially if you prefer to travel overnight, so to not waste a day in transit. Don’t expect a particularly comfortable sleep though. You will be awoken every couple of hours either for the border or the layover. The bus technically has wi-fi but is just about as poor as that on Amtrak.
Overall, the bus is best for those traveling on a budget who need more flexibility as to what times of day they wish to travel. This is especially so if you are only visiting for a long weekend, in which case it is infeasible to spend essentially two of these days on the train.
I can’t say that I’ve done this myself, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, however these brave souls made the four day trek. Good luck cycling up and down the Adirondack Mountains.