The Best Bargain in New York – The Staten Island Ferry [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
Taking the Staten Island Ferry is like taking a little cruise, offering spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline. I’ve seen it sailing back and forth at the mouth of the Hudson River and have discovered that the Staten Island Ferry is much more than just a floating bus.
The Staten Island Ferry shuttles commuters and tourists back and forth from New York City’s fourth borough of Staten Island; 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The ferries depart from Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan and St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island. During rush hours, ferries run every 15 to 20 minutes, slowly decreasing in service to 30 minutes on evenings and weekends, with once an hour service provided late nights.
Riding the Staten Island Ferry is one of the best tickets in town as it’s FREE! But, it wasn’t always that way!
In 1817, ferry service between New York City and Staten Island began under the ownership of former New York governor Daniel D. Thompkins. Thompkins secured the rights to operate the ferry service and to build a bridge to the island (which never happened) in exchange for his development of the village of Thompkinsville, which is still a prominent neighborhood, today.
When the Civil War began, some of the ships were commandeered by the US Army and never returned to passenger service. With the opening of the Staten Island Railway in the 1850’s, the population on the island skyrocketed and the number of passengers on the ferries dramatically began to increase.
Originally, the cost to ride was the same as the subway, a nickel. But, as the cost of subway tokens went up, the ferry toll stayed low.
The price rose to a dime in 1948 and a quarter for a round trip in 1975. (The quarter was only collected in one direction.) In 1990, a spin cost 50¢, before being eliminated completely in 1997. Up until the 2001 terror attacks, cars could also be transported for $3 on the ferries lowest deck. They have since been prohibited. Bicycles may be brought aboard for free, but are restricted to the lower deck.
Today, the ferry is owned and operated by the City of New York. They have the operations down a science as the ferry boasts a whopping 96% on time rate. Newark-Liberty International airport can’t even do that at the crack of dawn! Weather is usually the only significant factor that can delay the service.
I’ve seen the ferry on tourist brochures, I’ve seen it on TV and I’ve seen it floating away at the mouth of the Hudson River. After living in the area for a long time, I’ve decided to finally give it a ride!We departed last Saturday morning under a light drizzling sky. We exited the new Staten Island Ferry/Whitehall Terminal station of the R subway line. That station was recently renovated to close off the lowest level, which featured a sharp curve and gap fillers for subway cars.
The subway escalator brings you within steps of the ferries front door. Immediately arriving at the street, you can’t help but notice the large neon blue Staten Island Ferry sign.
The Whitehall Terminal opened in 2005 and is partially powered by solar panels installed on the roof.
Upon entering the terminal, it very much has the feel of an airport concourse. You walk through a set of vertical turnstiles without any gates and into the main waiting room. If they ever start charging a toll again, these could easily be rearmed.
There is ample seating for several hundred commuters on long rows of chairs, just like at an airport gate. Along the side are several food/coffee stands, restrooms, and an ATM. As the ferry arrival time nears, a vast majority of commuters gather at the large set of glass doors at the far end.Once docked, you can see the disembarking passengers moving through a glass enclosed walkway and outside. The doors then open. You proceed down one of two long wooden gangplanks and onto the ferry.
I can’t remember the exact class of ship we were on, but ours was definitely from the 1970’s or 80’s. We decided to try out the second deck snack bar, which we’ve heard offer some of the best bargains in New York. Turns out – that’s correct.
I ordered a Big Az Cheeseburger, which was slowly simmering inside a glass heat lamp display machine. It’s basically a hot vending machine cheeseburger sold for $4.75.The ship’s biggest bargain – beer. You’re not going to find a cheaper beer in New York. Cans of Budweiser and Bud Light were selling for as low as $3.75. While no hard liquors or wines are sold, there are also soft drinks, smoothies, nachos, pretzels, candy, coffee, and chicken.
I wish they had ketchup and mustard dispensers on board, as my sandwich was a little dry without dressings, but not bad at all. A ferry regular in line before me warned that the food was awful, but what I had, while not being gourmet, was far from bad.
A table/mess area is also provided to finish your refreshments, but you can take them anywhere on board.
After exploring other parts of the ship, we took on some spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty. You can also get amazing views of Liberty State Park, New Jersey, and the lower Manhattan skyline. About halfway through, you will also see a sister ferry heading in the opposite direction.
The entire trip took around 25 minutes and gives just enough time to finish your food and drink.
Upon reaching the St. George Terminal, all passengers are informed via shipboard loud speakers, that they must disembark the vessel. It didn’t appear that everyone was doing so, but according to Coast Guard regulations, passengers are required to disembark and reenter through the turnstiles.
We exited the St. George Ferry Terminal and walked around for a few blocks. The area is a bit desolate for being prime New York waterfront real estate. While there are a couple of bars and restaurants outside the terminal, this area could really boom if there were more visitor amenities. There definitely needs to be more immediate restaurant options, especially considering the sweeping views of the New York City skyline.
We reentered the St. George Ferry Terminal, which is a bit bigger than the New York City side. Here, you can connect via a flight of stairs to the Staten Island Railroad. There are also a few more food options, including the old commuter standby Au Bon Pain. Again, the terminal definitely has the feel of an airport, but this side featured two large fish tanks and a live music performer. Security seemed to be a little tighter, even featuring police with guard dogs.
The terminal has been undergoing major renovations. The outside is a mess of barriers, cones, and debris. Improvement plans include more handicap access, 25,000 square feet of retail, added walkways to the Staten Island Yankees ball park and an 18,000 square foot roof garden featuring local plants irrigated by rain water. The new ballpark walkway is replacing the abandoned Ball Park subway station that only operated for about 7 years, cost millions of dollars, and was recently closed due to budget cuts.
We boarded the fleet’s newest ferry, The Spirit of America. This was definitely a major upgrade from our previous voyage.
This larger vessel features four decks, more seating, expanded outer walkways, an updated café, and even two elevators (which I made my group ride in for fun. Five people are a tight fit!) There are also more stairways between the decks and can accommodate 4,400 passengers and 30 vehicles. The concession area also proudly displays their “A” grade for cleanliness from the New York City Health Department.
Commuters are permitted to walk outside on the upper of the ship, but are blocked from reaching certain areas by fencing.
Along the way, a large Carnival cruise ship passed to our New Jersey side and heading back towards Manhattan really offers incredible views of the city skyline.
While in the early days, accidents on the ferry happened with more frequency, over the later years it has had only a small share of accidents. The worst with the modern fleet occurred in 2003, when a ferry slammed into a concrete terminal wall, slicing through three passenger decks, killing 11 people. The latest occurred in 2010, when a Staten Island bound ferry struck a dock injuring 37 passengers. But, with the large amount of trips and passengers per day, the ferry has a fairly solid safety record.
The Staten Island Ferry has been seen in numerous TV and movie productions. Some of the more notable appearances include, Sex and the City, Wall Street, I Love Lucy, Late Show with David Letterman, World Trade Center, Working Girl, The Dark Night, The Secret of My Success, and Zombi 2.
Name: The Staten Island Ferry
What: fleet of ferry service ships in New York City
Number of ships: 8
Began operation: 1817
Hours of operation: 24/7
Daily passengers: approx. 75,000
Official website for more information: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/ferrybus/statfery.shtml
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: This was always one of those touristy things that I’ve wanted to do. If you’re visiting New York City, or a local and money is tight, this is a great way to spend an afternoon. The food is cheap, the views are free, and our tax dollars are paying for it – so enjoy! The cost to operate the ferry continues to rise for the city each year, but even with some deep budget cuts, it has remained free.
Image credit: Lee Cannon