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Next week will be my first time on the US and I'll need some help getting around. I'll be arriving to Washington Dulles International Airport on the 11th of this month at around 3 pm and I need to get to Charlottesville before the evening of the next day. I've considered buying a train ticket from Union Station but I've been told that a Greyhound bus could be a better option. Should I buy a train ticket or wait until the next day and take a Greyhound bus in the morning?

PS: Will I be able to buy a train ticket at Union Station without booking it?

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  • Since it's around 2 hours direct from the airport to Charlottesville, it would be a shame to spend 2 hours getting to DC so as to take a train to Charlottesville. You might consider taking a taxi to Manassas and picking up the train there; there's also public transportation to Fairfax, but fewer trains stop there. Google mostly suggests getting the train in Alexandria, so that's probably the quickest option without taking a taxi. If I were you I'd book ahead, the earlier you buy, the less you'll pay. I don't see a direct bus.
    – phoog
    Dec 4 '18 at 21:45
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    Yes, you can buy a ticket right there in the station if it is not already sold out. Dec 4 '18 at 21:59
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    How long will you be staying in Charlottesville? If it's just for a few days, renting a car at the airport, as mentioned in one of the answers, might be the best option. It should be around the same cost as train or plane, but will be much faster than the train and you'll have a way to get around once you are in Charlottesville. This is assuming you will be legal to drive in the US. It might not be a good option if you are used to driving on the left side of the road. Dec 5 '18 at 2:47
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    Is there a reason you didn't book your flights through to Charlottesville (CHO) in the first place? Because otherwise my advice would be to change your flight to do just that. What airline did you book with? Dec 5 '18 at 4:16
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    Some out of the box thoughts here--check prices for rerouting to DCA (Regan/National) instead, at least it's more convenient for trains... Or even better, fly to RIC (Richmond) and take Greyhound to Charlottesville. Dec 10 '18 at 20:23
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Fly

By far the simplest (but not cheapest) way to get from Dulles to Charlottesville is to fly. United Express operates several IAD-CHO nonstops, each under an hour on a regional jet. This flight, however, would cost a few hundred dollars when booked separately and on short notice.

edit It seems from the comments that you are flying into Atlanta and connecting to IAD, in which case it is worth at least looking into flying to CHO instead. It probably won't, because there will be a change fee and you may need to rebook at a higher fare, but it doesn't hurt to check. Charlottesville is not near any major cities and IAD, for a major hub, is very poor for intermodal connections.

Rideshare

There are groups where people can arrange rides like Hoo's driving? Hoo's riding? NOVA on Facebook, which caters primarily to University of Virginia students. UVa is a large university and there is a fairly steady stream of people going back and forth between the campus and the Washington area, although this will drop off dramatically once final exams end next week.

Ride times, meeting places, costs and so on must be negotiated separately, which may be tricky to do from overseas. Also, some drivers may be reluctant to pick up someone who is not a member of the university community. But in the ideal, you'd have a direct and relatively inexpensive ride and maybe some good conversation to welcome you to the country.

Train

Dulles, unfortunately, is not located near any passenger train stations. For heading to Charlottesville, which is to the southwest, your best bet would be to take a taxi to the Manassas station (MSS)— there is no good way to do this via public transportation— and take an Amtrak from there to Charlottesville (CVS). Services at the station are very limited and there are only three daily trains, so be wary of timing; you can buy tickets online and have the barcode emailed to you or delivered via their mobile app. The coach seats on the train almost never sell out except on holiday weekends, but buying tickets in advance may save you some money as well as peace of mind.

Washington Flyer has a monopoly on taxi service from the airport, and charges around $45–50 to Manassas (metered, not flat). You can try your luck with Uber or similar services for a cheaper fare.

If budget is more important than time, you will need to backtrack a bit and take public transportation from Dulles towards Washington as detailed elsewhere. When you reach the Rosslyn Metro station, transfer to the Blue Line to Franconia-Springfield and alight at King Street; the King Street station is adjacent to the Alexandria Amtrak station (ALX). All trains to Charlottesville stop in Alexandria after they depart from Washington.

Bus

There are no intercity bus stations near Dulles, either, and none of the bus options is especially convenient. Your best bet is probably to make your way to Washington (see directions linked above), where you can get Greyhound service from Union Station for under $40 if you book in advance.

If you can stay overnight in Washington, Megabus operates a much cheaper daily trip which departs in the morning. Similarly, you can also board Greyhound at Springfield (stay on the Blue Line to Franconia-Springfield until the end of the line), but you arrive too late in the day for either of the Springfield buses. There is a bus service called Home Ride which caters to UVa students and departs from Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax County, but its schedule is extremely limited.

Rental car

To get around anywhere outside the largest cities in the U.S., you're almost always best off if you have a car, so consider renting a car. The drive from Dulles to Charlottesville takes about two and a half hours and would be almost entirely on well-maintained expressways.

Taxi/Airporter/Uber

There are a number of so-called "airport limousine" services which operate vans or shuttle buses from Dulles to Charlottesville. These have the advantage of direct and relatively quick service, but they can be expensive, and there is no easy way to compare prices or quality among the numerous options. From what I can tell, the lowest you can expect to pay is about $180 plus a tip for the driver.

By the same token, you can negotiate a fare with a taxi driver, or see if you can get an Uber or Lyft driver willing to go the distance, but I cannot venture a guess as to what that might cost.

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    As to the "fly" option, I would suggest that OP look into rebooking his existing flight with CHO as the new destination. The fare may not be significantly more, and the change fee may be less than the cost of an additional booking. This may give many more options, since the airline can offer you a routing through a different hub. Dec 5 '18 at 4:14
  • Thanks for the quick responses, really. First of all, I'll be flying from my home country to Atlanta and then take another plane to Washington. Could I somehow change my final destination to Charlottesville? I will be flying with Delta. Dec 5 '18 at 6:51
  • @AlejandroAltamirano you can call Delta and ask them if a change would be available. Delta generally changes $200-$500 for changes to international flights, and there might be a fare difference as well.
    – ajd
    Dec 5 '18 at 6:55
  • I've changed trains at King Street. The stations are literally next door - it's almost impossible not to know where the other one is since it fills much of your field of view when you look across the tracks in the appropriate direction. What is slightly more challenging is figuring out how to walk between them, but just go down to the street or ask the station manager for assistance and they can direct you. Dec 5 '18 at 14:30
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The train is more comfortable, and in both cases you will have to get into Washington DC from the airport. They appear to be about the same time in transit.

However, there are only two or three trains per day. On Dec 11, there are departures at 4:50 pm (you are not likely to make this) and 6:30 pm. You will make the latter train if your flight is on time.

The cheap Amtrak tickets are not refundable and you may not be able to exchange it if you are in the middle of the air when a delay happens. There is a train on Dec 12 at 11:00 am. That train runs through to Chicago. Sleeping accommodations, which you do not need, sell out. I do not know if seats sell out. I doubt it, but as with planes there is an advance fare that is less that you can buy over the web.

You might also consider flying. There is a flight on the 11th, United Airlines, at 10:20 pm, only $143 at this writing, and no need to stay over. You might even be able to add this to your existing ticket.

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    I'd go with flying. It's going to be hard to get a better total price unless OP can drive a rental car, which is unlikely to be an option on first visit to US. Lack of good ground transportation options from Dulles is a huge pain. Unfortunately, though, the flights from IAD to CHO do get delayed or even cancelled fairly often; last time I had one I ended up waiting around for hours at the airport and eventually getting put on a van. Dec 5 '18 at 3:42
  • I've considered buying a train ticket for the 6:30 departure if I arrive on time and to book a Greyhound bus for the next morning if I don't. Flying doesn't seem like an option for me at this moment, but thanks for the info, I really appreciate it! Dec 5 '18 at 7:02
  • @AlejandroAltamirano: Is there a reason you can share that you don't think flying is an option? Maybe others could confirm or deny that. Dec 5 '18 at 15:53
  • Others have pointed out, you can pick up the train from Alexandria or Manassas. That gives you more time to make the train. It's due at Alexandria at 6:49 pm, and that can be reached by inexpensive public transit, faster than going into the main Union Station. I don't know an inexpensive way to get to Manassas. Dec 5 '18 at 18:26
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TLDR: change your flight to BWI and take Amtrak.

Dulles is a bad choice for you.

Generally, people pick Dulles for one of two reasons: a) it's the "well-known, household name" DC airport... or b) it is actually the best choice for Charlottesville if you are renting a car and driving.

Travel agents who don't know Charlottesville can be forgiven for simply assuming you'll rent a car; the world's assumption about provincial America is that urban transit is awful to nonexistent. But Charlottesville is a college town, and they tend to have much better public transit than most.

Fly to National/Reagan/DCA. Take Metro to Amtrak.

Nate Elridge adds: Fly to DCA. Take the Metro 2 stops to Alexandria (it's on the same line). All the trains to C'ville go through there.

This wins for overall simplicity (only 2 trains and easy transfers: the Metro and Amtrak). The metro is in the airport; Alexandria Amtrak and Metro are right next to each other; and C'ville Amtrak is downtown and around stuff to do.

DCA is more of a commuter/short-haul airport, but if you can link it, it works great.

Fly to BWI. Take Amtrak.

Since you are flying internationally into an airport other than Dulles, it won't be too hard to get a flight to BWI instead of IAD.

It's barely a mile from BWI airport to BWI Amtrak. At this writing (mid COVID) the BWI to Charlottesville (CVS) fare is a measly $21.

There are several trains a day - regional service, the overnight Crescent, and the overnight Cardinal. Going towards Charlottesville, it does not matter which you pick. However, on the return trip from Charlottesville, pick the regional service, not the overnighters. By the time they depart CVS they will have already traveled for nearly 24 hours from Chicago or New Orleans, and can accumulate many stacked delays enroute. They can come in hours late.

There are only 3 trains a day, and some will require a transfer in Washington DC (WAS). But this is a GOOD thing. WAS is downtown, 2 blocks from the Capitol and the National Mall, Smithsonian, memorials, etc. There is a day-check for your bags for Amtrak passengers, specifically so you can do that! So I suggest designing your trip to have a long layover in WAS so you can do on-foot downtown tourism.

From BWI to WAS, there is very dense Amtrak and commuter service, rivaling European cities. So you can land anytime at BWI, and have only minutes of wait for a train to WAS. Learn where to go to get your CVS train, then day-check your bags and see the town. Then make your WAS-CVS train on time.

Fly to NYC or Philly. Take Amtrak.

All the above stuff, except fly internationally into JFK. It's a shlep to get to downtown NYC to get Amtrak, but they are at 34th and 7th - yes, 8 short blocks from Times Square. So you can do the same trick with layover tourism (but you would have to choose one town or the other).

Fly to Atlanta. Take Amtrak. (Slow but very direct)

One train that directly calls at Charlottesville is the overnight Crescent. That connects Washington to New Orleans via Atlanta. So you could "straight shot it" from Atlanta to CVS in one single vehicle, no fooling around with flights and commuter trains.

However, the Crescent being a long-haul overnight train, again has a vulnerability to delays stacking up over its long 24-hour run. That would not be a problem departing Charlottesville toward Atlanta, since the train only began its run. It could have delays overnight, so I'd pad the arrival time in Atlanta by 3 hours to cover any eventualities. Atlanta Amtrak is fairly remote and underserved by transit but once you are downtown, the Atlanta Metro can easily get you to the airport.

Fly to Chicago. Take Amtrak. (beast mode)

You'd have to time this right, because the overnight Cardinal does not run every day. But it calls at Charlottesville, so one-train ride. And it's a near 24-hour run, so at this point you are truly into Amtrak's "land cruise" scenery-tourism experience. However, the scenery is really something. It heads sharply south out of Chicago to get into the hills as quickly as possible, and it just keeps getting better and better, with the denouement being crossing the Blue Ridge mountains just before you step off at Charlottesville.

As usual with the overnighters, it is vulnerable to delays, so pack in a few hours of oops time. There are fun things to do near Charlottesville Amtrak if needed.

That's because America has a whole lot of highway crossings and very few grade separations, and the shared freight rail network is at overload on an ongoing basis. I've never seen a freight railroad put freight ahead of Amtrak. I've seen things that look like that to novices, but those were simply limitations of the track. (E.g. having Amtrak take a siding because the freight would not fit in the siding; it's the most expedient way to do that).

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  • Flying to DCA and taking Amtrak works pretty well also. The trains to Charlottesville stop at Alexandria which is just two Metro stops from DCA. May 3 at 2:43
  • @NateEldredge Oh, good one... I forgot about DCA, I tend to think of it as Washington's version of Midway/London City/Billy Bishop, and don't think of first tier airlines going there. May 3 at 3:16
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    I think the better analogy is LaGuardia. DCA's perimeter rule limits it mainly to flights from the East and Midwest US, but it's the more popular airport for such routes, and in fact pre-COVID its passenger counts were just slightly less than IAD. May 3 at 3:24

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