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Choosing an Airport: 10 Reasons to Look Beyond Price

airportAccording to an informal poll we did recently, many of our readers have multiple choices in hometown airports. In my case, I suppose I have up to five -- I am about halfway between Newark and Philadelphia, can get to JFK quickly if the Belt Parkway cooperates, and arguably could fly out of Lehigh (68 miles) or even Atlantic City (78 miles) if the situation warranted.

If you have a choice of multiple airports, how do you pick one? I suspect most people choose first based on distance -- whichever airport is closest is the one on which you search first. Perhaps even more important is flight price, an ostensibly easy metric to measure (although it can be deceiving, as I will discuss below).

Next comes habit and familiarity. Once you have a "home airport," you get used to the drive, know the airport loop and parking lots, and tend to rack up miles on the airlines that serve that airport; soon you have a positive feedback loop that favors one airport heavily.

Price, Obviously -- and 10 Reasons Why You Should Think Beyond It
The most obvious reason to pick one local airport over is the price of available flights to your chosen destination. But costs and hassles can quickly mount at the most popular airports, which usually offer the most competitive prices; let's look at some other factors you may want to consider.

1. Distance and Its Corollary, Traffic
Among my three biggest choices of airports (Newark, Philadelphia and JFK), the respective distances are 39 miles, 52 miles and 62 miles -- different enough to notice, but small enough to equal out under the right conditions. When you map the driving directions to each airport, you find about a 20-minute difference from one to the next under ideal conditions, certainly not a deal breaker.

The shortest route to Newark involves a tight and aging stretch of Route 1 that can make turning around and heading to Philadelphia look pretty attractive. The longest route to JFK requires a stretch on the Belt Parkway, which often looks more like a parking lot. Maybe it works for a 6 a.m. flight, but otherwise, ouch.

Looking south, the Philadelphia airport can be a very quick drive from points north, unless you get crushed trying to get past Center City -- which is not all that uncommon. And if the Eagles, Phils or Flyers are playing, you can be in true, miss-your-flight-for-sure trouble. Few people would think that checking the local home game schedules would impact which airport to choose, but in Philadelphia, it might be the first thing you should check, even before checking fares. Before you buy a flight out of Philadelphia on a Sunday afternoon, you better make sure the Eagles aren't home.

But when I look further afield to Lehigh and Atlantic City airports, it takes me down far less trafficked roads, and driving times can actually rival the busier airports. When you factor in some of the issues I address below -- parking, security lines and more -- the longer drives can start to look more attractive in exchange for better airport experiences.

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2. Parking
When considering parking, you will want to reckon two things: cost and convenience.

On cost, if the parking at one airport is much higher than another, you might as well add it to the base price of your flight when comparing prices. Parking at one of my "stretch" airports (ACY) was free the last time I was there (it costs $9/day now, alas), and the tiny airport in Trenton, NJ, was always free back when it had regular flights to Boston. For a longer trip, free or cheap parking can amount to savings in the dozens or hundreds of dollars.

With respect to convenience, Atlantic City also features a modestly sized parking lot directly in front of the main terminal. No five-mile long ring roads, no long waits in bus shelters, no crowded bus shuttles.

The airports with free and easy parking are a bit further from me, but as I suggest above, the time and gas money lost to driving the extra distance is recovered very quickly at the airport.

3. Public Transit
Not everyone likes to take public transport to the airport, particularly when traveling with a lot of luggage, but for business travelers with an overnight bag, this can actually work out very well.

Airports in the United States are not always extremely well served by public transit (compare the failure of JFK's Train to the Plane to the stellar Heathrow Express), but when they are, public transit can provide a safety valve for many of the more routine hassles of air travel. Canceled flights for which you had no backup plan to get home, flights that are at odd hours at which family can't come get you and similar situations can be salvaged when you have the option of a quick ride to your local train station.

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4. Tolls
When you choose your airport based on price, you will want to consider the cost of tolls to and from the airport as part of the cost of the flight. One of my own preferred airports will cost me about $16 in tolls each way; another will cost me nothing. So if a flight from the former is $32 less than from the latter, it is a wash by the time I get on the flight.

airport hotel5. Airport and On-Site Hotels
Eventually, most frequent travelers will need to use an airport hotel for some reason or another -- before a very early flight, during a flight delay or cancellation, or when a return flight gets in too late to take public transit or ask a family member for a ride. An airport with a better selection of nearby hotels, short rides on hotel shuttles, better rates and better-maintained properties can save you in some of the tougher jams presented by air travel.

6. Security
After a few trips through any airport, you get a feel for how well the security checkpoints are run, how many there are and what happens when they get busy -- this last point being perhaps the most important. Some airport security crews and configurations simply handle volume better than others, and this can make a big difference on how quickly and pleasantly you get through the airport.

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7. Baggage Handling
The quality of baggage handling really seems to depend on the day at many airports; travelers I surveyed offered widely varying assessments of the baggage handling at their preferred airports -- one person's quick sprint through baggage claim was another person's need to resort to an ongoing insurance claim. This one is your call.

8. Curfews
Many airports located in residential areas have nightly curfews to reduce noise and traffic in the surrounding neighborhoods. These airports are often extremely conveniently located. San Diego International Airport, for example -- located right near Balboa Park, downtown and the beach -- could not be better-placed. SAN has an 11:30 p.m. departure curfew that lasts until 6:30 a.m.

Typically, a curfew like this is not a problem; at a West Coast airport, however, redeye flights are often popular, and if there are departure delays on a late flight, you risk having your flight delayed overnight due to the curfew.

And it doesn't have to be caused by problems at your departure airport; many delays are caused by weather and other conditions at your destination airport, and if those are not resolved by 11 p.m. or so, the chances that your flight gets out to the runway and off the ground in San Diego get pretty slim. (I've had a member of my immediate family endure one of these curfew scares; after a long period of uncertainty after boarding, they got the wheels off the ground at 11:24 p.m., just in time.)

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Here is a list of some airports with curfews:

AUS - Austin-Bergstrom International (TX): No nighttime operations from midnight to 6 a.m.

HNL - Honolulu International (HI): Certain runways may not be used from 7 p.m. - 7 a.m.

SNA - John Wayne Airport (Orange County, CA): Commercial aircraft can't take off between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. (8 a.m. on Sundays) or land between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. (8 a.m. on Sundays).

STL - Lambert-St. Louis International (MO): Jets are not to use runway 06/24 between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless weather conditions dictate.

LAS - McCarran International (Las Vegas, NV): Large aircraft are discouraged on select runways between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

MSP - Minneapolis/St. Paul International (MN): MSP has a voluntary agreement with all scheduled airlines to not conduct nighttime operations from 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.

SJC - Mineta San Jose International (CA): Select aircraft are restricted between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

9. Amenities, Condition, Size
Amenities are important, no question -- for example, free Wi-Fi can be all the reason you need to pick one airport over another. The quality of the food matters as well, as does size -- and in a big airport, whether there are people movers, good signage and the like.

We look at a heap of the best airport amenities here: Best Airports for Layovers.

Smaller regional airports are starting to realize that they have a case to make for use of their airports, and are launching new programs to do so; read about a new trend toward rewards programs at airports.

10. General Vibe
Sometimes, you just like one airport better. It might be cleaner, or have a better breakfast joint, or be located on a driving route you know well on which you won't worry about getting lost.

Over time, it has become my habit to fly out of Newark Airport when I can; the extra money in tolls and the uncertainty in parking seem to balance out the risk of a crushing traffic jam on I-95 as you try to get past Center City Philadelphia.

The vibe at Newark is unquestionably split between New York brusqueness and New Jersey dismissiveness -- but I can live with these, and in fact come to embrace them, as they tend to keep folks focused on getting things done and not on formalities. These folks don't always play nice, and it's not for everyone ... but on a normal travel day, it works well.

airport line crowdThat said, on my last couple of return flights to Newark, I encountered a baggage claim and passenger pick-up scene worse than any I have experienced in the dozens of airports on six continents I have visited. Truly, it was a shocking experience; I don't know if this is always the case at Newark lately, but one these last two flights, I was gobsmacked at what I saw.

So PHL is very much back on my radar, especially for midday flights on weekdays as well as some weekend flights, when the risk of a jam on I-95 is lessened -- so long as the Eagles have flown a couple days before me.

Which airport is your favorite gateway, and why?


Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
TravelersEd@aol.com
Features Editor
IndependentTraveler.com

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