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Fly Here, Not There: The Best Small Airports in the U.S.

airplane airport tarmacSeveral years ago, I wrote a paean to small airports titled The Pleasures and Pains of Small Airports that outlined the whys and hows (as well as some warnings) for small airports, but overall left the finding of those airports to travelers. The absence of this info was expressed recently by an IndependentTraveler.com staffer named Matt Leonard, who told us, "To me, there is nothing in life better than getting that rare flight from Trenton. Easy access, no Newark or Philly. Where are the Trentons of the world? Which airlines fly from them and what flights do they offer? To me, that would be the ultimate travel tip."

Reading between the lines of Matt's suggestion, let's apply the following criteria when choosing some favorite small airports:

1. They must have a decent selection of commercial flights (this seems obvious, but what good is a small airport that only flies a single route to Sheboygan?).

2. They should have easy access in one way or another, such as a location near a highway or close to a traveler's likely final destination.

3. They should be near at least one major city, so they can act as true alternatives to big airports.

4. They should probably have some additional traveler amenities, such as a car rental counter.

5. Finally, the World Airport Awards defines a small airport as one serving fewer than 5 million passengers per year, so let's stick with that number here as well. You can see the organization's top-rated airports here.

Loosely following these guidelines, here are my recommendations for 13 airports to consider on your next trip, more or less from west to east.

Long Beach Airport, Long Beach, CA
Alternative to: LAX or pretty much any other Southern California airport

Airlines: Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, US Airways

Why We Love It: Popular perception might have it that Long Beach is more of a medium-sized airport, as JetBlue arguably made its bones at LGB, but some fairly restrictive noise rules have kept the airport to a maximum of 41 daily commercial flights, and that number doesn't seem likely to rise dramatically any time soon. The fact that the airport serves one of the world's biggest cities, is only 18 miles from LAX and hosts airlines that offer flights to a truly solid collection of major airports nationwide put it at the top of many savvy fliers' favorite lists. Add to these that the airport lies right along I-405 for easy access, and is about four miles from the beach, and Long Beach wins a lot of fans.

I have used Long Beach frequently when traveling to San Diego, which is less than two hours to the south, with a whole lot of beautiful coast (and a number of great surf breaks) along the way.

Best Airports for Layovers

Bellingham International Airport, Bellingham, WA
Alternative to: SeaTac or Vancouver

Airlines: Alaska, Allegiant, Frontier

Why We Love It: Situated between Vancouver and Seattle, Bellingham offers a very low-key entrance into the Pacific Northwest via what used to be mostly a paper mill and cannery town, but has of late become an enclave for outdoorsy types who don't want the bustle of Seattle but still want quick access to the San Juan Islands, the Olympic peninsula, the Cascade Mountains and more.

The airport is 90 easy miles from Seattle, and 50 miles from Vancouver -- take your sweet pick!

Waco Regional Airport, Waco, TX
Alternative to: Dallas/Fort Worth

Airlines: American

Why We Love It: Waco serves mainly as a connector airport to DFW two hours to the north, but man, can you save yourself some hassle and expense by flying out of Waco and then connecting through the much larger, much more intense and much more expensive DFW airport. With free parking, under-stressed airline and security staff, and way lighter automobile traffic, you can get yourself and your bags checked into American Airlines' system in Waco, and then travel light onward to the countless airports served by DFW.

Flying from Waco can also be very cost-effective too. In addition to money saved on parking, tolls, miles, etc., fares appear to be lower. The Waco airport folks have put together this useful cost comparison chart -- see for yourself.

Note: The airport in Austin tends to get favorable reviews from travelers, so I don't recommend Waco as an alternative to that one just yet (although the Austin airport is getting busier all the time, so that may change in the future).

Blue Grass Airport, Lexington, KY, and McGhee Tyson Airport, Knoxville, TN
Alternative to: Indianapolis, Nashville, St. Louis

Airlines (Blue Grass): Allegiant, American Eagle, Delta, United, US Airways

Airlines (McGhee Tyson): Allegiant, American Eagle, Delta, Frontier, United Express, US Airways

mcghee tyson knoxville airportWhy We Love 'Em: These two airports offer entry points to the U.S. South in a very low-key way. Lexington is well located if you are headed to a number of Southern and even Midwestern cities such as Indianapolis, Louisville, St. Louis and Nashville. Meanwhile, the airport in Knoxville, and indeed the entire Knoxville area, may offer one of the most demure, pleasant and uneventful travel experiences in the U.S.; travelers seem more prone to remember the airport's rocking chairs and fountains than its security lines, check-in woes or parking hassles.

One important benefit of flying into and out of airports in this part of the country is the relatively low population density, which mitigates somewhat the fact that Knoxville isn't a large metropolis itself, and is some distance from its other, larger Southern neighbors.

Surprise! Airports Have Rewards Programs Too

Charleston International Airport, Charleston, SC
Alternative to: Savannah, Atlanta or Charlotte

Airlines: American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways

Why We Love It: Like a number of the better smaller airports, Charleston is a joint civil/military airport, and it serves about 2.5 million passengers per year. Situated just outside Charleston, the airport features a number of rental car companies, which keeps the cost of transport into town low. Karl Frederick, an attorney based in New Brunswick, NJ, flies to the airport frequently and offers the following advice on getting around:

"The cab fare to downtown Charleston or Mount Pleasant is about $50, but CHS is one of those places where you can rent a subcompact for around $20/day. For a short trip, renting a car is cost-competitive, although once you are downtown you can pretty much walk anywhere or hire a pedicab, so you don't need wheels if you are staying. If you can get a ride into town, that works best."

CHS meets easy-in, easy-out requirements of fans of small airports, but it is the staff that gets the most praise among airport experts and critics. Southern hospitality seems to go far at CHS, which is a helpful issue at a small airport, where delays can sometimes be a fact of life.

Daytona Beach International Airport, Daytona Beach, FL
Alternative to: Orlando

Airlines: Delta, US Airways

Why We Love It: A straight 50-mile shot up I-4 from Orlando and Disney World, Daytona Beach offers its own brand of theme park -- it's like the Jersey Shore with a lot more motorcycles and tattoos, and a much longer season. Funky but still family-friendly in many ways, the town (and the airport) is not Orlando or Miami, which might be all the draw some folks need.

Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, Newport News, VA
Alternative to: Washington D.C.

Airlines: Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, US Airways

Why We Love It: Newport News/Williamsburg International lies right in the middle of a formidable stretch of historical sites and beach towns, including Richmond, Williamsburg, Norfolk and Virginia Beach; it's even convenient to the Outer Banks. The airport is currently undergoing considerable expansion, which may cost the airport some of its charm while picking up a number of amenities and conveniences along the way. The "international" in the airport name derives from seasonal flights to Cancun.

Newport News is a fair pace from Washington D.C., around 170 miles, but many people who visit the D.C. area make day trips to out Williamsburg and even the beach, so you can do the same, but in reverse, to a much cozier airport.

Trenton-Mercer Airport, Ewing, NJ
Alternative to: Newark or Philadelphia

Airlines: Frontier

Why We Love It: Trenton-Mercer Airport is nearly equidistant from those in both Newark (52 miles) and Philadelphia (42 miles), is located right off a very quiet stretch of I-95, and has a growing roster of commercial flights run by Frontier Airlines. Of all the small airports I have been through, the Trenton airport offered the most effortless experience overall. Its on-again, off-again use by commercial airlines has been a source of frustration over the years, but the current residency by Frontier Airlines seems to have some legs, as the airline extended its lease at the airport this summer through 2018. The airport also recently received substantial funding from the FAA to improve runways and address other safety and modernization issues, so hopefully more airlines are inclined to join Frontier in Ewing, just outside Trenton.

What Not to Do at the Airport

MacArthur Airport, Islip, NY
Alternative to: JFK or LaGuardia

Airlines: Pen Air, Southwest, US Airways Express

Why We Love It: A favorite of many travel pundits, MacArthur Airport has become the go-to airport when TV talking heads and the like mention avoiding the unquestionably gnarly New York area airports. Southwest makes Islip a real player in New York, but be careful; it is a solid 50+ miles to Midtown Manhattan, most of that on the Long Island Expressway, which can be brutally congested at times.

T.F. Green Airport, Providence, RI, and Bradley International Airport, Hartford, CT
Alternative to: Boston

Airlines (T.F. Green): Cape Air, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways

Airlines (Bradley International): Air Canada, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways

Why We Love 'Em: T.F. Green is a great option if you are traveling to the Boston area, but don't actually want to go into the city, and in particular if you are headed to Cape Cod and other regional summer destinations. If you are headed into town, it's only about an hour from Boston, so the drive isn't that bad -- save for the infamous Massachusetts drivers.

Bradley is a bit bigger airport than most of those on this list, but its status as an alternate airport serving a major population center is pretty solid, so it's worth a mention here. Bradley isn't in a romantic destination itself, but is located right in the middle of New England, and can serve as a great launching pad for leaf-peeping excursions, American Revolution tours, outings to the New England coast and more.

Bangor International Airport, Bangor, ME
Alternative to: New England

Airlines: Allegiant, Delta, US Airways

bangor airportWhy We Love It: If you are looking to airdrop yourself into a New England forest, look no further than the airport in Bangor, Maine. BGR is in the middle of nowhere, admittedly, but a lot of good comes from that -- such as $8/day long-term parking, $2/hour short-term parking, and free parking for pick-ups and drop-offs. Flying into BGR during the peak foliage season will make your eyes pop; book a window seat.

Five Lessons Airports Should Learn

How to Find Other Small Airports
This list is only a small sampling of the potential alternate airports you might be able to fly into, particularly if you are willing to purchase "hacker fares," a topic we will address in an upcoming column. To help you find the perfect airport near the perfect destination for an upcoming trip, here are a couple of tactics you may want to try:

1. Check the flight maps of the "alternate airlines." The airlines most likely to fly to these no-hassle airports are sometimes the most-hassle airlines (the fee-crazy Spirit Airlines comes to mind), but not always, with Southwest and JetBlue the most notable exceptions. From there, check the route maps of AirTran (currently merging with Southwest), Allegiant, Frontier, Porter, Spirit, Vision and the various "Connection" and "Express" adjuncts of the majors.

2. Use the "nearby airport" search function available on most major flight booking sites. You can often find great options there.

We've compiled a list of small airports around the U.S. that you can download as an Excel file here.

What's your favorite small airport? Post it in the comments!

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

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