Published: May 2009
By Amy Gunderson
Avoiding major airports in favor of smaller ones can be the key to hassle-free—and less expensive—travel. Here, when it's worth it—and when it's not.
Just a year and a half ago the biggest problem facing travelers was outrageous flight delays. Today there are other monsters: long security lines, reduced service. But improving your flying experience, whether it means getting the best deal or breezing through check-in, could be as simple as avoiding the major hubs. Given the popularity (and financial success) of low-fare carriers such as JetBlue and Southwest, which often use smaller airports, now may be the time to forget SFO and try San Jose instead. Here, an assessment of the most viable alternative airports across the country.
The Destination: Los Angeles
Ontario International Airport Drive time to downtown: In a metropolitan area where every hour is rush hour, at least 60 minutes for the 35-mile trip. Car service should cost about $60. Airlines: All the majors, though you'll generally have to change at a hub airport to get here. Nonstop flights on Southwest and JetBlue. Fares: There are good deals on some routes (those flown by Southwest and JetBlue and their competitors), but on others you'll pay a premium. Ontario to Chicago costs $70 more than LAX to Chicago. Pros: Parking rates are about one-third lower than at LAX, and the two new terminals definitely beat the trailers that once constituted waiting areas. Also, it's efficient: built to handle 10 million passengers annually, the airport served just 6.7 million last year. Cons: In San Bernardino County, it's inconvenient to central L.A., and lacks decent dining options. The verdict: Fine for leisure travelers who don't mind the drive time and can get a direct flight.
Orange County John Wayne Airport Drive time to downtown: Forty-five minutes. $65 for a taxi. Airlines: Ten carriers, including Southwest, which has a more limited schedule here than at other area airports. Fares: Usually more expensive than at both LAX and Ontario. Pros: Like the other LAX alternatives, a good on-time arrival and departure record. The verdict: Fine if you're going to an Orange County beach town such as Laguna Niguel; if you're heading to L.A. itself, Ontario or Long Beach is probably better.
Long Beach Airport Drive time to downtown: Thirty minutes. Taxi about $55. Airlines: Four, including Alaska Airlines' regional carrier, Horizon Air. When JetBlue settled in with nonstop flights to JFK, American increased its service. Fares: Can be expensive—a flight to Oakland was nearly double the price of one from LAX, and another to Las Vegas was the most expensive of all the L.A. area airports. Pros: Excellent proximity to the city. Cons: With a limited number of flights everyday, there aren't many options. The verdict: A nice change from LAX, as long as you can find a flight going your way for a reasonable price.
The Destination: San Francisco
Oakland International Airport Drive time to downtown: Thirty minutes without traffic. About $50 for a taxi. Also accessible via Bay Area Rapid Transit (50 minutes; $4.75). Airlines: Almost all the majors, plus JetBlue and Southwest; few international options. Fares: In our tests, we found that ticket prices didn't vary much from those at San Francisco (SFO). Pros: Late arrivals aren't as much of a problem as they are at SFO, where fewer than 70 percent of evening arrivals are on time. Cons: On-time departures are, on average, worse than SFO's. Bay Bridge traffic at rush hour can double travel time to and from downtown. The verdict: A decent option if you're flying Southwest or JetBlue, and can arrive and depart at off-peak hours.
Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport Drive time to downtown: One hour without traffic. $60 for a taxi. Trains to the city run about every half-hour (90 minutes; $5.25). Airlines: Fourteen carriers; Southwest has the most flights. There are plenty of direct, cross-country flights, as well as routes to Hawaii, Mexico, and Japan. Fares: Price wars have evened out airfares at the Bay Area airports, but we still found some better deals to and from San Jose. Pros: Following this fall's opening of a new international arrivals terminal, passengers coming from abroad can expect to save about 45 minutes getting through customs. Also, there's wireless Internet access for techies. Cons: Freeway construction en route. Restaurant choices along the lines of Señor Jalapeño. The verdict: Worth it if you're going to Silicon Valley or if you find an excellent fare; otherwise, stick with Oakland or SFO.
The Destination: Chicago
Chicago Midway Airport Drive time to downtown: Twenty-five minutes without traffic. Taxi $25. Trains take 30 minutes and cost just $1.50. Airlines: Fifteen, including Southwest and ATA. Fares: O'Hare's fares have dropped recently, making Midway's comparable on many routes. Pros: A new terminal has finally brought Midway up to the standard of most airports—with an appropriate number of check-in counters and baggage-claim areas. Cons: Construction is under way on the final phase of the redo, so some airlines still use old gates. Four carriers stopped service in 2001, including America West, reducing flight options. The verdict: A good alternative to O'Hare, which routinely has some of the worst delays in the country.
The Destination: Boston
T. F. Green Airport (Providence, R.I.) Drive time to downtown: One hour without traffic (beware of the morning rush into the city). The easiest and least expensive transportation option to Boston is the bus, which leaves directly from the airport ($19). Airlines: Nine, most of which fly here through major hubs or from other East Coast cities. Fares: Consistently more expensive than Logan. Pros: An attractive, light-filled terminal. Quicker access to Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket than driving from Boston. Cons: Few direct flights. Delays are comparable to Logan's. The verdict: Unless you can get a direct flight on Southwest or another competitively priced airline, it's not really worth it.
Manchester Airport (New Hampshire) Drive time to downtown: One hour without traffic. $60 for car service, or you can take a bus for about $24 ($10 plus $14 taxi from the airport to the bus terminal). Airlines: Twelve, including Southwest, which flies direct to Orlando and Baltimore. Fares: More expensive than Logan on many routes. Pros: No lines—you'll never need to arrive more than an hour before departure. Just as far from the city as Worcester, another touted alternative to Logan, but with better flight options. Good track record on delays. Cons: Nonstops limited mostly to East Coast cities. The verdict: Layovers and the long drive mean you probably won't save time over flying into Boston, even factoring in Logan's delays. But if you're headed to New Hampshire, Vermont, or western Massachusetts, it's worth a look.
The Destination: New York City
Islip Long Island MacArthur Airport Drive time to downtown: One and a half hours, without traffic. Bus $25. Or take the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station (1 hour and 25 minutes; $11.50). Airlines: With a few exceptions (notably Southwest), mostly carriers making short hops to cities in the Northeast. Fares: Typically, more expensive than the major New York airports, unless you're flying Southwest. Pros: No lines, no hassles. Cons: Few amenities. And the drive could be longer than your flight. The verdict: Unless you're Hamptons-bound, too far from the city.
The Destination: Washington, D.C.
Baltimore Washington International Airport Drive time to downtown: An hour in typical traffic—avoid the morning rush into D.C. at all costs. Taxi $55. A bus to the Metro station, for trains into D.C., runs every 40 minutes ($2). Airlines: All the majors, including international and low-fare carriers, and enough routes to get you across the country without a layover. Southwest just launched its first transcontinental route from Baltimore to LAX. Fares: Some good deals. We found a flight to Seattle for 30 percent less than from Reagan National. Pros: The fares, plus what may be the best security in the country—this was the first major airport to be federalized by the Transportation Security Administration. Cons: Relatively far from the city, and more delays than National or Dulles. The verdict: Worth it if you're not pressed for time.
The Destination: Miami
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Drive time to downtown: Forty minutes at off-peak times. Beware of arriving in the morning or departing in the evening—you could spend more than an hour en route. Taxi $50. Airlines: All the majors, including low-fare carriers such as JetBlue. Fares: Many great deals, such as $195 nonstop to Los Angeles, compared with $424 out of Miami International. Pros: Clean and efficient terminal. Cons: See "drive time." Flight delays are comparable to those at Miami. The verdict: Good for price-conscious vacationers, less advantageous for time-challenged business travelers.