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.