Growing up in a city with two airports, I'm used to confirming the airport I need to be headed to for travel or picking folks up. However, those two airports were vastly different--one was the third-busiest airport in the country with a robust international clientele, the other is a smaller regional airport that is served by a discount airline and regional jets. So I really didn't get them confused (and the small one was less than ten minutes from my apartment, win!)
In moving to DC, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to airports. Three, count 'em, THREE major airports are considered part of the DC metro area! "Holy smokes!" I thought. "I'll be jet-setting EVERYWHERE!"
But, alas, not everything is as it seems. So, as a way to politely nudge my friends into planning their visits, I present the Fool-Proof Guide to Navigating the DC Airports
First up, BWI a.k.a. Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Int'l Airport.
Where: Between Baltimore and DC
--often the cheapest of the airfare options to and from the District (you'll notice this pattern in all of my recs, love me a cheap flight)
--easy to get to Monday-Friday when the MARC (commuter rail) runs frequently between DC and Maryland, with a stop at BWI. Bonus: there are a few MARC trains that leave DC's Union Station and are "express" to BWI--which means it takes 25 minutes to get from DC to the BWI station. All for $6!!
--Undergoing construction, so it's slowly becoming a really nice airport.
--Last time I was there, I walked right up to the metal detector and X-ray machine. As in, there was no line and I almost thought the checkpoint was closed. Stuff like this makes my day.
--Really, it's getting there and getting back. If your flight times are on a weekend when the MARC doesn't run, you're either looking at an expensive cab ride or an actual Amtrak ticket (last time I checked it was about $25)
--Even when you take the MARC, it doesn't drop you right at the airport, instead you end up at the Amtrak station for BWI and have to take a (quick) bus ride. But still, you have to add about ten minutes to your travel time.
--If you miss one of those "express" MARC trains, you're looking at a 45 minute train ride. Cue me nearly having a heart attack while en route to BWI for a trip home. Luckily, as previously mentioned, the security line was non-existent so my heartburn was for naught.
IAD a.k.a Dulles International Airport
Where: Chantilly, Virginia
--only option for flights to Europe or any glamorous international destination
--can have more flight time variety
--"some" people consider it easy to get to, through a variety of Metro and bus transfers
--Metro is currently building a Metro line that will end at the airport.
--it's huge--meaning lots of shops and restaurants should you have time to kill.
Ugh, where do I start . . .
--first, getting there is a pain. Traffic is very unpredictable, parking is expensive, and cab rides can cost $90 (true story). The only mass transit options involve a combo of bus and Metro. All with luggage. And the times aren't accommodating if you have a late night or early morning flight.
--security: since it's an international airport, and laid out in a way to infuriate travelers, security is a nightmare. Everyone goes through security in one terminal, and then takes a tram to their gate terminal. Add in a variety of languages and international passports and it's a nightmare.
--Because of security and the trouble of getting there, I recommend leaving three hours before your flight. Trust.
DCA a.k.a Reagan National Airport
Don't be confused by the fact that Dulles's airport code starts with an I and Reagan's starts with a D. I always say "fly into DCA for DC". Because . . .
Where: Ok, technically it's not IN the District proper, but it practically is. Planes look like they're about to land on the National Mall (which has made me squeamish more than once)
--Location, location, location. Seriously, it's a ten-minute cab ride from almost anywhere in the District. Even better, the Metro goes RIGHT THERE. No shuttle bus. No transfers to buses. It drops you off at the airport's doorstep where, depending on the airline, you walk twenty yards to security.
--Due to this fabulous location, you won't be spending a chunk of your vacation time getting to and from the airport. Have someone who doesn't travel often? Fly into Reagan. It's a very manageable and well-run airport.
--The view: most of the time when you fly in, you'll fly right over the Potomac and the National Mall. If you're a tourist, welcome to an aerial sight-seeing tour, included in your ticket price! If you're just obsessed with the city, seeing the monuments and memorials as you land will be a nice "welcome home".
--Here's where the kicker is for me--$$$$. It can easily be $100 more to fly out of National because every airline wants a piece of the real estate, and they know people will pay for the convenience. I always say you can't put a price on piece of mind when you travel, but it's hard to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to this.
--Size: National is not called "International" for a reason. You're only going to be hitting up the good ole US of A when you're leaving this place. As such, there's not as many amenities like food, shopping, or just space in general.
--Security: I still don't understand this, but security checkpoints don't open in a timely manner at this place. I had an 8 a.m. flight and got there at 6:45 and the (only) checkpoint for my gate was not yet open? It opened at 7 and they rushed the people with 7:30 flights to the front of the line. How does this make sense?
View from the runway at DCA
Sooooo, who's ready to visit? :-)