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Flights to Washington, DC's Airports

With a population of 8.3 million and the largest power centers in the country, there are a billion reasons to travel to Washington, DC. Tourists flood to town in spring and summer, while throngs of business and government-related travelers keep airports busy year round.

Flying into the Washington area is a little different than other cities. Beyond its size, the city has three main airports. Each has its own location, air service, and ground transportation characteristics. Each of the airports has advantages and disadvantages, and this article will help travelers identify them.

Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI)

BWI airport is located in Anne Arundel County, sandwiched between Washington and Baltimore. The airport is the region's second largest. It serves a second-tier role to the other airports by hosting domestic low-cost carriers and eight international carriers. The airport primarily serves a territory stretching from Baltimore south toward the northern DC suburbs of Montgomery and Prince Georges' County. Flyers who prefer direct flights or low-cost carriers will like BWI. Southwest airlines has an enormous presence at BWI, with 41 destinations served by hundreds of flights. Airtran also serves 17 cities from BWI. Nine other airlines connect BWI to their hub airports. The cheapest fares in the Washington, DC area can be found into BWI. Regular fares average $200 from east coast cities. During fare sales, the price can fall to $100. Cross-continental and international flights can also be purchased at low rates. Dulles airport competes with BWI with long-haul flights.

The airport itself gets three out of five stars. There are ample security lanes and check-in gates. In-airport food is limited to food court establishments like McDonalds and Sbarro. The facility is not well appointed, but is adequate for most travelers. The front drop off/entrance forms a massive U shape that stays very uncluttered due to its sheer size. Be sure to get dropped off close to your check-in gate, as the terminal is nearly of a mile long.

BWI is one of the only intermodal airports in the country. Five transportation modes serve the airport: air, bus, car, rail transit, and intercity rail. BWI has an Amtrak train station located on the airport grounds, which can be reached by free shuttle bus service 24 hours a day. Do not follow the signs for "light rail," as this is a transit system for reaching downtown Baltimore. Instead, proceed to the arrivals drive and wait for a bus displaying an AMTRAK/MARC sign. Passengers can transfer onto regular and high-speed trains that serve cities between Richmond and Boston. This can be an attractive option instead of connecting to a aircraft bound for those cities. The BWI airport is served by the MARC commuter rail service, which has more stops at stations not served by AMTRAK. A train ticket costs $5 on MARC (40 min to DC), $16 on Amtrak (32 min), or $34 for Amtrak's Acela (25 min). Be aware that MARC trains do not operate on weekends and most holidays.

Bus service to the airport is available in front of the International Arrivals area. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) operates route B30 to and from the airport every 45 minutes from 5am to 11:30pm every day. The bus costs $3, exact change required. The bus will drop travelers at the Greenbelt Metro station. Connect with the Metro to 100 other locations in the Washington area. The bus is a good option early in the morning, on weekends, or on a holiday. Travelers should avoid the bus during rush hour, as traffic can cause a substantial delay.

Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Washington Dulles International is the largest airport in the DC area. There are 1900 flights per day on thirty one airlines. It is the second largest international gateway in the United States, behind only New York's Kennedy Airport. Unfortunately, Dulles is not a user-friendly airport. The security lines have not been redesigned since 9/11, and the wait can reach epic proportions. To travel between the terminal and the airsides, you must either make a 20 minute walk or ride a "mobile lounge." Mobile lounges are 102-person busses with a moon rover-like appearance. These vehicles cause long delays and crowded conditions.

Ground transportation to Dulles can be tricky. The airport is a 40 minute drive-without traffic-from DC. Located in Loudon County, Virginia, there are dedicated lanes off the Dulles Toll Road to reach the airport. These lanes are free, and are best accessed from I-66 westbound from Arlington. Public transportation alternatives are not as convenient as BWI or National. There is no rail connection to Dulles, but there are both private and public busses. WMATA operates bus 5A approximately every hour between the airport and Metro stations in Rosslyn, VA and L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC. The WMATA bus costs $3. There is a private bus service called the Washington Flyer, which runs every half hour to the West Falls Church Metro station for $9 each way. The Dulles airport has a monopoly on taxicabs, and they can be expensive. During the day, it is probably time-effective to take transit rather than fight traffic. A taxi to Dulles airport costs about $40-45 from DC.

Dulles should be the last option for flyers into the Washington area. Unfortunately, it may be the only option for long-haul flights.

Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA)

National Airport is located three miles south of Washington, DC along the Potomac River. Planes make their land approach along the river itself. The airport is restricted to flights of less than 1,250 miles and planes carrying less than 156 people. There are 24 excepted flights per day, allowing airlines to serve major western cities like Phoenix, Denver, and Seattle. These restrictions were instituted by Congress to control noise and ensure safe landings on the airport's short runways. Planes arriving from the north follow the "river visual" approach, which is the only manual landing performed by pilots at a major US airport. This landing requires many turns and course adjustments. To the passenger, the ride can be more uncomfortable than landing at other airports. However, the river visual approach offers outstanding views of the Washington sights, including the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and the Kennedy Center.

Flights into National command a fare premium due to convenience and a restriction on the number of flights per day. The airport is a focus city, or minor hub, for US Airways. US Air and Delta provide hourly "shuttle" service to New York's LaGuardia Airport and Boston's Logan Airport. Shuttle flights can be expensive, but fares don't go up much for same day fares. Five of the six major domestic airlines all serve National Airport from their hub cities. Frontier, Alaska, and Air Canada also provide service from the main terminal.

Terminal A is connected to the main terminal by a long walkway. This is the historic terminal of the airport, but today it serves mostly low-fare airlines. AirTran, ATA, Midwest, and Spirit have operations from Terminal A. So does Northwest Airlines. With only 10 gates, Terminal A has very short security screening lines. However, it is a 20-25 minute walk from the Metro station. If flying into Terminal A, plan on using a taxi.

Washington National Airport does not have any customs facilities. Limited international destinations that have customs preclearance stations are served by the airport. These are: Nassau, Bermuda, Toronto, Quebec, and Montreal. All other destinations are domestic.

There is a Metro station at National Airport, with service on the Blue and Yellow lines. Passengers can be taken directly to Alexandria, Rosslyn, and Downtown DC. Other area destinations can be reached with a Metro transfer. Fares cost between $1.35 and $3.90, depending on distance. Trains arrive every 3-8 minutes during the week. Taxis can be hired from queues in the baggage claim area. A taxi to the US Capitol costs about $12. Simply tell the attendant the destination, and he will secure the correct cab. District of Columbia taxis do not have meters-they operate on a zone system. Arlington, Alexandria, and Maryland taxis all use meters.

If travellers afford the extra fare costs, Washington National Airport is the best choice. Lower fares can be found by connecting through a hub or using Terminal A airlines.

Other Airports

Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (code: CHO) is about an hour and half drive outside of the DC core. Flights are offered on four major airlines to major hubs. If you are trying to reach the outer Washington counties like Culpeper or Winchester, this airport could be an option.

Salisbury-Ocean City Airport (SBY) is located across the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula. Only US Air flies into this airport, providing service to/from Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Washington-National. Prices can be very high, as US Air has a monopoly over the wealthy Maryland Eastern Shore market.