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Are alternate airports worth the drive?

Almost all travel mavens espouse the mantra of “flexibility” when searching for good deals—airfares, cruises, hotel accommodations, whatever—especially around the holiday season when prime seats/cabins/rooms sell out early and the pickings are slim. One of the standard “flexibility” recommendations is to consider alternate airports at either or both ends of your trip. Granted, you probably know the options in your local area, but you may not have a clue whether, for example, “Rockford/Chicago” is really a feasible alternative for O’Hare or Midway.

One questioner to a call-in radio show put it this way: “If I ask it, the airfare search engine I use routinely displays options for ‘nearby’ airports. But how do I know how convenient those nearby airports really are?”

The short answer: I don’t know of any exhaustive source. But I’m happy to provide, here, my own idiosyncratic run-down of options at major cities.

The congested airports

The most important alternative airports are those that help ease congestion and overloading at a few of the major U.S. metro areas. Some alternatives are really quite convenient; others are a stretch. Most of them provide extensive service, at least from other major hubs. Several have taken on the name of a major city as far as 50 miles away—sometimes useful, sometimes outright deceptive.

In general, all of these fields are good choices for travel to/from nearby communities within the larger metro areas, but not necessarily to/from the major city they claim to serve. My comments and recommendations reflect their suitability for travelers headed to the centers of the major cities, not nearby communities.

Boston

  • Main airport: Logan: Close in, good public transportation, easy cab access to centers.
  • Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Manchester, New Hampshire: 58 miles from central Boston, free shuttle to Boston every 3 hours, 15 minutes; too far for cabs; closest Boston airport for Southwest, also other airlines. Use it mainly for Southwest.

  • T.F. Green Airport, Warwick, Rhode Island: 59 miles from central Boston; poor public transportation (Amtrak/MBTA airport station under construction); too far for cabs. Boston option for Southwest, also other airlines. Use it mainly for Southwest.
  • Pease International Airport, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: 67 miles from Boston. Poor public transportation; too far for cabs; the Boston airport for Skybus, with a history of on-and-off service from other low far lines. Use it only for Skybus.
  • Worcester Regional Airport, Worcester Massachusetts: 48 miles from central Boston. Off-and-on history of airline service; currently “off.”

Chicago

Los Angeles

  • Main airport: Los Angeles International (LAX), reasonably close, poor public transportation; good cab and shuttle service.
  • Bob Hope Airport, Burbank: As close as LAX to central L.A. Fair public transportation, good cab and shuttle access. Service from most big airlines. A “hidden gem.” A preferred field for Valley cities, Glendale, Pasadena, Altadena, and nearby communities, and easier to use than LAX for downtown L.A.
  • Long Beach Airport, Long Beach: 15 miles from central L.A. Poor public transportation, good cab and shuttle access. The primary Los Angeles airport for JetBlue, with limited service from other big lines. Another convenient “hidden gem,” especially for beach communities and not bad for downtown; OK but not as good as Orange County for the Anaheim entertainment complex.
  • LA/Ontario International Airport, Ontario: 35 miles from central L.A. Poor public transportation, too far for cabs. Service from major airlines. For downtown L.A., use it only in a pinch.
  • LA/Palmdale Regional Airport, Palmdale: 65 miles from central L.A. Poor public transportation, too far for cab. Minimal current service to San Francisco. L.A. plans to make Palmdale a major focus of expansion, which will be hugely inconvenient until proposed high-speed rail link is built (don’t hold your breath).

New York

  • Main airports: JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. Good public transportation at JFK and Newark, easy cab access at LaGuardia.
  • Long Island MacArthur Airport, Islip: 50 miles from Manhattan. Fair public transportation, too far for cab. New York’s only option for Southwest; some service from other giant lines. Choose mainly for Southwest.
  • Westchester County Airport, White Plains: 30 miles from Manhattan. Poor public transportation; too far for cab. Limited service from giant lines’ proximate hubs plus AirTran and JetBlue, with future growth strictly limited by local opposition to more flights. A good choice only for travel to/from nearby communities.
  • Stewart International Airport, Newburgh: 55 miles from Manhattan. Poor public transportation, too far for cabs. Stewart’s lease is being taken over by the NY/NJ Port Authority, with the intent of building it into a major reliever for the three main— and overcrowded—airports. It will be a very poor choice until a direct rail link is built (several years in the future, at best). Limited service by major airlines from their proximate hubs, plus JetBlue and AirTran.

The others

Although few other main airports are as overused as those in the giant cities, alternative airports have been developed at several other big metro areas. Most provide only limited service. And, in several cases, the primary purpose of the alternative airports is not so much to relieve congestion at the prime fields as it is to entice airlines by offering lower costs.

Orlando

Some flights—especially foreign charters and some low-fare domestic services—use Orlando Sanford International Airport, because of lower costs, not convenience.

Phoenix

The main airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor, is promoting strong growth at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Mesa, formerly Williams Air Force Base.

St Louis

MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, Mascouta, Illinois, is one of those “build it and they won’t come” ventures. Airline service has been on-and-off; currently, it’s limited to Allegiant.

San Francisco

Travelers to Marin County communities can avoid congested bridge traffic to/from San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose by flying to Charles Schultz Sonoma County Airport, Santa Rosa, from Seattle or Los Angeles. Would probably warrant additional service, absent local opposition to most growth.

Allegiant and Skybus

Two low-fare lines specialize in serving underutilized airports, including some big-city alternative fields.

  • Allegiant uses Bellingham (Seattle), Gulfport/Biloxi (New Orleans), Mid-America (St Louis), Rockford (Chicago), and Santa Monica (Los Angeles) for its less-than-daily nonstops to a few prime domestic vacation centers. It provides similar services from more than two dozen smaller cities around the U.S. that have either no scheduled service at all or services limited to short-haul feeder flights.
  • Skybus uses Bellingham, Chicopee, Massachusetts (Hartford); Gulfport/Biloxi; Portsmouth (Boston); Punta Gorda, Florida (Ft Myers); and St. Augustine, Florida (Daytona Beach/Jacksonville) for its very cheap flights to/from Columbus. In many cases, those underused airports subsidize Skybus service.

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