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Going to the Airport? Take a Train!

Over the last few months, I’ve been in and out of more airports than I’d like to remember, but my trips re-taught me an important lesson: If an airport has a decent rail link, use it! My latest experiences showed how easy, convenient, and cost-effective rail links can be at two important airports.

Washington/Reagan National: Here, the Metro is a no-brainer. The airport station connects to the terminal via a short moving sidewalk, where you catch trains on either of two routes to the city center. Although trains can be crowded at peak times, the cars usually have a place where you can move your baggage out of the way of the doors. Most city center stations are really traveler-friendly, with escalators or elevators from platform to street levels.

Fares are a bit complicated. Unless you’re taking just one ride, get a “SmarTrip” stored-value fare card, which you can buy from a machine at any station. The card, with RFID contact capability, costs $2 plus the amount of fare you store, but using a one-trip paper ticket costs an extra dollar each time. The SmarTrip fare from airport to downtown is about $2.75 at peak times or $2.25 off-peak.

The deal for seniors is even more complicated. Metro offers senior fares at about half the peak fare, but to take advantage of the senior deal, you have to apply in person and show ID at a sales office—and there’s no sales office at the airport. Because I get to Washington every year or so, I keep a senior SmarTrip card with a few bucks on it and add value when I arrive. If you don’t already have one, pay the regular price for your first trip, then get a senior card for your travels around the area. The Metro website has a sales-office locator.

Of course, you can’t beat a cab for door-to-door convenience, and cabs in Washington are not overly expensive. The airport estimates around $15 (plus tip) to the main visitor and hotel areas, and trips are usually quick except during the worst of peak times.

Newark: This is another no-brainer. You board the people-mover from each terminal to the Newark Airport rail station, where you can catch a fast train to Penn Station; running time is about 30 minutes. The people-mover comes along every five or 10 minutes, but, unfortunately, New Jersey Transit trains run only four times each hour during most of the day, and less late at night and weekends.

Except at peak rush hours, the NJT trains generally have plenty of seats and room for baggage. Facilities at the airport are very friendly, and you can reach street level at Penn Station by elevator and escalator.

The fare to Penn Station is $12.50 each way, $8.75 for seniors; buy tickets at AirTrain airport or rail stations. You can change to the PATH trains at Newark for the World Trade Center; you can also get Amtrak to points in New Jersey or Connecticut and New Jersey Transit to stops to Trenton. By contrast, cabs to Manhattan are in the $50 to $80 range, plus tolls and tips.

Within the last two years, I’ve used airport rail links in a bunch of cities, including Beijing, Boston, Dubai, Istanbul, Krakow, London/Gatwick, London/Stansted, Los Angeles, Milan/Malpensa, Munich, New York/JFK, and Seoul/Incheon. Of those, the only one I don’t recommend at all is Los Angeles, where a long shuttle-bus trip takes you to a station on a line that doesn’t go downtown; the Istanbul line doesn’t reach the main visitor centers, either. But in the others, rail is the way to go.

Around the U.S., other airports with reasonably good rail access (sometimes direct, sometimes via people-mover) include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago (both airports), Cleveland, Dallas/DFW, Miami, Minneapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis; Denver is building a link. All of them reach the main city centers. And around the world, most important Asian and European airports provide rail links; South America is the main laggard.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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