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Transportation from a strange airport

SmarterTravel

When you’re arriving at a new-to-you airport, do you ever start to worry about how you’ll get from the airport to your hotel? Taxi, bus, shuttle, or rail? How long will each option take; how much will each cost? Are there any local scams? At least one reader recently faced this quandary, asking, “How do I get transfers to my hotel from the airport in Cancun?” Although I don’t have enough space to tabulate options for hundreds of airports, I can certainly point this reader (and others) in the right direction.

Airport transport options

No matter where you are in the world, you usually have only four or five basic ways to get from an airport to your hotel:

Taxi: almost everywhere. Taxis are often the quickest way to your hotel and almost always the most convenient (door-to-door). Unfortunately, they are also usually the most expensive, although not so bad if you’re traveling in a group of three or four. The main exceptions are those few airports that are extremely distant from their cities, including London/Gatwick, London/Luton, London/Stansted, Milan/Malpensa, and Tokyo/Narita, where taxis are prohibitively expensive for most of us. And today’s high local costs run taxi fares (plus tips, tolls, and other extras) up over $50 a trip in some airports, including New York/JFK or Newark, Washington/Dulles, and London/Heathrow.

Taxis pose another problem in some cities: drivers who cheat unwary tourists by taking the long way into town. That’s even a problem in New York/JFK or LaGuardia, where all too many taxi drivers add an extra $5 to $10 on the meter by taking you across the Triborough Bridge rather than the tunnel or the 59th street bridge.

Private car: sometimes better than a taxi. A pre-arranged private car can sometimes be a better option than a taxi. At London/Heathrow, for example, you can arrange a private “minicab” for perhaps 30 to 40 percent less than you’d pay for a metered taxi. Elsewhere, private cars may be more expensive but provide a much larger, roomier car.

Airport bus: another almost-everywhere option. You’d be hard-pressed to name a big airport that doesn’t offer some sort of airport bus—often with routes to surrounding suburbs as well as the central city. They’re usually among the least expensive choices. Unfortunately, they’re also usually crowded, uncomfortable, and slow. Even more crowded, uncomfortable, and slow are the regular public transit buses that serve many airports, mainly for the benefit of employees rather than travelers. They’re a good alternative for only the most dedicated cheapskates.

Shuttle: the “golden” compromise. At many airports, shared-ride shuttles are an ideal choice. They provide door-to-door service, just like a taxi, and they’re almost as fast (unless your hotel is the 8th stop), at a fraction of the cost of a taxi.

Rail: the rush-hour and long-distance champ. Where available, rail can be the quickest way to a city center—especially during rush hours or at airports a long way out of town. As far as I can tell, a majority of the travelers heading to the city center from London/Gatwick, London/Stansted, Milan/Malpensa, or Tokyo/Narita start out on a train. You find direct, frequent, and convenient rail service at quite a few big U.S. airports, including Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Chicago/O’Hare or Midway; Cleveland; Minneapolis-St Paul (to Minneapolis); New York/JFK; Newark; Philadelphia; Portland, OR; San Francisco; St Louis; and Washington/National, with a few more in various stages of planning or construction. And many big overseas airports feature rail access.

The main problem with many airport trains is that the airport is just one of many stops on a line that also serves local commuters, and most do not provide easy storage for baggage. However, a few overseas airports provide dedicated airport express trains with ample baggage racks, including London/Heathrow, London/Stansted, and Milan/Malpensa. London/Gatwick’s current express service is being discontinued, although you’ll still have lots of trains.

Other. Rarely, you see some other options—shuttle boats in Boston and Venice, for example, or helicopters for New York/JFK.

Getting the details

Most airports with airline service post websites, and most of those websites include information on local ground transportation. When you’re heading for an airport you don’t know, the airport’s official website is clearly the place to start. To get to the correct site you can either Google the airport or look it up on an airport portal site.

My favorite airport portal is Airline and Airport Links, which lists hundreds of airports around the world, almost all of them with links directly to the airports’ sites. I find most overseas airport sites usually include an English-language viewing option. (Even Tallinn, Estonia, has an English option.)

Unfortunately, Airline and Airport Links doesn’t list Cancun, so to answer the reader’s question, I had to Google “Cancun airport,” which immediately linked to Cancun International Airport’s website. That site provided the expected information on local ground transport.

Whether linked to a portal or not, an airport’s site should provide detailed information on each ground transport option, including, as appropriate, the cost, approximate transport times, hours of operation, schedules, how to set up an advance arrangement, and where to go in the terminal area to catch your ride. Many sites also list possible local scams and tourist warnings.

The main problem with online sites is that some airports are less than zealous about keeping them up to date. When I began this report, for example, the site for London/City Airport failed to mention the airport’s newly opened Docklands Light Railway station—an omission it rectified before I finished.

If, for some reason, you don’t have a chance to research an airport in advance, my experience is that most large or midsize airports maintain staffed “ground transport” desks, usually in or near the baggage-claim area. Often, local transport options are posted prominently on signs, along with estimates of the cost for a trip to the city center. Double-checking with an onsite office is also a good way to avoid problems with obsolete online information.

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