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Finding Another 'Port in the Storm for Holiday Travels

'Little brothers' may save a visitor time and sanity.


If the thought of navigating to and through a major metropolitan airport this holiday season brings out the Scrooge in you, it may be time to consider an alternate airport.

The little-brother airports--the Burbanks, Chicago Midways and San Joses of the world--can offer a less stressful gateway for your domestic holiday travel than Los Angeles International, Chicago O'Hare or San Francisco International, their 800-pound gorilla siblings. Though the smaller, mostly domestic airports are sometimes farther from downtown, they're usually easier to navigate, meaning travelers can get their baggage and be out the door more quickly. And if your destination is near rather than in a major metropolitan area, an alternate airport can make even more sense.

Holiday travelers can take a tip from their business-traveling brethren who have learned by the seat of their pants the advantages of alternate airports. They might eschew Boston's Logan for T.F. Green State Airport in Providence, R.I., or Bradley in Hartford, Conn., avoiding the congestion of Logan and the ravages of the Big Dig, Boston's $15-billion road construction project. They may switch allegiance from Dulles or National in suburban Washington to Baltimore/Washington International, about 35 miles from the District and well served by public transit.

Two years ago, as a frequent traveler to San Francisco International Airport, or SFO, I spent many hours cooling my heels in airport lounges. The airport is notorious for flight delays, often because fog or poor visibility can shut down one of the two parallel runways. Statistics from August, the most recent available, indicate that 70.8% of flights arrived on time at SFO, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nearby Oakland and San Jose airports had a 78.1% on-time record, which beats the national average of 76.2%.

On one trip to the Bay Area, I had an epiphany flying to San Jose before heading to San Francisco. Not only was my flight on time, but I walked to a parking lot just outside the terminal, picked up my rental car and was on the road less than 15 minutes after my arrival. A half-mile later I was on U.S. 101, less than 45 miles from downtown San Francisco.

Compare that with SFO, where one must schlep through what feels like miles of terminal just to wait for a shuttle to take you to the car rental lot, and then navigate more than a mile of airport access roads to reach the freeway. SFO obviously is closer to the city than San Jose is, but SFO's dismal on-time record and its large scale can eat away at your time, not to mention your stomach lining.

In a recent check of air fares, I found the same $91 round-trip fare to both SFO and San Jose from LAX. Using alternate airports on both ends, I found a Southwest fare from Burbank to Oakland at $129.

This may be where price-sensitive leisure travelers and their business brothers part ways.

John Seidel, president of Salt Lake City-based Qualis Research, used to live and work in Amherst, Mass., about 90 miles from Boston's Logan International. Seidel, who travels as many as 20,000 miles a year attending conferences and giving workshops, never once flew out of Logan, instead choosing Hartford, which is about 45 miles from Amherst.

"Hartford is so nice, small and manageable," Seidel says. "Sure, I could have saved $100 or so by flying out of Logan, but the Boston traffic alone made it not worth it."

Not all alternate airports are created equal, however, and not all frequent travelers like them. John Dally is not a fan of Chicago's Midway Airport.

"Parking is quite inconvenient and far away," says Dally, who travels 10 days a month for his job as executive director of the Sea-bury Institute in Evanston, Ill. "As for public transportation, you can't believe how far you have to walk."

Dally says he has found a routine that works for him at busy O'Hare: He takes a cab to public transport (a Chicago Transit Authority train) that takes him directly to O'Hare from the city and the northern suburbs where he lives. Midway, on Chicago's south side, is less convenient, although he notes that fares to Midway may be lower because it serves several discount airlines.

"For example, you might get a $99 fare from Midway to Baltimore, whereas from O'Hare it might be $450," he says.

Besides lower fares, 80.9% of flights into Midway arrived on time in August, according to DOT figures, compared with 70.5% for O'Hare. And in winter, weather is another factor. Some consider Milwaukee an alternative to Chicago, but if it's snowing, the 85-mile trek may not be worth it.

Most airlines will not automatically offer you a fare to an alternate airport, so be sure to ask your travel agent or indicate a broader range of acceptable airports if you're using a Web search engine. It may just be worth the extra effort and spare you the hassle of wrestling with an 800-pound gorilla.


James Gilden lives in Los Angeles.

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