Travelers to U.S. cities may find it easier to get from the airport to the urban center without breaking the vacation bank or dithering around at the ground transportation desk, thanks to train and light-rail service.
The concept isn't as on track in the U.S. as it is elsewhere, but it is gaining steam.
"The use of rail in Europe is much more prevalent, with far better rail connections from airports in more cities" than in the U.S., said Ron Salk, editor and publisher of the Airport Transit Guide (www.airporttransitguide.com), a pocket-sized booklet from Salk International that's now in its 23rd edition. "One of the trends I've noticed in the last 12 to 24 months is the increase in the number of rail connections in the U.S."
Of the top 25 U.S. airports, as measured by the number of passengers who boarded in 2003 (the latest full year for which statistics were available), 14 claim some sort of light- or heavy-rail airport-to-city transit connections.
In just the last two years, Minneapolis-St. Paul, JFK in New York and San Francisco have come on board, and several other airports have long- and short-term ambitions to add rail service, including Seattle-Tacoma and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental.
Credit seamless, in-airport connections and wheeled luggage for acceptance of airport rail, said Dave Dobbs, publisher of the website for Light Rail Now! (www.lightrailnow.org), a public advocacy group for light-rail and other mass-transit options that is based in Austin, Texas.
"We're like little children pulling our little wagons around," he said. "It's not like the days when we arrived with steamer trunks. We just roll off the [train] car and roll into the airport."
A well-conceived train connection is often the most cost- and time-efficient way of getting to and from an airport -- but not always.
Dobbs and Salk point to London's Heathrow Airport as an example of excellent rail connection service. The London Underground (www.tube.tfl.gov.uk) ferries passengers on its Piccadilly line from Heathrow to central London in 45 minutes for about $7. By comparison, cab fares to or from Heathrow can cost more than $100 each way.
Of course, not all airport rail service is created equal. Getting from LAX to downtown on the Green Line, for instance, can involve transfers from a bus and onto three different lines to reach Union Station. Still, it costs only $3.
New York seems to have gotten it right, compared, at least, with Los Angeles.
AirTrain JFK, which began service in December 2003, served 8.7 million passengers in its first full year of operation, said Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
It connects JFK with the New York subway system, the Long Island Rail Road and buses. Before you try AirTrain, it's a good idea to study its website, www.panynj.gov/airtrain. The site has detailed instructions on how to get to and from certain areas of Manhattan using mass transit and AirTrain JFK.
A cab ride from JFK costs a fixed $45, plus tolls and tip. A trip on AirTrain JFK is $7 -- $5 for the AirTrain, plus $2 for the subway.
I recently put the other AirTrain to the test, this one from New Jersey's Newark Liberty International (www.panynj.gov/airtrainnewark).
The AirTrain station at the airport was easy to find and marked by well-posted signs. For $11.55, I purchased a New Jersey Transit train ticket to New York's Penn Station.
Two trains and one cab later, at a cost of less than $20, I was at my hotel.
It was little more than an hour after I had walked off the plane. With tolls, surcharges and tip, a taxi could easily have cost $60.
Rail isn't always the right choice, however. Here's a point system that can help you evaluate whether taking the train will work for you:
Ease of airport access: Can you walk to the light-rail station, or do you need to take a bus or shuttle? The fewer vehicles you need, the more viable the mass transit option.
If you can walk to and from one train to your destination: 10 points.
If you must transfer from a train to a cab: 8 points.
If you must take a bus to a train, change trains twice or more, then take a cab: 2 points.
Signs and directions: How well do you navigate strange airports?
If it's easy to find the station right in the terminal: 10 points.
If you have to walk a long distance to find the train: 5 points.
Proximity to final destination: Will you have to take a cab to your hotel, or are there other options, such as hotel shuttles or subway connections?
If it's a short walk from the station to your hotel: 10 points.
If there's frequent bus service or easy rail connections: 8 points.
If you need a long, expensive cab ride on the other end: 1 point.