Getting to the airport without driving, an adventure in flouting normalthink

The normalthink for air travel would have you driving to the airport, and paying long term parking fees, or else paying through the nose for a taxi/shuttle ride. There is another way, a way to avoid the costs or hassles by using public mass transit. It works even where I live in silicon valley with it’s unpleasant mass transit system. Most if not all airports have mass transit connections letting you take the local train or bus system direct to the airport.

I’m on one such trip today, leaving from San Jose International airport for a week long trip. I took the local bus to the airport, costing $1.25 rather than the $40 it would have cost for the airport shuttle or the $100 or so it would have cost to park my car at the airport. I avoided costs, avoided traffic hassles around the airport, and I took the occasion of the trip to put my car in the shop for some needed repairs. Using mass transit to reach the airport also decreases the environmental impact of the trip (but, hey, it’s an airplane trip, which swamps the modest gain of not driving to the airport). What you pay instead is a bus or train ticket, and some else is doing the driving. I’ve done this several times, and I thought to share some of my experiences.

Obviously success here depends on how many bags you’re carrying and your willingness to walk down the street or onto the bus system hauling your baggage. If you pack “heavy” (you know who you are) you might truly need to use a car or shuttle or taxi to get to the airport. However roller-board bags make it oh-so-possible to walk to the bus stop, hop on the bus, and ride it to the airport.

How does this work? It all depends on your airport and the local mass transit system.

On today’s trip I rode the VTA #32 bus (a 1/4 mile walk from my house) to the Santa Clara Transit center (cost $1.25) then rode the free shuttle to the SJC airport. On my return I’ll take BART from the SFO airport to Caltrain, riding that to a station near my house, then walk or take a bus to a stop near my house. It’s really very simple but requires some research to know the transit system well enough to pull it off.

A year ago I took a flight to Spain, needing to reach a small town (Albacete) between Madrid and Valencia. I don’t know Spanish and had never been to Spain, but had researched enough to know which train station to use for the train from Madrid to Albacete. The question was, how do you get from the airport across town to the train station?

I could have taken a taxi, at who-knows-how-many-euros-cost, but while hunting around the airport I found the Madrid Metro system has a station AT THE AIRPORT. After paying 2 euros for a Metro ticket, I entered the system and started following the colored lines on the map to navigate my way through the system to the desired train station. It took switching Metro trains several times, because their system is a bit labyrinthine, but it was otherwise trivially easy. Even jet-lagged in a foreign country facing a foreign language I made it from airport, through the Metro system, to train station, riding a train a couple hundred miles to Albacete, getting to the hotel, all without a hitch. It felt totally excellent.

Some airports have train systems going directly to the airport. Examples are the BART line to SFO, the MARTA line at Atlanta’s airport, the light rail line at Portland’s airport, the Metro station at Madrid’s airport, and many others. Other airports like San Jose or Las Vegas or Seattle have bus system connections at the airport. The Seattle bus connection is directly outside the baggage pickup area, and goes directly downtown via a dedicated bus-only road that’s similar to a light rail line.

Performing the same trick (mass transit, no cars, no taxis) at your destination takes some preparation and planning. For example I wouldn’t recommend flying to Madrid and pulling the trick I did without researching where you’re heading and the required connections. There are scallawags at airports looking to hoodwink travelers who don’t know their way around. Don’t be one of them, so use the Internet to research the transit options at your destination. Before leaving I spent several hours reading about Madrid’s Metro and the Spanish train system. I was prepared and thought it would work out, and happily it was easy.

Are you staying in a hotel near a mass transit station? For example the Portland light rail goes from the airport to downtown. If your destination is a convention in Portland Oregon there are plenty of downtown hotels right along the light rail line, making it quite easy to arrive at the Portland airport, take light rail to the hotel, use light rail between hotel and convention center, use the light rail to see almost anything in the city, return to airport using light rail, and never ride in a car the whole trip. I’ve done it, it’s quite fun.

Where will you you be traveling at your destination? Is every place you’ll be going convenient to transit systems? For example I’ve traveled to several races the last couple years, and race tracks are almost always way out in the countryside where there’s no mass transit. But maybe your destinations can be reached by local mass transit. This can save you even more money by not having to rent or park a car, and saves you the hassle of learning to drive the streets of a foreign city.

In Atlanta once I stayed in a hotel near enough the airport that it ran a shuttle every 10-20 minutes between airport and hotel. We then could easily go from hotel to airport, use MARTA to travel around Atlanta, and get around town easily without renting a car. However Atlanta isn’t a great example because the MARTA train covers such a small part of the city, leaving you stuck with the bus system for many destinations.

Air travel has a large environmental and humane impact, not just from the airplanes. Airports are hubs of busy-bee-like activity with a dizzying array of vehicles of all kinds. All these machines buzzing around are focused on getting as many airplanes carrying passengers and cargo as possible through the airport as smoothly as possible. Those machines have environmental impacts, and make the roads surrounding airports especially crowded.

Ponder the land taken up with long-term and short-term parking, the hassles of parking then taking a shuttle to the terminal, or of finding an honest taxi service. These are symptoms of the ground traffic crunch around airports.

An excellent cure is to use the public mass transit to get to/from the airport. When you do it decreases the number of vehicles and the traffic crunch around the airport, and decreases the land required for parking lots at the airport. Taking mass transit, someone else is driving meaning you have fewer headaches, and the transit system usually will conveniently drop you directly at the terminal.

Having done it a few times now, I can say the result of all these small changes makes my airport experience much nicer. I’ve stopped fretting over high parking or shuttle fees. I’m not worried about my car being damaged in the parking lot. I’m not stressed by traffic around the airport. I know I’m being environmentally responsible. Lower cost, less hassles, sounds great to me.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

Leave a Reply