Why should alternative airports occupy the attention of a budget traveler? Finding affordable airfares is a daunting task for many travelers -- and the results often make little logical sense. Why should it cost less to fly from an airport that's a greater distance from the destination than one that is closer and more convenient?
It's not necessary for a budget traveler to understand these things. Frankly, I don't think airline executives completely understand their own airfares.
Just know that it almost always pays to check fares from a variety of nearby airports and save money on your next flight. What follows are some examples of how this plays out in a common travel search. Plan your next trip accordingly, because this is a budget travel tip that can add up to huge savings rather quickly, especially if you have two or more in your travel party.
Begin Airport Shopping
Want evidence that alternative airport shopping is in full swing? Look no further than the telephone directory, where you'll find limousine services that offer group rates for rides to nearby terminals.
Years ago, I found one such company flourishing within a few miles of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Many of the clients were finding more affordable airfares from Louisville, Lexington, Columbus, Dayton or Indianapolis. With traffic, travel times on the ground to some of those airports could exceed two hours. No matter. The savings made the time and even the limousine fares worthwhile.
How is this possible? It can be explained to some extent when you think about hub airports. Cincinnati is a hub dominated by Delta. When a vast majority of the flights leaving an airport are from one airline, competition withers. Where there are more airlines, there is more price competition.
If you live in an area served by a hub airport, and other airports are within driving distance, you should check airfares at those alternative airports.
Let's take a look at some illustrations for how this works. Click "next" and consider possible savings for a short flight.
A Short Trip
Sometimes we have trips that are a bit too far for driving that can be accomplished with a very short flight. A few years ago, I shopped for airfares on such an excursion. It was a trip from Cincinnati to Birmingham, Ala. At the time, my travel search revealed a comfortable itinerary that included a 9:10 a.m. departure and a return flight the following day in the early evening. Naturally, this short run was a non-stop flight and the price at the time wasn't too bad: $306 USD.
After a few weeks of checking the fares regularly, it appeared this could be the best fare available from Cincinnati for this trip. You can plug into weekly specials that are emailed to customers on request. You can scour airline special deals pages for sale fares. But you might not do any better than $306, and you could do worse. Should this fare have been booked?
Click "next" and find out what I paid for this trip.
Alternative Airport Savings
That $306 round-trip fare was for a convenient airport. But I soon discovered that if I was willing to drive 100 miles to Louisville International Airport, my round trip fare on Southwest (at that time) was only $88. The itinerary was similar to what was offered closer to home for $306.
So there was savings of $218 for driving three hours (90 minutes each way) to an uncrowded airport with better competition among its carriers.
At first glance, I earned better than $70/hr. to make the drive, but leaving home meant paying for airport parking, which ate into my savings. Still, there was extra money for a better hotel room choice or restaurant meals.
Click "next" and look at another example of alternative airport shopping. It involves a longer trip without switching airlines.
Same Airline, Different Airfare
Many budget travelers don't want to switch airlines. They have frequent flier miles with one carrier and they want to continue to collect for free travel. Here's an example of big savings on the same carrier, but using alternative airports as the source of savings.
A search on Delta's website at one time revealed a Cincinnati-Los Angeles round-trip airfare of $1,361. That was a four-week advance purchase, so the fare really wasn't very good.
But if I changed the arrival airport from Los Angeles to nearby San Diego, suddenly the round-trip fare dropped to $821.
Taken a step further, a departure from Lexington, Ky. rather than Cincinnati at that time came up as a $519 round-trip to San Diego. That's a fair amount of driving at both departure and arrival, and some budget travelers would not find that acceptable.
But for those who could fit both changes into their plans, the savings at that time totaled $842 per passenger. If you're traveling with two or three other people, don't you have to give Lexington-San Diego some strong consideration?
Perform this same search today and you'll come up with far different numbers. But the principle at work here is still valid and worth considering for longer flights.
One quirky footnote: on that Lexington flight, there was an intermediate stop before arrival in San Diego -- Cincinnati.
Click "next" and consider cross-country example.
Ask for Alternative Airport Fares
If you're going to make reservations for a trip from Los Angeles to New York, chances are good you'll get fare quotes for a trip between LAX and JFK. Those are the two largest airports in twp cities that have multiple choices for air travelers.
In one travel search, a non-stop fare on American Airlines popped up for $390. At the time of the search, it was a reasonable price to pay for such a ticket.
At nearby Newark, the fare to LAX for a similar non-stop flight was $340. Newark and JFK airports are 16 miles apart. If we add distance, we add more savings: Hartford, Conn. to Ontario, Calif. came in during that same search at $258. That fare, which is about one-third cheaper than the original fare, did include one intermediate stop.
Most travelers in New York City wouldn't drive all the way to Hartford to save a few dollars. But if your home is located midway between Hartford and Manhattan, doesn't it pay to know all the available fares before you book?
Take a look at Alternative Airports in Large U.S. Cities.
Click "next" and consider how this principle can save money on international airfares.
International Alternative Airport Searches
Let's say you live in near a major East Coast airport, and you want to leave North America. There are direct flights from those large airports to major world cities. But few will have fares to match New York or Boston. The volume of traffic from there is significant, and most international airlines (even the small or mid-sized national airlines) go into these cities for competitive reasons.
It's another example of driving for the purpose of saving big money. Budget carriers like Icelandair or Virgin Atlantic routinely offer their best airfare deals from the east coast.
Apply the same principle on arrival. Why insist on landing in Paris when there is a great fare at the moment to Brussels? Next week, maybe the fare to Paris will be lower. A quick train trip between the two cities could save you hundreds of dollars.
Sometimes the ground transportation eats all of your savings. The strategy sometimes fails to deliver any significant savings in return for inconvenience. The point is to make airfare search so you know for certain your airfare is the best value at time of booking.
Click "next" to consider the first planning step in this strategy.
Draw a Circle around your Home Airport
When considering alternative airports, you alone must decide how much driving is practical for you. Is a 200-mile radius too large? In some remote locations, a 200-mile trip to the airport is the norm. But for other travelers and circumstances, that circle will need to be drawn much smaller.
Should you draw a similar circle around your destination city? Some people are willing to drive after arrival, and as we've seen in some of the examples, it can pay off handsomely. Generally, travelers make the destination circle a bit smaller, but you should adapt a strategy that fits your travel situation.
It never hurts to ask about the alternatives. Factor in that limousine ride or the parking bills before making a final decision. If the resulting net savings is only a few dollars, you'll probably decide an alternative airport is not worth the trouble.
In online searches, simply look for a box that says something like "check other airports" and click it. Such a mechanism is standard in all search engines. Taking the time to find out will help you make an informed decision -- the goal of every budget traveler.