Should You Take Public Transit to the Airport?

USA, Washington, DC, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, subway
••• Rich LaSalle / Getty Images

As a traveler, I have read dozens of articles telling me how to get from various airports to nearby and not-so-near downtown areas using public transportation. I have also read a couple of articles about traveling to local airports via public transit, but wasn't sure how well it would work for me.

My Public Transit Experiment

I recently flew to the Midwest from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which has its own Metrorail stop, and decided to take the Metro to the airport instead of driving because I needed to get to the airport just as rush hour ended and knew there would be traffic.

I packed carefully, choosing a tote bag as my carry-on item rather than my usual wheeled backpack, because I realized I would have trouble maneuvering two wheeled bags in the Metro station. The tote bag sat on top of my small wheeled suitcase, making the combination fairly easy to manage.

The closest Metro station to my house is a 25- to 40-minute drive, depending on traffic, so a family member dropped me off at the station. Most Metro stations in the Washington, DC, area do not offer overnight parking (in fact, only four do), and it's not easy to take the bus from my house to my closest Metro stop, so getting that driving assist was essential. Traffic was fairly light, even though we left home at 7:15 a. m., probably because so many federal employees take vacation time during the second half of the summer. In less than an hour, I was in my Metro seat, headed toward Washington, DC, and the airport.

I changed Metro lines in Rosslyn and had no trouble handling my suitcase, tote bag and purse. I smiled to myself when I saw the heavy traffic heading away from the airport toward DC; taking the Metro was definitely the best choice on that particular day. A few stops later, I was at the airport.

When Is Public Transit a Better Way to Get to the Airport?

You Are Traveling In a High-Traffic Area

City traffic can slow cars and buses down, but subways and light rail systems operate at the same speed all day long.

If you are heading to the airport from a high-traffic area, taking the train or subway can save you a lot of time. (Tip: Consider taking the bus, too, if your city offers dedicated bus lanes during rush hour.)

You Will Be Away for Several Days

Airport parking fees can add up quickly. If you take public transit to and from the airport, you can save quite a bit of money simply by avoiding those parking costs.

You Must Travel Through a Road Construction Zone

Summer is construction season in many parts of the world, but road construction can affect travel at almost any time. If road repairs are slowing drivers down in your area, taking the train or subway to the airport could be a better and less frustrating choice.

You Have a Reliable Way to Get to the Station or Bus Stop

Most of us don't live right next to a bus stop or subway station. If you want to take public transit to the airport, ask a friend to take you to the station or bus stop so that you don't have to walk a long way with your bags. If no friends are available, consider using Uber, Lyft or a taxi.

When Should You Look for Alternatives to Taking Public Transit to the Airport?

While my experiment went very well, there are definitely times when taking public transit to the airport might not be your best option.

For example:

Your Bags Are Difficult to Carry

If you are taking several pieces of luggage to the airport, or if your suitcases are large and heavy, dragging them onto a subway car or public transit bus might be difficult, especially if you are traveling during rush hour.

You Must Travel During Rush Hour

While traveling by subway, light rail or commuter train during rush hour can actually help you save time because you avoid traffic jams, you will have to contend with very crowded train cars, busy stations and, on rare occasions, overcrowding that causes delays. If you are traveling by bus during rush hour, you will be stuck in the same heavy traffic that you would face if you drove yourself to the airport, and you will have to pay for the privilege.

Your Flight Is Scheduled Outside of Public Transit Operating Hours

Many public transit systems shut down for part of the night. If you need to get to the airport extremely early or very late at night, buses and trains might not be running when you need them. This is especially true on holidays.

You Are Traveling in a Strike-Prone Area

If you are flying out of a strike-prone city during the spring and summer months, you should have a backup plan in case train operators, Metro employees, taxi drivers or bus drivers go on strike on the day you must travel.

You Are Traveling By Train or Subway During a Heat Wave

During periods of intense heat, steel rails are more likely to curve out of shape, or buckle. Rail and subway system operators must slow down their trains on very hot days to minimize the risk of track buckling. This means that you will spend more time on the train – sometimes a lot more time – to get where you need to go. .

You Absolutely Must Use an Elevator

Not all subway systems offer elevator service at every station, either because elevators just don't exist or because elevators are broken and must be repaired. If you can only get to the airport by subway because there is no bus service from your area and you need an elevator because you use a wheelchair or scooter or have multiple bags, public transit may not be your ideal option. (Tip: Check your transit system's website for up-to-date elevator outage information.)