The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is served by three major international airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport (BWI). Each has its own pros and cons that may vary depending on your specific needs—some offer better international routes, while others have a more convenient location to the nation's capital.
- Location: Arlington, VA
- Best If: You're staying in the heart of Washington, D.C., or the Arlington area.
- Avoid If: You're flying in from a long-haul international location and want a nonstop flight.
- Distance to the National Mall: A six-minute taxi will cost about $15, but you can also take the Metro—a ride to the National Mall will take about 15 minutes and cost $2 to $3, depending on the time of day.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, commonly referred to as Reagan or National, is located in Arlington, Virginia, about 4 miles from downtown Washington. It's certainly the closest airport to downtown Washington and the inner suburbs, and therefore it's the most convenient of the three area airports for visitors staying in the city itself or in Arlington and its nearby suburbs. It's also the least busy of the three D.C. airports, but just barely—it served 23.5 million passengers in 2018.
Reagan offers nonstop flights to 97 destinations, primarily within the continental U.S., but also to a few airports in Canada and the Caribbean. It's important to note that a short runway limits the size of the aircraft that fly in and out of Reagan, meaning the larger planes that can handle long-haul international routes will have to land at Dulles or BWI instead. There's also a perimeter rule, so flights beyond a 1,250-mile radius of Reagan are prohibited, save for a few exceptions. All this is to say there are very few international nonstop flights to DCA—you'll either have to take a connecting flight or nonstop one to a different airport.
But if you do choose Reagan as your destination, getting to and from it within the D.C. area is easy: The airport is directly accessible by the Blue and Yellow lines of the Metro, the city's subway system. You can also take a short taxi ride to and from the airport, but during rush hour, you can expect lots of traffic.
- Location: Chantilly, VA
- Best If: You're flying in from an international location.
- Avoid If: You want quick and easy access to downtown Washington, D.C.
- Distance to the National Mall: A 40-minute taxi will cost about $65, though traffic may affect both the length and cost of the ride. Public transportation is limited to taking a bus from the airport to the Metro's Silver Line at Wiehle-Reston East—a journey that costs about $10 and takes about 75 minutes.
Washington Dulles International Airport is located 26 miles from Washington in Chantilly, Virginia. It's the busiest airport in the D.C. metro area, with 36 million passengers passing through its halls in 2018. If you're flying internationally, this is probably the airport you should pick, as it has 57 nonstop options to Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America (plus 87 nonstop domestic routes).
As Dulles might get pretty crowded, it was the first airport in the country to debut a system that calculates and displays wait times at the security checkpoints and displays them in real time. Since both mezzanines are connected beyond security, passengers have the option to select the line with the shorter wait.
Getting to and from Dulles is a bit more complicated than getting to Reagan from downtown D.C. It's a 40-minute drive from downtown Washington with no traffic, but that number can balloon the second you hit rush hour. That said, the airport is pretty convenient if you are coming from or heading to the outer suburbs of Virginia, given its proximity to them. If you're not renting your own car, there are plenty of shuttles and taxis to transport visitors around the region. The biggest downside to Dulles is there's no direct public transportation link to D.C. yet, but it will be accessible by Metro when the extension of the Silver Line is complete, projected to occur in 2020. For now, you'll have to take a shuttle bus from the end of the Silver Line at Wiehle-Reston East.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI)
- Location: South of Baltimore, MD
- Best If: You're flying Southwest.
- Avoid If: You're averse to public transportation.
- Distance to the National Mall: It's a 40-minute drive without traffic. You might be better off renting a car, as taxis will run you about $100. You can also take an Amtrak train from the airport to Union Station in D.C. for about $17 (travel time os less than 30 minutes), or you can take the BWI Express Metro bus service to Greenbelt Metro Station for approximately the same price, but it'll take 70 minutes. There's also the regional MARC trains that connect to Union Station, which cost $7 and take 35 minutes.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, commonly known as BWI, is south of Baltimore and is convenient to the Maryland suburbs via I-95 and I-295. It's about 45 miles from downtown Washington, D.C. Southwest Airlines has its own terminal at BWI, so it offers numerous flights—sometimes at lower prices than you'd find to Reagan or Dulles. In 2018, 27 million passengers traveled through BWI, making it less crowded than Dulles, and many travelers prefer it to Dulles for this reason. But it has limited international service, only flying nonstop to Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, and London.
Getting between BWI and D.C. is not as convenient as the commutes from Reagan or Dulles, as it's quite far from the city. But the MARC (Maryland Rail Commuter Service) and Amtrak train station are close to the airport, and they provide relatively quick and efficient train service to D.C.'s Union Station. So even though it's the farthest airport from the city, it's still a reasonable alternative to the other D.C. airports, especially if you find a good flight deal. You can also drive between BWI and D.C. relatively easily, but rush-hour traffic might make the trek lengthy.