DC Airports: a Guide to Navigating DCA, IAD and BWI November 5, 2017
There are three Washington, DC Airports – which is the best? Well, it depends. Read on to learn more.
The three airports in the Washington DC area are: Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA), Washington Dulles International (IAD) , and Baltimore-Washington International (BWI). There are pros and cons to each of these airports. Reagan National is by far the closest, just across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. Dulles is considerably farther, about 25 miles from the National Mall and BWI is the farthest, about 35 miles away.
Ronald Reagan Washington National (DCA)
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the preferred DC airport by most locals. We love it because of the sheer convenience. In fact, this is probably one of the most convenient airports in the entire country. The airport is so close to the city that you can actually see Washington DC landmarks from your seat on the plane.
The airport is so close that you could potentially get from your gate to your hotel downtown in less than 20 minutes. Since the distance is so short cabs are really cheap. A ride downtown should cost you less than $20, even with tip. You can use Uber and Lyft here, which will probably cost around the same as a cab. However, be warned that you can spend more time just waiting for your Uber driver to pull around than the actual ride into the city. This is also the only airport with a Metro station right at the terminal and a ride downtown will cost less than $3 per person, even during rush hour.
Cost to fly to DCA
Historically you paid for the convenience of DCA in the form of higher flight fares. A lot of locals used to brag that they would happily pay higher fares to fly out of DCA rather than make a long haul out to one of the other two airports.
However a few years ago something interesting happened. For most of the 2000s, U.S. Airways was the dominant carrier at DCA. Then in 2013, they merged with American Airlines. The Justice Department ruled that as part of the merger, they had to give up some of their slots at DCA. 3 airlines: Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America (now Alaska Air) picked up those slots. The routes that they chose to operate on them often competed directly with the new American Airlines.
In the airline industry, there is nothing better for fares than a little healthy competition. So today if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has two or more airlines competing for your business to DCAl, it might actually be the least expensive of all of the airports! Bottom line is that if the price and the times work out, prefer flying here over the other airports.
Washington Dulles International (IAD)
The second of the DC Airports is Washington Dulles International. While many people love Reagan National for its convenience, those same people often hate Dulles for its inconvenience. Dulles isn’t just far away from the city, it’s also hard to get to. The trip here from the National Mall is about five times as far as from Reagan National!
A taxi downtown will cost you about $60 – $70 plus tip. You can use Uber and Lyft at Dulles but the prices fluctuate. So, you can’t really know for sure until you arrive.
Eventually, Metro’s Silver Line will have a direct connection to Dulles and that will be great, but unfortunately it’s still not ready.
You take the Silver Line Express bus, which connects between the airport terminal and the Wiehle–Reston East station, which is the current end of the Silver Line. That trip will take you about an hour and a half depending on how long you have to wait for your bus and for your train. It will cost between about $9 and $11 for the two fares depending on whether you ride during rush hour or not.
Another option is to take the 5A Metrobus which is a one-seat ride from the Dulles terminal to L’Enfant Plaza in downtown DC, and from there you can take the Metro to your final destination. For now the 5A runs at 40 minute intervals during weekdays and one-hour intervals on the weekend. The bus costs $7.50 to ride, plus the Metro fare to get to your final destination. And be careful because every year it seems like Metro proposes cutting this route, so make sure to double-check before your trip to make sure that it’s still running.
International Flights to IAD
United is the biggest domestic carrier at Dulles. There are also a handful of other domestic airlines and a good number of international airlines. The biggest benefit to Dulles is the number of international non-stop destinations. So if you are traveling internationally from Washington, DC you don’t have to make an extra stop before continuing on. If you do find a cheap flight to Dulles, double check and do the math. Make sure that with the ground transportation, it actually is a good deal.
Baltimore Washington International (BWI)
Baltimore Washington International or BWI is technically the airport for Baltimore. In 1973 they decided to rename it to Baltimore-Washington in order to attract people who live in or traveling to Washington, DC. It is the biggest of the three airports by passenger count, which makes sense since it is an airport that’s serving two major cities.
A cab ride from BWI will cost you about $90 plus tip. Uber and Lyft is available here as well. If you hire a ride, it will take you about 40 minutes to an hour to get downtown in ideal conditions. However, during rush hour it could take much longer because traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway can be brutal.
One big benefit of BWI over Dulles is that even though they’re both far away, there’s a train station at BWI. There is a free shuttle to take you to the train. From the BWI train station, you can take the MARC commuter train into DC for about $8. You can also take an Amtrak train for about $16. There’s also a metro bus called The B30. This will take you to the Greenbelt station at the end of the Green Line. Then,you can ride Metro to get into the city. The B30 costs $7.50 plus your Metro fare, so the total cost will be somewhere between $11 and $13.
The B30 is more useful for airport employees than travelers. It winds up costing more than the MARC train. It is also slower and less convenient. However, if your final destination is somewhere on the Green Line then it could actually make more sense. Metro frequently proposes cutting this bus route. So, please double check before your trip to make sure that it’s still running.
Cost to fly to BWI
BWI historically had a reputation for being the cheapest airport in the area. That is because its primary carrier is Southwest. So there’s a lot of advice floating around on the internet that says to fly to BWI because you can get cheap Southwest flights. However, these days that advice might not hold anymore. Southwest has approximately 75% of the total domestic market share at BWI. That means that most of their routes are operating with zero competition.
Now, there are some routes like Boston, Atlanta, or Las Vegas where you can get some amazingly cheap fares. In other cases, it might actually be cheaper to fly on Southwest into DCA since they are competing directly with American Airlines. Bottom line is: always just check all three airports when you’re planning your trip. Make sure to confirm for yourself that you are getting the best deal. BWI might still be your best option, just don’t blindly assume that it is.
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