How Can Smaller Airports Lure Travelers Like You?

“A s more airlines replace smaller airplanes with larger ones to gain financial efficiencies, smaller airports especially are having a harder time providing their customers with as many flight choices as they once had”, Barbara DeLollis wrote in this article she posted earlier today in her Travel Update weblog.

This may indeed be true — especially if smaller airports are attempting to attract more business travelers.

I personally like smaller airports. They are typically less crowded. They take less time to go through. Lines are shorter — if they exist at all. The airport employees seem friendlier. The experience overall is usually less stressful.

Unfortunately, schedules of flights are not as convenient as at a larger airport; and flights are usually not non-stop unless your destination is at a “hub” airport. There are not as many dining choices. You will not typically find an airport lounge. Some of the terminals seem to have a total area smaller than what you would find in some airport lounges at a major airport.

I remember being on a stopover at Watertown International Airport in Jefferson County, New York. The airport provides “free parking, quick boarding, handicap accessible restrooms and a friendly flying experience” as well as free wireless Internet service. I sat at a picnic table outside under a tree. An agent of the Transportation Security Administration unexpectedly came outside and offered me a frozen treat: one of those plastic strips of flavored ice. I must admit that it was rather refreshing; and the gesture was greatly appreciated by me. Do not hold your breath hoping for that experience anytime soon at any of the three major airports which serve the New York metropolitan area.

To me, the advantages and disadvantages of smaller airports usually mean nothing to me if I cannot get past the one criterion which would convince me to use that smaller airport in the first place:

Price.

The cost of airfares to Las Vegas from Atlanta had been rather high recently during my search; so I thought I would try flights to smaller airports. Allow me to use Tuesday, October 21, 2014 as the departure date; and Tuesday, October 28, 2014 as the date of the return flight. I chose Tuesday for both segments because it is usually the day of the week when flights are least expensive; and I chose just beyond a month from now to allow for airfares greater than 21 days in advance but not months ahead of time.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 4.09.32 PM

Click on the map to enlarge it. Map ©2014 by Google.

Using the flight search map by Google and without even determining whether or not flights are non-stop or which airlines or equipment operate those flights, you can see that a round-trip airfare between Atlanta and Las Vegas is as low as $303.00. The closest airports — Kingman, Prescott and Saint George — are either $498.00 or $499.00.

Other smaller airports are not much different: Visalia is $484.00. Fresno is $461.00. Page is $462.00. Cedar City is $446.00. Show Low is $553.00. Moab is $631.00.

I do not know about you — but as much as I like smaller airports, I have no desire to spend up to $328.00 more to be a passenger on an airplane flying to a smaller airport when a larger airport offers better flight schedules at lower airfares.

In fact, the reverse situation would be true: if I wanted to visit Moab, I would most likely have to rent a car anyway. Why not use the difference of $328.00, rent a car in Las Vegas and drive to Moab?

Let us go one step further with Moab being the destination using the airport in Las Vegas: using Orbitz.com, I could rent an economy car at Enterprise — the only rental car company in Moab, apparently — for a total of $370.00. Renting a similar car at the airport in Las Vegas for the same time period would cost me a total of $140.00 at Fox Rent A Car — and I would have a choice of no fewer than 16 different rental car companies from which to choose.

Ironically, renting a car from Enterprise in Las Vegas is two dollars more expensive in total than renting one in Moab.

Just the round-trip airfare and rental car alone would cost me $558.00 more in Moab than it would in Las Vegas. The one major disadvantage, of course, is that driving between Las Vegas and Moab would take slightly greater than 6.5 hours each way. At 458 miles each way, that is roughly equivalent to two tanks of fuel at as low as $3.25 per gallon in Las Vegas; so if you figure on 30 gallons of fuel just for the two trips — not including any intermediate driving which you would have had to do anyway in Moab if you chose to visit there — you would pay close to $100.00 in fuel. Cut that from the $558.00 figure and there is still a difference of $458.00. Divide that by 13 hours: is your time worth $35.23 per hour?

Even if you said that your time is more valuable than $35.23 per hour and you do not want to drive 916 miles round-trip, there are still the other disadvantages inherent with small airports as pointed out by Barbara DeLollis which still need to be considered…

…and I am not including time lost due to stopovers on indirect flights to smaller airports. Factor in at least three extra hours for the round trip versus a direct flight to and from Las Vegas.

Obviously the cost differences would be less when the airport is Saint George or Kingman than Moab if your destination is Las Vegas; and the driving time would be less because they are significantly closer — but despite the airfare difference of at least $195.00, would that be enough to convince you to use those airports instead of Las Vegas?

Let us go in the reverse direction, originating in Las Vegas instead of Atlanta for the same days. While the airfare differences here are not nearly as dramatic, every airport on the map below — with the exception of Jackson and Memphis — is still more expensive than Atlanta.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 4.39.29 PM

Click on the map to enlarge it. Map ©2014 by Google.

Macon and Chattanooga — both within two hours from Atlanta, although Macon is closer —  would be the closest choices of small airports near Atlanta. Your car rental at the airport in Atlanta can be as low as $200.00 for an economy car for the week from E-Z Rent-A-Car — one of 12 rental car companies from which to choose; whereas a similar car rental would cost you a minimum of $235.00 for the week with Hertz in Macon and a minimum of $253.00 for the week with either Thrifty or Dollar Rent A Car.

For me, that is the problem with smaller airports: cost.

While there are certainly exceptions to what I have highlighted, it usually costs more to use a smaller airport; and unless that smaller airport is considerably more convenient to your final destination, be prepared to pay more for the privilege…

…and if the smaller airport offers such amenities as free parking if that is where your flight is originating, knock $80.00 off of the cost — but is the convenience of free parking worth the stopover you will most likely need to experience each way on your trip, as smaller airports usually have fewer direct flights?

What are your thoughts? Assuming airfares to smaller airports were exactly the same as — or even less expensive than — at larger airports, would you use them more often? If price is not a factor for you, what amenities and factors would entice you to patronize smaller airports more often?

13 thoughts on “How Can Smaller Airports Lure Travelers Like You?”

  1. I agree with you – price is really the only concern. I live in northern Cincinnati, and since the Cincinnati airport (CVG) is in northern Kentucky, it’s not much further to go to Dayton (DAY) and when I do, I enjoy the shorter lines and cheaper parking.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      In your case, multiply the differences in airfares times eight…

      1. Right 😀

        Though honestly we try not to pay for flights – we fly rarely enough that we so far can do almost all of our traveling with miles

  2. boilers says:

    There are several factors. First I feel it is for the traveler who is originating their travel from the smaller airport. I would always fly out of the smaller airport then. We could use your Augusta, GA (AGS) example. Augusta is 2.5 hours away from ATL. That doesn’t include traffic. If landing in a big city you must include traffic and delays as well and time your flight to avoid rush hour. I think there is a time and place for small airports. Furthermore you are only giving examples of more expensive smaller airports. Sometimes they are cheaper but you didn’t give one instance of this.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      At one time, Birmingham — a smaller airport which I have used more than once and is a viable alternative to Atlanta — also offered lower airfares; but that has not been the case recently. Although it is 3.5 hours away, Nashville was another alternative to Atlanta which I used more than once.

      By my recent experience, these airports rarely offer lower airfares than Atlanta anymore.

      My point was not that there are not smaller airports which are less expensive than major airports; rather, it was to simply say that if smaller airports competed with larger airports on price alone, many of them are already at a disadvantage and face stiff competition without factoring in the other disadvantages.

      You are correct about rush hour, boilers — especially in such cities as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. One accident or construction project during one of those rush hours could literally add hours to you getting home or to your hotel.

      I agree that there is a time and place for smaller airports — as I said, I like using them — but is that enough for them to compete with the larger airports for your business?

  3. dlnevins says:

    My view is this: you get what you pay for.

    Yes, smaller airports can be more expensive, but they also offer a better overall travel experience, and that is worth money. Also, I’d far rather spend my vacation time seeing what I traveled to see, rather than driving for hours on the interstate to get to my real destination.

    The only real downsides to small airports are that they don’t offer many nonstop options, and they often use regional jets.

    (Yes, I flew into Moab rather than Vegas – and I’d do it again. And when I go to visit Zion National Park, I’ll be flying into Saint George. But my time is worth more like $300/hour and I hate solo road trips, so it’s an easy decision for me. YMMV.)

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, dlnevins. Absolutely good points which you have expressed.

      I actually enjoy solo road trips. Just give me my music and a car and I am good to go.

      I will never forget my road trip of two weeks from the Seattle area to the San Antonio area driving down the entire west coast of the United States and then along the border with Mexico…

      1. dlnevins says:

        Your western road trip sounds wonderful. I wish I enjoyed road trips, but I’m a nervous driver, and I spend the whole time worrying that the car will break down.

        But that’s why we have so many different modes of transportation: what works for one person may not suit another at all. We’re all different, and that’s great!

  4. Stogieguy 7 says:

    Smaller airports are usually more pleasant and less stressful. They offer reduced price parking and usually are in places where the uncertainties of rush hour traffic are not a factor. That said, there are many disadvantages that tend to discourage me from using them:

    1) Ticket prices, as discussed in detail above. While this isn’t always true, it has increasingly been the case over the past several years.

    2) Much fewer nonstop choices. Not only is this less convenient, making your flight much longer, but you also have to concern yourself with the increased likelihood (at least double) of a flight delay. At least with a nonstop, you start in “A” and end your flight at “B”. There’s no “C” or “D” involved in between, saving a lot of time and potential stress.

    3) Smaller equipment. I am not a fan of the smaller regional jets and/or turboprops. You can provide me with as much justification as you wish as to why I’m wrong on this, but I don’t care. I simply prefer a larger, mainline aircraft. The regionals are smaller, more cramped, bumpier to fly in and (sorry) but are usually piloted by less experienced crew. That’s not to say that they aren’t safe (they are), just that they’re not quite as safe or ‘comfortable’ (each is relative) than a mainline aircraft.

    4) Fewer flight choices. Again, this was mentioned above but it’s a factor for me as well. Even larger “small” airports lose out on this one for me. For example, MKE is not a ‘small’ airport but it quite user-friendly when compared with ORD (I live between them). I almost never end up at MKE though, as the flight options are simply fewer than from the big hub – and the prices out of MKE are usually higher. All things being equal, I’d fly out of MKE; but all things are never equal, are they?

    Now, that’s not to say that I have a prejudice against small airports. I don’t. Their advantages are many. When I lived in New England, I went out of my way to fly MHT over the incredibly inconvenient BOS. But that said, smaller airports are often a tough sell.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I have used the airport in Manchester a number of times and preferred it over Boston — especially when I had a client in Wilmington — but if my day was over during the afternoon rush hour, the traffic on Interstate 93 was predictably horrible going into New Hampshire. Even with the traffic heading into Boston in the afternoon, Logan International Airport was often easier to get to than Manchester.

      As for regional jets, Stogieguy 7, I do not mind them. I just keep reminding myself how much better they are to me than turboprop aircraft…

  5. Scott M. says:

    I agree with boilers; there are a lot of little factors that add up when making the decision. For me, flying out of BTR is almost always a better choice than driving to MSY (1.25 hours on a good day). Not only is parking cheaper at BTR, but I can get from my house to the boarding gate in 35 minutes. I don’t have to fight traffic, work up a sweat walking from the parking garage to the airport, or wait in line any significant amount of time at the counter or going through security. Yes, flights out of MSY are usually a little cheaper, but unless my destination is one that Southwest or Frontier flies to, it just isn’t worth driving to MSY to save less than $100 flying on AA, DL, or UA

    For destinations, it is not quite the same. We have flown to Las Vegas for a week that included a couple of days in Vegas, plus a drive through Zion to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. But in that case, the drive was a planned part of the trip. My father lives in southwestern Colorado, so our choices for going to visit him are usually DRO, CEZ, or ABQ. DRO is horribly expensive over Christmas, since all the snowbirds are going skiing, ABQ is much more affordable for flights and car rental, but adds a five hour drive to the travel day. CEZ is sometimes a very reasonably priced alternative, with the addition of being very close to his home. However, the tradeoff is that it is a tiny airport-the waiting area (can’t really call it a boarding gate) is smaller than some airport lounges I have been in. Being so small, it gets about four flights a day, not always making for convenient departure or arrival times. But with a maximum of nineteen passengers per flight, it doesn’t take long to get everyone boarded or offloaded. Bonus: every seat is both a window seat and an aisle seat! When was the last time you were on a Beechcraft 1900?

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You know, Scott M., I cannot remember the last time I was on a Beechcraft 1900 airplane. It has been a while; and yes, I enjoy seats which are both aisle and window!

      I also agree with you and boilers that there are a lot of factors which play into deciding whether to use a smaller airport versus a larger airport; but again, the article was about how smaller airports can entice you and I to use them more. I still maintain that — more often than not — cost is an inhibiting factor in using a smaller airport; and as Stogieguy 7 has posted, this has been increasingly the case in recent years.

      Baton Rouge was indeed an easy airport to use as well as to access. The surfaces of the concrete roads seemed like they needed to be refaced, though. I wonder if that was done yet…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *