Getaway Day: When To Opt For Mid-Sized Airports

Smaller airports can be more convenient -- but not always.
Smaller airports can be more convenient — but not always.

By Sharyn Alden

Anyone who logs lots of air miles has tricks for wasting time in airports. One frequent flyer I know samples coffee at several stands inside the terminal, then rates the various brews. He’s wired at departure, but he has more fodder for that book on airport coffee he’s going to write.

Me? I like to grill fellow travelers on various topics. One of my favorite questions is, “What are your favorite airports?” Everyone bites on this one, especially the globetrotting traveler who wants tobrag. Still, the travelogue kills time and generates some interesting responses.

Lately, I’ve been fine-tuning the question by asking, “What are your favorite small or midsize airports?” Some travelers can talk on this for hours.

It seems everyone has a story about small airports. Most of the feedback is positive, but none of it is neutral. Travelers either love or despise these pint-size versions of SFO or DFW. But no matter how travelers feel about them, they’re definitely here to stay.

I used to get a lot of story mileage out of my trips to the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. The flights became more comfortable over time, but early on we sat on oil drums inside a tiny prop plane. The “airport” was a hut and a landing strip. It wasn’t an alternative airport; it was the airport. If you wanted to visit this magnificent island, that was how you got here, unless you had a big boat.

We’ve come a long way since a small airport was a few folding chairs and a control tower. We even have official definitions for small and mid-sized airports. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a medium airport carries 0.25 percent but less than 1 percent of U.S. flights, and a small airport carries at least 0.5 percent but less than 0.25 percent. A large hub carries 1 percent or more.

There are other ways to look at smaller airports from a traveler’s point of view. Mid-sized airports are typically defined by what they’re not – a hub for a commercial airline. For example, Atlanta is a hub for Delta but Macon isn’t anybody’s hub. That would make Macon the regional airport, which it is.

Also, mid-sized or small airports don’t handle wide-body airplanes, and they’re often seen as magnets for area businesses, even though they may be located in the wide-open spaces between several smaller cities.

The best mid-sized airports are frequently close to and almost always far less stressful than O’Hare or Midway. But mostly, favorite smaller airports are convenient. Period.

That’s the key. If the mid-size airport is not far from where you depart or return, it can be a good choice. So if you’re going to Cape Cod and want to avoid Boston Logan, try Manchester, N.H. Fewer flights (which can be a problem), potentially more expensive flights (ditto), but far easier.

Or instead of leaving from Los Angeles, try any of the smaller airports in the vicinity, including Long Beach, where you can step back in time and walk out to the tarmac to board your plane. (See this article by our Jim McLauchlin on the myriad alternatives to LAX.) Or try Rockford as an option to flying out of Chicago.

Other mid-sized airports travelers say they like are Dayton; Pensacola; Grand Junction, Colo.; New Haven; Greensboro, N.C.; Vail; and Fort Myers.

The top perks with these airports include faster check-in, good parking, shorter lines, and fewer hassles in general. Most importantly, though, the smaller options lack the chaos of LAX, ORD, LGA, and other deadly acronyms. They’re fun (who uses the word “fun” when describing JFK or Atlanta Hartsfield?), and easy to navigate, with fewer gates and terminals. Actually, they have far fewer of everything, including travelers.

If you’re a seasoned flyer, you may like midsized airports because they emulate the flying world of yesterday, when the crowds were smaller and choices slim compared to today’s all-you-can-eat choice buffet. On regional flights your decisions tend to be fewer: check your bag or carry on, upgrade to economy plus or stay where you are, or buy travel insurance. (Buy the travel insurance. You’re on your own for the rest.)

Speaking of costs, unless there’s a major price difference in your favor you probably shouldn’t go way out of your way to try a mid-sized airport. If you’re booked on the last flight out for that day, and that flight is cancelled, you may wind up seeing more of the area than you had bargained for. Also, remember that there may be fewer flights from a mid-size airport going to your destination (and few nonstops, if any at all), and they may cost more than comparative flights from a big airport. There is a huge amount of competition between airlines at big U.S. airports, and that drives down ticket prices. Where do airlines make up that income? At smaller airports, where options are fewer.

If you drive to an alternative airport, mind the time. If you choose an unfamiliar mid-size airport in Virginia instead of Washington D.C.’s Reagan National, as I did, you may get lost when you’re rushing to make your flight. The meandering route caused me to miss my flight, and the early-morning mid-winter scenery didn’t make up for the long drive or the missed flight.

Would I repeat this scenario? No. But I do book flights from mid-size airports on occasion, especially if they represent an easy option compared to the nearest big-city departure point.

Hey, a three-hour, one-way bus to O’Hare is easy to give up when a shorter, simpler trip to Rockford can get me where I’m going easier with a lot less stress.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at sharynalden@gmail.com.

Editor’s Note: If your next flight is out of a regional airport, don’t forget to pack the travel insurance. No matter where you’re headed, Berkshire Hathaway can protect your trip. Get it here