I sat in a daze in my husband’s car, which idled outside the arrivals gate at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Hours earlier, I had been on an entirely different continent. But it wasn’t the miracle of modern flight that took me thousands of miles in no time that had me baffled. It was how easy it was getting in and out of the airport.
Even as BWI returns to pre-COVID traffic levels, it offers a smooth customer experience in terms of lines and ease of getting around. That’s all the more apparent in contrast to Dulles, the next closest international airport. In a Twitter poll, more than 90% of respondents said they would choose BWI over Dulles.
Some travelers told me via Twitter that they will even drive to Philadelphia or opt to take an Amtrak to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey rather than go to Virginia. Someone wrote: “I’d crawl or swim to PHL [Philadelphia International Airport] before schlepping down to IAD [Dulles] again.”
Mary Carroll-Mason, a 44-year-old content strategist living in Arbutus, told me that her Dulles versus BWI calculation goes like this: If she can shave off more than four hours of travel time by going through the Northern Virginia airport, she’ll do it. But she is willing to pay up to $200 more each way to fly in and out of BWI, which is five minutes from her house. When she flew from the latter in January for a trip to Miami, “We were at our gate 40 minutes after we left the house,” Carroll-Mason said.
BWI is just around a 15-minute drive from downtown Baltimore, with light rail and MARC Train stops close by, but its perks are enough to entice even some from the D.C. suburbs. Silver Spring resident Art Morelli, 42, says that he will “always, always always look for a BWI flight before a Dulles flight. It feels smaller and easier to get around.” He also likes that BWI offers many budget airlines, including Frontier and Spirit.
Airlines, too, love BWI, according to Jonathan Dean, communications director for the airport. In an emailed statement, Dean said that “the airport focuses on keeping costs low” and, as a result, had the lowest cost per enplanement of any major airport in the northeast United States — aviation speak for the the costs paid by airlines to airports for landing fees, rents and other charges, divided by the number of passengers.
There are also other cost-saving measures there, too. Long-term parking at the BWI airport is as little as $8 per day. Meanwhile, the economy lot at Dulles is $12 daily. For a weeklong trip, that’s a savings of $28 — exactly enough money to cover a carryout crab cake from G&M Restaurant in Linthicum Heights beforehand (truly a next-level BWI travel hack, by the way — don’t bother with the ones inside the airport).
Yet BWI doesn’t feel like a bargain-basement option. It was named top North American airport of its size in the 2020 Airport Service Quality Awards, winning high marks for cleanliness, parking and security checkpoint wait times. Kids’ play areas include a model plane, plus there are charming wooden rocking chairs in the terminal. The bathrooms are in the midst of a $55 million upgrade, Dean said.
And things are constantly improving. A “state-of-the-art” baggage handling system plus more food and retail options are coming to concourses A and B, which Dean says “will transform the passenger experience” while expanding the capacity for Southwest Airlines, the airport’s largest carrier.
There are still drawbacks to the Baltimore-Washington airport. Only a fraction of Dulles’ sheer geographic size, BWI serves fewer international destinations. As former Oriole Adam Jones responded to me via Twitter, “Dulles is waaaaaaay out the way. But Dulles has a lot more international flights. So there’s a trade off.” Another commenter called BWI “utterly useless” for those “trying to leave North America.”
But even that seems to be changing. Dean noted that in the last year, two new airlines, PLAY and Icelandair, began offering international flights from BWI. Copa Airlines announced service from BWI to Panama City will start in June.
And larger airports have their own drawbacks: At Dulles, getting to your arrival gate typically involves a trip in one of those elevated people mover things called “mobile lounges” that feel like they might break down on the runway. After a long flight, that trip makes it feel like you’re “taking a second mini-flight,” said A.J. Metcalf, a 34-year-old communications professional who lives in Annapolis. The father of two said in comparison, and particularly when traveling with children, BWI “is a breeze.”
At Dulles, after finally making it back onto solid ground, I’ve waited jet-lagged for hours in customs, only to get cut at the last minute by some guy in the Global Entry program. But customs at BWI? Shockingly, not bad at all. After arriving there from an international flight last month, I was stunned to find a manageable line that seemed to be moving fast.
But here’s a travel tip sure to make your life easier, wherever you land. U.S. and Canadian citizens can use their passports to set up a free profile on Mobile Passport Control. Just answer some questions about your trip, review your travel information and submit. Within moments, you should get a receipt from Customs and Border Patrol with a QR code. Skip the line, scan your code, move on with your life.
It’s similar to the general philosophy of the BWI experience: Get on the plane easily, leave the airport with no problem, move on with your life. And get yourself a crab cake.
Illustrations by Rebecca Bradley for The Baltimore Banner