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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 12/22/2010

Preparing for airport getaways

By Robert Thomson

Metro riders were reporting in Twitter messages this morning that the transit system and the streets around stations seemed less crowded. Perhaps it's a sign the holiday exit already has begun, though I'd watch for extra congestion throughout today and Thursday around the malls. The Capital Weather Gang's forecast shows good getaway weather through Christmas Eve, though the forecast for the weekend remains unsettled.

Airport parking
Some travelers have been asking for advice about airport parking, particularly at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall. BWI doesn't have the same easy online display of parking availability used at Reagan National and at Dulles International, but then, BWI has more parking spaces.

Thursday is likely to be the most crowded day at airports for Christmas travel.

I've found the best way to monitor the parking scene at BWI is to look at the airport's Twitter feed. At various times over the past few days, you would have seen messages like this: "Current conditions at BWI Marshall airport are normal with no significant delays. All parking areas and roadways are open."

If you were looking at the peak of the Thanksgiving getaway, you might have seen this message: "All long-term and daily parking lots are full, traffic is being redirected to the BWI Rail Station Garage for extended stays." Or this one: "All long-term and daily parking lots are full. The BWI hourly garage is open at a reduced rate of $12 a day. Conditions at BWI are normal."

Although Thursday might be the most difficult parking day for this month's holidays, it's unlikely to match the Thanksgiving peak.

More typical for a holiday period would be this message: "Some parking areas are temporarily unavailable. Please check parking signs for available parking areas."

Drivers approaching the airport will see electronic signs with alerts about the status of the various long- and short-term parking areas. In addition, you can tune your car radio to 1040 AM near the airport. Alerts about parking also will be posted on the BWI home page.

If you're flying and will be away for just a few days, consider using the daily garage, rather than the long-term lots. The daily garage is $12 per day, vs. $8 at the long-term areas. But if a winter storm rolls through while you're away, both you and your car will appreciate the shelter of the garage. It also makes waiting for the shuttle bus a lot less chilling.

Our most difficult airport for holiday parking has long been Reagan National, but it also supplies the best real-time information about parking. On the airport Web site, travelers can find out exactly how many spaces are available at the daily and hourly garages and in the economy lot. The airport also maintains a parking hot line at 703-417-PARK (7275).

Use this parking information link for Dulles. There, you'll find a status report on the availability of hourly, valet, daily and economy parking, but without the extra guidance of knowing how many parking spaces are left. For phone reports, call 703-572-4500. When you approach the airport, tune the car radio to AM 530.

A BWI-bound traveler wrote in with this question: "Can you foresee any delays Thursday morning with the MARC from Union Station to BWI? I know I've read about MARC delays recently but I'm not sure if they're systematic or freak delays, but we have a flight at 9:45 a.m. from BWI and will be traveling from the Barracks Row area. We'll need enough time for security checks and to wait in the holiday lines and I want to make sure MARC is our best option, since we can walk from home to Union Station. The last time we took the B30 we missed our flight by minutes."

First, as I said, there's no way I can tell whether a MARC train is going to break down or get delayed Thursday. But I consulted with Post staffer Mark Berman, who monitors the commute each morning here on the blog. We don't see any pattern to the recent delays that would allow a rider to predict what a given morning will be like. The service disruptions seem to be related to MARC's own equipment or to problems with Amtrak and freight trains on the same line.

With a flight departure at 9:45 a.m., there's not a big margin for error on getting the train from Union Station. It's certainly a good idea to get to the airport with a big enough time cushion to withstand the lines. They always seem to take longer at holiday times, because you have many people traveling who do so only once a year and aren't used to the security procedures.

Looking at the Penn Line schedule, I'd be thinking about the 6:45 a.m. train, and thinking if there's some problem with that, I could catch the 7:12. (There's always the fallback of switching from MARC to Amtrak up to BWI, but there aren't that many Amtrak trains, either, and you'd have to make the switch quite early.)

MARC is pretty good about sending out e-mail alerts anytime there's a problem with a train. You can sign up for the alerts here.

Meanwhile, Metro has not announced any plans to add service to the B30 for Thursday, so you might still find that unsatisfactory if it didn't work for you last time. (I've also heard from travelers who have had good luck with this express bus from Greenbelt Station to BWI.)

For Dulles by bus: Travelers can take the 5A from L'Enfant Plaza or Rosslyn stations, Another option is to take the Orange Line to West Falls Church, then take the Washington Flyer bus to the airport.

By Robert Thomson  | December 22, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Airports, Driving, Getaways, MARC, Metro, Transit  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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Another option at BWI is parking in one of the excellent off-airport parking lots, many of which take reservations to guarantee your space.

Some options:

Posted by: stuckman | December 22, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

I live within walking distance of West falls Church Metro, so I'm taking Metro to DCA on Thursday. 11AM flight, so leave home about 8AM.

Posted by: wiredog | December 22, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

We're traveling on Christmas Eve, and Metro's holiday schedule on Friday threw us for a small loop, although this time we're heading to Union Station and not a flight. As the trains start at 7:00 and will be running farther apart than is usual for a Friday, we realized we were going to need a cab to make our pre-8:00 train.

Anyone using Metro to get to the three airports on Friday should bear that in mind, particularly anyone whose flight leaves before 9:30 a.m.

Posted by: EtoilePB | December 22, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I agreed to drop a friend off at BWI on Friday morning, and she wants to be there at 8:30. I was figuring that if we left Pentagon City (where I live) by 7, that should be more than enough time. What do you think Dr G?

Posted by: anoel | December 22, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Check out for all three Balto - Washington and 63 other US and Canadian airports.

Also, for Airport Hotel with free long term parking look at

Posted by: DoanSteel1 | December 22, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Yes, anoel, I think leaving at 7 should get you there right about 8:30 on Friday morning. I think both the commuter and holiday traffic will be relatively light at that time. But I still would expect there to be some traffic. A lot of people will be traveling on Thursday, but some will stay over, either for shorter range drives on Friday or for flights early Friday. Weather should also be okay on Friday morning.

Posted by: rtthomson1 | December 22, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

anoel, even though traffic will be light on Friday due to greatly-reduced commuter volume, you still ought to listen to the traffic reports on the radio before you leave home, just to make sure that there's no problem along your route. An overturned truck or a bad wreck can snarl the traffic regardless of whether it's a holiday. Given your departure point, you may want to listen again as you approach the Beltway in Maryland (I assume you plan to go across the Southwest-Southeast Freeway, then up DC-295 and the BW Parkway) because if you hear of a problem on the parkway, you can easily use the Beltway to divert to I-95.

Posted by: 1995hoo | December 22, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Anything I need to be aware of if I'm renting a car from Reagan National on the 23rd? I'm taking metro from Farragut North to pick up the car around 4PM. I assume there won't be much in the way of commuter traffic (I'll be heading to western PA) but are there other concerns at the rental counter?


Posted by: wondering123 | December 22, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

We'll be getting to BWI sometime between 3:00 and 3:30 pm on Thursday and we reserved a space at Pre-Flight Parking on Monday. It will be my first tiem using them, but I've heard great things about them. It will just be nice not having to search for a space!

Posted by: Dougmacintyre | December 22, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

With a 9:45 am departure and the unusual holiday closings on Friday, I might see what the BWI/Marshall Hotels are charging for Thursday Night, and if its not outrageous, I would consider going up to BWI/Marshall Thursday night and spending a leisurely night at the Hotel with a later Wake Up time and a more relaxed departure.

That's not really an option for Dulles or National.

Posted by: dcraven925 | December 22, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Dr.G, We have a flight out of BWI on Christmas morning at 7:30am to LA. We are having a limo take us from Aspen Hill to the airport. Will traffic be light? And hopefully the snow will be pushed to the 26th and the rain out there will turn to sun. What do you think about the travel plans?

Posted by: M20832 | December 22, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone here have experience with Dulles parking at Christmas? I'm leaving from Dulles on an early Friday morning (Christmas Eve) flight. Normally I'd just park in the daily garage. Will that even be an option?

Posted by: dal20402 | December 22, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

DoanSteel1: Although that website has listings for numerous off-airport lots at BWI, there are no such listings for DCA or IAD. The only off-airport parking options at those airports involve paying to park in a hotel's lot. Parking at a hotel is a time-consuming proposition because hotel shuttles run infrequently (compared to the BWI off-airport parking shuttles) and they often do not run late at night.

Posted by: stuckman | December 22, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

As a side note, most of the parking lots near BWI are NOT taking reservations for the days around Christmas. Does anyone know how difficult it is to find spaces there on Christmas Eve?

Also, what do you think traffic will be like on Christmas Eve evening from Alexandria up 295 to Baltimore?

Posted by: amvb86 | December 22, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

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