Zero to zillions: How much does it cost to reach your airport?

Plane Talk: Many transport operators take the view that if you can afford a flight you’ll pay dearly to reach the terminal

Simon Calder
Travel correspondent
Wednesday 10 April 2024 06:00 BST
Fancy free? Burlington bus 11 to the city’s airport has no fare
Fancy free? Burlington bus 11 to the city’s airport has no fare (Simon Calder)

This column is coming to you from a sunny Tuesday afternoon in the impeccably pretty lakeside town of Burlington, Vermont. Despite the clear blue sky and sunshine dappling Lake Champlain right now, and the allure of churches and cafés in this good-natured New England city, people are leaving town.

Twenty-four hours ago the Great American Eclipse cast Burlington briefly into mid-afternoon darkness, much to everyone’s delight. But now the cosmic circus has moved on, with the next performance scheduled for northwest Europe in 2026.

At Burlington’s ambitiously named “international” airport, the small jets to the big cities are lining up: Philadelphia, Chicago O’Hare, New York La Guardia…

As is common with minor regional airports in the US, fares are painfully high. On Friday, for example, the cheapest fare for the 90-minute hop to New York is $349 (£275). But at least reaching the airport will not trouble your bank balance. Throughout the state of Vermont, no fares are currently charged on any public transport. Green Mountain Transit’s bus 11 will take you out to the airport for free.

New England has another example of benevolence towards the airline passenger: the handy Silver Line bus from Logan airport will whisk you into central Boston for nothing – and even provide a free transfer to the Red Line for the north or south of the Massachusetts capital.

In Europe, the six miles from Luxembourg airport into the city are covered eight times an hour by free buses, and thanks to the remarkable national policy of zero fares everywhere, you can of course transfer anywhere you wish in the Grand Duchy.

Other countries are not so kind to airline passengers: many transport operators take the view that if you can afford a flight you’ll pay dearly to reach the airport. In my new survey of the UK’s 10 worst-value rail trips, half the journeys priced at £1 per mile or higher are airport links:

  • Hayes & Harlington to Heathrow Central – £2.10 per mile
  • Stansted airport to Stansted Mountfitchet – £1.31 per mile
  • Three Bridges to Gatwick airport – £1.15 per mile
  • Stansted airport to Bishop’s Stortford – £1.11 per mile
  • Stansted airport to Elsenham – £1 per mile

You will spot that these are all short journeys (typically three or four miles), which tend to be proportionately more expensive. But the Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted expresses linking London with those three big airports all have premium prices. Even the Elizabeth Line, part of the capital’s public transport system, costs disproportionately more to Heathrow. A trip from the central area to Slough is cheaper than a journey to the airport, even though it is four rail miles further.

To Luton, passengers might get a reasonable fare to Luton Airport Parkway station – but what awaits them is the demand for £4.90 for a three-minute, 1.2-mile journey on the Dart monorail link to the terminal. To be fair, East Midlands Railway rewards early bookers from London St Pancras with cheaper Luton Airport Express tickets that include the shuttle. But usually I stubbornly choose to walk up the hill, which takes around 20 minutes.

I am also occasionally to be seen striding purposefully from the tram stop at Ingliston Park & Ride to Edinburgh airport. All tram journeys elsewhere in the Scottish capital are £2 – but this suddenly rises to £7.50 for the last half-mile to the airport.

Financially stressed local authorities and transport operators can hardly be blamed for extracting whatever they can from airport passengers; typically half of them are from overseas, and perhaps seen as fair game.

But there is a downside: the higher the cost of public transport to airports, the more travellers will switch to cars and taxis. Certainly, drop-off charges for private vehicles comprise a deterrent. But airline passengers need a carrot as well – and here in sunny Burlington, they get one.

Yet the canniest travellers to New York City will actually be aboard the daily train, costing just $105 (£83) for a glorious all-day trip along the Hudson Valley.

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