Can an air traveler save money by driving to an alternate airport?

Can an air traveler save money by driving to an alternate airport?

People do all sorts of things in an attempt to save money while traveling by air, from planning trips months upon months in advance to get the best deal, to packing little snacks to eat during layovers rather than buying food from a pricey airport restaurant, to wearing six layers of clothes on the plane to avoid having to check any bags. Some people pride themselves on being saavy ticket buyers, but is there a way to "game the system?" Check out this When To Buy Airline Tickets infographic to get some tips.

Another way to save money (and time) may be almost as simple as driving a few extra miles down the road. That’s right: Flying out of an alternate airport within, say, a few extra hours’ driving distance can sometimes save time and money.

For example, San Antonio’s SAT is a convenient airport for those who live close by, but because of its small size and relatively few direct flights, it may not always be the fastest and cheapest option for travelers, according to San Antonio travel agent Pat Stout. 

"If you have a direct flight with no change of aircraft," Stout told Angie's List in a recent interview, "it can be more convenient and your luggage stays with you the whole time."

So why are bigger airports cheaper?

The basic principles of supply and demand explain it: More carriers are operating at larger airports, so prices get pushed down as airlines attempt to attract more passengers to their flights. Sometimes this difference is small, but sometimes, it can be several hundreds of dollars per ticket. There are also customer service concerns with larger airlines as many of the larger carriers rank low on airline customer satisfaction ratings.

If you’re a single traveler driving the extra distance to a cheaper airport in a gas-guzzling car and you plan on parking in a garage, it may actually be more frugal to depart from the more convenient airport that’s closest, rather than saving $150 on a ticket. However, if you, your spouse and your three children are traveling, saving $150 on each ticket can keep $750 extra in your bank account.

Extra bonus points are in order if the cheaper airport is close enough for your party to get dropped off by a friend or a shuttle. As Houston travel agent Tina Erskine told Angie's List, "when the parking fees equal the cost of a shuttle, then the convenience of a shuttle is worth it. You have to consider the time of day and rush-hour traffic and the inconvenience for others [dropping you off].”

While bigger airports can often be cheaper and offer more direct flights, you should also take into account that saving money doesn’t always mean less hassle. Remember that there are still perks that come with smaller airports, like cheap parking and, depending on where you live, a more convenient departure location. 

You often just have to weigh your options to decide what works best for you -- price or convenience. For a lot of air travelers, it can be difficult to get the best of both worlds.