Ready for Takeoff? If You Need a Van, Make a Plan

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The number of shuttle companies serving the Washington area's airports has decreased in recent years, probably because some small services couldn't keep pace with SuperShuttle, the Starbucks of the airport transportation world, and with medium-size companies. Or they got guzzled by gas prices.

"It's the type of business that you have to work hard to make it go," said Doug Clarke, general manager of SuperShuttle in Washington. "It can be hard to compete in the long haul. It's a struggle."

Small companies survive by limiting their business to one airport or sticking to a restricted service area, Maryland Shuttle general manager Timothy Buo said. Still, SuperShuttle dominates the Washington market by charging less than its competitors. It's also one of the few options for Virginians, because most shuttle companies are based and licensed in Maryland.

To make your airport shuttle ride as smooth as possible, keep in mind these tips from company officials and frequent travelers:

* Follow the company's recommendations when you reserve a ride. Most ask for at least 24 hours' notice.

* When making reservations online, you probably will need to provide a credit card number, even if you plan to pay with cash. If you do pay with cash, get a receipt. If you plan to turn in a company expense report, keep a photocopy of the receipt in case your credit card is mistakenly charged.

* If you have excessive luggage, mention it at the time of your reservation. Some companies charge extra.

* Call and confirm your reservation a few hours before your pickup. Maryland Shuttle's Buo also suggests asking for the name of your driver. That will ensure that you're getting into the right van and will help track an item if you accidentally leave it behind.

* Most services say they will make up to three stops. As a result, expect to be picked up about three hours before your flight. Shuttle companies try to plot a geographically smart route to pick up other passengers, but there have been horror stories of wild-goose chases to grab other travelers.

"When it does happen, it's not a fun thing for anyone involved," said SuperShuttle's Clarke. "You try to get it as close to a perfect science as possible."

* Be ready five to 10 minutes before your scheduled pickup in case the van is early. Don't expect a van to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes for you.

* Don't forget to tip: A 15 percent gratuity is appropriate.

-- Elissa Leibowitz Poma

© 2007 The Washington Post Company