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Airport Shuttles: The Fine Print

By Ann Schimke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 1998; Page E01


You've undoubtedly seen the vans on the street, plastered with huge signage promising minuscule prices for rides to the airport: $16 to BWI! $19 to National! $20 to Dulles! Each, of course, carries an asterisk the size of a fist, or the tiny words "from," suggesting that the deal may be a bit more complicated than the big numbers suggest.

We decided to canvass the many companies that provide shuttle service to the area's three airports and find out who's charging what to go where. All of this presumes, of course, that a traveler has other options, too: there's Metro to get to Reagan National, and buses from downtown or suburban Metro to get to Dulles; there's satellite parking (at least $6 a day, plus the hassle of shuttling forth and back from the remote lots) or phoning for a cab or private car (the priciest option of all).

So when should you choose a "door-to-door shared-ride service?" as folks in the business refer to these operations? When money's more important than time, since the lowest van quote is always less than a simple cab fare. But there are catches. The route you take to or from the airport by van is likely to be more circuitous than the route you'd take by cab. You may have to cool your heels while the McCoy family is picked up first. You may find the van wants to pick you up three hours before your flight is due to leave. That said, most shuttle companies promise to make no more than two or three stops per trip, and rarely do they range far off-route just to fill up a van. Depending on the timing of your trip, you can wind up devoting no more time to transit than a cab would require.

There are probably two dozen airport shuttle services in the Washington area, but only a handful play more than bit parts in the daily drama of airport commuting. Super Shuttle is the biggest player locally, because it holds exclusive contracts with National and Dulles Airports to provide shuttle service for airport users. At BWI, Super Shuttle and Airport Shuttle, which serves mainly Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, operate under contract.

Only contracted shuttle services are authorized to pick up "walk-ons," or passengers leaving the airport who have not made advance reservations. Thus, a blue wall of Super Shuttles often greets travelers emerging from any of the region's three major airports. Vans from various other shuttle services may prowl the edges, but they are technically permitted to pick up only passengers who have made prior reservations. Any shuttle company, contracted or not, is permitted to drop off passengers at the airport.

While you can't beat the convenience of walking out of the terminal and onto a door-to-door shuttle without having to pick up a phone, making reservations can pay. That's because -- surprise! -- the shuttle services with airport contracts are often the most expensive providers. For example, Suburban Airport Shuttle will make a one-way trip from National Airport to Gaithersburg for $17. Super Shuttle charges $22.

And the longer the trip, the wider the potential gap. Consider a trip from Suitland to Dulles Airport: On All-American Airport Shuttle of Gaithersburg, you'll pay $23, whereas on Super Shuttle, you'll fork over $45. That said, don't assume non-contract shuttles are always a better deal. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. And as we found out, sometimes it depends on the day or even whom you talk to. The price of a van ride, like that of an airline ticket, can vary maddeningly.

Often, we found, fare inconsistencies result from miscommunication within the company. A phone operator might quote one price, a manager another and a driver yet another. From our experience, the problem is particularly acute in companies that do not compute their rates by zip code or do not store rate schedules in computer databases. Even so, airport shuttle rates can change fast and rather arbitrarily. Our best advice: Check the quote twice and get the name of the operator who gave it to you.

With so many non-contract shuttle operators out there, we've included only those with fleets of six or more vehicles. Among those that meet this criterion, we have not included Action Airport Shuttle and Elite Airport Shuttle Express, both of Gaithersburg (not to be confused with Airport Express of Silver Spring, which we have included). In both cases, the companies are not fully licensed by the regional authorities governing airport shuttle service. According to Clifford Watts, an administrative specialist at the Maryland Public Service Commission, Action Airport Shuttle is not licensed by the commission and so is not legally authorized to transport passengers to BWI. Action officials did not return calls on this matter. Meanwhile, Elite has no license from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission (WMATC), which governs airport shuttle service between National, Dulles and points in the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Elite officials said they had applied for a license from WMATC several months ago, though WMATC employees could find no record of the application.

In addition to verifying proper licensure, we talked to officials at the Maryland Public Service Commission, WMATC and the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington to find out whether any complaints had been filed about these companies. Montgomery Airport Shuttle of Gaithersburg was the only company to have received a cluster of complaints from customers. Richard Gutridge, assistant director of transportation at the Maryland Public Service Commission, said that Montgomery Airport Shuttle was the object of six complaints in 1997, ranging from failing to pick up a passenger to running over luggage.

In one case, a reprimand was issued by the commission; in two others, the company reimbursed the complainant. The other three cases were closed either because the complainant did not follow up or was satisfied. Montgomery was also the object of three complaints filed with the BBB between December 1997 and February 1998. Edward Johnson, president of the bureau, said details about the complaints could not be disclosed because all three cases are still pending.

Among the shuttle services we've covered, only Super Shuttle and Airport Shuttle offer vans equipped with wheelchair lifts or ramps. The division of Super Shuttle serving BWI has one lift-equipped van in its fleet, while the division serving Reagan National and Dulles, as well as Airport Shuttle, contract with separate companies to provide wheelchair-accessible transportation. In all cases, wheelchair users pay no additional fee, although reservations are required. Even companies whose vans are not equipped with lifts or ramps may be able to accommodate wheelchair users who can maneuver from wheelchair to van seat.

You Can Get There From Here – Here's What It Will Cost

The chart below is based on our survey of prices quoted by the eight airport shuttle services that met our criteria for inclusion. We publish only the high and low quotes for each route specified in order to demonstrate the price range you're likely to find. Not all operations provide service to all three airports from all surveyed points. Note that, for some trips, the difference between high and low quotes is just $4. Other times, it's $35. For a key to the abbreviations and information on each service, see below.

To National

From Low High
Gaithersburg 20877 $17-Sub, AA $25-Mont
Bethesda 20814 17-SS, Sub, Royal, Aff 45-AS
Silver Spring 20910 17-Sub, Royal, Aff 45-AS
College Park 20740 21-SS 45-AS
Suitland 20746 17-Sub, AA 21-SS
Capitol Hill NE 20002 $13-SS $19-Mont
Dupont Circle NW 20036 8-SS, Mont 17-Royal
Chevy Chase NW 20015 13-SS, Mont 17-Sub, Royal
Brookland NE 20018 13-SS, Mont 26-Sub
Southeast DC 20032 13-SS, Mont 26-Sub
Arlington 22203 $6-SS $15-AA
Alexandria 22301 10-SS 15-AA
Falls Church 22046 13-SS 16-Sub
Reston 20191 19-SS 28-Sub
Woodbridge 22191 23-SS 35-Sub

To Dulles

From Low High
Gaithersburg 20877 $19-AA, Aff, Sub $27-Mont
Bethesda 20814 17-AA, Royal 60-AS
Silver Spring 20910 17-Royal 60-AS
College Park 20740 25-SS 60-AS
Suitland 20746 23-AA 45-SS
Capitol Hill NE 20002 $24-SS, Mont $26-Sub
Dupont Circle NW 20036 22-SS 26-Sub
Chevy Chase NW 20015 17-Royal 25-AEx, AA
Brookland NE 20018 24-SS 30-Aff
Southeast DC 20032 22-Mont 28-Sub
Arlington 22203 $20-AA $25-Aff
Alexandria 22301 20-AA 25-Aff
Falls Church 22046 17-SS 22-Sub
Reston 20191 15-AA 19-SS
Woodbridge 22191 30-SS 35-AA, Sub


From Low High
Gaithersburg 20877 $25-AA, Aff $30-SS
Bethesda 20814 24-SS 27-Mont, Royal
Silver Spring 20910 24-SS 30-AEx
College Park 20740 19-SS 27-Royal
Suitland 20746 26-Sub, AA 40-Mont
Capitol Hill NE 20002 $28-SS $35-Mont, AA, Aff
Dupont Circle NW 20036 28-SS 35-Mont, Royal, AA, Aff
Chevy Chase NW 20015 24-SS 35-Mont, AA
Brookland NE 20018 24-SS 35-AA, Mont
Southeast DC 20032 30-SS, AEx 35-Mont, AA, Aff
Arlington 22203 $34-Sub $55-Royal
Alexandria 22301 35-SS 65-Royal
Falls Church 22046 35-SS 50-AA
Reston 20191 45-Aff 55-Sub, Royal
Woodbridge 22191 50-Aff 60-AA, Sub

Details: Airport Shuttles

Here is a list of licensed airport shuttle companies that operate six or more vehicles. Unless noted, companies accept cash and credit cards.

Affordable Airport Shuttle (Aff), Gaithersburg, 301-670-0440 or 1-800-670-8075. Office hours: 5 a.m.-12 a.m.; pickup hours: 24 hours. Small firm; limited service to National.

Airport Express (AEx), Silver Spring, 301-588-0455 or 1-800-977-2828. Office hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; pickup: 5 a.m.-9 p.m. Primarily serves the District; does not serve Virginia. Meets passengers inside airport.

Airport Shuttle (AS), Columbia, 410-381-2772 or 1-800-776-0323, Office hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; pickup: 4 a.m.-midnight. Primarily serves Howard and Baltimore counties; D.C. rates high. Good choice for wheelchair passengers.

All-American Airport Shuttle (AA), Gaithersburg, 301-417-2626 or 1-800-522-6004. Office hours: 4 a.m.-10 p.m.; pickup: 4 a.m.-10 p.m. Adds $3 to fare for credit card users.

Montgomery Airport Shuttle (Mont), Gaithersburg, 301-590-0000. Office hours: 24 hours; pickup: 24 hours. Large fleet, with 24-hour service, but does not serve Virginia.

Royal Airport Shuttle (Royal), Bethesda, 301-657-0888 or 1-800-653-0888. Office hours: 4:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; pickup: 5 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Small fleet; limited service in D.C., Virginia.

Suburban Airport Shuttle (Sub), Gaithersburg, 301-279-2222 or 1-800-996-9393. Office hours: 7 a.m.-midnight; pickup: 4 a.m.-1 a.m. Serves all three airports.

Super Shuttle (SS), 1-800-258-3826, Office hours: 24 hours; pickup: 24 hours. Largest, most visible fleet. Has contracts with all three airports. Good choice for wheelchair passengers.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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