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Ask a Pilot: Which DC Airport is Better? DCA, IAD, or BWI?

For those of us who call the Washington DC area home, or for those looking to visit the Nation’s Capital or its gorgeous surrounding areas, there’s a lot of choice when it comes to air travel.

But if you thought picking an airline was tough, wait until you have to pick between 3 major airports!

As a New York based pilot living in the Washington DC area, I’m tasked with this choice every week on my commute to NYC. And as surprising as it may sound, I don’t just stick to one. Each airport has its advantages and disadvantages.

Between access to the metro, proximity to different cities, better airlines, and ease of use, there’s no simple answer to “Which Washington DC area airport should I fly into?” And there are different answers to “which DC airport is most convenient?”

Related: Ask a Pilot: Which NYC Airport is Best, LGA, JFK, or EWR? (2021)

1) Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA)

Which Washington DC area airport is best? Reagan National (DCA)!
Which airport is best in the Washington DC area? I think this picture of DCA speaks for itself. Credit: N i c o l a

DCA Pros

  • Convenient, direct Metro access to downtown Washington DC
  • Gorgeous airport is a pleasure to visit
  • Airport entrance to gate time is usually quick

DCA Cons

  • Food options and lounges are limited
  • Very few international flights (only Canada and Caribbean)
  • Connecting flights can be a hassle – until construction is complete
  • Most expensive parking at $17/day for economy

Reagan National Airport, known simply as “National” or “DCA”, is a local favorite. Here’s why.

First off, DCA simply a treat to visit. The first thing you’ll notice as you walk in are the gorgeous, elaborate hallways dating from the 1950s with huge American flags hanging down from them. Even the flooring is magnificent. All of that combined with enormous windows and incredible views make DCA the prettiest airport in the Washington-DC area. By far.

Plus for those with a layover in DC, there’s an airport museum right in the terminal dedicated to the history of the airport.

DCA Location: Convenient for DC, not for Baltimore

Getting from Washington's Reagan National (DCA) to downtown DC only takes 14 minutes by metro.
The metro ride from Reagan National to Gallery Place in the heart of downtown DC is only 14 minutes. The National Mall is even closer!

Although DCA is called “Washington National” airport, it’s not actually in Washington DC. Surprise! It’s in Arlington, Virginia.

That being said, Reagan National still has the quickest, most convenient access to DC by metro. You can be in the heart of Washington 15 minutes after arriving in DCA.

Getting from DCA to downtown Baltimore is another story as it requires taking the Metro to Union Station then taking the Acela train to Baltimore-Penn. Even then, you’re not really in Baltimore. Driving from DCA to Baltimore can take over an hour with traffic and rideshares regularly cost around $100. Oof!

  • Downtown Washington DC to Ronald Reagan National Airport takes only 15 minutes by metro
  • It’s complicated and long to get to downtown Baltimore

How quick is security in DCA?

Security lines aren’t the worst, but they could be better. And getting between the terminals either means going through security again or taking a slow, inconvenient bus.

Luckily, the entire airport is being redesigned in order to enable seamless access between terminals and a more efficient experience.

DCA does offer the new CLEAR system to get you through security, and I’ve never seen a line there – at any airport. CLEAR has a 6 month free trial and is totally included with some credit cards; check with your bank.

Lounges and restaurants in DCA

There aren’t many restaurants in DCA, but the ones that are there are pretty good. My favorite place in Terminal C is &Pizza, where you can build your own pizza. Delicious.

Unfortunately, DCA doesn’t have many lounges. There are only 4, and they’re all associated with airlines;

By far, the Delta Sky Club is the best lounge in DCA.

Priority Pass does include small discounts at a few restaurants, such as the American Tap Room.

Airlines in DCA

DCA offers a fair selection of airlines, including:

  • American Airlines, which has a hub at DCA
  • Delta Air Lines, the second largest legacy carrier in DCA
  • Southwest Airlines, the largest low cost carrier in DCA
  • JetBlue, United, Alaska, Frontier, Sun Country, and others

Only 5 international destinations are offered, and some are only seasonal.

2) Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI)

Baltimore-Washington International Airport is a fantastic alternative to Ronald Reagan National Airport.
Baltimore-Washington International airport blends simplicity with elegance and ease of use. The only possible qualm is its location.

BWI Pros

  • Usually the easiest airport in terms of parking, security, and overall hassle
  • Great selection of airlines – domestic and international

BWI Cons

  • It is far and inconvenient for many, especially Virginians
  • Not many lounges and not a very interesting airport for a long layover

BWI airport is like that one awesome friend you have that lives super far away. Any excuse you have to get out of your way and see them is a good excuse.

It’s pretty well-sized and rapidly growing with new destinations every year. A little known fact about BWI is that it even offers flights to Europe!

The overall experience at BWI is efficient, clean, and even kind of fun. There’s an overall happy sentiment to the airport as most flights are for leisure customers headed to vacation.

One cool thing about BWI is there is actually a pretty nice bike path that goes around the airport. Neat for long layovers if you want to walk and enjoy the outdoors – or spot airplanes.

BWI Location: Good for Marylanders

BWI's location isn't ideal really - for Baltimore or DC.
Scroll lower and you’ll see that it’s actually quicker to get from DC to BWI than to IAD!

Unfortunately, traffic between Washington DC and BWI airport is quite ugly. It often takes upwards of an hour to drive just over 35 miles between the two.

In terms of public transportation between DC and BWI, you can take the MARC train from Union Station to the BWI MARC Station. From there, you will take a shuttle to the airport that runs every 5-10 minutes.

You can reach downtown Baltimore from BWI by MARC train as well – in just about 30 minutes. There’s a LightRail (mini-train) to reach destinations in between.

  • Between taking the metro, MARC train from Union Station, and MARC bus/shuttle to the airport, it takes over an hour between Washington DC and BWI. Driving can take from 35 to 70 minutes.
  • Downtown Baltimore is about a 30 minute train ride away from BWI. However, BWI is a quick drive from many DC and Baltimore suburbs.

Parking at BWI

This is where BWI really shines. BWI offers a plethora of different parking options, and at teh cheapest prices in the region. For example, you can find covered parking at only $10 per day.

Economy is only $8 per day, but there are off-brand options even cheaper than that!

How quick is security at BWI?

It’s pretty average. A little known secret for those flying on Southwest/American out of BWI (Terminals A/B/C) is that there is a third security checkpoint, (checkpoint C) that usually has very little wait.

You can expect long lines on holidays as flocks of leisure customers seek out BWI for lower fares and better flight availability.

Lounges and restaurants

In terms of lounges, BWI is clearly lacking. The Club BWI is the only lounge in BWI and it’s pretty lacking.

However, restaurants at BWI are actually great. There’s a decent selection of restaurants there, my favorite being Chipotle!

Airlines at BWI

BWI serves quite a few airlines, both international and domestic, including:

  • Southwest Airlines, with a large hub
  • Delta Air Lines, American, and United
  • International: Air Canda, Air Senegal, Condor, Icelandair, British Airways
  • Spirit, Frontier, JetBlue, Sun Country, Allegiant

There’s quite a bit of choice when it comes to BWI!

3) Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Washington-Dulles International Airport is far more beautiful from the outside than on the inside.
Washington-Dulles is beautiful and well-designed from the outside. But on the inside, it’s a different story.

IAD Pros:

  • Largest selection of flights, especially international
  • Great lounges

IAD Cons:

  • Inconvenient location
  • Security and getting to/from the gates is arduous
  • Expensive parking

Flying out of Dulles for most people is more of a “because I have to” rather than “because I prefer it”. Flying in or out of Washington-Dulles International Airport is a chore and there’s no other way to put it.

Washington-Dulles International Airport is the largest airport in the DC area by a significant margin, and brings with it the pains of a large airport designed mostly in the 70s.

The first experience most internationally travelers visiting the Nation’s Capital will have is being pushed into a cramped “People Mover” bus from Terminal B/C to International Customs. Yes, this was true even in the pit of Covid-19.

Unfortunately, Washington-Dulles is the hub for almost all international flights in the area. Quite frankly, it’s an embarrassing introduction to the country.

IAD Location: Only convenient if you live in Virginia

The lack of public transportation is one of the reasons that Washington-Dulles (IAD) is the worst airport in the DC area.
Between the metro and a public bus, getting to IAD from Washington is inconvenient and cumbersome. I avoid it at all cost for domestic flights.

The “Silver Line” of the DC Metro, which has been under construction for seemingly an eternity, is still not finished. This means that public transportation from Washington DC to Washington-Dulles means taking the metro and then taking a bus. Not terribly fun.

Otherwise, the Dulles Toll Road is the way in from DC, and traffic can be a nightmare on the way there.

It can take almost 2 hours from Baltimore to Dulles during rush hour.

Parking at IAD

Parking at Washington-Dulles is expensive and inconvenient. Even the closest parking, costing $22/day, is a hike to the Terminal. The $12 economy lots are a 10-minute shuttle bus away, but can leave you waiting a long time in the cold and snow before they arrive.

There are alternative options with nearby hotels for covered parking, but these are even further from the airport.

How quick is security at Washington-Dulles?

Security at IAD is often quite slow, and when you’re finally through you have to take a train, people mover, or walk to your terminal. Terminal C is in abysmal shape and looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since 1982, but Terminal B is quite nice.

Plan extra time for both security and the journey to your gate.

It’s relatively easy to move between terminals in Washington-Dulles, luckily.

Lounges and restaurants

This is where Washington-Dulles really shines. There are a TON of excellent lounges, such as:

  • Turkish Airlines
  • Air France – KLM
  • Delta SkyClub
  • Lufthansa Senators
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • United Club

There’s decent choice when it comes to restaurants, but not as much as you’d think. My favorite restaurant at IAD is once again &pizza, located in Terminal B near gate 71 and Terminal C near gate 28.

Airlines at IAD

No doubt, Washington-Dulles is the place for international travel. You can fly to 6 continents from here.

Airlines fly here from all over the world. You name it, they’re probably here.

Dulles is a United hub, and they offer an increasing repertoire of international destinations. You can also find airlines like Qatar Airways and Emirates for luxury seekers, or low cost carriers like Tap Air Portugal (who I do NOT recommend!)

Conclusion: Reagan National (DCA) is the best

Travel the world safely during COVID-19
Taken last year at Gravelly Point Park, my favorite place to spot airplane traffic landing at Washington-Reagan (DCA).

Having been based as an airline pilot out of Reagan National (DCA) and operating flights out of all 3 DC-area airports, I know Washingtonians truly are fortunate with the selection we have.

I mean, it could be worse. It could be a New York City airport.

Each airport has its advantages, and I could certainly see Virginians leaning towards flying out of Washington-Dulles International. But looking purely at the big picture, it’s definitely the worst airport for domestic travel.

With its ideal location and Metro access, great domestic selection of destinations, ease of use, and convenience, Reagan National is definitely the best airport in the Washington DC area.

However, if Baltimore-Washington/BWI keeps growing its international presence, Reagan National may struggle to defend that spot. And once the silver Metro line from downtown DC to Washington-Dulles (IAD) is complete, it will redefine that airport’s convenience.

And I’ll be looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I am an affiliate with CLEAR. Having flown around the country, I absolutely promise you that I’ve never seen a line anywhere that CLEAR serves, and I would never affiliate with them if I didn’t believe in them. I may receive a small commission if you click on their link above – which is the only way I can keep this site running. Thanks for reading!

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