Some cities have more than one airport. These can complicate travel with some big traps for the unwary.
Some examples of cities with more than one airport include:
- Chicago - Midway, O'Hare
- London - City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Stansted
- Melbourne (Australia) - Avalon, Tullamarine
- Moscow - Domodedovo, Sheremetyevo, Vnukovo
- New York - JFK, La Guardia, Newark, White Plains
- Rio de Janiero - Galeão, Santos Dumont
- Seoul - Gimpo, Incheon
- Tokyo - Haneda, Narita
Trap 1 - Go to the Wrong Airport
The most basic mistake is to turn up, or arrange pickup, at the wrong airport. It is a very easy mistake to make, and a trap that millions of people fall into every year.
Avoid this trap by always double-checking you have the right airport. This is particularly important for low cost airlines, some of which have a habit of referring to airports by the name of the nearest major city which is not the same as the main airport of that city. For example Hahn being called Frankfurt - they are two different airports.
Trap 2 - Assume Airports are Close
If an airport is referred to as being at a particular city you may assume it is close to it. When multiple airports are referred to as being at a particular city it may seem likely they are fairly close to each other.
In some cities with multiple airports they are relatively close together - eg New York's JFK, La Guardia and Newark airports are not too far apart. However more commonly airports may be more outlying, and a long way from the city and from each other - eg Tokyo Haneda and Narita are on different sides of the city with Narita a long train or bus ride into central Tokyo.
Some low cost airlines have a habit of using secondary airports a long distance from the city they refer to. For example Hahn is 1 hour 45 minutes away by bus from Frankfurt city, and Avalon is about an hour by bus from Melbourne city.
Avoid this trap by checking airport websites for transfer information.
Trap 3 - Connections Across Separate Airports
Some itineraries may require a transfer between airports. For example Bridgetown (Barbados) to Lagos (Nigeria) via London has the first flight arriving at Gatwick and the second departing from Heathrow.
You need to allow plenty of time to change airports. Eg British Airways requires 3 hours minimum connection time (MCT) if flying on the same ticket with a London connection across multiple airports. Journey time between Tokyo Narita and Haneda is 2 or more hours.
Avoid this trap by carefully checking draft itinerary arrival and departure airports including for transits. In some cases there may be flight options that do not require a terminal transfer. If you have no choice to change airports consider an overnight stop or all day transit to allow more time, especially if flying on separate tickets.
Trap 4 - Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
In most cases you also need to pay to transfer between airports, and this cost could be eye-wateringly high if there are no buses or trains available - for example a cab between Narita and Haneda (2+ hour travel time) is around ¥19,000 (about US$200). A saving in air fare (penny wise) can easily be more than offset by transfer costs (pound foolish).
Avoid this trap by researching transfer costs. If bus or train transfers exist these are likely to be cheapest. Also check taxi fares in case your flight is late &/or arrives outside the operating hours of the other public transport.
Trap 5 - Involuntary Transfer Between Airports
If you are travelling to a city with multiple airports and have same day onward flights you might end up with an involuntary transfer between airports if airlines change their schedules. For example someone with a New York JFK to Dubrovnik booking on British Airways (via London Gatwick) now faces a transfer between London Heathrow and Gatwick with the cancellation of JFK to Gatwick flights.
In this situation the airline may be morally obliged to assist with transfer costs and rebooking if the connection becomes impossible. However, this doesn't always mean they are legally obliged to cover additional costs borne. I am not a lawyer, but my interpretation of EU 261/2004 (article 8 para 3) is that in the New York to Dubrovnik example above British Airways is required to pay for the cost of transfer between Heathrow and Gatwick, and potentially other costs also (eg if an overnight stay in London is now required due to the change). Travel insurance would normally cover some consequential costs (eg forced en route accommodation in countries where airlines do not have to cover those costs).
Avoid this trap by trying not to use airlines that operate from two airports in the same city if possible, and where practical routing via cities with only one major airport (eg through Frankfurt or Amsterdam instead of London or Paris).
Trap 6 - Assume Airline Partners Use the Same Airport
It is easy to assume that airline partners, especially ones in the same alliance, all use the same airport in a city with multiple airports in order to simplify connections. This is not always the case. For example in Washington, United mainly uses Dulles airport while US Airways mainly uses Reagan/National.
Avoid this trap by checking airport websites (airline websites can be misleading if they simply refer to city name). Some alliances are actively moving to reduce across city connections by co-locating, eg some Star Alliance airlines have switched from Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo.
Trap 7 - Definition of Same City Varies
Some air travel "rules" allow for special treatment in cities with multiple airports. For example:
- a fare may be common-rated (the same at both/all airports), or may not be
- a city code such as NYC for New York may be used in some circumstances to avoid a land segment between airports such as arriving at La Guardia and departing from JFK (invaluable for around the world tickets which normally include land or surface sectors in the maximum number allowed)
- checked baggage may be transferred for you between airports deemed to be co-terminals (that is in the same city), whereas otherwise you'd need to carry the bags across to the second airport yourself
Unfortunately, different definitions of what is the same city are used for different purposes. Sticking with New York as an example, for some purposes White Plains is included and for other purposes it is not.
Avoid this trap by asking your airline or travel agent about it how it works for your circumstances.
I've given seven traps for travel involving cities with multiple airports, and ways to deal with each of them. What problems have you experienced?