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Regional airports vs bigger hub airports

In domestic flights we've flown from our nearby Sacramento airport quite often (25 minute drive) but a few times have flown from San Francisco or Oakland (2 or more hours away) when the price was much different and when it involved up to 4 tickets. For our Europe trip in 2019 we flew from Oakland with Norwegian and I was hopeful that Norwegian would be an option for further trips.

Alas, it looks like that won't be the case for the future, so now I'm a free agent, checking out all kinds of different airline and flight options, and one thing I notice is that the price difference between my local airport Sacramento isn't that much different than the big bay area airports. Of course its often one extra stop till the final destination but the overall travel time isn't that much more than flying out of San Francisco, without the hassle of having to drive much further away.

So I'm wondering what people's feelings are about the tradeoffs involved. Biggest downsize to the regionals I can think of off hand is what if the first connecting domestic flight, such as Sacramento to Denver and then the flight to Europe from there, if that flight out of Sacramento is delayed, then missing the connection and basically getting to Europe one whole day later. Biggest advantage of course is being only 25 minutes away If I know before hand whats happening we don't even have to go to the airport only to find our trip is postponed a day. Anyway, with ticket price being about the same, and travel time about the same would you do the regional airport vs the big hub, if it meant an extra stop and a somewhat greater chance of getting to your final destination on time.

Posted by
907 posts

I'd go for Big Hub. Less chance of problems with airline sked changes.For any flights to Europe I have to get from Albuquerque to a larger airport. Have had issues with the extra flight involved.

On one trip we were supposed to fly Heathrow to SLC then home. Booked months in advance with Economy Comfort seats for all flights. 2 weeks before departure Delta regional.carrier canceled out flight from SLC. Last flight of the day. Options were cruddy economy seats flying thru Atlanta or keep our flights except stay overnight in SLC and flight home the next morning. We opted for the later.We

Our last trip we were heading to Budapest. Decent departure time from here to SLC but as the months went by Delta kept moving up the dep to Amsterdam. Better connect time for our flight to Budapest but cut the layover in SLC so short we eventually have to resked this end to a 6 AM flight.

I like SLC airport but will be opting for a bigger hub in the future at least with our flights out.

Posted by
250 posts

Pick your poison. I picked the big hub for a direct flight on a weekday (for the lowest fare) and sat in traffic with much gnashing of teeth. If I pick the regional, the weather batters the puddle-jumper aircraft, the bags don't connect, the flight is delayed and I don't connect, or I fly 2 hours west to go east to Europe (not an issue in California). The direct flight almost always wins for me, although the airlines charge you for the privilege. Murphy's Law dictates your decision will always be wrong anyway, so go with what you can live with with minimal disruption to your psyche. At least you are traveling!

Posted by
20473 posts

All it took was one bad experience trying to use my local airport to connect overseas and I learned my lesson. 3 hour drive to O'Hare is now standard operating procedure. Airline service is just not what it used to be 20 years ago.

Posted by
9892 posts

In Oklahoma, we don’t really have a choice. I am always going to be flying into/out of Tulsa.

Any hub airport is way too far away to consider driving there.

It’s just part of the trip, and I haven’t had any particular problems. In some 16 years of living abroad (and travels abroad before that), I think I have gotten stuck overnight in the States one time, and that was back in 1988.

Posted by
7724 posts

We have a good regional airport in town, served by the big three (Delta, United, and AA). Leaving from a hub would mean about 4 hours to ORD and about the same to Minneapolis. We just have not seen it worth the effort to make the drive, except under one circumstance.

The drawbacks we see:

  • The long drive there and back, both time and miles on the car. Time and $
  • On the way there, unless you have a later flight and want to risk a problem on the way, it means a night in a hotel and a few meals. $$ and again, Time.
  • Parking for the duration of the trip. $$
  • On return, either a jetlagged long drive, or another night in a hotel and meals. $$ and time.

The balance sheet would need at least a couple hundred Dollars saving per ticket...just to break even. Maybe if there were 4-6 of us, the math changes, but for two, it is a hard sell. Plus just comfort, on return, I just want to be home in my own bed.

The one circumstance that does change the math is significant savings and when our Daughter lived near ORD. Have another Daughter who now lives near MSP, so we check that option sometimes. The game changer is that we have no hotel nights, work in a visit with family, and get a ride to the airport, saving parking or shuttle fees.

Having flown for Business, both domestically and international, as well as our own travel, (maybe a hundred trips) all from this regional airport, I really do not recall any significant issues, always carry-on for the outbound flight, so no baggage issues, minor weather issues. Unlike others, I seem to have no issues with changes, always plan a decent layover.

I guess I compare "total cost" not just that I saved a few bucks by driving hundreds of miles and paid related expenses that I do not include in "Ticket Price".

Posted by
8655 posts

My understanding was that shorter regional flights were the ones most likely to be the first to be delayed or cancelled due to weather or air traffic issues. But most of us don't have the options you do, of three major hubs within two hours.

Posted by
3994 posts

That’s a hard call. So far, in the same market as you, we’ve done all of our domestic flying (except Hawaii) from Sacramento’s wonderful airport. We have taken all of our international flights up here from SFO or OAK. We look at ease of getting there, price and time. So far things have priced out better for us to use a rental car to drive into the city for international flights and we like one flight and we’re there.

However I was just looking at some August flights from our 3 airports and I can see that there are similar prices from SMF for getting to CDG, AMS, LHR etc with one stop, usually Seattle, Atlanta or Los Angeles. There are various combinations of airports for $577 for the nonstops vs $600 for our local one stop. Not a lot of difference and something to consider. If things were different with our world pandemic, I’d probably be buying tickets about now.

Posted by
3903 posts

My options:

  • GSP (Greenville-Spartanburg, SC) 20 minutes from my home
  • Charlotte 75 minutes from my home
  • Atlanta just under 3 hours from my home

I have a strong preference for flying out of my home airport. I used to be a US Air guy long ago, but now fly Delta pretty much exclusively, so that knocks out CLT. I've driven to ATL for a cheap fare a few times, but the post-trip drive home is brutal. Now I start at GSP and fly to a hub (Atlanta, Detroit, JFK). I usually try to line things up so that I have a long layover at the US hub and can catch another flight to the hub before departure just in case something happens at the local airport. I love planes and airports, so I have no problem spending a few hours in an airport.

Posted by
700 posts

We’ve wound up and n the same camp as Dave after trying a few options.

We’ve flown out of Boston (3.5 hour drive). Some cost savings per ticket vs. the local airport and yes, great to be directly on the way to Europe and not stress about missing a connection. But we’ve decided it just adds too much “getting there” overhead, parking cost, or even an extra hotel night, and the jet lagged drive home is horrible.

We’ve flown out of Montreal (2 hour drive). Great prices usually on Air Canada given the exchange rate. The driving time is manageable (but still a long drive home), but adding the uncertainty of delay time at the border means we have to leave extra early for the flight and cross our fingers that we don’t have any hiccups. Plus we travel with some unusual liquid medications that, though legal, have the ability to slow us down at the border and through airport security.

So we’ve decided over the years to just pay a little more for the convenience of flying out of our local airport, an easy 30 minute drive. We can get a ride so don’t have to pay for parking or deal with a tired drive home at the end of the trip. To avoid the stress of FOMC (Fear of Missing Connections), I book us on the first flight out of Burlington — which will have the best % on time/arrival chances — and give us lots of time in the hub airport before the late afternoon/evening flight to Europe. We chill out, wander, people watch, eat a big meal, and get into vacation mode while we wait. Even with 4 of us flying, for us, it’s worth the (minimal) extra cost to fly out of the local airport.

Posted by
33337 posts

a modest proposal?

why not move house to be near the hub airport? When I lived in San Francisco there were lots of nice, relatively inexpensive, houses in Daly City and South San Francisco, and more modern ones in Foster City and Redwood City..... just a thought

Posted by
18837 posts

When I fly from my home city I run the chance of the first flight running late or being canceled. Happens more often here it seems than at the big airport. So I always make sure I have a second flight option. Result is a really long layover. BUT, if I drive to the hub Airport its a 3 5 hour drive. Fine when leaving, but miserable on the return trip. No win situation.

Posted by
7724 posts

A couple more thoughts...

It seems that many "fear" or have anxiety of a missed connection, rather than ever really having suffered the effects of a missed connection. As I mentioned, for me, many, many trips, always with at least one, sometimes two connections each way, and I can only think of a few instances of cancelled or missed connections...and guess what? in each case I still arrived home or to my destination, sometimes a few hours late, once earlier, maybe twice the next day, but one of those was due to delays of the overseas flight, and the other was a schedule change ahead of time by Delta, both were on the way home. Bottom line, yes it happens, but it is not a trip killer, it all works out, but it is such a rare occurrence that I simply do not worry about it.

Of course I do not accept layovers of less than an hour, usually plan 2-3 hours, time to pick up a drink or something to eat. I carry-on the way there, so no baggage concerns, and despite trying over and over, choosing to connect through Amsterdam, I just cannot get stuck there.

I will concede though, the "Hubs" near me and my Regional airport are dominated by the large US airlines and their overseas partners. If I lived within driving distance of a "Superhub" that had Unaffiliated airlines offering European flights, then I might be tempted. But I just am not going to see the $300 RT fares from where I am. I recently picked up $800 main cabin tickets to Rome, that is about as good as it gets.

Posted by
18837 posts

It seems that many "fear" or have anxiety of a missed connection,
rather than ever really having suffered the effects of a missed

In the last 15 years, from my home town to the hub where the international flight departed I have had

  1. one flight canceled on me, ended up rebooking on another airline and made my connection. Was expensive.

  2. one flight bumped me. I bought my way back on. Cost $600.

  3. one flight was so late arriving at the hub that I had to run across the airport. Luggage showed up 2 days later.

Of course that represented 3 times out of about 40 international trips.

Posted by
7465 posts

Our family has a saying that there are two things where we arrive very early - airports and baseball games. So driving to the major hub would add even extra time in case of traffic, etc. And, we love how quick we can get through airport security at our smaller airport.

Our normal now is flying from Spokane to either Seattle or eastern options. We have stayed overnight next to the Seattle airport to ensure we catch the flight and also to have the option for an early morning flight. I would pick whichever option gives you the least amount of stress before your flight.

Posted by
7050 posts

When airlines cull their itineraries, they are more likely to cull those affecting fewer passengers (those to/ from smaller hubs). That's one of the risks, especially now when they are bleeding cash and have to staunch the damage.

Posted by
3249 posts

Speaking of San Francisco airport; every time I have flown thru there in the past my flight has been delayed due to fog.
It seems if you take a really early morning flight from or through there it's ok, but once one flight is delayed they just keep backing up.
I wouldn't ever connect through there again if I had a choice.

Posted by
8882 posts

Only plus about living in LA.

Direct flights on Virgin ( my preferred airline) to Heathrow. It’s an overnight flight. Easy peasy.

Posted by
4480 posts

I prefer to drive to ATL to avoid sitting in the terminal waiting for my next flight, but sometimes it's cheaper to fly from Birmingham through ATL. Airfares make no sense, right?

Posted by
343 posts

I had a different kind of problem using regionals to the ones most others seem to have had. Years ago my parents and I flew from Sarasota via Washington to LHR all on one ticket with United. The problem was that the checkin person at SRQ didn’t seem to have any experience of ticketing for an overseas flight, and mistakenly tagged my luggage through to AMS, not LHR. Some eagle-eyed staff member in Washington realised this and sorted it all out, fortunately, and ever since then I’ve become super careful about checking the tags myself.

Posted by
1103 posts

We prefer leaving from an airport that offers flights directly to Europe. We have an Aer Lingus flight from Hartford (Bradley - BDL) to Dublin that has been suspended due to COVID, and I hope the flight will be reinstated. We also use Boston (BOS) for a departure airport. One way to avoid the dreaded jet-lagged drive home at the end of the trip is to use the so-called Park-Sleep-Fly option, whereby you park at a hotel near the airport and stay for a night before driving home.

Posted by
10402 posts

Hi Rob! On my 10 flights to Europe I have flown out of Sacramento. Probably half of those flights I’ve changed planes at SFO, then flown to Europe from there. I’ve also connected at other airports. I allow plenty of time at the connecting airport in case the plane from SMF takes off late. This happened to me in October 2019 when I was going to Frankfurt. There was fog in SF, which delayed the take off from Sacramento. Thankfully we made it okay. I figure a layover when I fly from SMF is not going to eat up any more time than having to drive to SF or Oakland. Delays can happen on the drive to SF such as traffic or an accident. Having free parking at SMF definitely drove our decision as well, but we will continue to fly from there even though hubby is now retired and he lost that privilege. What will you do with your car in SF if you have a long flight? Flying from SMF you can Uber or have someone drive you and pick you up. Using airline miles I have had to return to SFO instead of SMF a few times because of the difference in mileage, but hubby picked me up a couple of times and when we were together Monte picked us up. On one of their trips we picked them up at SFO.

You have plenty of travel friends at home that would be more than happy to help you out getting to and from SMF.

Posted by
247 posts

I’m use to living around an hour away from the airport but a few years ago I moved to a major city and now live less than 15 minute away from PHL. The most priceless thing is after a long flight being about to get home in such a short time frame. The drive to the airport is never as bad as the exhausting drive home. So for me, I would choose to leave from the regional airport since price and travel time are similar. Connecting flights always run risks but allowing for adequate time between flights can help mitigate this. I think you can also look up on time and cancelation percentages of flights so that can also help choose the right connecting flight.

Posted by
581 posts

Count me among those who prefer regional airports. We live 10 minutes from our nice 5-gate regional airport. Parking is a breeze. We can connect through Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, and Dallas to anywhere. In 30 years of travel I think I’ve missed a connecting flight maybe 3 times. I always allow 2-3 hours to make a connection to an international flight.