Dulles Vs Ronald Reagan Vs Baltimore – Which Washington Airport Is Best?

Washington D.C.-area passengers have three main choices when it comes to choosing an airport. Dulles International, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington all have their pros and cons. Simple Flying takes a look at which Washington area airport is the best.

Washington Airports
Which of the Washington Airports is best? Photo: Dulles Airport

Washington area airports

The three main airports serving the capital of the United States are:

  • IAD: Washington Dulles International Airport
  • DCA: Ronald Reagan National Airport
  • BWI: Baltimore-Washington International (also known as Thurgood Marshall International)

Washington Dulles International Airport

Known more commonly as Dulles, IAD is one of the more well-known of the area airports. The airport is located about 26 miles, or just over 40 kilometers, from the capital. A hub for United, the massive airport serves not just as an origin or final destination but also caters to connections.

United and its partners fly to a number of high-profile international services including Accra, Johannesburg, Beijing, Munich, Istanbul, Lisbon, Zurich and Tokyo among others. However, passengers can also catch a flight on Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, KLM, and Emirates among many other choices.

United hub Washington Dulles
United has a major hub at Washington-Dulles. Photo: United Airlines

In terms of international connections, Washington-Dulles is the best Washington area airport. With nonstop services to Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America, passengers have a number of opportunities for connecting and nonstop flights top long-haul destinations.

Moreover, a number of carriers outside Star Alliance also offer services to IAD. This means that, out of most airline hubs, IAD is one of a few where passengers are not necessarily “hub captives” when it comes to long-haul international services.

Ronald Reagan National Airport

Reagan National is the smallest of the DC-area airports. However, this airport is the closest to the capital. While this could be a boon to many other area airports, Reagan National suffers a few constraints.

First, because of the airport’s location, growth is limited and the airport can only handle scheduled domestic flights on smaller aircraft. In terms of international services, these must originate from airports that have preclearance facilities. This limits the number of foreign airports from which carriers can fly.

Ronald Reagan National Airport
Reagan National is the smallest, but the best for proximity to the capital, of all three Washington area airports. Photo: Ron Cogswell via Flickr

Those who may be enticed by the airport’s close location to the capital, however, will also have to contend with route restrictions. Barring a few exemptions, air service is not allowed to exceed a distance of 1,250 statute miles from the airport. Thus, most service is regional.

However, there are exceptions for service to the following cities: Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, San Juan, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon according to the official Reagan National website.

DCA route restrictions
DCA is only allowed to receive flights from within a perimeter of 1,250 statute miles. Rendering created at Great Circle Mapper

Baltimore-Washington International

BWI is the main airport for Baltimore, Maryland. However, the airport does also serve the metropolitan DC-area. The airport is about 30 miles, or just under 50 kilometers, from Washington D.C. This places the airport within the same distance as IAD from the capital. However, compared to IAD, service at BWI is not as extensive internationally. Although, the airport does see international service from Air Canada Express, British Airways, and seasonal Condor service.

Baltimore-Washington International
BWI is another airport serving the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Photo: James G. Howes via Wikimedia Commons

However, Southwest Airlines operates a major hub at the airport. This may be a huge plus for family travelers who would want to take advantage of the airline’s generous checked baggage policy.

Southwest operates a hub out of BWI. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Which Washington airport is the best?

Ultimately, this depends on what passengers prefer.

Business travelers who value proximity to the capital may prefer Reagan National. With service to high-traffic cities, the airport does offer some lucrative opportunities.

For international service, however, IAD offers a compelling choice. The airport is a major hub for Star Alliance carriers but also sees service from a number of other airlines.

And, BWI is a great option for passengers who wish to fly Southwest as it is a similar distance from the capital as IAD. With nonstop service to a number of domestic and international destinations, BWI is also an option to look at. Not to mention, from Baltimore’s MARC station, it is a short train ride to Washington D.C.

Which is your favorite Washington-area airport? Let us know in the comments!

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Chuck

One of the great benefits of Reagan is the adjourning Metro station which provides immediate access to the surrounding area. Once the Silver line of the Metro reaches IAD (2021?) , it too will grow in stature as a resource for regional and international connections.

Jim

Great point, Chuck! Worth noting with respect to BWI: In addition to MARC train service to Union Station, Amtrak trains connect BWI to Washington nearly around the clock. This makes BWI a top choice for late-night arrivals and departures, even over DCA, since D.C.’s Metro runs during more limited hours (and the bus from Dulles runs infrequently).

Tim Gatton Sr

Also remember that BWI has an express bus to/from the Greenbelt Metro, that is operated by “the Metro” … so your Metro fare card gets you onto the bus. Thus, from BWI, your a 30 minute ride into DC’s Metro.

Frank Lane

Dulles is an embarrassment – its outer terminals are old and grungy, its gates are crowded, there are no moving walkways between distant gates in the same terminal or from parking garages/buses to check-in desks, and signs with directions are few and far between. It may have decent international routes but except for the architecture of the main building, it gives an awful first impression to international arrivals.

Matt

Since DC traffic is terrible, whichever one is closest to you is the best one.

Sal

Southwest and Spirit also serve international locations in Central America and the Caribbean from BWI

Soros

Missing from this: Dulles can take 30 minutes from curbside to gate. Because the train was built to a non-existent terminal, you actually take it some 1/2 mile past the gates you are going to, then you walk to the gates back-tracking in an underground hallway along side the train. If you land after 10 pm, you are likely to wait 10 minutes at least for the train. The other option is their people mover…nothing like being crammed into one of those things after an international flight. If you land on say Delta, you have a ten minute walk to… Read more »

Kevin

BWI handles the most passengers annually among the three airports, yet is comparatively easier to use. While the lack of robust international service is frustrating, domestic service is frequent and, thanks to Southwest, generally the most competitively priced. If Southwest ever develops a transatlantic strategy, growth at the airport will skyrocket.

In-Frequent Flyer

First off, that first picture you have up there is Reagan, not Dulles. Second, I prefer Dulles as (due to being a larger airport) it’s not as hampered by weather delays like DCA and BWI. You’d have to fork over an arm and a leg in order to get outgoing international flights to cancel. And more importantly, because of the airport design by having parallel runways instead of intersecting ones like the smaller airports, traffic has an easy ride coming in. I’d say the only bad news is that IAD often acts as a diversion airport for Newark and JFK,… Read more »

Joanna Bailey

Thanks for your input on the airports. The picture is indeed Regan, the ‘Photo: Dulles Airpot’ is a credit to the photo author – we sourced it from IAD website.

Tim Kyle

In-Frequent Flyer, I have to agree with you. I live in Northern Virginia and I actually prefer Dulles to Reagan, even though Reagan is closer to where I live. BWI is just a huge pain to get to if you live anywhere in Northern Virginia. Even though I prefer flying out of Dulles, I am sometimes forced to fly out of Reagan due to it’s close proximity to where I live to save time. I guess we all are different and have our preferences. I do wish they would expand the runway at Reagan to allow for bigger aircraft to… Read more »

Ron

Please stop adding in metric distances. NO ONE cares how many kilometers it is from DC to IAD, and it just clutters up your writing.

Joanna Bailey

No one? By population, 94.7% of the world uses the metric system, so I’d say a whole lot of people DO care. Maybe we should remove the imperial distances to avoid cluttering our writing?

Bob

The express bus to BWI does not operate on the weekend anymore so I’ve been taking the MARC instead. Still, I agree with Frank, IAD is a disgrace.