May 26, 2024

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Should you park at the airport? Thefts and prices are up.

6 min read

Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D-Colo.) flies frequently for her job as a congresswoman. For ease and efficiency, parking at her home airport in Denver would make the most sense. However, her family warned against the idea.

“My parents would say, ‘We’ll just drive you to the airport. Don’t leave your car there,” said the Democrat, who won a seat in the 2022 election.

Denver International Airport is one of several major airports around the country experiencing a rash of crime in its parking facilities. Last year, the airport ratcheted up security measures, adding 11 surveillance cameras in three lots, increasing officer presence and erecting barriers to prevent criminals from absconding with stolen vehicles.

Car thefts declined, and Caraveo started to drive herself to the airport again. In January, she introduced a bipartisan bill that will allow airports to use federal infrastructure program funds to battle crime in their lots and garages.

In the trip-planning process, transportation to the airport is often an afterthought. But it deserves a few minutes of your undivided attention. When deciding whether to park at the airport or hitch a car/train/bus ride, you should consider the usual factors, such as trip length, flight times and number of travelers and pieces of luggage. These days, you also have to weigh the rise in crime, parking rates and demand for spots.

“In some cases, there may be elevated risk, but it’s still against a fairly low baseline,” said Gary Leff, founder of the View From the Wing blog, who often parks at the Austin airport. “You have to evaluate how much risk you’re comfortable with.”

Before you head for the airport, run your own risk analysis and let the results determine whether you pack up the wagon or ask a car share driver — or your parents — for a lift.

The return of air travel after the peak of the pandemic increased the demand for parking spots. The bounty of untended cars has sparked a crime wave in airport parking sites.

“Overall, Osprey has noticed continued high levels of crime at or near airports in the U.S. since 2022,” Mathilde Tisserand, a senior aviation security analyst with Osprey Flight Solutions, said by email. “Vehicle thefts and break-ins at airport car parks have increased since the pandemic, particularly at Philadelphia, Austin and Seattle-Tacoma international airports.”

The worst-hit airports are typically ones not easily accessible by public transportation or a distance from downtown, security experts say. Tyler Hosford, a regional security manager with International SOS, said that between 2022 and 2023, car thefts increased by 80 percent at Austin—Bergstrom International and 100 percent at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. According to his data, which is based on police crime logs, Dallas-Fort Worth airport reported 946 cars stolen between January and November of 2023, twice as many as the previous year.

“Those are all airports that are a hike to get to,” he said. “So driving is really a must.”

Perry Cooper, senior media relations manager at the Seattle airport, noted that car-related crimes are a national problem and not unique to airport parking facilities. Only a sliver of the airport’s roughly 1.7 million annual customers are victims.

“We have seen an uptick in the last few years. However, it’s still a very small percentage of overall usage,” he said. “Over 99.9 percent of parkers get through with no trouble.”

Airport parking crimes fall into three categories: theft of car; stolen parts, such as Hellcat motors and catalytic converters; and break-ins. Hosford said criminals who steal cars to sell on the black market are typically more sophisticated than the crooks who smash-and-grab valuables left in the car. Thieves often target cars with keyless ignitions, which are easier to purloin than vehicles with physical keys.

Hosford said if you plan to park at the airport, take the least desirable vehicle in your garage; leave the luxury wheels at home.

“Obviously a nicer vehicle is going to be a higher profile target,” Hosford said. “So if you have two options of cars, take the one that doesn’t look as nice.”

In the garage or lot, he recommends parking in a well-lit and highly trafficked area, such as near the entry or exit gates, bank of elevators or shuttle stop. Other safe spots include by the section reserved for security personnel or within range of surveillance cameras.

A ride share isn’t always cheaper

Similar to the bags of Chex mix and bottles of Fiji water sold in airport terminals, on-site parking is often more expensive than street prices. Rates are also ascending at many airports.

Last July, the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu kicked off a multiyear price creep for long-term parking. By June 2028, today’s $24 rate will rise to $30 per day. Cooper said the Seattle airport has upped rates several times over the years, in response to transaction rate increases imposed by the city and passenger volume growth. The Austin airport introduced higher garage rates on April 1.

Travelers are paying for the convenience, especially in garages within walking distance to the terminal. You can save money by parking in an economy lot or an off-site location run by a private company, such as the Parking Spot, which operates 47 facilities at 28 airports, or Fast Park & Relax, which has lots near 15 airports. For example, Fast Park charges $45 for a weekend of covered parking by Orlando International. The airport’s lot costs twice as much, but you don’t have to take a shuttle.

A recent study by Upgraded Points uncovered the most and least expensive economy parking facilities at 50 airports. At $38 a day, San Diego International was the highest; Kansas City, which charges a quaint $7.50, was the lowest. The study also compared the parking rate against the ride share fare from downtown. For a long weekend, car share was the more economical option at only 14 airports.

“At JFK, you could save close to $90 by parking,” said Deirdre Kronschnabel, a research assistant with Upgraded Points, “but at San Diego, you could save $82 by Ubering.”

Stop circling and reserve a spot

Over spring break this year, officials were warning passengers about a crush of cars. The real-time status reports showed nearly or completely full facilities.

To the take the stress out of finding a spot, airports have been rolling out reservation systems, one more step toward touchless and self-service totality. Most facilities allow booking weeks in advance. At the Seattle airport, which unveiled this tool last month, passengers can book 120 days out. The airport recommends reserving a spot at least two weeks ahead of time, especially during holidays and peak travel periods.

“The last thing you want to do is a show up that day and everything’s full. Then what? Now you’re scrambling. And you’re going to make a bad decision. So maybe you’re going to end up leaving your car somewhere that’s not safe or you’re not timing it properly and you’re going to miss your flight,” said Aixa Diaz, a AAA spokeswoman.

The system is similar to Southwest’s open-seating arrangement. The reservation assigns you a parking structure, but you have to find your own spot. Even if the lot is full, you’re guaranteed a stall. Once you reserve a spot, you will receive a QR code. You don’t need to pay before you drive off, since you’ve prepaid.

“Even during peak periods, you cannot be turned away,” Cooper said. “We track a certain amount of spaces to use for reservations based on the volume expected during that time of year and adjust.”

If your plans change, the facilities have fairly lenient cancellation policies. Dulles and Phoenix Sky Harbor allow travelers to cancel and receive a full refund up to an hour before the timed entry. Seattle airport permits changes up to six hours in advance. Any alteration outside that window incurs a $25 cancellation fee.

Be aware that you have to plan ahead; you can’t reserve a spot while you are en route to the airport. Many facilities require a short lead time. Reagan National and Dulles, for instance, cut off reservations at the 12-hour mark.

“If we took it right up to the reservation, it would be much harder to guarantee your space,” said Matthew Sherwood, director of commercial parking for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

One parking category is always open: valet and other VIP programs. Though this pampered service is pricier than standard parking — Denver’s new Premium Reserve Parking costs $50 per day — you won’t have to sweat a shuttle or desperately search for a green beacon in a sea of red guiding lights.


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