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This GoList describes the three airports: DCA (National), IAD (Dulles) and BWI (Baltimore/Washington) for Washington DC.
Of these airports, most travelers prefer National because it is close, easy to access, small and efficient. The advantage of Dulles is that it serves more destinations, especially distant ones. BWI often has the best fares.
National airport is just across the Potomac river from Washington; from the runway you can see the Washington monument, the dome of the Capitol and several other landmarks.
Getting to/from National: National airport is on the Metro (subway) system's blue and yellow lines. Metro fare to "downtown" Washington locations is about $2.00 and takes under 15 minutes. Alternatively, a taxi will cost about $15.00. Signs in the terminal clearly direct people to taxis and the Metro; signs in the Metro show which trains to take for Washington DC or Virginia. The guard at the Metro kiosk will answer questions on how to obtain a fare card and which trains to take to which address.
Timing: The terminal is built as several separate "fingers," each of which has under a dozen gates and each of which has its own security. Security lines are seldom longer than a 15 people, so passing through security is usually fairly fast. The exception may be in the early morning when business travelers try to catch the first flights of the day.
Fares/Service: National airport is NOT an international airport (there are a few flights to Canada where immigration is handled on the far end). A conscious decision years ago was to make National a regional airport and push the longer distance traffic to Dulles. However, passengers (including members of Congress) like the easy access to National, so longer distance service creeps in. There had been a ban on flights longer than to the middle of the U.S., but the limit creeps as different members of Congress want to get back to their homes. Currently there is one nonstop flight to Los Angeles. The bulk of National's flights are to the eastern half of the U.S., however. There is a regular shuttle service to New York and Boston.
Competition is limited at National, so prices are not always the best.
Dulles International Airport is located about 40 miles west of Washington DC in the more distant Virginia suburbs. It is an international airport with direct flights to Europe and South or tAmerica, as well as long haul flights to North America.
Getting to/from Dulles: From Dulles you can take a bus, taxi or shuttle service to Washington. A Metro bus (#5A) will take you to the Rosslyn or L'Enfant Plaza Metro stations for about $5.00 From these stations is it only a few stops and a $2.00 fare to most downtown destinations. The Washington Flyer coach will take you to the West Falls Church Metro station, which is about a 30 minute ride from downtown sites.; the coach is $9.00 plus another $4.00 for Metro. (A Metro rail route to Dulles is being planned but will not open until approximately 2015.)
A taxi from Dulles will cost about $50.00 to downtown locations and take about 45 minutes. The shuttle bus (Super Shuttle) is cheaper but because of the way trips are scheduled, it can take as much as two hours.
To return TO Dulles, if driving you can take the express Dulles Access Road from the Capital Beltway (I-95/I-495). It is free. Follow the signs carefully. The access road can be used ONLY to get to Dulles; once you are on it you cannot exit until you get to the airport.
Timing: The airport building(s) consist of one checkin building and several separate gate buildings. All security screening is done in a couple of places in the checkin building. Security lines can be long at any time of day. Expect a 30 minute or longer delay. Do not expect expedited screening just because you have a flight to catch soon.
Fares/Destinations: As the long haul airport, Dulles flights serve the entire continent and the world. There is some competition, and some of the low cost airlines serve Dulles, so there are sometimes very good fares through Dulles.
BWI is the third Washington DC area airport. It is just on the outskirts of Baltimore, about 35 miles from downtown Washington.
Gettin to/from BWI: From BWI to Washington you can take a taxi, bus/Metro, train or shuttle. Amtrak and the Maryland Commuter (MARC) trains stop at a special rail terminal for BWI (MARC runs only on weekdays). The fare is about $10.00 and the ride takes about 40 minutes. Trains take you to Washington Union station, which is on the Metro red line or within walking or short taxi distance of downtown.
The Metro B30 bus from BWI takes you to Greenbelt Metro station, for about $2.00 in about 30 minutes; from Greenbelt Metro trains to downtown cost about $4.00 and take about 30 minutes.
A taxi will cost about $80.00 to downtown Washington.
Security/Timing: I haven't flown out of BWI in a long time, so I cannot comment.
Destinations/Fares: BWI is the best terminal for cheap fares. It also serves all of North America and several international destinations.