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In the different places in the world, I always have the feeling that public transport from/to the airport is really expensive for what you actually get.

Here are a few prices for a couple of airport and additional information to be able to compare (I wanted to create a nice table but didn't find how to do it) :

  1. Sydney Domestic Airport Station

    • 15.90 AUD one way using Airport Link
    • 6.3 km to Sydney Central Station by car (from Google Maps)
    • Sydney Central to Ashfield seems to be the same distance and costs 3.60 AUD (8.4 km) using the train
  2. Sydney International Airport Station

    • 16.70 AUD one way using Airport Link
    • 9.2 km to Sydney Central Station by car (from Google Maps)
    • Sydney Central to Croydon seems to be the same distance and costs 3.60 AUD (9.44 km) using the train
  3. Melbourne Tullamarine Airport

    • 17 AUD one way, $28 return using SkyBus
    • 24 km to Melbourne Southern Cross Station by car (from Google Maps)
  4. Paris Charles-De Gaulle

  5. Paris Orly

    • Depending on the transport : 6.50 EUR (RER+BUS) ; 10.90 EUR (Orlyval), 7 EUR (Orlybus)
    • 17 km to Chatelet les Halles by car (from Google Maps)
    • Chatelet les Halles to Villeneuve-Saint Georges seems to be the same distance and costs 4.10 EUR using the RER
  6. London Gatwick

    • 19.90 GBP using Gatwick Express, a bit cheaper using other slower rail companies
    • 43km to London Victoria by car (from Google Maps)

Why is the price so high ? If there's something which is to be paid to the airport when going there, why isn't it included in the airport taxes on the flight ticket prices?

I find the even weirder when it makes the cab/taxi, despite its price being increased too, cheaper than the train/bus/shuttle for a couple of passengers.

Also, as an additional question, is this price difference higher/lower in different part of the world ?

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As an anecdote, I can add that at my local airport, the taxi lobby successfully blocks any public transport going to the airport at all, meaning people have to take a 150 SEK (24 USD) taxi for 8 km to the city centre. – gerrit Jan 15 '13 at 8:52
Counter example to your invalid generalization: Berlin Airport (SFX) has a train connection (every 20 min, ~18km air line). Cost: 3.10 Euro to get anywhere in the city. src – Sebastian Jan 15 '13 at 13:43
DCA to Washington, DC is about $2-$3 by metrorail (depends on the destination station and time). SEA to Seattle is $2.75 or less by light rail. ORD to Chicago is $2.25 by L train. – R-traveler Jan 15 '13 at 23:17
@R-traveler, ORD to Chicago is now $5, as of yesterday. – Brad Jan 16 '13 at 3:46
Few counterexamples: Schiphol→Amsterdam - normal train service, no extras; Okecie→Warsaw - regular city bus, no extras; Barajas→Madrid - 1 euro extra for metro; – vartec Jan 16 '13 at 11:36
up vote 38 down vote accepted

Airport transportation is expensive because it can be. The price isn't included in the facility charges because public transport facilities are rarely under the same management as the airport terminals are, and their interests are not necessarily in sync with each other or with passengers.

  1. Travelers are captive. In Washington, the bus agency (WMATA) raised the fare for the express bus to Dulles Airport from the standard $3.50 to $6. What can you going to do about it? Nothing, really. The other airports in the region are not comparable in terms of flights, and the next cheapest alternative from Dulles is a $14 bus that only gets you halfway to the city.

  2. Most travelers are on the road for business, and business travelers are relatively time-sensitive and price-insensitive. Soaking the business traveler, after all, is why the sticker price of a Y or B fare can be ten times as expensive as a highly restricted S or L fare.

  3. As noted, there is rarely true competition among airports or other facilities, so they would have no incentive to push ground operators to lower prices as a differentiator. Travelers aren't a voting bloc, and visitors obviously don't vote in the local elections, so they have no political recourse. Indeed, politicians rather take advantage of this situation, passing stiff taxes and fees on hotel rooms, shuttle operators, and car rentals on visitors who might rather be thanked for contributing to the local economy.

  4. The reward for seeking lower cost options is relatively low. What's a $25 train ride after a $750 flight, even if the train ride is only "worth" $10? After an intercontinental flight, how much energy do you have to chase that $15? Perhaps you'd find the will if you did it every day— but you don't.

  5. Airfares prior to the advent of LCCs were quite high, and there was a perception that air travel was for the well-off who would pay for the privilege. I believe this perception lingers in the public, at least in much of the American public, which makes it easy for public and private charges around airports to remain high without fear of scandal.

  6. As Mark Mayo suggests, when an airport is situated distant from the main population or business center, and/or the local cost of living is high, the above factors may be magnified.

As he also notes, there are often workarounds for the frugal, although they may entail more circuitous or time-consuming routings. One can also choose a more convenient airport, although my #3 and #4 come into play; because the airfare dominates our mental energy, we will actually fly RyanAir, and into HHN instead of FRA, to save a few euros, despite its considerable inconvenience. Moreover, airports like CGH, LIN, or DCA are largely restricted to short-haul flights and often entail a premium for their convenience and popularity with locals, so an intercontinental traveler would need to add a risky and/or time-consuming connection for a cheaper bus ride to the hotel. Getting the nonstop to GRU, MXP, or IAD would seem the superior choice to many, train fare be damned.

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Actually, the ones you've mentioned - they often have cheaper ways to get there, and in many cities the most common way is very cheap - it's not always expensive.

In your London example, for half the price of the Gatwick Express you can take Southern Rail to get to the airport. EasyJet has an EasyBus from Fulham Broadway which will take you there, and can cost you as little as two pounds!

To get to Heathrow, you can take the tube - a trip which takes an hour, for about 4 pounds! Or even less if you take two buses, and less if you have an Oyster card.

In Vancouver, it costs $3.75 to get to the airport on the Skytrain, from downtown. If you have a simple two-zone pass (like many locals do) it costs nothing extra.

Generally the high price comes down to a few key reasons:

  • the cities you mention are expensive cities. The infrastructure, maintenance and so on costs a lot.
  • 'tourist tax'. I say this tongue in cheek, but a lot of the costs can be mitigated with local know-how. The Sydney airport train costs so much because of the final charge for entering/exiting the airport - take a local bus to the second train station and you shave a chunk of the cost off.
  • distance. Generally (with good city planning) the airports are a long distance from the city. As a result, the maintenance, fuel and time adds up. I refer you again to London - with a single Zone 1-2 tube ticket (a few quid) you can get to the London City Airport. Same city, less distance = less charge.
  • profit. If an airport has a captive market, and they can, they could charge.

With regards to the weird taxi/shuttle thing - some people are worried about taking taxis in certain countries and may prefer being with others in a shuttle. Or they're paying for an 'executive' shuttle, for example. Shuttles could also be licensed, while you might get an unmarked taxi.

A good way to mitigate these in advance is to check out the Wikitravel page for the city in advance. Have a look at the 'Get in' section. It'll often describe several ways to get in from the airports, and the cost. For example, from EZE (international airport in Buenos Aires), you could take a taxi (costs!), a shuttle (medium), or the local bus (very little).

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I think your explanations are valid but 1.I think the cost of building airports matter a lot (in German areas, intercity trains are built to pass through airports, which means no extra cost to specifically serve airports) 2.I don't think it's a exception, I can list a lot of airports with costly access (in Western countries at least) – Vince Jan 15 '13 at 8:12
@Vince in hindsignt exceptions was the wrong word - it was more that they're the expensive ways to do those airports - there are often cheaper ways. I'll tweak the wording. – Mark Mayo Jan 15 '13 at 8:14
And good point about the German trains - kinda fits in with that location point I made - if it's not convenient, it'll add to the cost. – Mark Mayo Jan 15 '13 at 8:14
Like I said - "as little as" - they do exist, and often you book flights months in advance, so why not. Fair point with LCY - I couldn't remember off the top of my head. – Mark Mayo Jan 15 '13 at 10:33
In Vancouver, the SkyTrain Canada Line is a curious beast: if you have a pass or buy 10 tickets at 7/11 at the airport, it's cheap but if you just buy a single ticket at the machine, now that's $5 extra. See here. – chx Feb 2 '13 at 18:19

Part of the reason might be that often the public transport going to the airports is half-empty, especially that it operates at regular intervals even outside of the normal peak hours. For example the Gatwick Express runs every 15 minutes or so, and if you actually board it, only one third of the seats are occupied. From Gatwick you can also take a normal (Thameslink) train for half the price, which goes from Brighton - but that one will be a lot more packed and you will have to wait a bit longer for that one.

Sydney is an interesting example though (if I am not mistaken here) - you have to pay a lot for a normal commuter train. Even if you board further away than the airport, you pay a fraction of the price. I guess they rip you off because they can.

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The Sydney airport link was built by a private company for the 2000 Olympics, and included digging 10 km of tunnel through a populated area, resulting in a price tag of nearly $1 billion. The high fares are thus a way of recouping those costs -- and it's still less than a third of the cost of a taxi. – jpatokal Jan 15 '13 at 10:42
People assume that the company that owns Sydney Airport is behind the high prices, but they're innocent on this count! – Andrew Grimm Jan 15 '13 at 12:33
The cost of the tunnel was a valid excuse until recently, however the vast majority of the fare now goes directly to the government, who has decided not to reduce fares. – Doc Jan 15 '13 at 20:33
@jpatokal In Sydney, going from the Airport to Central station is half the cost of the taxi and not a third of it. Thus, if you are travelling with a friend, the taxi becomes the same price per passenger (but it drops you at your place, making it more convenient). I find it sad that the price does not give a better incentive to go for the eco-friendly option. – Josay Jan 16 '13 at 0:40
@Doc Hmm? Airport Link Co. is still a private company fully owned by Westpac and is making a profit too. But in general, instead of all taxpayers funding it, I think it makes sense to make the actual users pay, as long as it reverts to public ownership at some point. And Central is not necessarily the best comparison point, a taxi to Circular Quay will cost >$50 while the train is still $16. – jpatokal Jan 16 '13 at 0:46

Travelers are often visitors who have no local knowledge, and are either tired or under time pressure or both, and so the transportation industry takes advantage of them.

Case in point: here in Vancouver, you are fleeced at the airport when boarding the Skytrain. A surcharge is added to fares. But those who have passes or tickets do not have to add the surcharge, only those who are paying cash for their fare at the ticket machine.

Most of those clever enough to have tickets will be returning Vancouver locals or people who work at the airport, rather than visitors.

Some locals say that B. C. stands not for British Columbia, but Bring Cash.

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Indeed! If you go to the 7-11 inside the airport, and buy a pack of 10 2-zones, surcharge averted :) Local knowledge (or Wikivoyage knowledge) for the win :) – Mark Mayo Jan 16 '13 at 2:41
Vancouver airport used to be serviced by the regular city bus lines - but I actually can't remember whether it still was on my last trip. – hippietrail Jan 17 '13 at 1:00
@hippietrail Bus service to YVR was discontinued when the Canada Line opened. – 200_success Jun 16 '14 at 3:11

I can't say for Australia, but in Western Europe the public transportation is very expensive.

As opposite, in East Europe and the former USSR public transportation is usually much cheaper.

In Warsaw there's a city train connection with the airport. Currently a single ticket (which can be used to travel to the city center) costs 4.40 PLN (about 1 Euro). Taxi would cost you at least 5 times more.

As comparison in Nuremberg public transport for city range (including Metro to airport) costs 2.50€. This is the same as normal public transport. I don't know the exact prices in Berlin now, but there also public transport to the airport costs exactly the same as to other locations (it is, however, zone 3, so it would cost slightly more than transport inside city center).

Generally your question could be a bit modified and the answer would be: Because you were in places where public transport is so expensive.

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No, that's not it. The question compared trips in the same urban area. It is true that in many cities, the fare to the airport is higher than to other nearby suburbs. Germany is rather the exception. – Gilles Jan 15 '13 at 21:00
My point was not so much about the high cost but more about the high price difference. – Josay Jan 16 '13 at 0:44
In my examples there's no cost difference between public-to-airport and public-anything-else-in-range. – Danubian Sailor Jan 16 '13 at 6:39
same in Amsterdam, no difference in the cost of bus and train tickets for comparable distances between other destinations. Taxis however are extra expensive, in no small part because the airport has an exclusive contract with one taxi company and airport security keeps all competitors away. That company pays for the monopoly position and passes on that cost (plus a higher profit margin) to their customers. – jwenting Jan 30 '13 at 7:42

Another reason, beyond the excellent ones already discussed here, is that public transit is typically subsidized by government, often both by direct annual contributions to the transit agency's budget, and by issuing debt for capital expenses that is slowly paid off by some combination of the agency and the government.

For operating expenses (not counting the cost of actually building infrastructure or rolling stock), the extent of the subsidy can be roughly measured with the Farebox Recovery Ratio, which is the percent of operating expenses paid for by fare revenue. As you can see, almost all systems outside the ultra-high-density operators in Asia have rather low farebox recovery rates, often under 50%.

What this means is that any new expansion in service may well cost more to operate than it makes in revenue. This is normally accepted, because that expansion comes with the public good of allowing more residents (taxpayers) to access the system, reduces traffic congestion and pollution, and improves property values (and thus raises property tax revenues) because homes with good transit connections are often more valuable.

But for an airport link, taxpayers tend to balk at subsidizing comparatively well-off travelers headed to/from the airport. There is often a desire for such links to pay their own way in operations expenses, and ideally recoup their construction costs, and so when agencies go to set fares, they often price the airport segment considerably higher than other trips of equivalent distance.

As an example, BART's Oakland Airport Connector in Northern California opened in late 2014. Transit advocates encouraged the agency to set a high fare, so as not to divert funds that are used to serve commuters to the airport. The agency eventually set a fare of $6 (just for the 3.2 mile Connector; the rest of your ride still costs the normal amount). Even at this high fare, there's considerable question about the Connector's ability to pay for itself, let alone pay back the hundreds of millions of dollars it cost to build.

TL;DR: Transit is usually a lot more expensive than you think, but is often heavily subsidized. When the subsidies are reduced or eliminated, as often happens with airport links, the fares look far more expensive by comparison.

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There are two basic, interrelated reasons for this.

The first is that most people don't want airports near their "back yards" because of the noise, pollution and small (but real) fear of crash. As a result, airports are located in "remote" parts of a city, typically 20 miles or so from the center of town. Just this fact alone makes for a long, costly trip to the airport.

The related issue is because of the airport's remoteness, there are few alternate means of transportation to and from it. It's not like the train station (typically in the center of town), where numerous buses (and sometimes subway trains) go to. The (relatively) few transports that go to the airport can "charge what the market will bear."

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Thanks for your answer : point 2 is definitely true. However, I tend not to agree with your first point. Indeed, I had looked the price for comparable distances and the prices are pretty different. – Josay Jun 14 '14 at 23:53
@josay: Of course it various from city to city, but all other things equal, a 20 mile trip will cost more than a 5 mile trip. – Tom Au Jun 15 '14 at 0:01
I do get your point but I have tried to compare for each city, the price for the trip to the airport to the price for a trip of comparable size. – Josay Jun 15 '14 at 0:07

With SFO and BART, there is a significant surcharge for using the airport station; it is cheaper to travel further down the line. (From the station I use, the fare is now about $9.00; from downtown San Francisco it is less.)

Some reasons: the station had to be retrofit into the airport. And the airport wants the money, because it turns out they make more money from parking fees than airplane landing fees.

There is also a surcharge for the new connector from BART's Coliseum Station to OAK. This also was a retrofit, long after both the transit system and airport were built.

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