Full disclosure: Living 20 minutes from Reagan National Airport and 40 minutes from Baltimore Thurgood Marshall Airport, Washington Dulles is my least favorite of the three airports from which I have to choose, but it is not all about distance for me.
Washington Dulles, like many airports, has grown in a “helter skelter” manner as demand for air service has increased. However, Dulles, which seems to have had the luxury of enough land to expand logically, can be a very frustrating airport to access and navigate particularly if you are inbound from overseas and have to connect to a domestic flight.
True, they have made several improvements such as the Aero Train that now whisks most (but not all) people to the mid-field terminals from which most flights depart. Yet, they still use the almost universally disliked “people movers” to embark and disembark some flights and taking travelers to or from the main terminal or to customs and immigration.
These “people movers” are like buses on huge tires that hydraulically rise up to a plane and then lower to make their way across the tarmac. After an 8-hour transatlantic flight, the last thing you want is to be jammed into a nausea-inducing bus-like vehicle that bumps along its way for 10 minutes to a gate.
Be prepared to walk for long distances with few “moving sidewalks.” When the majority of international flights arrive between 4-6 p.m., be prepared for long immigration lines (hint: join the Trusted Traveler program if you use this airport often).
TSA lines can also be very long around the same times when the majority of international flights depart. Sequestration seems to have hit this airport hard.
Getting into downtown DC, your choices are a taxi company called “Washington Flyer” (which has a monopoly on service from Dulles), a shuttle service that makes multiple hotel stops, or renting a car. Dulles is 45-50 minutes from downtown DC. Hint: there are several airport hotels which have a “Stay and Park” package, so if you have a very early morning flight and were planning on leaving your car at the airport, this option makes sense as the charge for leaving your car at the hotel is less than that of long-term parking at the airport. A metro line from downtown to Dulles is due to be completed in 2016.
My other quibble with Dulles is that, in these days of “no meals” on flights, sometimes you want to have a nice, sit-down meal with your family before you begin your trip or even by yourself. Fast food and Dunkin Donuts abound at Dulles—but try to find even a mid-scale dining experience, and you might find one (at most) in each terminal. Even Reagan National has Legal Seafoods and California Pizza.
Most of time, the airport you depart from is determined by more practical things such as price, schedule, non-stops vice direct flights. I am just saying, as a native Washingtonian, all other things being equal, particularly for international flights,
I prefer to drive 40 minutes to Baltimore than 45-50 to Dulles. Of course, my favorite airport is National which is very manageable, 20 minutes from the District and I can be in my pajamas and in bed less than hour after landing!