As one of the few Southwest Airlines focus cities (and former AirTran hubs) that serves Dayton, Baltimore generally serves as my layover to or from Orlando when I’m not able to take the one daily direct Orlando flight. However, I am now doing more personal travel on Southwest than before, so I’ve managed to pick up a few more destinations from Baltimore.
All in all, it’s not a bad airport for a layover; it’s not too huge, and Southwest’s concourses A, B, and C all converge on the central A-B food court and atrium which, though largely fast food, does manage to have a large enough selection that I can always find something I want.
It also is extremely easy to hop in and out of the secure area (particularly with TSA PreCheck) at nine in the evening, with effectively zero wait for security. This allowed me to take advantage of one of the best coincidences I’ve had in air travel. Last December, my sister and her family were moving to Germany, and the final US layover for her and my two nephews was Baltimore. Meanwhile, I had a work trip to Orlando that I’d booked a month prior that gave me an hour and a half layover at Baltimore on the same evening. Her flight was in the international terminal and mine was in Southwest’s domestic area, so meeting airside wasn’t an option, but I was able to leave the secure area and meet her landside with plenty of time to spare.
Dulles occupies an awkward place for me. With most of my flights originating in Dayton, Washington’s not a bad location for a hub; with my highest airline status on United, it connects the right airline for me. Yet for the most part, I seem to spend a lot of time going out of my way to avoid it.
At first, it was simply a matter of airline; when I first needed to start visiting Northern Virginia in 2010, my airline status was with American. My job’s contracted rate for DAY–IAD was rather high, so unless I was pressed for time, I much preferred to take the cheaper-than-the-airfare mileage reimbursement and drive nine hours than to fly on an airline I didn’t prefer into an airport I didn’t particularly care for.
In 2012, I started needing to travel to Charleston, South Carolina frequently, and our contracted airline for the Dayton/Charleston city pair was United. I gave in and switched to using United on routes where I had a choice, and Dulles was the most direct United hub between Dayton and Charleston. Yet, as often as not, I ended up booking flights through ORD instead. Though in both cases I was exclusively flying regional jets for both segments, at Dulles, I was guaranteed to have to use the A concourse and walk outside to my jet; at least at ORD, I had a reasonable chance of a jetbridge.
With the possible exception of the mobile lounges, Dulles has always felt like a really bland airport to me. The shops, restaurants, and concourse interiors are nothing special. The main terminal is unique, but when most of my flights through there involve a short connection where I may not even leave the A concourse, I hardly even get to see it. It’s a perfectly functional layover airport, but I just don’t really care for it.
As it turns out, In-N-Out Burger is also in Phoenix, and doesn’t serve Dayton.
While I’m sure it’s a trope by now, as someone who doesn’t live in the Southwest, I love when I get to visit cities that have In-N-Out burger. So when my girlfriend and I were taking a trip to Hawaii, we decided to take advantage of our 3.5-hour layover at PHX, and had a taxi take us to Tempe to take us through an In-N-Out. To date, this remains my most expensive trip to a fast food restaurant (a $40 taxi fare to get $10 worth of food), and the only time I’ve taken a taxi through a drive-thru.
It’s also my worst rental car airport with four out of four experiences being poor – I’ve been rented a car with a loose drivers’ seat, had my reserved car given away twice, and been retroactively charged for rental insurance after explicitly declining it. Only St. Louis’s rental car experience has come anywhere close to that consistently bad.
I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with MCO.
Orlando has made its way into my top five most visited airports, and it’s the only one to have done so entirely as a destination. (DFW has a lot of destination visits for me, but it has many more visits as a layover.) In other words, I go to Orlando quite often – I work doing acquisition of flight simulators, and Orlando is a large modeling and simulation hub.
In theory, I should really like MCO.
It’s a large airport with plenty of room to go for a walk if I get there early
Given its size, it’s laid out relatively well. If you know where you’re going, you can get there with relatively minimal walking.
The main terminal has many interesting design elements – the ziggurat-like exterior, its rooftop parking, the Hyatt integrated into the eastern atrium.
It has enough variety of restaurants that it’s not terrible to eat there.
Many, many airlines serve it, so it’s great for planespotting.
But with all that, if I were asked to name my least favorite airport, Orlando would be a strong contender, purely due to the lines and the atmosphere.
Orlando is, of course, a world-class tourist destination; when I’m traveling there for work, I often feel a bit like a fish out of water. The airport is not targeted at me; it has all of the noisy excitement of a theme park, but if I’m traveling for yet another central Florida office visit, it’s difficult to get caught up in the vacation enthusiasm. What’s left is an airport that’s hard to do work in and has huge lines everywhere – rental car counters, check-in, security, you name it.
Orlando Survival Guide
It is at least possible to mitigate a lot of the problems I have with the airport; here are a few of my tips.
Buy TSA PreCheck. Security is often packed, so being able to use a much smaller security line is a huge benefit. I paid for PreCheck entirely because of this airport. Not having to take off shoes or take things out of your bags is a bonus.
Never check a bag. This is my preference everywhere, but it’s especially important in Orlando. The couple times I have had to check a bag (no overhead bin space for my carry-on, or traveling with someone who checked bags), the baggage claim took over half an hour; likewise, check-in lines can take quite a while. It’s a much better experience if you can go straight from your plane to the rental car counter, and straight from the rental car return to security.
Print out or download your boarding pass beforehand. Not having a bag to check in doesn’t do any good if you still have to go through the check-in line to get a boarding pass. It’s best to skip the check-in line altogether, so have a boarding pass with you when you arrive.
Sign up for your rental car’s loyalty program if it’s free. Many US car rental agencies offer a line specifically for members of their loyalty program, and joining is usually free. This can save a lot of time even at smaller airports, but it’s especially important at the rental car megalopolis of Orlando.
Program your navigation system before you head to your rental car. If you have an in-terminal rental car, your car will be located on one of the lower floors of a large concrete parking structure; if you brought your own GPS system with you, it’s not likely to get a signal in the garage, and once you leave the garage, there’s really nowhere to pull over safely to put in a destination until you’re well away from the airport – and since you can effectively leave the airport in all four cardinal directions, you want to be sure you’re going the right way. (Orlando’s littered with tollways, too, so navigation mistakes can be expensive, especially in a rental car!)
Eat before going through security, or at least be sure to check the map to know what’s in your concourse. There are many more options for dining pre-security (be sure to find the food court in the middle of the main terminal) than post-security, so just know what you’re getting into if you’re hoping to eat at the airport.
Bring earplugs or headphones. It’s often quite loud. You’ll probably notice this even on your flight to Orlando – in my experience, there’s more conversation and excitement going on in flights with Orlando as a destination than any other destination I’ve been to (Honolulu is a close second).