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Getting to the AIRPORT

Maybe you've booked that spring getaway, and now you're counting the days.

But before you pack the car and speed off to the airport - or harass that unsuspecting relative for a ride - consider your transportation alternatives.

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With its myriad transit options, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport was recently ranked as one of the 10 easiest airports to get to by Aviation.com. You can take public transportation (train, light rail or bus), drive and park at one of many airport or private lots, or go by cab, shuttle or limousine.

It all comes down to your priorities: Saving money? Saving time? Having ample space for lots of bags or family members? Taking the most direct route to your terminal?

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Want a cheap, fairly convenient and "green" mode? Consider taking the MARC commuter train to the BWI Amtrak station, a free shuttle ride away from the airport terminals. If you live near any stop along the MARC's Penn Line, from Perryville in Cecil County to Odenton or Bowie State in Anne Arundel, or in the city near Penn Station or West Baltimore, this option makes sense. You'll pay $4 for a one-way ticket from Penn Station to BWI, or the maximum $8 one way from Perryville.

Free parking is available at most of the Penn line stations. But be forewarned: Spaces are limited, and many lots fill before the end of the morning rush. Better to catch a ride there if you can. At Baltimore's Penn Station, it costs $12 a day to use the garage.

By MARC train, the BWI stop is a 19-minute train ride from Penn Station, provided there are no delays - a MARC hazard. Check with the Maryland Transit Administration (www.mtamaryland.com) before you leave for warnings of delays.

Remember, MARC operates only on weekdays; if you're traveling on a Saturday or Sunday, you might want to take an Amtrak train for $12 to $25, or the far cheaper light rail.

Yes, the light rail, the most affordable and underused mode of transit in the region. A one-way ticket costs all of $1.60 from any location. And the General Assembly might expand Sunday service as soon as this summer, allowing the light rail to run from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. (instead of its current 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday schedule).

Better yet, light rail parking lots - from Hunt Valley to Mount Washington to Patapsco - are free. There was no shortage of parking at the 110-space Falls Road lot on a recent Tuesday evening. You can call the customer service line (866-RIDE- MTA) to alert MTA police to keep an eye on your vehicle.

"We invite people to take that extra precaution," MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene said.

Speedy it's not.

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My light rail left Falls Road at 5:33 p.m. and arrived about five minutes past the 6:21 p.m. time it was due at BWI's baggage claim level. But, hey - you can read a book.

Live in the Washington suburbs? The BWI Express Metrobus runs about every 40 minutes between the Greenbelt Metro station (on the D.C. Metro's Green Line) and the airport. It's $3.10 a trip and takes about 30 minutes to get to the terminals.

"It's a great way to take the Metro to the airport," BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

Families may still decide that driving is the most practical route. But there, too, you have options beyond the airport's long-term parking, which costs $8 a day and requires you to carry your luggage to designated shuttle stops, with buses running to the terminal every 10 or 12 minutes.

Shuttles at BWI's express lot - $9 a day through March 31 with a coupon available online (www. bwiexpressserviceparking.com) - pick you up right at your parking space. Forget that coupon and you'll pay the full $14 daily rate. Or you can pay $10 a day to park at BWI's slightly closer-in daily garage.

You can also park at the BWI train station garage ($9 a day) and take its free shuttle.

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Parking at one of the private lots near the airport often costs less. Airport Fast Park (www.airportfastpark.com) is the biggest, with two lots, and its $6.40-a-day Internet coupon rate ($7 total with tax) can't be beat. You get car-side service, shuttles at least every five minutes and a free paper and bottled water. If you forget the coupon, a business card, AAA, AARP or government identification card will keep you from paying the $8.40 regular daily rate.

Fast Park also has a frequent-parker program that entitles you to one free day for each eight paid days of parking. The company operates lots at 786 Elkridge Landing Road (closer to the terminals) and 1718 West Nursery Road.

Rather be picked up at home? Van services will do that, with prices based on how far you are from the airport. The Super Shuttle van (www.super shuttle.com), for instance, costs $21 from North Baltimore, plus $12 for each additional passenger over age 3. The only drawback is the van usually stops to pick up a few other customers along the way.

For the same route, the Airport Shuttle (www.theairport shuttle.com) charges $36 for the first person, plus $7 for each extra one. Only the latter shuttle covers Howard County.

If you have enough people, it might pay to order a private van run. You can get price quotes on the Web sites.

Howard Transit and Annapolis Transit have bus routes to BWI. But service is slow and infrequent - geared probably more to those who work regular hours at the airport.

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But sometimes you just want to cab it. From Tuscany-Canterbury, near the Johns Hopkins University, Yellow Checker cab charged me $35.50, and I added a $5 tip. The flat $27 cab rate to the airport from Baltimore applies only to trips from spots within the designated downtown business district. Drivers are also allowed to add a $1 surcharge when their cab picks you up within 30 minutes after you call.

The cab ride took just over 30 minutes to AirTran's terminal D, which is past Southwest Airlines, American, Delta and Northwest. The cabbie took the most direct route south, down Interstate 295. Taking Interstate 95 would have added a few dollars to the charge, but it is a backup option in case of traffic.

You have only one cab choice coming back: BWI Airport Taxi is the only cab service authorized to pick up fares there. Going to North Baltimore, BWI Airport Taxi would charge an estimated $45 to $50.

And then, of course, there's always Mom.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com


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