“The journey matters, not the destination,” is a tired axiom, but it’s certainly true in aviation. Still, once you arrive at the destination it’s oftentimes helpful to be able to get around. Given that airports are typically located away from city centers, sometimes another method of transportation must be paired with flying to make a weekend trip truly worthwhile.
The traditional car-based standbys for pilots can work, but not in every case. Courtesy cars aren’t always available and often cannot be taken for extended periods — a quick trip to a local restaurant is usually all they can do. Cabs and ride-sharing services (i.e. Uber, Lyft) can get expensive and don’t lend themselves well to the kind of frequent rides common when exploring a new place. Rental cars can also be expensive, and can be difficult to arrange on short notice if the stop is unplanned.
So before you go somewhere new, consider all the options available for ground transportation, and be prepared to think outside the box. Here are a few I have found useful:
The humble city bus — an oft-maligned yet underrated mode of affordable public transit. During our spontaneous trip to Boulder, Colorado, my girlfriend and I used the city’s bus system to great effect, touring the entire destination for a day on little more than $20 in fares between the two of us.
Google Maps made planning routes a snap. We told the app where we wanted to go, and it told us where to pick up the bus, when it would arrive down to the minute, and how far to walk once the bus dropped us off.
While we did need to take a cab from the airport to the hotel on the Boulder trip, many airports are located right along bus routes. For example, Hanscom Field (BED), one of the main GA airports serving Boston, has hourly bus service almost every day. If you’re visiting New York City on a Saturday, land at Teterboro (TEB), walk or get a ride to the No. 161 bus, and you’ll be in Times Square in about an hour (depending on traffic, that’s faster than driving). Not interested in the big city? Even in Oshkosh, a typical small Midwestern city when it’s not AirVenture week, come any time of the year and catch the bus across the street from the terminal.
the late 1920s, a cross-country airplane trip would involve daytime flying in an aircraft like EAA’s Tri-Motor and nighttime train rides. The total time for a coast-to-coast trip was at least two days. Faster, all-weather commercial aircraft have long since removed the need for such travel schemes, but trains can still be useful to the GA pilot.
When a coworker and I flew into Chicago Midway several years ago, we made use of Chicago’s L train, the elevated subway, which travels over much of the city on wrought-iron viaducts. There is a stop at Midway, to which the FBO was happy to ferry us for our ride downtown. Many other large airports around the country have subway service, though big-city prices come with such big-city airports.
If you land in the suburbs, a commuter rail might be just the ticket. An increasing number of cities have longer-haul train service into the suburbs, and a few of these systems have stops near airports. A cheaper and less harrowing alternative to visiting Chicago may be to land at Schaumberg (06C) and take METRA’s Milwaukee District West Line from the nearby station.
Orville and Wilbur would approve of this one — bikes are a great way to travel short to medium distances. At Fisher’s Island, New York, a small community off the coast of Connecticut, bike rentals are available at the airport (0B8). Another example is Duluth Sky Harbor (DYT) in Minnesota, which has courtesy bikes.
More and more cities are also implementing bike-sharing services that use computerized stations to store bikes and accept payment. A day pass can cost as little as $10 and stations are placed in popular tourist locations, bus stops, and train stations.
Depending on the size of the airplane, you can also take bikes with you. Some aircraft will accommodate a standard-size bicycle if disassembled, or you can buy a folding bicycle. Folding bikes do trade performance for convenience, but when the restaurant, hotel, or beach is just out of reach by foot, a folding bike may fit the bill.
Putting it All Together
Travelling without a car demands creativity and sometimes involves combining two or even three transportation methods. When I was learning to fly I was a carless 22-year-old living in a western neighborhood of Boston. I would bike to the No. 66 bus, take it to Harvard Square with my bike fastened to the front rack, continue riding to Porter Square where I caught the commuter train to North Leominster, and then finish biking the last mile to the Fitchburg airport (FIT) where I took lessons on weekends. Often, a friendly CFI would give me a ride back to an outlying “T” station at night, and I’d take the subway home.
Each one of us has our own path through general aviation. Mine has been paved with bike lanes, busways, and rail lines as much as it has been with runways. But thinking outside the box on surface transportation can open up new possibilities to the GA pilot traveling on a budget.
So next time you plan a cross-country, consider all of your options. You may be surprised by what you find!