Since the idea first emerged almost 20 years ago, I've been a big fan of airport door-to-door shuttles. They're almost as quick and convenient as cabs but usually less than half the price.
That's a combination you'll find hard to beat -- most of the time. Once in a while, however, even the best system suffers a glitch, and shuttles are no exception.
Here's how shuttles work: When you arrive at your destination airport, collect your checked baggage (if any) and head for the appropriate spot in the terminal's ground transportation area.
Depending on the airport, you may find a van waiting or you may have to hail one that circulates around the arrival areas. When the van gets enough travelers, it heads into town and drops each passenger off at his or her address.
Going to the airport, the system works about the same way, except that you normally can't hail a van along the street, as you would a cab, and instead must reserve in advance.
In most metro areas, the large shuttle companies operate separate van routes to different neighborhoods, and smaller companies specialize in only a few destination areas. That way, you never have to wait for someone to be dropped off on, say, the South Side, before getting to your home in the North Side.
At most airports, the shuttle fare is between $10 and $15 each way -- usually less than half the price of a cab. And when the system works well, the travel time is not much longer than taking a cab, either.
The potential problems are obvious: having to wait too long at the airport (or having the van circulate too many times) to collect a sufficient load of travelers, and having to make too many stops before reaching your destination (on arrival) or heading for the airport (on departure).
Either way, excessive delays or stops can erode the shuttle's time advantage to the point that you'd have been better off taking the old-style airport bus.
This column was prompted by my recent experience on arrival at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., at about 10:30 p.m.
A dispatcher guided me to a waiting van and put my bag in the back. At that time, I was the only passenger, so I expected to wait a few minutes for another traveler or two to board before heading downtown.
Unfortunately, the next shuttle customers didn't arrive for 25 minutes, and, in total, the expected "few minutes" wait turned into 30 minutes. By that time, I would already have been in downtown Washington had I taken the bus.
A Super Shuttle spokesperson told me that while the company did not have any fixed standard for maximum waiting time at an airport, the typical wait was never more than 15-20 minutes and was often much less.
Furthermore, although Super Shuttle no longer promises "no more than three stops," its vans usually do not need to make more than three.
What could I have done to avoid the delay? Since I arrived late at night, I should have known that it might take a while to collect several more passengers.
I should have asked the dispatcher, before handing over my bag, for a firm commitment on departure time. Sure, the dispatcher might have lied to me, but an honest one would at least have told me that, late at night, slow business might delay the shuttle up to a half hour.
In my experience, excessive delays are definitely the exception rather than the rule.
Shuttles are still my preferred means of getting between airport and destination or starting point (except where high-speed rail is available). They're almost as fast as a cab, and almost as convenient, at a much lower price, most of the time.
And if the system doesn't work out 100 percent of the time -- well, what else in air travel ever does?
Contact Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.