When Madelyn Cox parked at an off-airport parking lot near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport for a recent trip, she noticed a big change. Finding a choice parking spot near the shuttle stop was almost too easy.

“The lot was only one-quarter full,” she says.

Cox, a retired teacher from Spring Branch, Texas, says other than that, and some seats on the shuttle blocked off for social distancing, the airport parking in a pandemic was no different than before the outbreak.

But look closer. The COVID pandemic has changed the way you park your car at the airport. There’s an emphasis on safety, and some facilities are closed or have been repurposed for cargo. You’ll need to do more research and pay attention to the details before you park at the airport in a pandemic. But on the upside, you’ll pay less to park — significantly less in some cases.

How safe is airport parking in a pandemic?

“Over 50% of the online chat requests had some questions about health and safety measures at the airport parking facilities,” says Carlos Chilin, the chief growth officer at AirportParkingReservations.com.

Safety is so important to travelers that his site added an upfront description of the steps taken by each location to protect travelers. For example, the site will tell you if parking lots stock their courtesy shuttles with hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes, or how often high-touch areas get cleaned.

But safety comes at a price. COVID restrictions and lower passenger numbers mean that shuttles between off-airport lots and the terminal are running less frequently.

“Travelers will have to be more patient while getting to or from the parking facility due to scaled-back shuttles and COVID restrictions on shuttle capacity, to protect the health and safety of the travelers,” adds Chilin.

What are the new parking rules in a pandemic?

Airport parking has changed a lot since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Patrick Murray, CEO of the airport parking website On Air Parking.

“We have done quality assurance tests to make sure all of our partners are providing safe services,” he adds.

Here’s what’s different:

  • Shuttles are cleaned regularly throughout the day with disinfectants.
  • Parking shuttle passenger capacity is limited to provide safe distancing.
  • All travelers must wear a mask while riding on shuttles. All employees must wear masks at all times.
  • Most valet-only companies have started to offer a self-park option. For valet parking, attendants wear personal protective equipment while moving the vehicles.
  • To reduce risks, vendors like On Air have started to encourage large groups to drop off their families and have only the driver take the shuttle.

Some airport parking is closed

Many airports haven’t just closed terminals. They’ve also cordoned off entire sections of on-airport parking. That means driving to the airport to park may feel a lot different in a pandemic.

“Passengers may not be able to park exactly where they’re used to parking,” says Elena Mauer, consumer safety editor at SecurityNerd.com, a home safety website. “Note that at some airports, it’s the economy lots that are closed, so you may be forced to pay more money to park in a short-term lot. Many parking areas have stopped accepting payment in cash, too, so passengers should be sure to travel with credit or debit cards.”

Parking operators “diversify” to survive

It’s a strange time to be in the airport parking business. Airport parking operators are adjusting their companies to the realities of air travel in a pandemic. The number of flights is down 48% from last year, according to the Official Airline Guide. Seat capacity for the last quarter of 2020 shows a gradual recovery in flights.

Jeff Foland, CEO of The Parking Spot, says his business has made several course corrections to adjust to the new air-travel environment.

One is to encourage customers to prebook and use its touchless Fast Exit feature on The Parking Spot’s app. That eliminates any unnecessary social interaction.

“We treat our shuttles with an antimicrobial solution several times per shift, provide hand sanitizer and complimentary masks to passengers, limit van capacity to allow for social distancing and only offer luggage assistance if specifically requested by guests,” he says.

The Parking Spot also extended status and benefits for members of its loyalty program, The Spot Club, through Jan. 31, 2022, and paused the expiration of all points expiring through Dec. 31.

“From a business standpoint, we have also continued to diversify our revenue streams, leveraging our real estate and proximity to major airports across the country for commercial storage such as cargo, rental cars, tractor-trailers or heavy equipment,” he says. “Parking Spot locations are even used as a drop-off and pickup point for car-share providers. In fact, one-third of our locations are generating income that has nothing to do with airline parking.”

Bonus: Airport parking costs less after the pandemic

Unsurprisingly, some off-airport parking costs less in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. But it might surprise you to find out how much cheaper it is. An analysis by AirportParkingReservations.com across more than 500 locations in the U.S. and Canada shows that passengers are getting an average 20% discount on daily rates, compared to last year. Note, however, that if you park at the airport, you might pay extra.

Remember to plan ahead when you park at the airport

If you’re thinking of parking at the airport for your next flight, you’ll want to plan ahead. At least that’s the advice of Suzette Mack, who owns a travel agency in California.

“We flew out of San Jose last week to move our daughter back to college in Oregon,” she told me. “It was our first flight in 2020. We should have researched the parking situation first.”

Her husband dropped off Mack and her daughter at the terminal first, since they had a lot of bags to check.

“He then headed to the economy lot we usually use that has lower daily rates. It was closed, so he had to come back to the hourly lots by the terminal. He had to park at the far end of one, and there were no parking shuttles,” she says.

Mack was happy that her husband had dropped her and her daughter off at the airport first.

“We did not have to walk that way with all our bags,” she says.

Fortunately, parking at San Jose airport’s on-airport parking facilities has been capped at $18 a day during the pandemic. Had Mack taken a few minutes to review the airport website, she would have seen the changes and could have planned accordingly.

(Parking problems are relatively rare at my nonprofit consumer advocacy site. Usually, people complain about airport shuttles.)

Read the fine print (then read it again)

Too many travelers assume that parking hasn’t changed since the pandemic began. But it has, says Greg Bessoni, founder of Parking Access. He recommends that you do your due diligence before you make airport parking plans.

“One of the biggest changes that affect costs and satisfaction of customers has been the halt of any airport shuttle service,” he says. “Countless customers who miss our disclaimer that the airport shuttle has been temporarily shut down end up canceling [their parking reservation] because they do not wish to order Lyft or Uber.”

Other experts agree that when it comes to airport parking, you can’t take anything for granted. Don’t assume the parking lot you normally use will be open or that the shuttle will be running regularly, or at all. First, check with the parking lot operator or website through which you booked the parking.

Airport parking in a pandemic is different

Bottom line: Airport parking in a pandemic is different — maybe very different — from before the outbreak.

You might save 20% or more. But your favorite parking lot might be closed, there may be no shuttle service, and you might face numerous restrictions that you didn’t expect.

Things will return to normal soon enough. Until they do, you shouldn’t assume anything when it comes to airport parking.

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