When you fly anywhere for the holidays, you don't what to add airport parking to the many worries of seasonal travel. Fortunately, you can make sure you won't have to face any "parking lot filled" signs: Either reserve a place at an off-airport parking service or arrange for holiday parking at a nearby airport hotel.
If you just want to lock in a parking spot, several online sites allow you to reserve and prepay parking at private off-airport parking services that you find close to most big U.S. airports. Rates at airport-area lots almost always include frequent or on-demand shuttle service to/from the airport terminal(s) for departures and arrivals. Some offer such options as valet parking, indoor parking, washing/detailing or even mechanical servicing for your car while you're on your trip.
Off-airport lots generally claim they offer lower rates than on-airport long-term lots, but that's not always the case; you have to check. Even with no price advantage, however, off-airport lots reserve space in advance, which is not possible at many on-airport lots. Here's my list of sites where you can book and pay for offsite airport parking:
* Airport Parking Reservations (www.airportparkingreservations.com)
* Discount Airport Parking.net (www.discountairportparking.net)
* Long-Term Parking (www.longtermparking.com)
* Park'n Fly Network (www.pnfnetwork.com)
* Parking Access (www.parkingaccess.com)
* ParkRideFly (www.parkrideflyusa.com)
* The Parking Spot (www.theparkingspot.com), incorporating previously separate AviStar and FastTrack sites.
These sites solicit listings from parking lots -- some independent, some owned by parking chains -- and they earn fees for online bookings. As with vacation rentals, many lots list on multiple sites.
If you drive to an airport that is a long way from your home, the best way to avoid problems with parking, highway and maybe weather is to drive to a spot near your airport the night before you leave. Hundreds of airport-area hotels offer packages that combine one night's accommodation with up to 14 days of parking -- sometimes even more -- at the hotel and shuttle service to/from the airport. Most hotels also let you take the overnight at the end of your trip if you arrive on a late flight. I know of three online agencies that arrange parking packages at airport hotels:
* Park Sleep Fly (www.parksleepfly.com), the pioneer in the field, lists participating hotels near 130 large and medium-size airports in the United States, plus quite a few in Canada and Europe.
* Stay 123 (secure.stay123.com) lists participating hotels in about the same number of airports in the United States and Canada.
* BuyReservations (www.buyreservations.com) posts accommodation/parking packages near more than 100 U.S. airports.
In addition, many airport-area hotels and motels independently offer similar packages, but they're hard to find if they don't list on one of the nationwide sites.
The typical hotel-park package includes a room for one night, parking for seven to 14 nights, and shuttle transfer to/from the airport for departing and arriving flights. Although the sites boast "free" parking, the one-night package rate is almost always higher than the hotel's lowest available rate. But the difference in rates is much less than the cost of parking for a week in an airport-area parking lot: I've usually found the premium for a week of parking is well below $5 a day -- much less than you would pay at most big airports for just the parking. Many packages provide for parking beyond the nominal limit for an extra daily charge, but those charges seem to be creeping up these days.
At some airports, a parking package is a no-brainer. At Seattle-Tacoma, for example, the lowest daily on-airport parking rate is $28 a day or $130 per week, so paying $20 or so over the best discount rate for a room is a much better option, as is using an off-airport lot. On the other hand, long-term parking at Charlotte is just $4 a day, so the parking packages and independent lots can't provide much of an advantage. As in so many travel situations, check the options carefully before you buy.