Airport freebies: As airlines gouge, airports give back

ByUSA Today

— -- It's getting tough out there. Airlines continue to cut back on services while piling on fuel surcharges and fees for amenities that were once complimentary. But take heart: You may have to pony up now to check a second bag or to get that coveted aisle seat, but you can seek consolation with services that some airports still offer for free.

Free parking

In an effort to reduce traffic congestion on terminal roadways, dozens of airports now offer free cellphone lots. Drivers can park in these off-site lots and swoop in for the pick-up once an arriving passenger calls to say they're off the plane and at the curb.

Cellphone lots are great, but sometimes it's nice to be able to walk someone to or from the terminal without paying for an hour of parking. That's when the free 30-minute short-term parking offered by airports such as Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and San Antonio International Airport comes in handy.

Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport also offers free 30-minute parking in its garage. However, anyone riding a motorcycle to what is, after-all, Harley-Davidson's hometown airport, can park for free as long as they like.

Free roadside services

But what if your motorcycle or car doesn't start when you're ready to leave the airport parking garage? That's no problem at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. In addition to free 30-minute parking in the short-term lot, BWI also offers complimentary road services in all parking facilities, including jumper cable services for dead batteries, changing or inflating flat tires and assistance with opening car doors if you've locked your keys inside.

Free phone calls

Airport pay phones seem to be disappearing now that so many people have cellphones. But hold on: Not everyone has unlimited cellphone minutes and not everyone has a cellphone (yet).

When Iowa's Sioux Gateway Airport removed all the payphones this past January they were replaced with phones that allow travelers to make free local and toll-free calls. The same thing happened at Nevada's Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Free phones for local calling were installed in mid-January when the traditional pay phones were removed. The airport's Brian Kulpin says, "When we opened our cellphone waiting lot last year, we quickly realized just how many people do not have cellphones. In the first week, more than 1,600 free calls were placed in our baggage claim area alone."

Free power

Travelers lugging laptops and other power-sucking devices must often jockey for a spot on the floor next to the lone electrical socket in a gate area. Now some airports are offering more, and more easily-accessible, power to the people.

Travelers passing through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport have access to 900 electric outlets along the 24 gate concourse. In Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport there are currently 2,100 free power outlets, including those inside eight airline-club-inspired Samsung travel centers. More power is on its way.

Free power-up stations, some complete with stools, desks or work shelves, have also appeared at airports in Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, where 51 Samsung-sponsored free charging stations have been installed in boarding areas throughout the terminals.

Free shoe shines

Travelers at Los Angeles International Airport can not only re-charge gadgets for free, they can also get their shoes shined.

For several years now, various airlines have made room in some boarding gate areas in terminals 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7 for Marvin's Complimentary Shoe Shine stands. The service is free to travelers, but the employees can accept tips. (Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday.)

Free entertainment

People-watching at the airport is always free, but scheduled performances are more reliably entertaining. Reno-Tahoe International Airport books "rock bands, choirs, ballroom dancers, and children's theater." San Diego International Airport presents live concerts on the second and fourth Friday of each month. And both Nashville International Airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport offer free concerts by local performers multiple times each week.

Free art and history exhibits

Many airports have great art and history collections you can see for free. For example, art lovers can tour the large and quite valuable collections owned by airports in Seattle, Denver and Phoenix just by strolling around the terminals. History fans can visit the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, the Mitchell Gallery of Flight at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport, and the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum at San Francisco International Airport. SFO's accredited museum program also organizes more than 20 different art exhibitions throughout the airport each year.

Free wireless Internet access

Slowly but surely, airports large and small are wising up and offering free wireless Internet access. Someday they all will.

Until then, some highlights on the free Wi-Fi list include Denver International Airport, Oregon's Portland International Airport, Pittsburgh International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Orlando International Airport, parts of Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and, on weekends, all of Philadelphia International Airport.

Free food

At Indiana's Fort Wayne International Airport, cheery volunteers still offer a free locally baked cookie to each arriving passenger. Sweet-toothed travelers also know that many airport candy stores offer free samples. Some reliable spots include the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Terminal D at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and any of the fudge shops at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Airline freebies

Don't give up on all the airline freebies just yet. Midwest Airlines passengers can still snack on warm chocolate chip cookies. Continental Airlines passengers still get served light in-flight meals. And Horizon Air still pours complimentary glasses of Pacific Northwest microbrews and regional wines.

And if you happen to be traveling on Austrian Airlines anytime soon, hold on to your boarding pass stub. That little piece of paper gets you free entry to a variety of cultural institutions in Vienna, Paris, New York, Istanbul and other cities.

Have you found a great airport freebie? Let us know!

Read previous columns

Harriet Baskas writes about travel etiquette for and is the author of Stuck at the Airport.

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