Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: RDU Airport parking gets complicated

A motorist enters the Premier parking facility at RDU Monday, April 4, 2016.
A motorist enters the Premier parking facility at RDU Monday, April 4, 2016. bsiceloff@newsobserver.com

Parking was at a premium Monday in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport garage – everywhere except for the new premium-priced, red-trimmed “Premier” section on the ground floor.

Cars were chock-a-block in the sunny half-acre closest to Terminal 2, no longer reserved for folks who stay just an hour or two. And by 10 a.m., an electronic sign warned travelers driving into the enclosed garage that Levels 2 through 6 were all FULL.

RDU has overhauled its parking nomenclature and raised most of its parking rates. The first changes took effect Monday. The second part – an online system that will offer discounts to travelers willing to pay for their parking in advance – is scheduled to go live on May 1.

Why is this happening? Parking is big business for RDU – a $48 million share of the airport’s expected $120 million in revenues this year. When some parts of the lots and garages are jammed while others are half-empty, travelers are unhappy and RDU loses money. RDU wants to fill more of those parking spaces.

Prepare to be puzzled. There will be a learning curve. Airport parking is no longer simple.

If you can get through ParkRDU’s long list of frequently asked questions – and don’t forget the legal terms and conditions – you’ll find that everything you know about airport parking is wrong.

You know what Park and Ride means, right? Forget it. Now, if you want to park two miles away and ride a shuttle bus to the terminal, think ParkRDU Economy. Rates for Lot 4 are unchanged ($1 per hour up to four hours, or $6 per day). The more convenient Lot 3 now is $1 per hour up to four hours, $7 per day.

The main garage no longer is split between Hourly sections on each side and seven levels of Daily in the middle. Now it is sliced into class distinctions.

The six upper decks are combined with the old Hourly section near Terminal 2 and called ParkRDU Central. The rates are $2 per hour up to four hours, or $14 per day – that’s an increase from $12 per day.

The ground floor, with about 1,100 spaces, has been decorated with stars, new lighting and red paint. It is ParkRDU Premier ($3 per hour up to four hours, and a whopping $18 per day).

Little wonder that, as they streamed into the realigned parking entry lanes Monday, some airport travelers stopped in their tracks. The befuddled drivers studied the new green Central and red Premier signs and prices, and figured up the new math, before taking their tickets to enter the garage.

The Premier appeal

What’s the appeal of Premier parking? Along with the fact that you might find plenty of spaces to choose from – the red zone was two-thirds empty Monday afternoon – this is the ground-floor area most convenient to both passenger terminals.

The Premier zone has its own exit lanes, so folks who pay for the privilege will get in and out more quickly. In the weeks to come, we’ll see whether travelers warm to the high-price option.

Levels 2 through 7 of the garage now are marked Central. It takes longer to climb higher, and to find an empty space. But with four pairs of prompt elevators, it’s still a quick descent to the ground level. What now is counted as part of “Level 1” in the Central zone also includes the dark old triple-decker parking that used to be Terminal 2 Hourly.

Not all of the new signs were in place Monday for the first day of new business. Arriving airline passengers, waiting for the old Park and Ride 3 “Purple Lot” shuttles to pick them up, scratched their heads as color-free Economy 3 and 4 buses came and went.

The Road Worrier was ready to pay $9 for his three-hour sojourn in the cavernous Premier zone, but the exit gate charged him just $3.

Speaking of bargains, RDU hopes that discount rates will encourage lots of travelers to book their parking online, starting May 1 at parkrdu.com. Airport officials figure the advance bookings will help them know in advance which lot or section is filling up – and where there is unused space.

The idea is to respond with occasional discounts that persuade more folks to pick the less-used sections. This is what the parking wonks call “yield management.” But RDU expects to spend a year, getting used to the new system, before posting special offers that could move spring-break college kids from the Economy lots to the Central garage.

Meanwhile, there will always be regular discounts for online customers: $2 and $3 per day for Central and Premier parkers, respectively.

Will it be worth the hassle? Once you pay in advance, you’ll get a QR code to flash at the entry gate and again at the exit – where you’ll be asked for more money if you overstayed your booking. That could be more trouble than a boarding pass, and it’s just to park your car.

You can pay online for a day or more of parking, not for a few hours. You have to pay at least 24 hours in advance. You can get a full refund if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance.

$2 Cancellation Protection

But get this: If your flight is scrubbed or your travel plans change suddenly, you might have a hard time getting your parking payment back. To quote the RDU FAQ:

Your ability to make cancellations, changes, and to receive a refund may vary depending on the type of your Booking. Cancellations and amendments may be made to your Booking by clicking “Manage My Booking” and selecting the relevant option/s.

If you purchased Cancellation Protection, you may change your Booking or cancel your Booking at any time and receive a full refund.

That’s right: Cancellation Protection for your advance parking payment. It costs $2.

It’s the only way you can get a refund if you cancel your parking less than 24 hours in advance. Alas, the Cancellation Protection fee itself is not refundable.

RDU says it hired its Irish counterparts, the Dublin Airport Authority, for guidance in implementing a new parking system that would ideally make customers happier while helping the airport make more money on every parking space.

Dublin’s is among a few airports in Europe and Australia that have gone all the way on a multi-tiered system that includes deluxe-price options, combined with online payment that creates opportunities for occasional discount pricing. That’s what RDU is aiming for.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, bsiceloff@newsobserver.com, @Road_Worrier. I invite you to “like” my Facebook page (facebook.com/SiceloffReporter) – my stories will show up in your Facebook feed.

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