Hacking PDX: Compiling a geek’s guide to Portland International Airport

[Editor’s Note: Why an article on airports? What does that have to do with startups or geeks? Well, there are a couple of things.

First and foremost, when I started out on my own, I thought I would be sitting around in my home office, eating bon-bons while the world beat a path to my door. In reality, I wound up traveling far more than I ever had—and I thought I traveled a lot in other gigs. So PDX has become like a home away from home to me. No doubt as your startup begins to gain traction, you’re going to be wishing you had a personal parking space at PDX, too.

Second, we’re just beginning to enter the crazy jam-packed event season here in Portland. And no doubt there will be a number of our geeky friends from other locales attempting to navigate PDX. It seems only neighborly to give them a few tips, as well.

So, either inbound or outbound, I give you, Scott Kveton‘s…]

Hacking PDX: Compiling a geek’s guide to Portland International Airport

In the last year, I’ve flown about 40 legs through Portland’s airport, which we most commonly refer to by its call-sign designation of “PDX.” We have a great airport with plenty of features that just about any traveler could need. But, despite all its ease-of-use, there are always a few tips-and-tricks that make the experience that much better.

Here are some things that I’ve learned:

  • Take a picture of where you parked with your camera phone. I know it sounds dumb, but the more you travel, the more the visits start to blur together. I’ve been at the airport and gotten on the wrong bus and looked around the wrong area for a long time only to remember, “Oh yeah, I parked over there,” only to have to get back on the bus. Which brings me to my next point.
  • Park in the same area each time you fly out of the airport to avoid the previous problem.
  • Park in area “X.” Have you noticed that there are oodles of people that are waiting at the area “X” for parking? There’s a reason: it’s the best spot. Why? First of all, it’s the last stop on the blue bus route. That means that, once you’re on the bus, the next stop is the terminal. Another reason is that when you return from your trip, you can take either the blue or the red bus and get off at “N” or “A” and be very close to X (both of these are the first or second stops for each line). Now, when it gets past 12 midnight, only the red line runs so again, you’re in good shape. I know, I know … how often are you there after 12 midnight? Well, it only takes once my friends … šŸ™‚
  • This may sound like a no-brainer but participate in the frequent flyer programs for the airlines you fly. The sooner you can become an MVP, 1K, or super-mega-ultra-all-star, the sooner you can take that cool line for people flying first class or in the “elite” of travelers to get through security faster. With my Alaska MVP status, I can get to the airport a full 45 minutes later and not worry about long lines.
  • Taking a day trip to San Francisco or Seattle? Think about using the short-term parking lot. I know, its $24 for the day, but there is nothing like stepping off that plane and walking straight to your car. I find levels 3 or 5 the best as you can take one flight of stairs to one of the walkways and be over to the terminal without dealing with crossing traffic. Also, the handy-dandy overhead “free parking” lights help you find the perfect spot in only seconds instead of minutes. Time is money people!
  • Speaking of money… take the MAX red line. Did you know that for a little less than $2 you can take Trimet’s MAX line straight into the city? If you’re a reverse commuter and coming to Portland there’s nothing like taking the MAX to downtown Portland and your hotel. (It amazes me that people from out of town don’t know this, but then again, I’m a Portvangelist and need to remember that not everybody knows everything about Portland).
  • PDX was at the forefront (IMHO) of providing free wireless Internet throughout the airport for the last few years. Even though I’m rarely stuck in the airport for any length of time, it’s nice knowing that if I get there early before a flight I can be productive anywhere in the airport with laptop + coffee. Did I mention this was free?!

Okay, so those are my tips for gaming the Portland airport … how about you? What are the little tips and tricks you’ve found help make travel so much easier at PDX?

  1. […] OSU Open Source Lab, the former chair of the OpenID Foundation, a Portvangelist, someone who spends more than his fair share of time at PDX, and the guy who helped bring Vidoop to […]

  2. Here are a couple of my favorite tips:
    When you have to clear security look both North and South from the center of the shopping area. I find that North (concourse D) is usually less crowded and you can clear security faster, head into concourse D and take a left and use the moving walkway on the new interconnecting walkway to go to A,B, or C gates if your flight is leaving from one of those gates.
    Here’s one of my closely held secrets – the best place to wait in a car to pick someone up from the terminal isn’t the cell phone lot – it’s a lot closer. There’s a picnic area with just six (count ’em) parking spaces located just to the East of the parking garage. It’s just off the road that loops back around to the terminal on your way out of the airport. If you park there you can hang out on the grass (with kids if you’ve got ’em) and relax. As soon as “the call” comes in you can be at the terminal curb in about 30-60 seconds. The picnic area is somewhat hidden but to get there you go through the airport and drive out as if you’re leaving, get in the left lane and take the “return to terminal” lane. At the stop sign turn right and you’re in the parking lot. Here’s a link to Google Maps (make sure to turn on satellite view). http://tinyurl.com/6ms2uu
    Now, shhh, no telling anyone else. And I forbid anybody else to use this while I’m waiting (until my reserved parking space there becomes available).

  3. I understand the alure of parking at “X”, but there can be a very distinct downside to it. On many occasions I have seen the shuttle bus be full before getting to the last stop at either the red or blue lots. It’s a real bummer to watch the bus leave you behind.

  4. […] Hacking PDX: A geek’s guide to Portland International Airport “We have a great airport with plenty of features that just about any traveler could need. But, despite all its ease-of-use, there are always a few tips-and-tricks that make the experience that much better.” […]

  5. So, I have a couple more tips from my last trip

    First, Cascade Station is perfect for poor packers. As I sprinted out of my house and headed down the road to my flight, it dawned on me that I had left my phone charger at home. Suddenly, my mind raced. Could I conserve enough battery energy for the 24 hour period? Not likely. Could I turn around and still make my flight? Even less likely.

    What to do? What to do? Well, here’s what I did: I opted to head to the new Best Buy right out at Cascade Station on Airport Way. No one is there shopping on weekdays, so I walked right in, grabbed the charger, and started to walk out. (And here’s the hint) But I stopped at the greeter desk. Because they have box cutters to open those insanely wrapped electronic packages. šŸ˜‰

    Second, I just noticed an “Experienced traveler” line at Gates D & E security. So, now, if you’re running late and you happen to be a frequent flyer—just not enough of a frequent flyer to use that lane—head to the security gates at D&E and take the new lane.

    The silhouettes for the two lines are classic. The “Experienced traveler” line is depicted by a business person carrying one bag. The “Inexperienced traveler” line is a gaggle of family members with all sorts of luggage.

    Experience is rewarding. At least at PDX.

  6. I have used both Jott and Sandy and I would say Sandy is more versatile. I love the tagging and lookup features. and the twitter integration is awesome b/c i love my Twitterberry.

    Jott doesn’t work as well as I thought it would for me.


  7. Yes, actually, I’m much smarter than I look, I got your reference. I do wish that Jott had an IM or Twitter link. When I’m in my truck, using my BT headset, I don’t get much more than a mere recording of a voice memo.

    Now that I’ve turned the data plan on for my phone/pda, things may be different.

    (PS: I laughed out loud at the thought of Rainier being “some sort of Jott-loving, anti-Sandy faction.”

    FYI, I’m the only one with a PC up here! You should see the looks when I ask people if I can send them an e-mail. LOL)

  8. Ugh. I just re-read that comment and it didn’t come out right. By “it’s where you live” I meant, “it’s the tools with which you spend the majority of your time” as in “I live in Twitter.” I didn’t mean to sound like I was slamming Rainier, OR, as some sort of Jott-loving, anti-Sandy faction. šŸ™‚

  9. @Gary And I would argue “it’s where you live,” and respectfully yet completely disagree with you. I’m in Twitter and email on my phone far more than I’m talking on my phone. So it’s far easier for me to send Sandy a tweet asking her to remind me of things. I get the same SMS message via tweet, and an email. And I don’t have to leave the interface I’m already using. To each his/her own.

  10. Jott is great except when there is too much noise. I SMS Gcal the location with an appointment 15 minute after my PDX arrival time, but after hearing more about Sandy at Startupalooza, I may have to give Sandy a try.

  11. While I appreciate that Sandy is a local company, and I think they have a good product, in my experience, http://jott.com is simpler and easier to use – plus you get an SMS response for later review.

  12. I fly an average of 3 flights a week out of PDX, we are blessed with a very easy to use airport. Another tip-The busiest airlines are all based out of the terminals A, B, and C and the line can get backed up (even for us 1K and MVP Gold folks) you can walk over to terminal D and E line and you can almost always get through it without waiting at all and then take the “concourse connector” to your left back terminals A, B, and C. Also don’t forget about ultimate parking experience-the Valet parking on the departure level. I have the system so well tuned now that I can show up 35 minutes ahead of a Alaska flight and make it every time. I compeletly agree with Auz, the frequent fliers are the one paying the vast majority of the fees and spending the most money at the airport and we take no time getting through the lines, get out of our way.

  13. How’s this for synchronicity? Yesterday, at Startupalooza, Rael Dornfest mentioned another way to remember where you parked at PDX: tell Sandy and she’ll remember for you.

  14. Pedro—-
    I completely understand where you are coming from. And I know I don’t help myself by being a airline employee with a port badge, but I’m also a weekly flier to LA over the past 1 1/2 years. You can only understand why frequent fliers deserve a special line by flying at least once a month for a full year. Those people you see going ahead of you…they aren’t slowing you down at all. They flow through security like nothing, and more importantly they subsidize your fare, by paying extremely high refundable fares for the same flight you paid a $99 family fare for you and your 5 kids. The point to consider, is these are the people that know you need to remove your shoes shirt and large belt buckle for security, before they are told by a TSA agent. These are the people that have one small bag without having to remove their liquids. These are the people that know they are doing everyone a favor by not taking their time, and waiting to remove their shoes and jackets when they are at the head of the line. Trust a person who goes through security multiple times in a week, these people are helping you, by going ahead in line.

  15. Having started almost every week at PDX for the last year, Rick knew I had a few frustrations and some angles that I might have figured out. Happy to share, but recognize an Alaskan/Horizon bias:

    – CARRY ON. Yes, this means leaving your finger nail clippers, pocket knife, and cork screw behind (I was told actually that the cork screw was ok, but it was the threatening foil knife that caused mine to be taken). You will save hours (or at least tens of minutes) by stripping down the volume of gear you pack, and won’t use half of it anyway in a one-week trip.
    – Alaska “Ala Carte” service rocks. Carry on (see above) gets dropped along side the plane as you board (smaller Alaska planes), and is brought back to you when you unload. No more wheeling your too-wide bag down the plane aisle.
    – Sweater vests. Not only very Alex Keaton, but a nice way to get two days out of one shirt without looking totally wrinkled. I keep one on top of my carry on, so that I can grab it if I’m feeling too cold on a plane. You will look red-hot too. Really. Ask Rick.
    – If you don’t yet have frequent flyer status and will be bouncing around the northwest alot, consider routing through Seattle. You get to use the MVP line for security, and you can hit MVP based on legs traveled much quicker than you would on miles flown.
    – If you have the option of Sunday afternoon versus Monday morning, realize that Sunday afternoon is thick with family travelers. You will spend considerable time waiting to drop your checked luggage, and will invariably tee-up in the short line behind people that haven’t flown since 9/11.
    – At security, look for the guys (even the long line) that look “all about business” and are doing carry on. We really rock at the Undress Shuffle, and are absolute mechanics about getting through the buzzer on the first try.
    – You do not need to put your deodorant or razor in the one-quart plastic bag. No, really.
    – Though I hate that my non-secret parking in “X” has been spilled to the large Florist contingent, I would share that I scribble my parking location on the back of my crappy little parking ticket. Since I have to find this anyway to escape the parking lot with my car, I usually keep good tabs on this.
    – On the parking ticket: these are pretend magnetic strips. Do not put in your money clip. Don’t let them look at a magnet. Don’t sneeze violently with them in your hand… or you will end up behind me, working with the cashier to get them manually read before putting your credit card into that little slot.
    – If you are flying out of the B concourse and kind of need to use the bathroom, know that the closest one is back by the security exit. This will save you an extra walk back (unless you were looking for more exercise, in which case you should head over to D).
    – There is a Coffee People tucked in B. I know who their daddy is, but I still like to think their coffee is better.

  16. For those with disabled parking privileges, you may park in the parking structure for the same rate as Economy parking. I think the garage is at $24 a day and economy is at $8, so that is a big savings for those with a disabled permit. And don’t worry if all the disabled spots are taken in the garage; you may park anywhere in the garage with your disabled permit and pay $8 a day.

    TIP: Park on the 4th floor so that you can take the walkway above the roads. There are elevators at the other end to get you to the ticket lobby or baggage claim.

    I think the logic is the Port of Portland would rather have those with disabled permits parking closer to the airport so they don’t have to get on and off the buses.

    IMPORTANT: To get this discount, you must show a valid (current) disabled parking permit to the cashier at the pay booth. If you pay at one of the machines, you will pay the full rate because the machine can not verify your disabled permit is valid.

  17. @Sarah I’m a huge fan of the El in Chicago. Great way to get downtown from the airport. And @Mike Mathews totally agree about the BART, too.

    @Mike O’Brien I, too, am part of the sad group of folks who have found just how effective the jumpstart crew at the Economy Parking lot is.

  18. @Mike O’Brien: that is damned cool. I had no idea.

    @Pedro: frequent fliers = experienced fliers who know what to do and have a routine worked out for getting through security efficiently. Better to keep them in a separate line from the people who fly once a year for Thanksgiving or Christmas. That way nobody gets hurt.

  19. If you ever actually do forget where you left your car in the parking lot, you can call 503.460.4529, tell them your license plate number, and a nice person will come pick you up and take you to your car. The parking security staff scan plates, so they know where your car is. This person can also give you a jump start if your battery is dead.

    How do I know this? *Ahem* Let’s just say, by experience.

  20. Out-of-towners: PDX has an above-average bookstore called Powell’s located on the concourse. Much better than your average airport paperbacks and newsstands, you can look for *real* books there. (I like The Simpson’s take: an airport bookstore called “Nothin’ but King n’ Crichton!”)

  21. @Sarah – You are so right about mass transit on the other end. BART is great in SFO, $5 for a ride downtown and faster than a taxi at rush hour.

  22. I’m another big fan of the red-eye. I nearly always take that route to the east coast, as it saves me a whole day, and the airport’s usually totally quiet at 11 p.m. I also always take the MAX — I live in zone 2 so it’s only $1.75 for me šŸ™‚ I try to take public transit in whatever city I’m headed to (possible in New York, completely impossible in Dulles, Virginia) so I pack light, accordingly, meaning it’s also a lot easier to check in and get to my gate quickly.

    lately I’ve been bringing an empty SIGG bottle to the airport, and filling it up with water from the drinking fountains — there’s one each on concourses d and e, which are usually the ones I’m flying from. it’s kind of dorky, but our water is great here in portland and it saves money + plastic + trucking water in from the east coast.

  23. @Pedro I seriously doubt that raising that concern, here, is going to get you very far, because I doubt the right people are listening. However, the TSA has a blog now. Perhaps that is a better venue for a discussion of this nature: http://www.tsa.gov/blog/

  24. Why should “elite” status provide some a shortcut through security. Security is operated by the airport, right? I don’t care if the airlines fund the security, to me this is discrimination. Everyone should wait in one line.

  25. @Todd The Laurelwood in E is open now too! šŸ˜‰

  26. Given how far Portland is from much of the country, my wife and I frequently find ourselves taking red-eyes. We’ve noticed that having a beer really helps with catching what sleep you can, and there’s no better place for beer in the Portland airport — or, really, in Portland — than Laurelwood, in the A Concourse (down the escalator and really not obvious unless you’re headed that way). If you want to learn about, or merely enjoy, Northwest beers, this is the place! (And please don’t be like the guy I overheard complaining on his cell phone: “Can you believe they don’t have Corona here?”)

  27. The WiFi is only free as long as you stay out of the Red Carpet Club (or possibly other airline lounges — I haven’t tried them). They must have built f#&king Faraday cages around the Red Carpet Club because once you are inside your only option is the T-mobile hotspot. This is unspeakably annoying. I gather that United is switching to AT&T and that someday everyone who has any AT&T service (which includes my Blackberry) will have free access, but in the meanwhile I will camp out in the concourse instead.

  28. Dude, where’s my car!?…

    Flying is not the fun experience it once was. As a kid, it was glamorous and special. I was about 14 when I flew for the first time. We all dressed up and marveled at the airplane food. Now, I would liken it to a bus ride across country.
    My daughte…

  29. Great post @kveton! Funny you should mention the parking issue. I just lost my car last week. With my 3 y.o. in tow no less. Sheesh. (see: http://snurl.com/22szk )

    One thing I might add, if you are arriving with just carry-on baggage, and someone is picking you up, have them pick you up on the “departures” deck (upstairs). It’ll save you going downstairs and the traffic is usually lighter.

  30. A few things I would add after years of traveling through PDX.

    Another reason for parking in X is the reverse of your return trick to get on red and get off early to walk to your car. At X you can grab the first stop of Red if the last stop of Blue has a bus too full, which can happen at 5:00 am for those early-morning flights.

    An additional secret to using frequent flier program membership to get through less-crowded security lines: get a Southwest membership. At PDX you can enter the quick security line by displaying your Southwest card, no special level of miles needed. I’ve been doing this for years as the big corporation I worked for seemed to change preferred airlines every quarter and I never built up enough miles to hit MVP, Platinum, or any other high level. These days you might need to hit Southwest hard for a real card, they seem to have dropped sending actual cards unless you persevere, but they’ll send a card if you bug them enough.

    See a shorter security line at the concourses on the other side of the terminal? Fine get yourself down there, traipse through the line and use the new pass-through hallway between concourses to get back to the concourse you need. The new hallway even has a couple of traveling sidewalks for people who don’t like getting exercise when they are not cooped up in an airplane seat.

    I agree on the MAX line, it’s the best ride to the airport and never gets stopped by bad traffic on Hwy 26 or I-84. Too bad MAX doesn’t run for the real early flights, but it works great for any flight after 7:30 am and it’s way faster than parking and riding the shuttle into the terminal, especially since MAX stops in the terminal arrival area.

    If you are lucky enough to do a stopover in PDX, check out the study carrels on concourse C, they have power ports and access to the free WiFi in a spot where you own a nice desk and chair for as long as you want–oh yeah, it’s free, too, just like the wireless. I don’t use them often because PDX is always my home base.

    With free wireless you can now explore more than the Starbucks for coffee and snacks. No problem for me with Starbucks, but there are more choices for coffee–and Portland is a city of microbrews, some of which are available in the pubs along the concourses. REAL microbrews, brewed a few minutes’ drive from the airport. We all need to do a taste test every so often, drink up!

    The red and green parking lights in the short term parking structure are so incredibly obvious–why didn’t I think of that? And why doesn’t every airport come equipped with those lights? When do we get those out in long-term parking? Seriously, we’re waiting for an answer!

  31. Rick: those are fantastic tips … gawd … I’m actually looking forward to my next trip out of town … šŸ™‚ Thanks for posting this … hoping folks have more tips … šŸ™‚

  32. These are good. My only contribution is my regular parking spot in Economy. I don’t think it’s spot ‘X’, listed above, but it’s close: Red L. Easy to remember because ‘L’ is the Last stop in the lot before heading to the terminal. Can be a drag getting back to the car, but it sure is nice on the way out.

  33. Technically, PDX is in zone 3 and requires an all-zone ticket to get downtown – I’ve only been dinged on this once, though, but that was enough. So it’s $2.05 to get a full zone ticket.

    Sucks, I know, but… better than the fine.

  34. I’m sure these will come to me, little by little. So I’ll post them as I remember them.

    First, there is a new winding bench down in the D concourse that has a bunch of strategically placed power plugs along the length of it. It’s a great place to sit for consuming free wifi and power, if you don’t feel like doing the “power search dance.” I never fly out of D (and neither do most people near as I can tell), but there’s coffee, power, wifi, and seating. Need I say more? (Even if you’re flying out of A, B, or C, you can come over to D and use it.)

    Second, if you DO feel like doing the “power search dance,” I have a tip for spotting the outlets in the wild. Think “vacuuming.” Most of the outlets are in convenient spots for the cleaning staff, so they’re in the floor near the ends of seating. And by the phones. And along the wall. Portland is pretty good about having seating near outlets, so you won’t often wind up doing the floor thing. Unless that’s your thing. Then you can. One good floor spot is right in the flow of traffic at the gates that have walls near the doors.

    Third, if at all possible, fly at off times. Just like the commute on Portland’s roads, there are heavy traffic times at the airport. Flying to the East Coast? You’re going to kill a day anyway. So plan to fly out of PDX sometime after 9 am and before 3 pm. Staying on the West Coast? Leave a day early, or schedule afternoon meetings. You can easily make it up and down the coast in time for afternoon meetings while leaving at off times.

    Fourth, caffeinate after the security gate. I know some airports become a complete desert after security. Not PDX. There is plenty of coffee and food and whatnot beyond security. Don’t worry about trying to grab coffee that you’ll have to pound or throw out before you go through security. This is Portland, people! Coffee abounds!

    I’m sure I’ll come up with some more. But that’s what I’ve got right now.

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