Pick Someone Up From The Airport, Or Let Them Uber? It’s More Complicated Than You Think

When someone comes into town do you pick them up at the airport? It’s a lot easier, especially with electronic requests for a ride and just entering an address into a phone app (and no need for local currency, even), to just have them Uber or Lyft. In some parts of the world it’s Grab or Didi.

But picking up someone from the airport is an act of love. It takes effort and planning. It’s twice as much driving, and it involves waiting. It’s precisely because it is harder and more costly that it works as a signal of how much you care.

Picking someone up (or taking them to) the airport is such a signal of intimacy that it has entered popular culture. From “When Harry Met Sally” to “Seinfeld,” the act of transporting a person to or from the airport shows that you care. A lot.

I’m reminded of those wonderful opening and closing scenes in the movie “Love Actually,” consisting of an extended montage of people greeting one another at an airport terminal and — hugging their hearts out.

In a male relationship, picking up someone at the airport is going all the way, akin to helping someone move.

There are several strategies for picking someone up at the airport.

  • Cell phone waiting lot. Have them call you when they land (or monitor it yourself online) and approach the terminal when they’re ready to be picked up, timing depending on whether they have checked bags to wait for or not. Call this “the drive by.”

  • Pick them up at departures rather than arrivals, since that’s often less crowded. Call this “the expert move.” This shows them you know what you’re doing, they’re in capable hands.

    This is especially useful with no checked bags as they don’t need to head down to baggage claim. With checked bags it usually means heading back upstairs – with luggage – and isn’t helpful.

  • Park and go inside the terminal this is more expensive (parking cost) and more time-consuming, but it’s a more intimate gesture. You greet them earlier and escort them out, helping them with their bags. It shows next-level caring and that you couldn’t wait to see them. Call this “next level caring.” You need to research where to meet them, knowing where they’re going to come out of security, and take care not to miss them though. This takes extra work if you are surprising them, and it’s much easier if you coordinate meeting them via text.

  • Meet them at their gate. This is next level because it’s unexpected in the post-9/11 world and because it takes real effort and thus is a more powerful signal to the person you’re meeting. Call this “the bold gesture.”

    For this you either need a gate pass or a ticket to go through security (in the U.S.). Several airports let you arrange in advance to go through security when you’re not flying, because they want more concessions spend. You can get a gate pass if you’re renting an American Airlines Admirals Club conference room ($65 for members/$85 for non-members). Or buy a refundable ticket, use it to go through security, and cancel the ticket – though consistently buying tickets you do not intend to use may get you in trouble with the airline.

Here’s the next challenge. Say you meet someone at the airport, and whether you meet them at the gate, just outside security, or outside the terminal (you want to get out of your vehicle and help them with any bags) how do you greet them because the greeting says everything about your relationship. Is it a hug and how long does it last? A hearty hand shake? Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander obsessed over the airport pickup greeting:

The funny thing is that when you ride by yourself to and from the airport in an Uber you can work in the back seat. Someone picking you up might be late, and someone taking you to the airport means you’re relying on two people – you and them – to be ready to leave on time. Doesn’t that double the chances you’ll be late?

From a pure efficiency standpoint doing the airport trip solo is a winner. But when someone offers to take you or pick you up can you really decline – precisely because it’s such a grand gesture and show of intimacy, saying no is declining the person and not just the favor.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Most airport cell phone lots are either too small or so far from the terminal that it takes a significant amount of time to get to the terminal when you do get the indication that someone is really ready to be picked up.
    And coordinating your exact arrival at the terminal (required since most US airports are very strict about no waiting at the curb) works only at airports where the traffic at the terminal flows well, which is not the case at many large airports.

    Using the departures lane works if they have no baggage to claim but it makes the process harder if they do.

    Bottom line is that it is more of an “act of love” to pick someone up after a flight than it is to take them for a flight.

  2. As a commuting Flight Attendant, the best airport pickup is hubby picking me up at departures with an adult sippy cup waiting…

  3. At LAX you pick them up at the Westin or something after they take the complimentary hotel shuttle to get away from the shit show that is arrivals at that airport. It’s not love of you make them drive into the airport there, rather it’s punishment

  4. At Tampa Airport they have a new express lane (on a mid-level) for passengers not needing to check luggage at the ticket counter /curbside or picking up luggage at baggage claim. The traffic seems to move faster as most car trunks do not open.

  5. I quite agree with your sentiment. I always pick up my daughter and family when they come to visit. My friends say, put them on a Uber. It’s not the same as a warm welcome with hugs. In the pre 9/11 days, I loved to see people meet at the gate. I thought, whatever is going on in their lives, here are a few moments of pure joy,

  6. I haven’t lived with parents in 15+ years, yet every time I go visit them, they are always there to pick me up, no questions asked. My fiancé is from the Midwest, her family is more… provincial, let’s say. They all live within 5 minutes of each other. No one has ever moved away. So her relationship with her controlling mother has been strained since even before she chose to move in with me in New York. When we go visit them, they’ve only ever picked me and her up when we’re together maybe twice in the last 3+ years. Otherwise it’s just, “they can afford to take an Uber.” What someone is willing to do for you really shows how much you matter to them.

  7. There are also regular medallioned taxicabs at most airports, and at some there are even rapid transit trains or light rail that can be used. When I lived in the D.C. area, if the person was coming into Washington National Airport, the Metro subway, with pickup from a station near my house, was convenient for both of us.

  8. We have an au pair, girl from Spain. Her younger sister is coming for a visit on Friday. I am taking a half day and going out to JFK to get her precisely for the reasons you articulate. An Uber would be $100-125- which is less that a half day of pay (net)- but i want to send a message to the girl who spends more time with my kids than I do.

  9. My girlfriend (now wife) picked me up from a two week biz trip at TPA several years ago.; She was waiting at baggage claim with makeup on, hair done, heels and a sexy bright blue trench coat. I pulled my luggage off the carousel and headed up to the well lit short term garage where she popped the trunk and grabbed one of the suitcases. She bent straight over to put it in trunk and revealed she had neglected to wear anything under the trenchcoat. Best airport pickup ever!!

  10. “With checked bags [picking up someone on the Departure level] usually means heading back upstairs – with luggage – and isn’t helpful.

    @Gary —>. Not true at all. At my home airport of SFO, there are multiple elevators and an escalator one can take back up to the Departure level. As virtually every piece of luggage these days is a roller bag, there’s no problem. AND, even if I leave a car at/near the airport, the off-site shuttles pick up and drop off passengers on the Departure level , so it’s a common occurrence. The AirTrain to long-term parking is two flights up; the elevator is essential.

  11. The best part of an AUS pickup is stopping at Pinthouse on the way back in to town. A win for the driver and the flyer.

  12. I’d let them take the light rail, and then the local bus that drops them off a block from my place.

  13. Every time I’ve flown to see my sister, she waits until I call her after I’ve landed, and when she answers, she asks if I’ve picked up my checked bags. Then she leaves to pick me up curbside. Granted, she lives 10 minutes away, but as I walk through the terminal to baggage claim, I pass a bunch of families waiting for an arriving passenger…

  14. The cellphone lost at SFO is five minutes from the terminal curb. My visitors simply call me when their are nearing the exit door giving me the door number. Works like a charm.

  15. In PHX unless my guest has checked a bag (and needs to go down to baggage claim) I have them take the skytrain to the East Economy lot where I can dash over from the cell phone lot and swoop them up. Anything under 15 minutes is free so there’s no cost and I’m usually the only car at the bottom of the escalator when they come down from the skytrain. Easy for everyone.

  16. Park in the cell phone lot, read your book, receive a text, pick up the pax. I do it often at SFO. What’s the big deal? I guess if you don’t like to drive?

  17. For us if they have a night arrival we pick them up at the upper deck departures where no one is since there are no departures at that time of night. We also wait until we see the plane flying in over our street before we leave for the airport. By the time we get to the airport they are just pulling into the gate ….. yeah it is 10 min from the house.

    American is landing right now.

  18. @Jason Brandt Lewis that invented these new things called “Elevators” and “Escalators” you many not have one in your airport but even at Macy’s in NYC they have the wooden Escalators still . If not you may find a 60 year old women who can help you lift your bags for you

  19. We have the best of all airport situations so meet all family members and friends. We live 15 minutes from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Across from our building is the express bus to the airport. Generally it runs every seven minutes–except for in the middle of the night when it is once an hour. Buses are roomy with wide doors. We meet people on the arrivals level, and we can see them through windows once they have their luggage. We can talk with them via cell phone or phones provided on each side of the windows. The airport has a train station in the basement which makes it easy to get all over the country. For three years I frequented the airport DAILY for my train commute to Rotterdam. Amazing public transportation!

  20. In my opinion, the strongest move is to meet the person at the gate, escort them to pick up any bags, and then have a limo meet you both at the door. Have water, a snack, and additional adult beverages in the car.

  21. The best way to go to or from the airport is with Wingz.
    It’s just like a friend or family member picked you up.
    Use the code danielsa3 and save $5.
    No surge prices like Uber and Lyft.

  22. It’s more of an act of love to tell my friends /family to stay home. Honestly it’s easier for me to not have think about where they are and coordinate and everyone getting frustrated. The act of love becomes the road to hell paved with good intentions.

  23. I live near PIT and I am everyone’s pre departure airbnb and park n ride. My dear son and his partner usually bring me good food the night before from the city or I cook them a good meal. The bad part is I pay to park because ride share is pretty unreliable at PIT.

  24. You make this way too hard. Most airports give you 30 minutes free parking. Watch flight aware for arrival or departure times. Park in the garage next to the terminal on the sky bridge level. At Hobby it’s Blue garage Level 4. Dallas Love Garage C level 6 puts you in the best spot. DFW park arrival level closest to the gate they will exit from or luggage carousel. You don’t need to have any “secret hacks”. If you are the person that stops in the middle of the road because you are so confused by the simple airport layout put them on a ride share.

  25. @Bob, doesn’t DFW charge you the minute you drive onto airport territory, regardless whether you are there 5 minutes or 5 months ? I could be mistaken, but think they did away with any free parking even for short times on airport property to keep people who weren’t even traveling via or picking up from using the airport roads as a passthrough between north & south ends of the airport.

  26. If you use the same entrance and Exit its free. But your right back in the 80’s that was a short cut

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