Make your airport experience a breeze: A guide to navigating HHH and SAV

Our region has exploded as a popular vacation destination. Arriving and departing have become a bit more challenging.

By B.C. Rausch

As someone closing in on nearly three million air miles logged over a decades-long career, I’ve learned a thing or two about getting through airports. Starting with this: We’re fortunate to have two airports serving commercial passengers — Hilton Head Island Airport (HHH) and Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) — and both are usually easy to navigate.

However, as our region has exploded as a popular vacation destination, arriving and departing have become a bit more challenging. In fact, this past April marked the busiest month in SAV history and for 2023 so far, passenger traffic is nearly 20 percent higher than last year. 

©Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport

Smooth sailing through SAV 

Some facts about SAV. It is served by 11 airlines, sends out more than 50 daily nonstop departures to 30-plus destinations, plus several additional weekly non-stops and destinations seasonally. For all that, SAV maintains a welcoming, Southern vibe, earning it the title as No. 1 U.S. Airport in the 2022 Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards and the 2022 Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.

Nice as SAV is, travelers using it should be prepared to face more crowds, longer waits and increased congestion. Here are a few pointers to ensure a more leisurely trip while continuing to exude your own Southern charm.

  • Plan to arrive early. A minimum of two hours before flight time is a good idea. Thanks to increased traffic on U.S. 278, new stoplights, the unpredictability of I-95 and the number of cars and people using the airport exit for other destinations (Tanger Outlet Mall, Gulfstream), add an extra half-hour transit time when coming from Hilton Head. 
  • Speaking of Gulfstream, pay attention to shift changes and lunch hours. The factory is operating at full capacity, meaning hundreds of cars and trucks use the main airport access road.
  • Parking can be an issue. There are only 1,680 parking spaces in the four-story garage and another 2,000 in the economy, two-story garage, so as the airport gets busier, parking close becomes more challenging. On three of my last four trips, I’ve had to use overflow (uncovered) parking. If you’re traveling around the holidays, you may have to park way out on the grass near the Gulfstream plant and take a shuttle back to the terminal.  
  • If you’re running late or want the ultimate in convenience and service (but at a price of $20 per day), SAV offers valet parking.
  • If you’re coming to SAV to simply drop off or pick up, take it slow — very slow — over the speed bumps near the terminal. You can catch air, or take out the undercarriage of your car, at anything over 5 miles per hour.
  • Also beware of an enhanced police presence in the arrivals lanes. While these officers are polite, they mean business. So, move along when asked, and make everyone’s life easier.
  • Take advantage of the well-situated and ample cell phone waiting lot. Then don’t head to the terminal until your passenger has arrived and called you to say they’re outside and ready to go. While you wait, it’s a great spot for plane watching, including occasional military jets.
  • If you’re the one flying, use your airline’s app and/or the kiosk before getting to the check-in counter. Check the flight’s status and gate. Also know how heavy your luggage is and how many pieces are allowed, plus how much it costs for each extra bag.
  • The modest fee (presently $78 for five years) to use the TSA PreCheck lane at security is a worthwhile investment. There are rarely more than a handful of people at SAV. (Pro tip: Place a mobile order to the Starbucks near Gate 10 while standing in the security line, and it might be ready by time you get there.)
  • Once through security, there are a few places to eat, drink and shop. There’s also a Passport Club (between Gates 10 and 12), a private area open only to club members, American Express Platinum cardholders, first-class ticket holders and airline-club members.
  • For arriving passengers the Visitor Information Center at the bottom of the escalator is staffed with friendly, informative representatives who can provide customized maps, brochures and event information.  
  • SAV is growing. With increasing numbers of airlines and flights, the concourse is being expanded with four new gates to the east of the existing concourse. The security checkpoint also is being enlarged to four lanes. 

© Conceptual Image

A stress-free journey through HHH 

Hilton Head Airport is located mid-island and served by year-round flights on American Airlines and seasonally by Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Passenger traffic has tripled in recent years, so work is underway to make it more comfortable.

A recent runway extension made it easier for larger planes to land, while the terminal will more than triple in size. Half of the new space will be areas for passengers waiting to board; the other half includes a new grand hall and a four-lane passenger drop-off and pick-up area. The $53-million project is being paid in part by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. The new terminal will have three gates with jetways instead of walking out to the planes.

On the one hand, HHH is small, convenient and friendly. But being small also means it’s often crowded, parking can be tough, and what public transportation there is (Uber, Lyft, taxis) is hard to come by. Here are a few pointers to ensure a smooth experience when flying out of HHH.

  • All parking is pre-paid. Download the ParkMobile app to pay for parking.
  • Plan for crowded conditions. Due to increased passenger traffic, HHH can get crowded, especially during peak travel times. Prepare for longer lines and potential delays, and plan your arrival accordingly.
  • Plan on eating before arriving. Dining options are limited to vending machines and a snack bar. 
  • Arrive early. To avoid any last-minute stress, arrive at Hilton Head Airport well in advance of your flight. Plan to be at the airport at least two hours before your scheduled departure time to ensure enough time for check-in, security procedures and boarding.
  • Explore alternative transportation options. Given the limited availability of public transportation services like Uber, Lyft and taxis, consider arranging private transportation in advance. Look into local shuttle services, car rentals, or reserve private-car services to ensure a smooth and convenient journey to and from the airport.
  • Hotels, villas and rentals on Hilton Head Island usually do not provide shuttle service.

Airport hacks

H20 on the go: Opt for a cost-effective and eco-friendly approach by bringing an empty water bottle to the airport. Most airports provide water fountains with convenient bottle-refilling stations. By quickly refilling your own bottle after passing through security, you can avoid the need to purchase an overpriced one.

The plane truth: Navigate through crowded lines at check-in or TSA by choosing the path less traveled — head to the left. As most people are right-handed, they naturally gravitate towards lines on their right side, leaving the left-side lines less congested.

Soaring through security: Streamline your airport experience by applying for TSA Precheck. For a small fee, you can enjoy faster security screening and bypass long lines at TSA checkpoints. This valuable service is particularly beneficial for frequent travelers who often find themselves rushing to catch their flights.

Luggage locator: Bid farewell to the frustrating experience of lost luggage by implementing a simple yet effective hack. Attach a distinctive hair ribbon or bow to your suitcase to easily spot and identify it on the baggage carousel. For an added layer of security and peace of mind, consider placing an Apple AirTag in your luggage, enabling you to track your belongings from anywhere in the world, even while airborne.

Time flies: Personalize your travel experience by choosing the optimal flight time. To minimize the chance of turbulence, opt for an earlier flight and avoid afternoon and evening thunderstorms known for causing disruptions. On the other hand, if you’re seeking tranquility and a chance to rest, select an evening flight to bypass the bustling morning hours and arrive at your destination refreshed and relaxed.

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