Gail Wohl cruises right past Tampa International Airport to find parking when she flies out of town. Rather than use the airport's $9-a-day remote economy garage, the South Pasadena travel agent pulls into A-1 Express Airport Parking on the southern fringe of TIA. She drops off her car outside the office. A driver loads her luggage on a free shuttle to the airport terminal 2 miles away. And Wohl's $30 parking bill for four days is $6 cheaper than the airport's fee would be. ''It's a convenience, the price is good and you don't have to go look for your car when you get back," she said. ''It's just so easy."
Most off-airport parking businesses compete strictly on price, shaving a few bucks off TIA's daily rate. That can add up to a tidy savings for travelers on extended trips.
Some offsite operators also offer services customers can't get at the airport: advance reservations for busy travel periods, oil changes and discount deals. A-1 Express customers can collect frequent-parking points, good for carwashes and free parking.
The vast majority of travelers who drive to TIA still park in airport-owned garages. But more and more, offsite parking operators are nibbling away at the airport's share of the business, said Ed Cooley, TIA's vice president of operations.
Parking at TIA generates more than $50 million a year. That makes it the airport's top moneymaker, accounting for 30 percent of all revenue, Cooley said. The airport estimates its competitors rake in close to $3 million annually.
A new 50-space lot, Memorial Park and Fly, opened two months ago just west of the airport with an advertised daily rate of $3.89, or $2.89 for seniors and military personnel. Independent Internet sites sell discount parking at nearby hotels, with free shuttle service to TIA.
The airport is preparing to fight back. Staffers are looking into offering seasonal rates and discounts. In the meantime, TIA needs to do a better job marketing its parking on the Internet as the most safe and convenient, Cooley said. "Our product," he said, "is a very good product."
Shuttle buses, connecting the economy garage to the main terminal, run every 10 minutes around the clock. Employees patrol the parking decks and watch feeds from closed-circuit cameras.
Longtime locals probably remember past holidays when garages filled up and they were directed to outdoor lots. That hasn't happened since the second half of the economy garage opened in 2009, Cooley said. With 22,000 spaces — half in the economy lot — the airport won't run short this holiday season, he said.
Most off-airport operators, like Memorial Park and Fly, park cars on paved lots enclosed by chain-link fences.
Dale Graham of Kissimmee said he wasn't worried about theft or damage to his vehicle.
"That's why my car's insured," he said before catching a shuttle to the Port of Tampa. Memorial and A-1 Express recently began marketing to Tampa cruise passenger as well as air travelers. Graham figured he saved $40 by not parking at the port's $15-a-day garage. Someone keeps watch on the lot overnight, said Memorial's general manager, Giovanni Monge.
Another parking alternative: Internet sites dedicated to off-airport parking sell spaces at West Shore area hotels, complete with shuttle service to and from TIA.
Johannes Werner of Sarasota got a great price on the Internet to park in the Intercontinental Hotel garage in West Shore: 10 days for $46.94, about half the cost of the airport's remote economy parking. But the experience wasn't all good.
After returning to Tampa International, Werner called the hotel for a ride. He called again a half hour later, and the dispatcher apologized for forgetting to send the shuttle. It was 40 minutes more before he reached his car, said Werner, editor of the online business publication Cuba Standard.
"It was pretty cheap, but I would have paid more" for better service, he said.
Airports have been getting more creative to attract parking business, said Peter Mandel, an airport parking and traffic expert with LeighFisher management consultants.
Frequent parking customers at Lambert-St. Louis International pick gifts from a catalog that includes noise-canceling earphones and Weber grills. Boston Logan International sells a PASSport Gold membership that guarantees travelers a space in reserved areas nearest the terminal.
In Tampa, A1-Express owner Del Smith was surprised to hear about the airport's interest in competing more aggressively. Offsite operators get only 4 percent of the business, compared 25 to 30 percent at most other airports, he said.
"But everybody's looking to save whenever they can," Smith said.
He expects to fill all 1,200 spaces in his five-story garage and parking lot during the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel seasons.