A Closer Look at Tijuana Airport’s Cross Border Xpress

I’ve been aware of Cross Border Xpress (CBX) as a way for Americans to easily use Tijuana Airport for some time, but it wasn’t until I met with the CBX team at IPW in June that I really got a good understanding of how this works. It’s a great alternative to using San Diego International Airport for those who are traveling to destinations in Mexico, but even people further away are apparently finding it useful.

Before I get into how CBX works, let’s talk about why this works. Take a look at this map.

I realize that looks sort of like an arrow, but the blue-ish blob is actually the footprint of the Tijuana Airport. That orange line is the US/Mexico border. Having a location literally up against the border like that seems like it would make for a real opportunity for a bi-national airport. In fact, there has been plenty of talk about it for years, but nothing has ever come of it.

Even though it is so close to the border, using Tijuana’s airport wasn’t easy for Americans. It required going through long border crossings and taking buses (if not your own car). It was far from ideal, and that’s where CBX came in.

In this map below, you seem a zoomed-in view of the airport. And on the north side, you see a building being constructed. (Apparently this satellite map hasn’t been updated in awhile.) That is the CBX terminal.

Effectively, CBX is an airport terminal in the US for an airport in Mexico. It may sound strange, but it’s brilliant. And it has helped Tijuana’s air traffic numbers to take off (pun intended) in the last few years. Here’s how it works.

How It Works

For those coming from the US, there are bus lines that bring people to the terminal (starting at $12 from San Diego and $27 from the LA area), or there is ample parking starting at $15 a day for those who want to drive themselves. Inside there are some shops but the first stop is usually the ticket counter.

Here, passengers check in for their flights and get their boarding passes, but they don’t get to drop their bags off. The one annoyance in this process is that people have to drags their bags with them into Mexico.

Once ready, travelers have to go pay the fee if they haven’t prepaid (starts at $16 one way and $30 roundtrip per person) and then walk across the bridge into Mexico. On the other side, they go through Mexican customs and immigration. They are then considered domestic Mexican passengers from that point.

On the return, travelers walk off their flights as normal and then claim their bags. Then they pay their fee (again if they haven’t prepaid) and walk back across the bridge. US customs and immigration is there, and then travelers are on their way.

Who Uses It

You might still be wondering why people would bother using this when San Diego Intl is probably more convenient for most travelers in the area. Well, it’s the same reason Canadians love to cross into the US and fly from places like Bellingham… it’s cheap and convenient.

The cheap part is pretty obvious. Domestic flights are not taxed as highly as international flights for the most part, so right away it’s less expensive. And then think about the biggest airline in Tijuana… it’s ultra-low cost carrier Volaris. Even with the $16 one way (or $30 roundtrip) price to use CBX, it can save substantial sums of money.

But how is it more convenient? Just look at this route map:

via CBX

Sure, you can fly from San Diego to Cabo nonstop, but look at the sheer number of places you can fly from Tijuana nonstop throughout Mexico. If you can avoid a stop and have a much easier customs/immigration experience at the uncrowded CBX terminal, this is a real win.

The Impact

It all sounds good, but has there actually been a major impact? Um, yes.

via CBX

Just look at the spike in passengers after CBX opened. You may think that could be a coincidence, but the usage is huge. In 2018, 2.261 million people used CBX. That’s nearly a third of all passengers using the airport. It seems like CBX and Volaris are feeding off each other. Volaris keeps adding flights, people keep funneling through CBX, and Volaris can keep adding more flights. (Yes, other airlines are there too but Volaris is the biggest.) For 2019, CBX is on track to serve 2.714 million people.

What’s more surprising to me where people are coming from. Yes, of course there are a ton of people coming from the San Diego area. But I was told that there are more people coming from the LA area than from San Diego. Of course, the LA area is bigger, but it’s a lot further. Plus, there is more service into Mexico from LA area airports. The pull is incredibly strong.

The airlines have seen how good this can be, and they are all in. Volaris is currently working on testing an option to sell CBX access right with the airline ticket in a single transaction. There is an effort underway to make it as seamless as possible. It’s no surprise considering just how popular it has become. Tijuana has clearly become San Diego’s second airport.

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32 Responses to A Closer Look at Tijuana Airport’s Cross Border Xpress

  1. Jon L says:

    Airports on/near boarders are fascinating. For a European example of this, have a look at:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EuroAirport_Basel_Mulhouse_Freiburg#International_status

  2. DRG says:

    You mention “the fee.” What is this fee? Who charges it and what is it used for?

    • Sean S says:

      I suspect it pays the investors in CBX and also pays for Mexican and American immigration officer staffing. Most airport hotels that have direct access to the airport or many Preclearance facilities are funded by the airport or hotel, not taxpayers.

    • Boeing 727-200 Fan says:

      Fees pay for the privilege and speed to use this facility to cross over to TIJ quickly, and also cover the costs of customs and immigration officers who must be staffed there.

    • CF says:

      As other have mentioned, it’s a private entity so the fee is what it charges to recoup the investment.

  3. Jon Snow says:

    Does anyone know why there are no TIJ-to-US flights?! No UA or DL or AA, no Volaris flights up to the US. Only intl flights are the Hainan stop PEK-MEX and the AM stop MEX-PVG (which looks like it’s done at the end of this year).

    • NathanP says:

      Flying from Tijuana to the US would be an international flight (extra cost and complexity). If any US residents wanted to go to Tijuana they would likely fly into San Diego and take the trolley/bus to the border.
      The purpose of this border crossing is to offer Southern Californians easy access to cities in Mexico.

    • CF says:

      Jon – Delta briefly tried Tijuana to LAX but that failed, as you might expect. It seems like something that AA could try to Phoenix, yet it hasn’t happened. I guess in the same way people drive to Tijuana to fly within Mexico, people in Tijuana drive to San Diego to fly within the US.

    • Bill Hough says:

      Back in the early 1980s, Aeromexico had a DC-8 flight that started in LAX, stopped at TIJ and went on into Mexico (I forget the ultimate destination). The purpose of the TIJ stop was to pick up Mexicans going further south.

      I remember this because I bought a LAX-TIJ ticket for the whole point of flying on a standard DC-8, which had become rare at the time. I recall no problem finding a van shuttle in front of the TIJ terminal that took me to the border crossing for a buck. I crossed the border on foot and returned north by rail.

  4. My comment got lost the first time, try again.

    Aeromexico flies a 787 non stop from TIJ to PVG (Shanghai, China) 3 days a week., Mon. Weds. and Sat.

    The flight originates in Mexico City,

    Departure time from TIJ is 4:55 am

    13.5 hour flight, economy and business class, only.

    3-3-3 seating in economy, 31 inch seat pitch.

  5. andersoncd says:

    Your comment, ‘It’s the same reason Canadians love to cross into the US and fly from places like Bellingham… it’s cheap and convenient.’

    Same thing is happening with Quebec folks coming to Burlington Int. Airport (BTV) in Vermont to fly with United, Delta, American, Frontier, and Jet Blue to the sunny Caribbean during the winter and to resort locations during the summer. BTV offers less costs and much better transfers to major cities and hubs from the northeast.

  6. mandel.jerry1 says:

    You didn’t mention passports and flying to points other than in Mexico.

    • CF says:

      Jerry – There just aren’t many points beyond Mexico anyway. The Asian points aren’t really worthwhile since it doesn’t save much money and the options are more limited than what you’ll get from the US.

  7. David SF eastbay says:

    Earlier this year my neighbors flew to San Diego and used the crossing to fly out of TIJ to where they needed to go in Mexico.

    They said it couldn’t have been easier to use and there were no problems.

  8. Dale says:

    I consider San Diego to be a suburb of Los Angeles.

    • mandel.jerry1 says:

      Do you need passports to use that airport?

      Virus-free.
      http://www.avg.com

      • PSA Boeing 727-200 Fan says:

        Yes, you’re entering Mexico when you use the Cross Border Xpress.

        • Oliver says:

          Yes, but I think land crossings to Mexico don’t actually require a passport.

          https://www.sandiego.org/articles/baja-california/crossing-the-us-mexico-border.aspx

          “When crossing the border back and forth between Baja and San Diego, you’ll need to have a valid passport or other acceptable identification handy. When entering the United States, U.S. citizens are required to show passport, U.S. passport card, Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry or FAST) or an Enhanced Driver’s License.”

          That said, IMO, it is best to bring a passport (everyone should have one) – what if you have to fly back straight to the US due to an emergency?

          • Matt Harris says:

            I don’t know if you need a passport to enter Mexico. However, you need either a passport or a passport driver license (mainly issued in Michigan) in order to re-enter the US. No one has said what happens if a US citizen does not have a passport when re-entering the US but I would bet it involves multiple days of detention at a CBP border jail until they verify who you are and that you don’t have any warrants for your arrest.

    • G says:

      Clearly, you are not from SoCal and haven’t sat in what could easily be 3-4 hours of traffic from LA to SD.

    • David M says:

      It’s really not. Sure there are people that commute between the regions and San Diegans sometimes drive to LAX for a flight rather than taking one from SAN. But there’s Camp Pendleton that prevents urban sprawl from connecting the two regions, and it’s its own media market with separate TV/radio stations and network affiliates (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, Fox, NPR, etc). If you’re renting a car LAX to SAN is a one way rental with a drop fee while there’s not always one for LAX to SNA for example.

    • Jim says:

      Lol, in no way is San Diego a suburb of Los Angeles.

  9. Lord Dima says:

    I’ve been considering using the facility ever since it opened and still haven’t really found a good use case for myself. For example, we were thinking about going to Cancun or Cozumel for spring break. The flight options were horrendous – departing at 2am, 8 hour layovers in Mexico City or some other place, etc. and with all the fees at the end of the booking process, driving up to LA and flying direct from there made about just as much sense.

    It obviously works for many others – that’s quite an uptick in pax numbers indeed, but I’m still having a hard time making a good use out of it. And $15 a day for parking???

    • Kilroy says:

      SAN’s on airport long term parking lot runs $20 a day, and other on-airport options are even more expensive.

    • Matt Harris says:

      If I am recalling correctly GRR (Ford Airport, formerly Grand Rapids Regional just outside of Grand Rapids, MI) has a similar charge for airport parking. SFO (San Francisco Airport) also has a fee — $25 per day.

    • Stogieguy7 says:

      Thanks to Rahm Emmanuel, ORD and MDW charge $40 per day to park in the closer-in garages and $15 per day for remote parking that requires an arduous shuttle bus ride (as long as 30 minutes at ORD). So, $15 per day is actually pretty cheap as airport parking goes.

  10. Jesse says:

    I used CBX last year and was incredibly impressed with how efficient and nice the entire experience was, despite living in the Bay Area. My wife was headed to San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico for work, so I tagged along and we turned the trip into a weekend getaway. For our flight home, my wife took an Aeromexico flight booked by her company from Queretaro to Mexico City to San Francisco. It would have cost me about $400 to book the same one-way flight. Instead, I booked a Volaris flight from Queretaro to Tijuana for only about $100 (including the extra fee for a “priority” seat), then used CBX to enter the US, then caught an Uber for the 20 min ride to the San Diego airport where I caught a Southwest flight back to Oakland that I had booked with miles. The entire trip was a fraction of the cost of my wife’s trip, I got home over an hour before her (despite my flight leaving Queretaro after hers), and it was overall relatively a pleasant experience (especially given how much money I saved). I would totally do it again.

    Several comments on CBX: (i) CBX is privately owned, hence the fee to use it. Think of the enclosed footbridge as a “toll bridge.” (ii) I was able to pay for CBX as part of my Volaris ticket at time of booking. (iii) You must be flying through the TJ airport to use CBX – it’s not possible to access the Mexico side of the bridge unless you’ve just gotten off a flight. (iv) I waited for maybe 7 or 8 minutes for US customs, which is nothing compared to most Mexico boarding crossings (I don’t remember them having Global Entry). (v) The US side has rental car desks, a Starbucks, and some other conveniences – it’s nicer than the Southwest terminal at the San Diego airport. (vi) The Tijuana airport is actually pretty nice…..again, probably nicer than the Southwest terminal at SAN. (vii) If you live in San Diego, flying to Cabo or Puerto Vallarta via CBX has the added benefit of being a domestic flight that avoids the horrible Mexican immigration lines at those airports.

  11. Jim says:

    I don’t see the point of using CBX when you can walk, drive or Uber across the border, hop in a cab, and go straight to the airport. This is faster and cheaper. I guess people are just scared of Mexico and want an enclosed pathway directly from the US to the airport.

    • Bob says:

      Jim, have you ever tried getting from the Tijuana airport BACK to San Diego via either of the regular border crossings in the area? The main border crossing in San Diego is the world’s busiest. I’ve done it both ways – there’s no comparison, CBX is infinitely more efficient that using the regular border crossing.

  12. Aaron says:

    I’ve used CBX and it’s a breeze. Great option to get anywhere in Mexico if you live in or are transiting through the San Diego area. And given the connectivity to some harder-to-reach destinations, it’s not unreasonable to fly into SAN, make an overland connection to CBX/TIJ, and still fly to your endpoint in Mexico in less time than it would take to transit a U.S. hub or MEX itself.

    All that said, I am surprised that CBX has not been more successful in generating traffic *beyond* Mexico. Hainan has struggled in TIJ (reduced flights since launch), AeroMexico’s Asia flights do not stop in TIJ for any reasons of local traffic, and the usual suspects in Central America (Copa, Avianca) have also shied away. So while TIJ is San Diego’s second airport, it does not appear to be siphoning away much traffic from SAN, other than domestic Mexico.

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