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