Airports tend to inspire passionate feelings—passions usually bordering on loathing.
Frequent traveler and novelist Ryan O’Reilly has a love-hate relationship with Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. “Nearly every time I’ve been through Chicago, my flights have been delayed, canceled, or both,” says the Springfield, MO, resident. “Once, my flight was delayed by six hours, and when we finally got onto the plane, we had to perform an emergency exit because the deicing truck next to it caught on fire.”
Perhaps it’s no shock, then, that Chicago’s airports scored near the bottom in the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, where Travel + Leisure readers rated 30 U.S. cities on a variety of fronts, including food, shopping, on-time performance, and the efficiency (or potential surliness) of airport employees.
One of the big winners was Orlando, which came in second place for having a distinctly pleasant airport—perhaps even in the middle of the night. Dallas-area kindergarten teacher Maria DeRusse recently arrived at Orlando at 4 a.m., after her flight from Dallas had been delayed five hours. “When we arrived, the airport staff was very apologetic and welcoming,” DeRusse says, and despite being bleary-eyed, she found the place easy to navigate, taking notice of both the on-site Hyatt Regency and the plethora of restaurants and shops.
The best airports in the U.S. share a few things in common: plenty of dining options and “entertainment,” which could mean live music, kids’ play areas, spas, or—increasingly important—free wireless Internet access. Strikingly, airports that made up that lower half of the AFC airport survey tend to still charge up to $10 for you to check your email or change your Facebook status. The free wireless is one reason Oregon pharmacist Chris Carter loves Portland International Airport (No. 4), along with small niceties. “It’s easy to get in and out of,” he says, “and we love the parking garage with lights in the ceiling, showing you where open spots are.”
For the most part, though, airports that perform one basic task well—getting you to and from your destination on time—dominate the Top 10 (Providence reigns in the on-time category and is No. 5 overall). But schedule isn’t everything. Atlanta ranks near the bottom (No. 26) for its punctuality, but its fourth-place finish for food helped boost Hartsfield to 11th overall, implying that a good beer and a hot muffuletta can make up for a fair amount of hassle.
Indeed, a big way for airports to boost travelers’ happy factor is to infuse local flavor into the terminals. Austin’s Bergstrom Airport (No. 9) offers barbecue and Tex-Mex from local favorites Salt Lick and Maudie’s, and even has a stage for live music. Not that this approach always works: Lambert International in St. Louis scores a dismal No. 28 out of 30 cities, perhaps no thanks to its Missouri Vineyards restaurant.
Of course, airport satisfaction is also what you make of it. The O’Hare-oppressed O’Reilly and his fiancée have created their own way to pass the hours in Chicago, which ranked No. 29 in on-time performance. “We invented a game we call O’Hared and Seek,” he says, “where you sit in the passenger lounge reading or typing emails for five minutes while your partner goes and hides in the same concourse. Then you have to find them. It’s a great game—if you’re going to be stuck somewhere, you might as well make a game of it.”
2 of 31Courtesy of The Port Authority of NY & NJ
#30 New York
The Big Apple has long made a tradition of outdoing its fellow American cities, and its area airports—JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark—indeed stand out, at least in terms of being miserable. Food, entertainment, on-time performance, and staff efficiency all occupy the last-place ranks in the AFC survey. The highest the NYC airports rank for anything is 28th—for airline clubs, which perhaps just serve as a comfortable place to hide until your flight finally boards.
Like many things in the L.A. area, it’s all about traffic: transportation to and from the L.A. airports—from Long Beach and Burbank to the granddaddy hub, LAX—ranks a lowly No. 30 in the AFC survey. AFC readers are so over the Jetsons-style façade of LAX (No. 29 for design and functionality), and the airports’ staff rank next-to-last, too. But perhaps that’s no surprise in a city that also ranks 29th for its friendly locals—just the types to cut you off on the freeway.
4 of 31Courtesy of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport
Maybe folks just miss TWA: its old home, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, is dreary to AFC readers on a number of fronts. It ranks last for its airline clubs—you’ll find only one American Admirals Club—and its food and shopping rank 28th and 29th, respectively. Plus, you’ll pay $8 for WiFi.
In the No. 1 AFC city for historical sites and monuments, the airports—Dulles and Reagan National—score poorly in a monumental way. They rank No. 29 in entertainment, perhaps due to the fact that WiFi is still limited and comes with fees. Shopping, meanwhile, ranks 27th—picking up a “Hail to the Chef!” apron or browsing the Smithsonian Museum Store notwithstanding.
Logan Airport sure does try to please travelers, with its kids’ play areas, rocking chairs, free WiFi, and even an on-site spa—but AFC voters aren’t noticing, ranking it 22nd for entertainment. Maybe they just can’t find the good stuff: Logan lands near the bottom (No. 28) for design and functionality, which includes layout and good signage, and ranks No. 25 for transportation both inside and outside the airport. Things improve once you get out of Logan’s reach, though: the city of Boston ranks fifth for its mass transit and for being pedestrian-friendly.
Anything that has to do with actual travel doesn’t fare well at Philadelphia International Airport: on-time performance and staff efficiency are both in the can (No. 28), and the airport’s layout and general vibe leave travelers feeling bereft (No. 26). But what saves the place from utter ruin, it turns out, is shopping: having a huge variety of shops to wander—including Gap, Brooks Brothers, Swarovski, PGA Tour Shop, and wine shop Vino Volo—put Philly’s retail at No. 12.
Travelers seem happy enough to eat, shop, and hang out in the Windy City’s airports, dominated by O’Hare. The food and drinks here rank a decent 15th in the survey, and the shopping 17th. But then again, even a giant pretzel sounds great when you’re trapped. Chicago flops on staff efficiency (No. 24) and scores a nap-on-the-gate-benches 29th for on-time arrivals and departures.
Getting around this rambling airport will drive home its Texas-size scale: the shuttle ride to the rental car center seems like it must cross a few county lines. That’s probably why DFW International ranks a lowly 26th for transportation. While in transit, you can think about how much hot sauce or Dallas Cowboys merchandise you want to buy (shopping ranks 18th).
Getting in and out of Santa Fe from the closest big airport, Albuquerque—an hour away—likely explains why the New Mexico city ranks 27th in the airport transportation category. If you fly out of the more intimate Santa Fe Municipal Airport, you’ll get just one dining option, but maybe a mellower scene. After all, Santa Fe ranks first with AFC voters for peace and quiet.
According to AFC readers, shopping (No. 9) is the highlight of a visit to Miami International Airport, with a healthy selection of art, jewelry, and retail options. That seems appropriate, though, in this stylish city (No. 2). Likewise, while the airport staff is not dazzling travelers with their efficiency (they rank 27th), they might be easy on the eyes: Miami ranks first for good-looking locals.
12 of 31Courtesy of the Kansas City Aviation Department
Maybe it’s not so much that Kansas City International Airport is a well-oiled machine—it ranks second for on-time arrivals and departures—but that folks are just trying to finish their business here fast. It ranks last for shopping and next-to-last for its dining and airline clubs. Even so, it’s hard to argue with the cheap thrills of the Fly-By, a hot dog stand in Terminal B that offers views of a runway.
The options at San Diego’s Charles Lindbergh Airport are fairly limited, beyond some fish tacos, predictable chains, and a quick history lesson on the famed aviator. It ranks 22nd for its food and 16th for entertainment. But the high point of arriving at Lindbergh is probably just stepping outside: San Diego ranks first in the AFC survey for America’s best weather.
The best thing one can say about Charleston International Airport, according to AFC voters, is that it won’t lose your bag or hassle you too much while you make your way through security (it ranks 10th for staff efficiency). But that shouldn’t be a huge surprise in this genteel southern city, which otherwise ranks third for friendly locals. Just brace yourself for crowds here on Turkey Day weekend. Charleston ranks first in the AFC survey for Thanksgiving visits.
The Crescent City has a long list of No. 1 victories in the AFC survey: for its nightlife, its neighborhood joints, and its wild weekend potential. And yet, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport struggles to live up to any of these high expectations, or even its name, with its airport entertainment ranking 23rd and its bars and restaurants 17th. One can hope that another New Orleans mainstay will hold true at your airport gate: the city also ranks first in people-watching.
The Bay Area’s airports don’t score well for keeping track of your bags (No. 21 for staff efficiency) or getting you anywhere on time (No. 23 for on-time arrivals and departures). But San Francisco International, Mineta San Jose International Airport, and Oakland International seem to have a soft spot for business travelers, given that their airline lounges rank ninth.
Need a pick-me-up before boarding? The java selection at Sea-Tac is a Greatest Hits of Seattle coffees—from Tully’s and Dilettante Mocha to the king, Starbucks. That may explain why AFC readers ranked the airport ninth for its food, snacks, and beverages. Its entertainment otherwise ranks a mere 14th, even though it houses a highly legit art collection, including works by Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. This high-tech city’s airport offers free WiFi as well as mundane “perks” such as a kiosk where, for $3, you can charge your cell phone.
In general, the Hawaiian capital ranks first in the AFC survey for being the most relaxing and the most romantic getaway. But feeling especially at peace, or in the mood for love, doesn’t seem to translate at Honolulu International Airport. It ranks a decent 10th for shopping—perhaps thanks to the duty-free zone—but its food and drink rank a humdrum 21st.
20 of 31Courtesy of Sky Habor International Airport
Forgot to pick up a kachina doll for your niece back home? Phoenix’s Sky Harbor ranks highest for its shopping (No. 7), with an emphasis on Native American and desert-themed shops. Meanwhile, the airport does a middle-of-the-runway job when it comes to airline clubs (No. 15), staff (No. 16), and on-time record (No. 16). Its bleak ranking for transportation (No. 20) may get a boost when it finishes its airport SkyTrain in 2013.
The bad news: Hartsfield-Jackson Airport ranks near the bottom—26th—for on-time arrivals and departures, and its staff ranks a troubling 19th for being on their game. The good news? No one seems to care. Travelers rank the giant hub fourth for both shopping and food and drinks—from Bulgari to hot muffulettas, and a lot of bars.
22 of 31Courtesy of San Antonio International Airport
San Antonio International Airport squeaks into the Top 10 on a variety of airport categories: on-time arrivals, transportation, and entertainment (No. 10). The last may stem from its free WiFi or the plentiful art to gawk at: murals, colorful skylights, an art installation imagining the contents of travelers’ suitcases, and (no surprise) some artistic renderings of the Alamo.
23 of 31Sandy L. Stevens/Courtesy of City of Austin Aviation
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport offers some of the best flavors of Texas’s Capital City: mini-branches of the Salt Lick barbecue and Maudie’s Tex-Mex, as well as live music performances. But it ranks highest with AFC readers for its airy atmosphere (No. 7 for design and functionality) and punctuality (No. 7 for on-time arrivals and departures).
Vegas is all about playing hard and trying to get behind the velvet rope, and that holds true even at McCarran International Airport, where the members-only airline lounges rank sixth and its entertainment seventh. There’s no Celine Dion and nobody dangling on trapezes, but you do get a huge gym ($10/day), a kids’ play area, free WiFi, and—jackpot—lots of slot machines.
25 of 31Courtesy of the Nashville International Airport
Music City’s airport comes in fourth place for its on-time performance, but you might even wish for a little delay, just to take advantage of the good food (No. 8) and entertainment (No. 5). The airport offers a few barbecue places based on local institutions (Whitt’s and Neely’s) and a spin-off of the famous Opry-neighborhood bar, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. And here’s a reason to check your bags: one of the airport’s three live-music stages is in the baggage claim area.
Despite the spooky (and debunked) conspiracy theories that have swirled around Denver International Airport since it opened in 1995 (alleging a combination of hidden bunkers, Nazi connections, and apocalyptic imagery), the Rocky Mountain hub hasn’t scared off AFC voters. They rank the airport No. 1 for its design, which resembles snowcapped mountains from the outside and features sweeping mountain views from inside. Feeling peckish before your flight? Pick up a bison burger—the airport food ranks No. 5.
You won’t lose your bags or your sense of direction in Rhode Island, because Green Airport is the picture of competence: it ranks first in on-time performance, first for staff efficiency, and second for its functional design, which includes good signage. You’ll likely have enough time to sit down and enjoy the offerings at the on-site oyster bar (the airport’s food ranks No. 6).
Portland International Airport (PDX) tops the AFC survey for its transportation options—plenty of people movers between concourses, and an easy hop onto the city’s light-rail system, which goes downtown. You can also do some good shopping (No. 6), without the usual fears of airport inflation. PDX promises no sales tax and “fair retail pricing”—with an emphasis on local brands such as Nike and Powell’s Books.
29 of 31Courtesy of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
In the city deemed most intelligent by AFC readers, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport wisely appeals to travelers’ basic needs of consumption: it ranked first for both food (such as local steakhouse Ike’s) and shopping (it has its own so-called Mall, which is a stone’s throw from Mall of America). The airport also offers thoughtful entertainment (No. 3): two large play areas for kids, a 1.4-mile indoor walking trail, and a designated “quiet” seating area for meditation and relaxation. The only downside: there’s a slight chance you might end up getting to your destination late (AFC voters ranked it No. 8 in on-time performance).
How can anyone get a case of airport angst so close to the Happiest Place on Earth? Orlando International Airport places first in the survey for airport entertainment—perhaps thanks to the pleasant atrium hangout in the main terminal. Or, it could be that window-shopping counts as entertainment. The airport’s retail (No. 2) offers a microcosm of the city’s most famous gift shops: SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Kennedy Space Center, and—but of course—a store called Disney’s EarPort.
You don’t have to be an oil baron to get the most out of Houston’s top-ranked airports—but it helps. The Texas city tops the charts for its VIP-friendly airline lounges, found mostly at George Bush Intercontinental (IAH). For everyone else, both IAH and Houston Hobby came in at No. 2 in the AFC survey for their food and drink (don’t miss the Tex-Mex or Cajun fare at local chains Pappasito’s and Pappadeaux) and second for entertainment—which may reflect that free WiFi. Best of all, Houston’s airports get the job done: they come in third place for on-time performance and second for their competent and down-home-friendly staff.