America's Most Family-Friendly Airports
Long airport layovers are a special kind of torment. Sitting for hours in a crowded terminal with hard plastic seats and blaring intercom announcements is bad enough if you’re on your own—but what if you’ve got kids in tow? The challenges of keeping little ones occupied in airports have surely led countless parents to reconsider road-tripping.
It seems safe to say that no U.S. airports qualify as places where anyone would actually want to hang out. (If you think that’s true for airports everywhere, think again: Switzerland’s Zurich Airport does a brisk business hosting kids’ birthday parties at its flight-themed play areas.) Still, there are domestic terminals that have taken real steps to minimize the discomfort of long delays for families.
To find out which of America’s airports earn their wings at catering to children, Travel + Leisure, in our first-ever airport survey, asked readers to rate 22 domestic airports in a variety of categories, including family-friendliness. Once we had the results, we took a look at what the top-ranked airports actually offer to keep kids entertained.
Some airports made the list for their unique exhibits and art displays. Orlando International Airport, for example—the portal for families en route to the “happiest place on Earth”—has a massive aquarium filled with sea creatures. Denver International Airport, meanwhile, is home to 30-odd art exhibits, including a mile-long subterranean light and sculpture installation.
Other airports were tapped by travel-savvy parents for their high-tech amusements. At Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, kids interested in the city’s vaunted indie music scene can check out local bands with video screens, audio recordings, and even a free smartphone app showcasing top performers. Many other airports on our list (all but three, in fact) were also touted for their free Wi-Fi—a universal blessing for bored teenagers.
Still other airports made the family-friendly list for their plethora of kid-centric play areas, shops, and eateries. Some have airplane-themed play zones, featuring mock airplanes with radio towers and slides; or self-guided scavenger hunts that lead kids to clues and let them win prizes. And what child wouldn’t show at least a passing interest in video arcades or sandwich shops specializing in gourmet peanut butter and jelly?
So if you’re headed on a family vacation anytime soon, read on for details about which American airports make getting there half the fun—or at the very least, tolerable.
No. 1 Orlando (MCO)
As the access point for Disney World, Orlando International Airport does a good job of continuing the fun even after the family theme-park vacation is over. Free Wi-Fi, a King of Kong video arcade, an automated tram to all gates, lots of restaurants, and shops selling merchandise from Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and even the Kennedy Space Center minimize downtime for kids. Coolest of all—if not quite Shamu-worthy—is the food court’s giant aquarium.
No. 2 Detroit (DTW)
When it’s time for families to wing it, the Motor City rocks it. Top marks go to Detroit Metro Airport’s McNamara Terminal for its multiple play areas, Henry Ford and Motown stores, and food concessions that include a gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwich shop. It’s worth noting that our survey was done before the debut of free Wi-Fi (this fall) and the North Terminal’s recently opened Play Port soft-sculpted playground featuring an aircraft and a slide through padded clouds. With all these activities, by the time kids board their flights, their only destination should be la-la land.
No. 3 Seattle (SEA)
Kids might not knock back caramel macchiatos, but the home of Starbucks (the airport has four) sure delivers a jolt of sanity to parents, who love how Sea-Tac International keeps both older and younger children occupied. Preteens and teens can sample its new “Experience the City of Music” playlists via speakers, video screens, free Wi-Fi, and even a free smartphone app showcasing some of the region’s top performers. Too-young-to-rock tots can burn off excess energy at the 1,400-square-foot padded and vibrantly painted Children’s Play Area located between the A and B concourses.
No. 4 San Francisco (SFO)
If you’re held up at San Francisco International, you can get your kids into touring mode before your vacation begins. The airport has three large aquariums filled with sea creatures (in the Ticketing/Departures area), as well as children’s artwork displays and an aviation museum (kids who take self-guided tours of these areas using online maps can win small prizes). There’s a Family Lane at security screening; also, Terminals 2 and 3 have play areas with tunnels to crawl through and an interactive plasma wall.
No. 5 Minneapolis (MSP)
Toddlers and preschoolers can romp at two different play areas in Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport; both (in Terminal 1–Lindburgh and Terminal 2–Humphrey) feature mock airplanes and control towers with slides, alongside adult seating with outlets for charging devices. Snoopy fans (cartoonist Charles Schultz was from Minneapolis) can snap photos with a statue in Terminal 1; for older kids, there’s free Wi-Fi and a trio of video arcades. And if you forgot to pack wipes or a sippy cup, head for the Diaper Bag Basics vending machine, also in Terminal 1.
No. 6 Denver (DIA)
For art-loving families, the 30 vibrant sculptures and installations at Denver International Airport can be an enriching time-killer (particularly noteworthy: Deep Time/Deep Space, A Subterranean Journey, a mile-long light and sculpture installation in the West Terminal’s inbound train tunnel). DIA also has free Wi-Fi, a passenger bridge where kids can watch jets pass beneath them, and four scavenger hunts that take 30 minutes to an hour to complete. Kid shoppers can check out Kazoo & Company for toys and Sports Terminal for team merchandise.
No. 7 Charlotte (CLT)
At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, parents with fussy babies appreciate the tree-lined atrium’s rocking chairs; telecommuters and web-surfing teens enjoy the free Wi-Fi; and aviation buffs of all ages can check out “Just Plane Art,” an exhibition that includes a 1/2-scale replica of the original Wright Brothers aircraft. There’s also a food court—featuring everything from fast-food staples to a Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express—with a great view of the airfield.
No. 8 Miami (MIA)
There’s no free Wi-Fi and not one kids’ zone, and yet Miami International Airport cracked the top 10 by sheer virtue of its easy access—from baggage claim to the beach in 30 minutes—and its more than 200 shops and restaurants, from Nathan’s Hot Dogs to Ron Jon Surf Wear. A few other factors: Casey, MIA’s Canine Ambassador, a four-year-old golden lab that hangs out for two hours (Mondays and Thursdays) in the main terminal with her handler, and the speedy Concourse D Skytrain, which services 60 gates on a mile-long track.
No. 9 Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
The Skylink high-speed train system may enthrall younger kids, and the Public Art Program—featuring futuristic sculptures in Terminal D—might have older kids snapping pix (alas, there’s no free Wi-Fi), but Dallas/Fort Worth International’s main family-friendly features are its shops (more than 100, including Natalie’s Candy Jar, Lone Star Kids, and an Official Dallas Cowboys Pro Shop KIDS), restaurants (more than 120, including Cereality), and multiple play areas (in Terminals B, C, D, and E).
No. 10 Baltimore (BWI)
With the Observation Gallery at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and its hands-on kids’ activities closed for renovations until Spring 2013, younger fliers will have to make do with free Wi-Fi—or visiting an exhibition about the life of Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice for whom the airport is named. There’s also the usual airport dining fare (from Jamba Juice to Quiznos, mostly on Concourses A and B) and a handful of shops.
No. 11 Boston (BOS)
Not only is it close to downtown, but Boston Logan International Airport also offers free Wi-Fi and two post-security Kidport play areas (in Terminals A and C) with climbing structures, slides, and a child-size replica of the airport’s control tower. For moms with babies, there are rocking chairs located throughout the terminals as well as family restrooms with changing stations. Older kids can check out Public Art Program exhibits, Tech Showcase shops featuring the latest gadgets (in Terminals B and E), and New England Collections shops selling Sox and Patriots gear (in Terminals A and C).
No. 12 Philadelphia (PHL)
Many of the rotating art exhibits at Philadelphia International Airport seem to have kids in mind; among the current offerings are a model aircraft showcase and a collection of movie posters from films shot in Philly (including Rocky and The Sixth Sense). While teens can indulge in free Wi-Fi, little ones will have a field day at Terminal D’s Aviation Play Station (featuring a hands-on child-size jet and cockpit) or Terminal A–East’s Ready for Takeoff (offering a play jet and a control tower with radio communication). Afterward, everyone can grab a Philly Soft Pretzel in the food court.
No. 13 Las Vegas (LAS)
Though you may have to prod your kids past the hundreds of slot machines lining Las Vegas McCarran Airport, you can steer them toward the Terminal 1 aviation museum—which includes a 1958 Cessna that set a world endurance record—or one of two dozen in-terminal art installations. There’s also a play area with a mini control tower and mock jet engine near the D Gates; free Wi-Fi; and more than 50 restaurants and shops to browse through.
No. 14 Phoenix (PHX)
Yes, there’s a train to the plane, free Wi-Fi, and two post-security kids’ play areas in Terminals 3 and 4. But Phoenix Sky Harbor International, which bills itself as “America’s Friendliest Airport” (it has Navigator Volunteers to help you if you’re lost), doesn’t have some of the fun bells and whistles our top-ranked gateways do. There is, however, a suspended vintage biplane in Terminal 3, as well as 6–12 eateries per terminal and some kid-friendly shops, such as Terminal 4’s Caved Inn and Terminal 3’s Curious Creatures.
No. 15 New York City (JFK)
John F. Kennedy International Airport was the only one of New York City’s three gateways to make the cut for family friendliness. And while the massive airport has no free Wi-Fi and hardly any attractions that are specifically kid-centric, it does have diversions—including an automated AirTrain connecting its seven terminals, plenty of fast-food outlets, a Kids Works shop in Terminal 2, a Discover New York shop (for last-minute souvenirs), and Fun Zone arcades (pricey but will work in a pinch) in Terminal 4.