A tip that holds true for all of them: Hold the lowest possible expectations you can.
Some 3.55 million people are expected to fly this Thanksgiving weekend, making this year’s busiest travel weekend the most crowded since 2007, according to AAA. (If it’s any consolation, the roads will also be jammed.)
It’s going to be just as bad as it sounds: the new Bloomberg Airport Frustration Index reveals that some of the more annoying airports in North America—including LaGuardia, O’Hare, Miami, and LAX—are also among the most heavily traveled.
To give airports a Frustration Score, we measured how long it takes to reach them during rush hours, compiled on-time arrival and departure data, and weighed comments and opinions from an online survey of more than 3,000 travelers. And while our respondents had some choice words for their favorite airfields—one traveler’s advice for LaGuardia’s central terminal: “Close your eyes”—they also had tips.
The most frustrating airports tend to be disliked because of one or two specific problem areas, be it delayed or cancelled flights, long treks or public transportation shortcomings. That means there are ways to massage the pain points. If you find yourself at one of these top-10-and-not-in-a-good-way airports, here’s what you need to know.
New York City’s LaGuardia Airport has earned its special place in U.S. aviation by combining horrendously crowded gate areas with miniature, foul restrooms and a lack of convenient transportation access. No subway gets near it, leaving taxis, buses and pricey private car services as the main public options to get there.
Arriving at LaGuardia at certain times of the day means taxi lines a mile long. Still, seasoned travelers know they can find a taxi stand with a shorter line just a few feet to the left or right, and standing in line is infinitely better than paying double for one of the gypsy cabs soliciting passengers.
LaGuardia, however, is not uniformly frightening. Terminal D, which Delta Air Lines and concessions operator OTG have tried to modernize, has an array of trendy eateries and shops, along with hundreds of iPads for Web surfing—a glimpse of what other, better airports do. Delta has the best LaGuardia real estate and may be a better carrier choice than some of the others there. Still, if you must traipse into the ancient Central Terminal for an American, Southwest or United flight, well, there’s nothing you can say about it that Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t already.
The Transportation Security Administration is not known for its speedy ways at Newark-Liberty, 15 miles southwest of Manhattan. Another leading complaint: The airport appears to be trapped in 1974, desperately needing a facelift. Much like at LaGuardia, however, concessions manager OTG is deploying iPads by the thousands and revamping the restaurant offerings in Terminal C, the home of United, the dominant carrier in Newark.
It’s an effort to put a nice area inside an old airport. For now, fly United, or at least wait in that terminal for your flight before catching the Air Train to your gate. As for security, if you use Newark frequently, the TSA’s PreCheck program is a must.
The District of Columbia’s closest airport, Reagan-National, is a flight-restricted, mostly-domestic operation. For longer trips, you’re heading to Washington Dulles International. Plan ahead—more often than not, the 30-mile haul isn’t some quick and easy drive or train ride. When you finally arrive, security can be a bottleneck, another critical factor that adds to the frustration most travelers feel at IAD. Like at Newark, frequent travelers recommend TSA Pre-Check.
The best advice for navigating Dulles is to allow plenty of time and, if Congress is in session, “Try not to fly on Friday afternoons,” one IAD regular suggests: That’s when legislative folks are trying to get back to their home districts for the weekend.
One of the world’s largest airports, Chicago’s O’Hare International is plagued by flight delays, which means you’ll probably have plenty of time to hang out. One of the best spots if you’re stuck? The airport’s two-story “aeroponic” vertical garden between Terminals 2 and 3 that grows greens used at several O’Hare restaurants. “Great place for Wi-Fi or getting away from the crowds if you have a layover,” says one traveler.
There’s also a yoga room near the same area. As for dining options, O’Hare has plenty. Our favorite: Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera has three locations open until 9 p.m. The smoked pork mollete goes a long way toward ameliorating an O’Hare delay.
Although better than its Queens cousin LaGuardia, getting to and from John F. Kennedy Airport requires navigating a patchwork of subway and terminal trains—along with the Long Island Rail Road—that vexes visitors and frustrates locals. Even so, many people suggest that JFK is best tackled with a combination of the subway—the A for the Brooklyn-bound or E into midtown Manhattan—and the $5 AirTran that transits the airport’s eight terminals.
If you must take a taxi, “NEVER take the Van Wyck, always ask the driver to take you up/down Woodhaven Boulevard,” says one respondent, calling out the highway so notoriously sluggish it got a special mention on Seinfeld. As for the terminals, JFK is like its metro-area peers: A mix of stylish new amenities and dated, dungeon-like warrens, depending on which airline you fly. JetBlue’s Terminal 5 may be the best bet: it has free Wi-Fi, a children’s play area, and a slew of restaurants, including Piquillo, the first tapas restaurant in a U.S. airport. Regardless of terminal, “Use the curbside check-in,” advises one traveler. “And tip generously.”
Los Angeles is a city of jammed freeways, and this carries over to the main airport. LAX is very crowded, and you almost certainly will be driving there. On a crowded freeway. This means a lot of people and cars converging on the terminals. The age-old airport hack is especially appropriate here: get dropped off at the arrivals area—not departures—especially for morning flights.
If you’re arriving into Los Angeles at night, do the reverse: Avoid traffic by using the upper-level departure area to meet your ride. Another tip: “Charge your electronics before you leave for the airport,” one traveler suggests, citing the “serious lack of outlets” at LAX.
The sole Canadian airport renowned for its frustration quotient, Toronto’s Pearson International is known for its queues. A line for baggage, a line at security—pretty soon you’re growing impatient. An American Express card can get you a discount on some valet parking services and into the priority lane at security checkpoints, survey respondents noted. There is also the issue of the 17-mile commute to central Toronto. “Allow LOTS of travel time when driving,” says one survey commenter. Another notes that, from Toronto, a limousine is actually cheaper than a taxi.
Everything is bigger in Texas, and that applies to the behemoth DFW International Airport. The Dallas airport—the largest hub for American, the world’s largest airline—covers almost 27 square miles, and that can make for some long hikes from the gate to the baggage claim or to catch a connection.
To manage the vast distances, leave extra time between connections, especially if you’re changing switching from one airline to another. If you’re flying American, “Always be on your toes ready for gate changes,” says one Texas traveler. “[American] are chronic gate changers.” On the other hand, if you have lots of time (or are flying internationally), Terminal D gets the best marks for dining options.
The U.S. gateway to Latin America, Miami International wins travelers’ opprobrium for its nightmarish terminal layout and interminable walks to gates and baggage claim. The airport does have numerous electric carts, which flyers can request or, often, flag down. “Sooner or later the airport may have to provide more of them,” says one traveler who requests a cart at the arrival gate. “If offered a ride, take it,” says one commenter. “It usually means there is at least a mile of walking ahead.”
As for parking, others warn of expensive rates. An MIA regular offers another fine tip: During those long walks, stop periodically for a drink at the bars. Another traveler says American’s lounge is the way to go: “Spend $50 and use the AA lounge if you’ve got a long layover and aren’t an AA member. It’s worth it to leave the terminal behind.”
Travelers at Philadelphia International try to avoid the restrooms, a necessity that draws low marks in an airport that is also tagged as being old, ugly and cramped. Others say that it’s best to skip the shuttle buses and walk between Philly’s six terminals and to pick the short-term parking lot over the cheaper economy lot. “It’s worth $9/day to not be a sardine for 45 minutes on the trip out to the lot,” says one Philadelphia traveler. One other tip to help ignore both the loos and the masses: The Crabfries at local chain Chickie’s and Pete’s win raves.
Photo credit: People wait for their delayed flights at LaGuardia Airport in New York January 3, 2014. Zoran Milich / Reuters