Before I was an airline pilot and I heard the words “John F. Kennedy International Airport,” I imagined a place that was the gateway to the world. Merely saying these words evoked visions of glamor, travel, and excitement. Now that I fly around the world as a commercial airline pilot, I understand the important logistics of this airport for international travel. Because international flights all leave at similar times and must go through quite the logistical dance when they arrive — customs/security checks, cleaning, maintenance reviews, catering, and swapping of flight crews — most international passengers connecting through JFK will have a layover of 3–6 hours.
That said, there are many things to do at JFK. A little pre-planning can fill hours with entertaining activities, all the while helping to recharge your mind before your next long flight. Get ready to fill your senses with great food, visual eye candy, and soothing relaxation while you stop over at the gateway to the world.
Pro Tip: Here’s a tip to avoid long delays during peak vacation season. When traveling in the summer, it’s best to book your flight early in the morning due to chronic summer thunderstorms. Thunderstorms commonly happen later in the day east of the Mississippi River. Most “first-flights” of the day have a higher arrival time percentage, making your connection more probable.
1. Tick Tock, Tick Tock
Although this requires you to leave the secure area, head over to the TWA Hotel, just outside of Terminal 5. This amazing, hip blast from the past is a great way to stretch your legs while you stride back into the ’60s, a bygone era.
I think this is actually a destination, a mecca, for airline junkies! The hotel is steeped with historical, museum-quality displays, great music, and something new around literally every corner. It’s hard to miss the actual 1958 Lockheed Constellation “Connie” airplane located on the property. Be sure to have a snack in the actual “Connie,” served by a staff of ’60s themed flight attendants, go-go boots and all! It was named one of the best airline cocktail lounges in the world by Departures Magazine.
If you want to work out, the hotel offers a day pass to use its 10,000-square-foot gym. I prefer to head up to the year-round heated rooftop pool, grab a snack, and look down at the ramp, watching the airliners come and go. Stop by the Herman Miller reading room and sit in a real Eames leather recliner chair, or sit at the modern desks and scroll through history books. And a visit to this historic AvGeek’s dream place would not be complete without leaving with a bag full of TWA souvenirs.
Pro Tip: Take an Instagram shot and recreate the movie scene from To Catch a Thief in the iconic tunnel of the hotel, which joins up with Terminal 5.
2. Getting Around
Jump on the free monorail, also known as the “air-train,” that connects all six terminals. It operates every 2–5 minutes.
Delta Airlines and its affiliates operate the JFK Jitney shuttle bus between Terminals 2 and 4. Once on the bus, you shouldn’t have to re-clear security on arrival. Always double check with an agent to make sure you have enough time to catch your flight.
3. To Leave Or Not To Leave
For the more adventurous who might have a longer layover, consider leaving the airport and heading to one of the greatest cities in the world, New York City. It’s as easy as renting a car or jumping on a bus or train. There are a few ways to get to the city. If time is a concern, take an Uber or cab. Depending on the time of the day, it will run about $65. Taking the train or bus is slower and costs less: about $12. Plan for at least an hour into the city. If I were going to zip to the city, I would head to Times Square, also known as midtown, on the island of Manhattan. Forty-second and Broadway is a great spot to get dropped off, walk around, eat some food, and see all the dazzling electronic lights of this iconic place. Times Square is in the Theater District, so it’s hopping at all times of day!
Pro Tip: If you are planning on leaving a secure area, be sure to get a boarding pass at the Customer Booking Center for your next flight, saving time and bypassing gate check-in. Proceed directly to security en route to your gate. Check with your airline to see if you can drop your luggage at their lost luggage area for an hourly fee. (Most luggage lockers were removed from airports after 9/11 for security reasons.) Consider getting a Clear pass, free for two months, for a faster security check-in.
4. Let’s Grab Some Grub
The six terminals within JFK offer different, and equally scrumptious, food options. From Turkish peynirli toast to Irish pub grub or a wine bar, there is something for everyone. All throughout the airport, you will see white, lit cubes. Located on the cubes is a QR code to scan, giving you access to food and shops in your vicinity. For those who wish to have some libations, there are a few nice wine shops and upscale restaurants to sip cocktails or wine.
If getting pampered sounds like a dreamy way to spend your layover, you have come to the right airport. Consider a hot stone massage, pedicure, or full body massage. Be Relax spa, located in Terminal 5, is open 7 days a week to pamper your tired body. Consider trying their special oxygen or aromatherapy treatment with your service to enhance your wellbeing. I recommend you try the “anti-jet-lag” facial treatment.
6. Hit The Lounge
There are 23 airline lounges, of which seven offer single-entry passes for purchase. These passes are for people who don’t have access to the lounge through their credit card or aren’t booked in business or first class.
Aer Lingus, Air France, Alaska, American, Prime Class Lounge, and Wing Tips Lounge offer single-use day passes. Depending on your airline, some might have codeshare agreements with these lounges. Plan ahead and check to see if there is a discount to book your single-entry pass online versus paying at the door.
These lounges are wonderful places to recharge, relax, and fuel up with complimentary food and drink. They are places to rest, recharge your electronics, or work in designated areas. JFK is the sixth-busiest airport in the country — it services 61 million passengers annually — and utilizing these plush lounges can really benefit your mind and mood!
There is also a USO Lounge for military members and their families located in Terminal 5.
7. Shop Till You Drop
Every terminal offers a variety of shopping options for the world traveler. Terminal 1 offers high-end stores such as Coach and Juicy Couture. Head over to Terminal 2 if you need tech items you might have forgotten at home. (Consider purchasing noise-canceling headphones which can drown out a crying child in the row behind you!) Step over to Terminal 4 and stroll through Duty Free to get a great price on fancy colognes or makeup. Over in Terminal 5, check out The New York Times Store and catch up on the latest top-selling books.
8. Drop And Give Me 10
If you are like me and constantly want to work out, consider finding a quiet, small area off to the side and squeezing in a workout. There are many free exercise videos online to use to stay focused, burn off some stress, and keep your heart healthy. Consider speed walking through the air-conditioned terminals. Make a goal to walk 10,000 steps and reward yourself with a healthy drink from the Shake Shack.
Coming Soon: Slumber Away
Terminal 4 will soon become host to Minute Suites, a new respite with clean, private suites for weary travelers. Lucky JFK travelers will get to experience the seven new suites with a bathroom and shower. These suites are extremely sanitary and are available for hourly rentals or overnight. Clean linen and pillows are provided for napping. Netflix and DirecTV are available, or you can pipe your own tunes through their TV. They also have all sorts of luxury travel products for sale, including eye masks, noise-canceling headphones, and face cleansers. It is best to plan ahead and book a reservation if this is the option for you.
- My 10 Favorite Ways To Spend A Long Layover At Chicago O’Hare Airport
- These 10 U.S. Airports Are The Best In On-Time Performance
- The 10 U.S. Airports With The Most Flight Delays And Cancelations
- 7 Key Things To Know Before Your First Trip To New York City
- 7 Essential Tips For Planning An International Sabbatical