Layovers can really put a damper on your travel plans. But a recent study suggests there are some airports where you might actually want a long layover! ParkSleepFly recently released a survey of the busiest U.S. airports to enjoy a layover. Their criteria included food and beverages, hygiene, service, customer satisfaction, shopping, and hotel availability.
The list included, in order:
- Seattle-Tacoma International
- George Bush International in Houston
- Denver International
- Miami International
- Los Angeles International
- J.F.K. International in New York
- Phoenix Sky Harbor International
- Charlotte Douglas International
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International
- O’Hare International in Chicago
We decided to ask our airline experts their thoughts on the survey, which airports should stay on the list, and which ones should go. Let’s take a look at what they said.
Airline Experts’ Airport Criteria
While the survey took certain things into consideration, our airline experts have their own criteria for choosing the best layover airport.
Kentrell Charles retired after almost 25 years as a flight attendant. He traveled internationally and spent plenty of layover time at U.S. airports. He rates accessible transportation, available hotels, and great restaurants high on his list.
Heather Earl retired from commercial airlines after 20 years of being a flight attendant. She still flies on corporate jets as a flight attendant and personal chef. She rates great layover airports high if they have easy access to lounges because she knows she might get stuck somewhere. Cheap, nearby hotels are next on her list, and she is always on the lookout for a quiet space like a yoga room.
Christy Karsten is an airline pilot who flies all over the world. When she travels personally, she has a list of what makes an airport stand out. Christy looks at how close the hotels are to the airport and how many there are. Food options take the next spot, including what type of food is sold. She also considers how far she has to walk, the floors, and distance from the gate to the curb. She pulls her Rollaboard everywhere and dreads dragging it over a carpeted terminal. Carpet makes for the ultimate bag drag, and that makes this pilot an unhappy traveler.
Her number one criteria is hotels and their availability as well as the number of properties and distance to the terminal. She has found any airport with just a few hotel options is going to mean a more expensive stay. More hotel properties generate competitive pricing, more amenities, and scheduled free van service.
Lara Ketterman has worked in the airline industry for more than 38 years and is based out of Phoenix. For layovers, she feels one must look at comfort, food options, and ease of maneuvering the airport. Food is the top priority. She’s looking for good food fast.
Airline Experts’ Favorite Airports
Kentrell’s top of the list is Los Angeles International Airport. “It just has so much to offer while you’re waiting for your flight. For me, layover means overnight stay. So you will want easy ways to get to your hotel. Public transportation is easy to access and convenient at LAX.
There is an In-N-Out Burger at the end of the runway that’s within walking distance outside the airport. It’s nice to watch the planes, eat, and relax. If you have more time, you can visit Trader Joe’s or even a nail salon.
LAX has several terminals but my favorite is the international terminal. You will find lots of high-end shopping, a very large duty-free shop, and lots of restaurants. My next favorite terminal is the American Airlines terminal. It’s great for a walk outside the airport. There is public transportation just minutes away from the terminal.”
Kentrell also gives O’Hare a nod. “I’ve also spent many hours at O’Hare. I found that there are many attractions close to the airport to enjoy during your long wait.”
For Heather, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is the hands down winner.
“They have great lounges, good transport into the city, lots of affordable hotels nearby, and a straightforward train system to help you make your connection safely.”
Christy definitely noted three that score high on her list. “Miami (MIA) airport has a great, streamlined terminal. Drop-offs by car, bus, Uber, or hotel vans are all centrally located. The terminal is basically in a line and above the terminal is a people mover train as well. The floors of MIA are polished marble, and my suitcase glides effortlessly. The food options are a hit too. Amazing Cuban-inspired food tops my list of grab-and-go. There is nothing quite like having a cortadito Cuban coffee first thing in the morning when catching a flight!”
Lara also sings Miami’s praises. “I love Miami for the food! La Curretta Cuban by gate D38 is the absolute best Cuban in Miami proper. The ropa vieja is a solid 10 with black beans and fried platanos. My mouth is watering just writing about it. On the chart, this airport deserves a higher score. You can get just about anything here. Nathan’s Hot Dogs, hoagie sandwiches, Cuban, empanadas, and the absolute best Cuban coffee in the world.
I usually order a café Cubano con leche sin azucar — without sugar, or they’ll add a quarter cup of sugar — but with milk. The airport tries to decorate with cute ideas, like a huge wall with red flowers grouped together to spell out LOVE.
The train is upstairs, which can make it a challenge for those with mobility issues but keeps the foot traffic moving quickly as it is a HUGE airport with many gates. They also seem to have an abundance of golf carts zipping around to transport passengers. Customs and Immigration moves quickly as well in this airport. I would give them a 10 for that! This factor is very important for international travelers, and this is a fabulous international airport. You can go anywhere from here.”
Christy is also a fan of Phoenix (PHX) airport because you can get in and out in minimal time. “Hotel vans pick up just outside of the main entrance of the airport. The design of the airport incorporates fingers off the main terminal where people movers connect each finger should you need to connect to another gate. All the fingers of the terminals offer local flavors of Tex-Mex food and American staples as well. There are lots of choices.”
Lara is partial to Phoenix, too. “It’s my hometown airport. Their motto is ‘The world’s friendly airport!’ They have an army of retired citizens called ‘Navigators.’ They wear purple dress coats and they are everywhere! No one gets lost at this airport.
When designing the original airport, the city failed at determining how large Phoenix would be, and Phoenix ended up with three separate terminals without the ability to walk between and only bus service. Thankfully, we are down to two with a great light rail system to connect with them and to the car rental center and the downtown area.
The food options haven’t totally opened up but they are completely staffed and everyone seems to be happy and cheerful. If you need help walking, there are a few more options than I have seen at other airports. Customs and Immigration seem to move quickly as it is almost all digital now. They are well staffed also so that helps passengers connect. No shortage of chairs or restrooms. There is always a Navigator around to help.”
Pro Tip: Christy does add one more that’s not on the ParkSleepFly list. ‘“I am a little biased about Orange County, California (SNA) since this airport is in my backyard, but this airport has it all! It’s made up of one long terminal, super easy access to centrally located Ubers, hotel cars, valet services for your own car, hotel vans, and even a bus heading to and from Disneyland! I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner, polished marble flooring. There are farm-to-table eateries and fast food-style restaurants available all along the entire airport concourse.”
The Airports Our Experts Would Vote Off The List
Kentrell would take this one off the list. “I don’t find anything rewarding there. You must rent a car if you need transportation. Uber is out of the question because of the cost (similar to a down payment on your first home!). Hotels are not close — and pack a snack. I usually try to avoid this airport if I have a layover.”
Heather is not a huge fan of Denver, either. She agrees there is not adequate lodging and it’s definitely not inexpensive.
Heather admits Seattle is a nice airport, but if you’re trying to make a connection, she says, Try again. “Last time I connected there, I had to sprint between trains and throw myself through the doors, landing in a heap with everyone on the train clapping at my successful attempt to avoid getting squished in the door.”
Lara also wondered why Seattle made the list. “Yes, you can walk to most of the airport hotels, and I love the downtown train you can pick up right there. But — and this is a big but — they used to have an Ivars seafood restaurant but no more. It disappeared before COVID. Industry gossip suggests they will have a kiosk operation soon. Fingers crossed! I have also been there recently and worked the first flight out, and nothing was open for the 8 a.m. departure — no shops and very little food. There was a huge line for the only restaurant open in Concourse D.”
A SEA representatives responded to the lack of openings in May. “In May, the Brew Hall and some locations were still building up full staffing from the pandemic. Airports were not immune to what was happening outside and we’ve spoken about travelers having the grace to understand those temporary situations, much like airlines requested the same consideration from travelers for their staffing shortages. Our hometown airline at that time cancelled dozens of flights with little notice due to a pilot shortage.” In addition to the other concourses, D has several options: Camdenfoodco opens at 4am, Starbucks is two gates away and opens at 4am, Poke to the Max opens at 6am and Ballard Brew Hall opens at 6am.
As you can see, our experts picked their favorite airports based on their own criteria. But I know I might book a trip through Miami just to try a Cuban coffee or dine at one of the fabulous restaurants during my next layover!
Editor’s Note: Ready for Cuban eats beyond the airport? Don’t miss our picks for Best Authentic Cuban Restaurants To Try In Miami.