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San Francisco Airport Terminal 2
Photograph: Courtesy SFO/Bruce Damonte

The best airports (and worst airports) in America

We salute the best airports in America for on-time flights and top bars, and slap down our worst airports

Written by
James Wilkinson

“Airport.” Is there a more dread-inducing word in the English language? Just the thought of all those queues, all that bland food and all that delayed-passenger-grumpiness can be enough to make you commit to road trips for life—no matter how far the journey. But not all airports are equal, or equally bad. In fact, some aren’t so bad at all. Some of the best airports in America are the kinds of places in which you might hope to get stuck—luxury malls that just happen have runways attached, where you can down a celebrated craft beer between a spot of yoga and browse through some of the best books of the year at a quirky local store. Here we pay tribute to the best airports in America for their efficiency (yes, a TSA line can take less than 10 minutes) and their amenities. And we scold those worst airports while we’re at it for managing to get it so wrong.

Best airports in America

San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Photograph: Courtesy SFO

1. San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

With its quiet spaces, yoga rooms, healthy food outlets, retro lounge chairs and general lack of queues, San Francisco International Airport is what we all dream a traveling experience should be like. Plus, it’s earthquake-proof, eco-friendly (T2 was the first airport terminal in the U.S. to receive a gold award from the Green Building Council), a great place to score a novel (independent SF retailer Compass Books has two outlets here, in T2 and T3) and might just have the best cocktail bar and restaurant in an airport in the nation. At the American Express-run Centurion Lounge in T3, famed NYC bartender Jim Meehan, of PDT, has created a gun cocktail list and star Napa Chef Christopher Kostow, of the Restaurant at Meadowood, has put a menu together featuring the region’s finest produce. It’s free for Centurion and Platinum cardholders (it’s $50 entry if you’re not) and all food and booze is included. There are also lot of things to do here: The airport is an art gallery, with works courtesy of the SFO Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission on display throughout the terminals, and there’s the Aviation Museum and Library before security in the international hall. Forget to have that manicure, pedicure or waxing before you left, or in need of a massage or facial? There are three XpresSpa outlets across the airport to have you sorted in no time. Now, can we just get stuck here please?

Delayed for a night? Forget the airport hotels and book a room at the designer Hotel Zetta San Francisco, a three-minute walk from the Powell St cable-car turnaround, where you can expect luxuriously hip rooms, murals and the best flourless chocolate cake in the city.

Photograph: Courtesy SFO
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
Photograph: Courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons/Eric Mueller

2. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Okay, so we know what you’re thinking: How the hell is LAX on the list of the best airports at number two? Well, if you’ve been to the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, the centerpiece of a $8.5 billion modernization, you’ll understand why. With its plethora of shops (from Burberry to local legend Fred Segal), top airline lounges (slide into Qantas’ First class lounge and the Star Alliance lounge, which has a terrace with a great view), food and beverage outlets (hit popular Venice outpost James’ Beach and Petrossian for Champagne and caviar), Tom Bradley is quite possibly the best shopping center in America that’s masked as an airport terminal. Downstairs, a new arrivals experience—including a bunch of e-passport kiosks—means that endless queues are becoming a thing of the past. The best part? LAX’s other terminals are in the midst of a makeover, with new fashion outlets, bars and bookstores on the way— terminals one, two, six and seven are up next. In the proximity stakes, LAX is a 30-minute hop from both Downtown and Beverly Hills, making it readily accessible, while the average TSA line will take about 10 minutes, except around Thanksgiving and peak season during the holidays.

Delayed for a night? Book into the InterContinental Los Angeles Century City hotel, 20 minutes away, and grab dinner at SoCal eatery Park Grill, which is known for its meat dishes, salads and decent wine list. 

Photograph: Courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons/Eric Mueller
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)
Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

An American Airlines hub of epic proportions, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport might just have everything you need in an airport (or life, really): a yoga studio, running track, a hall load of artworks, free WiFi and a tequila bar. Right across the five terminals of DFW, with Terminal D the star standout, expect a plethora of eating, drinking and shopping opportunities. There’s a high-speed ‘skylink’ train that connects all of the gates easily; what you want to do is allow enough time to explore Terminal D, which has 30 food and drink outlets and an art gallery. It’s here that you’ll find shops from the likes of Brooks Brothers, L’Occitane and Swarovski; a Mini Suite hotel (where you can book a room that has a daybed sofa and computer with 32-inch TV equipped with high-speed internet and DirecTV, and several shower rooms are also available); and some top eateries. Our picks are III Forks Prime Steakhouse, the outpost of Fort Worth fave Reata Grill which serves up Cowboy sandwiches for breakfast plus Texas’s best fish tacos and epic enchiladas, and Sky Canyon, which is all about modern Texan cuisine in the form of barbecue brisket tacos, Texas pecan pie and craft beers and cocktails. With several TSA stations in every terminal, DFW is one of the nation’s fastest to screen through. If you are staying in Dallas or Fort Worth, the airport is only a half-hour drive from each city with traffic.

Delayed for a night? The onsite Grand Hyatt Dallas Fort Worth is attached to Terminal D and features modern upscale rooms plus a rooftop pool, and Grand Met, a restaurant and lounge which features Mediterranean and Pacific Rim-inspired cuisine, and an excellent wine list spanning Oregon to Italy.
San Diego International Airport/Lindbergh Field (SAN)
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. San Diego International Airport/Lindbergh Field (SAN)

Named after Charles Lindbergh (who did flight tests of the Spirit of St. Louis here before he historically piloted the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927), this airport is the most convenient in the continental U.S., with the airfield just three miles from downtown San Diego. It gives off the impression it is a small airport—you might think you’ve landed somewhere rural when you step out of the plane—yet there’s two terminals with just over 50 gates and 22 passenger airlines serving SAN. Arrival is a breeze: You will be in a cab within 10 minutes of wheels down and in the Gaslamp sipping on a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA 15 minutes later. On departure, TSA lines are generally less than 10 minutes. Once in the terminal, bookworms should head to local bookseller Bay Books of Coronado, which includes a section for San Diego authors, while those in need of flip flops should head to the Beach House. After local brews, farm-to-table food and cocktails? Skip the shopping and park yourself at Bankers Hill.

Delayed for a night? Grab a cab and head 15 minutes to popular Pacific Beach and book a room at Tower 23. Be sure to have a 10oz hanger steak and a mojito at bar and eatery JRDN before escaping to your room and waking up with the waves crashing.
Ronald Reagan National Washington Airport (DCA)
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Ronald Reagan National Washington Airport (DCA)

Not only does Reagan National have a spectacular on-time performance compared to many other U.S. airports—82 percent for all of 2014—it has one of the best aircraft approaches of any city in the U.S. (well-heeled travelers know you’ll wing your way past the White House and the Lincoln Memorial). Plus, DCA has direct access to D.C.’s Metrorail system and it’s a 15-minute drive to downtown. Reagan also has a Legal Sea Foods outlet where you’ll find New England beauties aplenty, from clams to lobster bakes, chowders, shrimp and the must-order Maine buttery lobster roll; you can also expect craft brews, including Allagash White. There’s also a good range of shops here, with more than 100 retailers, including Lacoste, Vineyard Vines, CNBC News and Sunglass Hut. Regan has 44 gates and very short wait times in TSA lines and at restaurants, which is particularly impressive given that 20 million-plus passengers use the airport every year.

Delayed for a night? Given Reagan National is so close to the city, head in for the night. After you check-in at W Washington, D.C., head straight for rooftop bar POV where you’ll catch views across D.C., including the White House and Lincoln Memorial, while sipping away on a Hemingway Daiquiri.

Worst airports in America

LaGuardia Airport (LGA)
Photograph: Courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons/Michael Terretta

1. LaGuardia Airport (LGA)

LaGuardia has to top the list because of the epic lack of seating, especially when there’s a delay—your best bet in that situation is to find a seat at MetroBurger Bar and ride it out with a cheeseburger and an IPA. When you’re flying an airline that doesn’t have lounges, or they are full, LGA is not where you want to be stuck. The airport wasn’t designed for 21th century security checks, nor was it designed for inclement weather—there’s always a chance of finding water dripping into buckets across the terminal when it’s raining. Fortunately, a huge makeover is on the way and given the airport’s proximity to midtown Manhattan, LGA might top the list when it’s transformed onto a single, expansive structure in 2019.

Delayed for a night? If you’re stuck, skip the nearby airport hotels and go straight to midtown. Just around the corner from Herald Square, the Langham Place New York Fifth Avenue offers apartment-style rooms and suites, and top French and Italian Mediterranean cuisine with matching wines at Ai Fiori on the first floor.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Michael Terretta
Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/David Jones

2. Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

It’s striking design, courtesy of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, doesn’t help the fact this airport is full of queues (courtesy of the 20 million-plus travelers who scoot through every year), has very limited shopping and dining options (your best bets are DC Craft Brews and the Firkin and Fox) and sits a long 26 miles from the heart of D.C. (yeah, that’s an hour in a cab). Unless you’re heading somewhere a long way away, like London, you’re best bet is to avoid the capitol’s nearest international altogether and fly from DCA to a hub and then onto your domestic destination. Once the D.C. Metro’s Silver Line extension opens in 2018, things will get much rosier.

Delayed for a night? After a long cab ride back—there isn’t much close by—bed down well at Fairmont Washington D.C, Georgetown, where you will find classic elegant rooms, an indoor pool, fitness center and sustainable Modern American regional cuisine at Juniper Restaurant, including desserts made with honey from bees on the roof.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/David Jones
Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

Flight delays. Long check-in queues. Longer queues at TSA screening points. Club lounge lines that stretch out the door. More queues on the tarmac (with views of the 20 planes ahead of you taking off). Yep: Welcome to Newark. And now that United have moved all of their flights here from JFK, we can only expect that to continue. Sure, Newark has a lot of dining options, if you want fast food outlets—it does have a shining light in the Belgian Beer Cafe in Terminal B. Shopping-wise there are Hudson News stores aplenty, technology shops like Brookstone and some duty free if you’re heading abroad. Otherwise, that’s it.

Delayed for a night? The views over the Hudson River to Manhattan are epic from W Hoboken, one of the best W hotels in the New York area. Score a ‘cool corner room’, which comes complete with a private balcony, and book in for a spa treatment at Bliss. Eat up at Tuscan kitchen Zylo.
Honolulu International Airport (HNL)
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Robert Linsdell

4. Honolulu International Airport (HNL)

America’s largest ‘open’ airport, Honolulu has a plethora of open walkways that truly make you feel like you’re in paradise. However, on stinking hot days, that’s the time you need some decent air-conditioning and a place to sit down and grab a cold beer and a burger. Especially after you’ve been stuck getting there in a traffic jam on the freeway and have waited a good 20-minutes in TSA queues. And after you’ve had to check yourself in, find a place to drop your luggage and tag the bag yourself. While its location close to hotel mecca Waikiki is good, HNL falls short for its lack of amenities, over-priced food outlets and too-few seats to sit and eat. It is legendary for plane spotters who can get up close and personal with the big jets, though.

Delayed for a night? It’s a short hop back to Waikiki, so book a room at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort, then head to Duke’s Waikiki for a tropical itch, complete with backscratcher, some fresh island ahi poke, huli huli chicken and laid back tropical tunes right on Waikiki Beach.

Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Robert Linsdell
Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

Travelers either love ATL, or hate ATL: Few people see the grey area when considering America’s busiest airport. There are a whopping 207 gates across seven terminal concourses and the airport’s home carrier Delta operates 1,000 flights a day from ATL alone. That means thousands of travelers at any one time (and even more during the holidays). When you hit the walking tunnels and trains below ground, expect to find a constant crowd of people—think Times Square on a Saturday night—so transferring here can be daunting. Well heeled travelers and road warriors who know ATL will tell you this is a brilliant airport, but it can take a few trips to navigate it. And they will tell you the place to eat and drink is One Flew South, where you can find southern cuisine matched with Prohibition-era cocktails. Get to ATL two hours early, hop over to Concourse E and get into a Manhattan or three.

Delayed for a night? Skip the airport hotels and head back to town. Book a room at the InterContinental Buckhead Atlanta and sit down for a meal at Southern Art, an eatery that marked the Atlanta debut of noted chef Art Smith; then swing around to the Bourbon Bar and good luck choosing from one of the 70 bourbons on offer.
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