The Best Worst Airport in the US

Frequent and casual travelers have their favorite airports. The ones that are easy to navigate and usually not too crowded always make the list. And then there are those airports where you have to use all your willpower just to deplane. These sprawling terminals are usually inhabited by a staff whose goal in life is seemingly to make your trip through their turf as nightmarish as possible. Overstatement? Perhaps, unless you’ve just come through customs at Chicago O’Hare.

Yes, O’Hare is one of those airports on my “worst” list. It is difficult to navigate (unless you have a PhD in Geography or a very good hand-held GPS unit) and perpetually crowded. The customs and immigration folks there have given me the most hassle of any airport in the country. If it was just me, I’d guess that I fit some sort of profile. But everyone seems to have trouble. On my last trip, I witnessed a little Japanese grandmother being pulled out of the customs line after she couldn’t answer (or perhaps even understand) a customs agent’s eloquently posed question “How much Yen you got?”

At the same time, there are certain corners of O’Hare that I love.One is the bar in the corner of the international terminal. The bartender on my previous trip was not only generous with her pours, she knew the status of every flight coming into and out of the terminal seemingly aided by some sort of sixth sense that must come from a lifetime in airport bars. And her yarns about the airport life were almost enough to make you want to work there. I’ve always found this particular bar to be staffed by equally laid back and knowledgeable people.

At the nearby hot dog stand, they might serve you a hot dog with a dismissive frown, but as a last meal before heading off overseas, it can’t be beat. Hell, a trip to this little corner of the massive monstrosity that is O’Hare might even have you thinking fondly of the place. But don’t worry, there is always plenty of swearing businessmen ready to push you down if no one is looking, surly staff dishing out the attitude and cavity-searches to keep you in touch the reality.

I’m always happy to leave O’Hare. But that’s one of the points of travel, isn’t it? Being happy to leave where you are and looking forward to where you are going.