Layover: Chicago O’Hare

If you are flying across the country, or heading abroad, then chances are you’ll be passing through O’Hare International Airport.

The airport itself is not a horrible place to be, but it is hardly the kind of location you’d want to spend a large portion of your day. As an international gateway to (or from) the United States, O’Hare is pretty unimpressive. So, if you find yourself stuck at the airport on a layover, check out some of these tips on how to survive.

Of all the major airports in the country, O’Hare probably has the least to offer in the way of entertainment and shopping – but its location also means you won’t really be able to leave unless you have more than 4 hours between flights.

Shorter (2 hour) layovers

Unless the prospect of walking from terminal to terminal appeals to you, you’ll probably want to stay in your own terminal. You can walk from terminal 1 to terminal 3 (there is no terminal 4, and terminal 5 is not connected to the others by walkways).

Terminal 1 (occupied by United Airlines) has a fairly underwhelming assortment of your average airport food, but it is also home to a Berghoff cafe, selling “authentic” German food, sandwiches and of course Berghoff drinks. You’ll find Berhoff’s in the C concourse of Terminal 1 by gate 25. One other “highlight” in Terminal 1 is the Billy Goat Tavern in the food court located in concourse C.

Don’t fall for the “authentic Chicago pizza” or “Chicago hot dog” stands located throughout the terminal – they are not authentic, unless authentic is code for overpriced and bad.

Right behind the TSA security zone in Terminal 1 is a replica dinosaur, on loan from the Chicago Field museum. Next to this dino is a Field museum store, which is great if you want souvenirs for people, without actually having to visit the museum itself.

Terminal 2 is home to a Children’s play area. It is a pretty long walk from the other terminals, but may be worth the trek if you need to entertain kids for any length of time. A similar play area can also be found in terminal 5 (International terminal).

Terminal 2 is also home to a small medical facility, where you can get a quick checkup or flu shot (in the winter season) as well as other immunizations.

American Airlines takes up most of Terminal 3, which happens to be the terminal with the best assortment of concessions. Sadly, this terminal is also one of the worst to navigate, and moving from one are to the next can easily take 20 minutes. The terminal is also cramped, so on a busy day you’ll be stuck in walking traffic.

There are virtually no stores at O’Hare Airport, especially if you are used to nice international airports like Hong Kong or Amsterdam. Of course, you’ll still be able to find the usual assortment of Hudson News, Brookstone and the Sunglass Hut, but don’t expect to find any cool stores where you can waste any of your time (or money).

If you have the time and energy to leave the secure area of the airport, you can head towards the (connected) airport Hilton, where you’ll find a decent bar, health club and even a tiny underground hotdog joint. Just keep in mind that the trip back through airport security may take up to an hour.

If you decide to stay in the airport, you can also splurge and get access to one of the many airport lounges. Unless you are an elite member with access rights, expect to pay about $50 the the “privilege’ of a couple of free drinks. If you are stuck at the airport for just a few hours, I’d suggest saving your money and not bothering with the lounges, none of them are really worth your money.

WiFi is available in the entire airport, access is $6.95 per day. The airport is also home to several free charging stations where you can power your gadgets for the next leg of your trip.

Longer layovers (+4 hours)

Downtown Chicago:
O’Hare is about 13 miles from downtown Chicago, but this still translates to a 45 minute train ride. During the day, trains operate every 10 minutes and are fairly reliable. On weekends, the transit authority is often doing construction work, so be sure to check before you get on a train or you may lose valuable time with a bus transit between closed stations.

Once downtown you can of course enjoy the 1000’s of things Chicago has to offer, as long as you keep an eye on the time. If you have the time, try taking a quick trip to Millennium park by taking the Blue line (from O’Hare) and getting off at Clark/Lake. Change to the Brown line and get off at Randolph/Wabash. It’s then a short walk to the park. Other destinations worth checking out are the stores on Michigan Avenue or one of the many museums.

Unless you are 100% sure that traffic is light, I would not recommend a cab – it’ll take longer, and cost substantially more than public transit.

The area around O’Hare:
O’Hare is surrounded by a whole lot of nothing (mainly offices), but there are still a couple of gems within 10 minutes of most terminals. Muvico is an all-digital movie theater just 10 minutes from the airport. The theater also features are very decent restaurant. You can get to Muvico with a $10 cab ride, or a 5 minute train (from O’Hare to the Rosemont station), followed by a 10 minute walk.

Rosemont is also home to a large convention center, so check out their schedule, perhaps there is something really interesting in town.

Rosemont is not much more than hotels, restaurants and the convention center, but it is also home to some very good restaurants. In the main “hotel row” of the village you’ll find a Mortons, Gibsons and Carlucci’s.

Cheaper food can be found towards the Allstate Arena area with a Steak and Shake, Panda Express and a Target. It may be boring, but it’s only an $8 ride away, and may be a simple way to kill some time.