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.

Atlanta tops traffic list 4th year in a row

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport leads the list of the busiest airports in the United States … again. According to a report by the Federal Aviation Administration, it was home to 978,084 takeoffs and landings in 2008. That’s a 1 percent drop from the year before but still indicates that the tarmac was awfully busy. Chicago O’Hare followed with 881,566, down 5 percent from 2007, 926,973.

Put simply, either airport had more flight operations than Boston has people.

I guess this is something to keep in mind the next time you complain about a delay, sigh over long lines or wear a frown when that moron in front of you doesn’t remember to pull out his license at the ticket counter.

Who am I kidding? I’ll still be miserable, and I’m sure I won’t be alone.

[Via USA Today]

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.

Should You Pay For Airport Electricity?

While connecting through Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, blogger Cory Doctorow noticed these $2 per use electrical outlets, presumably targeted at those looking to charge their laptops during layovers. He was able to find non-paying outlets elsewhere in the airport, but “wasn’t sure if security would try to shut [him] down” for trying to use them.

Doctorow suggests that, while Dallas/Ft. Worth is a hub for those flying cross-country, tech-savvy travelers might want to chose the free electricity and laptop-friendly atmosphere of Chicago’s O’Hare airport instead. Makes sense to me — why route yourself through an airport where you’ll be charged to work while you wait for your connecting flight?

Have you traveled through Dallas recently? Do you really have to pay to plug in?