Layover Lowdown: Making the Most Out of Airport Delays

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Layover Lowdown: Making the Most Out of Airport Delays

In August of 2009, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) finished a study that analyzed airport on-time performance throughout the U.S. The airports that ranked the lowest on BTS’s list are some of the biggest and busiest in the country, which is no surprise to anyone who’s traveled recently. Very few of us haven’t dealt with the over-crowded planes and frequent flight delays resulting from airport and airline budget cuts. The fact is, even though airports are working hard to make procedures run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, delays are bound to happen—especially during heavy travel seasons. 

Most travelers will probably find themselves delayed at one of our nation’s poorest-performing, major hubs at some point. And going by the statistics, chances are they’ll be there for longer than expected. Having long layovers at airports is annoying, but with a plan of attack prepared, it’s easy to make a miserable stretch of time actually enjoyable in these seven frequently-delayed airports. 

Miami International Airport (Florida)
Already MIA doesn’t have the best reputation aesthetically, being called dark and claustrophobic in some reviews. Now the BTS reports that only 72 and 74 percent of its flights leave and arrive on time, respectively. Luckily, there’s been a push by the Division of Fine Arts and Cultural Affairs to designate more areas within the airport and its terminals as art spaces. If stuck, travelers can walk around and take in rotating work by local artists. The food options are limited, but people familiar with MIA recommend the Cubano sandwich from Café Versailles. At the very least the airport offers patrons an authentic Miami cultural experience, even if it’s on the way to another city. 

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (Texas)
If a taste of Texas is what you’re looking for, a layover at Dallas/Fort Worth might be just up your alley. Each terminal has at least one barbecue eatery—Terminal D has two! There are also twelve different kinds of stores selling Texas-themed merchandise, including wine. For those not in a Lone Star state of mind, the airport has over one hundred other stores to suit your needs, including Best Buy Express locations for last-minute technological needs. Dallas/Fort Worth has a plethora of non-barbecue dining options, mostly what you’d find in a mall food court. However, there is a cereal bar and café called Cereality that has fourteen types of cereal (kid favorites like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, as well as healthier options like Special K and Cheerios) and a variety of toppings. For cereal enthusiasts, that alone might be worth a trip to the airport. 

LaGuardia Airport (New York)
The Central Terminal has a Metropolitan Museum of Art store for last-minute souvenir shopping and art gawking. If wait time is long enough, the airport is only a few miles away from Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim Museum. A cab ride could be worth the money just to get out of the airport for a while. Otherwise, LGA—which improved its performance from last year but still averaged a low 70 percent for on-time flights—doesn’t have much beyond several Au Bon Pain, Dunkin Donuts, and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels outlets. Borders and Brookstone are the best bet for window shopping, and there’s a sports bar and restaurant in the Delta Terminal to get your ESPN fix. 

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Georgia)
One good thing about this airport is that most of its retail shops stay open until 10 p.m. and its restaurants stay open as late as 11 p.m. The Atlanta Bread Company is actually open twenty-four hours for those late-night flight delays. Shopping also extends beyond the realm of Borders and gift shops—Bulgari, Lacoste, and Salvatore Ferragamo are just a few upscale places available to travelers with expensive tastes. Food-wise, other than a few Wolfgang Puck’s dotting the terminals, it’s mostly the same kind of fast food chains repeated throughout the airport. So when traveling into or out of Atlanta, pack food and leave extra room in your suitcase for impulse apparel purchases. 

Chicago O’Hare International Airport (Illinois)
Ranking in the low twenties on BTS’s list and grabbing second place in Travel + Leisure’s worst airports story is this Chicago institution. Those delayed here can send their kids off to the Chicago Children’s Museum’s play zone in Terminal 2, and the whole family can enjoy looking at the life-size Brachiosaurus skeleton in the first terminal. Chocolate lovers will find happiness at Vosges Haut-Chocolat store, makers of exotic and gourmet delights (including a bacon chocolate bar). If local food vendors like Superdawg or Berghoff (a German restaurant) don’t suit your fancy, Chicago transit runs though the airport and neighborhoods like Rosemont—home of Giordanno’s, famous for its deep-dish pizza and stuffed sandwiches—are just a Blue Line ride away. 

San Francisco International Airport (California)
Of all the major airports, San Francisco’s congestion and on-time performance is better than others (75 percent on average), but the frequent appearance of SF’s infamous fog still makes the need to kill time in the airport highly likely. There are multiple city-specific gift stores, such as a SF Museum of Modern Art store and a Ghirardelli chocolate shop. The International Terminal is where it’s at, boasting Gucci, Burberry, Coach, a gourmet wine store, and Ebisu, a fancy Japanese restaurant. Showers are also located there for a mid-travel pick-me-up. In Terminal 3, you can pick up a loaf of Boudin’s famous sourdough bread, or enjoy a cup of Irish Coffee from the Buena Vista Café. InMotion Entertainment, a retailer offering rentable DVD players and DVDs, is found throughout the airport. 

Newark Liberty International Airport (New Jersey)
This airport was named the worst airport in America by Travel + Leisure magazine, and after looking at its rankings on the BTS list, it’s not hard to see why. Newark ranked last out of thirty-one airports in the country for on-time arrivals (62 percent) and only second to last for departures (72 percent). At least the airport has a few mall stores like the Body Shop and Guess in Terminal C, as well as familiar food court staples and a few sit-down restaurants. But if your layover is longer than a few hours, there’s a train station in the airport that can get you to Manhattan in a jiffy. The New York Times even recommends taking a cab into New York if there’s enough time. In other words, if you can escape, do it. 

According to the BTS, airport on-time performance has actually improved since 2008, even though we might not notice the difference. Regardless, it’s best to have a backup plan for ways to pass the time at the airport, even if yours didn’t make the worst-of list. Just go online, look up the offered amenities, and jot down notes for future use. Maybe you won’t have to refer to those notes during your vacation, but given how poorly some of these airports stick to schedules, it’s better to err on the side of caution. And who knows—with so many airports’ emphasis on local flavor, it might even feel like an extended vacation.

Updated December 20, 2010