Las Vegas - LAS

Locals flying to Asia have hit the jackpot; for connections it's snake eyes

Las Vegas has become a global destination for entertainment and gambling, and while there is a small pan-Asian "Chinatown" about 2 miles west of the Strip, the primary reason you'll see a prominent and growing Asian influence in design, dining, and performances is because of high-income travelers from East Asia.

Well over a half-million travelers from Japan, Korea, and China visit Las Vegas each year - China alone sends over 200,000 - and international visitors spend 73% more per person than domestic guests, per the city's convention authority. So the city and its casino complexes are putting down a lot of chips to cater to these high rollers...

Of course, every airplane landing has a takeoff too, and that means growing outbound Transpacific flying opportunities for residents of the Desert Southwest.

While most trips to Asia from Las Vegas presently involve a connection at a West Coast hub like Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, new-generation aircraft and more-liberal US travel visa rules are spurring direct flights:

Currently, Korean Air flies nonstop to Seoul-Incheon 4 times per week with their Boeing 777-300, and from that impressive hub a great deal of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia can be reached with just one connection.

Hainan Airlines has received authority to begin nonstop service to Beijing with a 3-per-week schedule with 787 Dreamliner equipment, starting in December 2016.

The city is courting carriers from all sides of the Pacific Rim, so we should expect even more nonstop service within the next few years.

Customs Arrival

The historic Terminal 1 building at McCarran International was simply never designed to handle jumbo jets or any serious crowds needing Customs services. The airport limped along for years with a makeshift Terminal 2 just north of Terminal 1, but it took until 2012 for a world-class international facility to get built. (Terminal 2 was immediately closed, and finally torn down in 2016.)

All international arrivals that require Customs clearance now happen at the E-concourse gates attached to Terminal 3. After exiting the aircraft, follow the enclosed walkway down to ground level for passport control, baggage claim, and Customs declarations. Time to clear Customs averages 15-30 minutes and seldom exceeds an hour. Exiting the arrivals facility sends travelers past the domestic baggage-claim belts and then out into the massive main ground-floor arrivals hall.

Local residents (or anyone from farther out who drove to LAS) will find the Terminal 3 parking lot directly across the ground-level access drive. Taxicabs and shuttle buses also are right there.

People who are connecting to another flight will have their bags with them, and will need to check in with their onward airline, since Korean Air is not directly connecting with any other carrier at LAS, and there aren't bag re-check counters in the arrivals facility.

While that sounds straightforward, it all depends on what carrier you are using - an inter-terminal connection may be necessary, and if so, you'll need to carry your bags with you on the shuttle bus to Terminal 1. Passengers flying out on Alaska - Virgin America, United, JetBlue, Sun Country, Hawaiian, or Frontier can simply go upstairs in Terminal 3 to the check-in counters.  Passengers taking American, Delta, Southwest, Allegiant, or Spirit will have to take the bus to Terminal 1.

 

Navigating the Airport

The map above only begins to show how confusing McCarran's layout is. Terminal 1 has been added onto countless times, leaving no clear sightlines for a traveler to follow either outbound or inbound. Pickup and drop-off roadways run on both sides of the building, and it is not obvious where to catch the shuttle from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 (it's under the parking ramp). Likewise, there are two security screening areas in Terminal 1, but travelers only see the one for Allegiant and Spirit gates when they ascend from the ticketing area.

From Terminal 1, passengers on Spirit and Allegiant use the A and B gates; flyers taking Southwest use the C gates, and people using Delta and American trek out to the D gates.

Terminal 3 is - in contrast - a logically laid-out building with a clear flow from the roadway to the ticket counters to security and then out to the aircraft gates. The E gates for Alaska - Virgin America and JetBlue (as well as Korean Air) are immediately through security. The tram stop is also right through security and down - that train runs to the D gates for United, Frontier, Hawaiian, and Sun Country passengers.

It is actually possible to use the trams to stay in the secure zone and travel from the E gates, to the D gates, and then over to the C, B, and A gates (and the other way around). But in the case of a connection to a Korean Air flight, that would only make sense if the traveler only had a carry-on bag. In reality, only aviation enthusiasts with plenty of time before a flight would ever bother.

For a traveler with checked bags trying to connect to the Korean Air flight, that person would need to retrieve their luggage, take the shuttle to Terminal 3 (unless they arrived at T3), go to the Korean Air check-in desk to drop their bags, and then go through security again to get to their gate.

The A, B, and C gate areas and walkways are undeniably crowded (Allegiant, Spirit, and Southwest) and get uncomfortably warm from both the mass of people as well as the desert sun pouring through the windows - the D and E gates have much more space both for seating and also in the hallways, and were designed to bring natural light in but not direct sunlight, so they're better air-conditioned.

Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

LAS has well-curated history museum exhibits pre-security in the Esplanade area of Terminal 1, post-security in the connector bridge from the Esplanade out to the C gates, and in the central hub of the D gates. They tell the stories of the people who built the airport operation and managed the carriers who used it, the glamour and celebrity associated with the place, wartime service, and the many colorful aircraft which flew through. Plenty to read, many historic artifacts, and even exhibits that kids would enjoy.

Artwork abounds in both terminals and in all the gate areas; some is conceptual but there is much to delight children, like the super-sized sculptures of desert animals in the core areas of the D gates. Massive - and massively fun - triptych paintings of Las Vegas' celebrities and folklore wrap around the gates at the outer ends of the D gates.

A big airport-themed play area has been set up in the central hub of the D gates, just above the tram stops and behind the food court. Full-height windows and a telescope look over the ramp, steps and slides are available to work off energy, and there's seating for families to rest.

Excellent views of the Strip and its attractions can be had from many vantage points, and the mountains offer an ever-changing backdrop as the sun paints them. Flights from Central America and Europe are frequent so there's a constant parade of aircraft in unique color schemes - and you'll also likely see a stream of executive aircraft ranging from small jets all the way up to private 747s. Also look for the white 737s with the big red stripe: those work for a high-security operation called JANET and are used to shuttle staff back and forth to the secret Area 51!

Restrooms

Clean and functional, with adequate lighting but no place to set bags down except the floor or a hook on a stall door. Stalls are a bit tight and not long enough to manage yourself and a child. "Companion Care" restrooms, however, are available throughout the complex, and these are amply-sized for taking care of several children.

Food and Shopping

The A and B gates have only the bare minimum of retail (basically Hudson News and vending machines), but there are a reasonable number of coffee shops and fast-casual dining options. A greater variety of shops open up once you get into the C gates, plus a proper food court at the very end of the C concourse including restaurant-style dining.

The D gates, in contrast, could be described as a shopping mall with aircraft docking all around it. Travel basics, books, candy, t-shirts and toys are all represented, but also luxury brands, cosmetics, luggage, and men's and women's fashion. The usual mix of coffee, fast-food, and sit-down restaurants is also blended through the D complex.

The E gates have a higher proportion of space devoted to duty-free shopping and high-end goods, which makes sense for all the international flights, but not as much variety for the family-travel crowd. There are two mini-food-courts on either end of the concourse. Since the D gates are so conveniently-accessible via the underground tram, it's a solid option if you have time before your overseas flight.

Connectivity

McCarran has free Wi-Fi throughout the terminal and gate areas, and the signal is strong enough to support watching video. Availability of power ports at the gate varies by airline, but there are numerous charging stations on the concourses, and also in the food courts. 

As of 2016 there is still no mass-transit onto the Strip or the rest of the city, but the local council has finally begun talking about it after vehicle-traffic problems became ludicrous year-round - that still means relief is still not going to happen until the 2020s, however.

Honolulu - HNL

Crossroads of the Pacific

Honolulu's extensive harborfront and ample resources made it a natural shipping and military hub between North America, Asia, Australia, and the various Pacific island groups. The Polynesian ancestors of today's Native population were the first wave of immigration, but there have been many others from every direction - Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, European / American, and more. As a result, today's Hawaii is a multicultural mix unlike anywhere else, with amazing choice and innovation in art, food, media, and culture. Add the islands' natural beauty and tourism development, and you have ample reason for travelers to come.

From Honolulu westward, there are a substantial number of choices for direct flights:

  • To Japan, Hawaiian Air reaches Tokyo-Haneda, Tokyo-Narita, and Osaka-Kansai daily, and Sapporo 3 times per week. United runs to Tokyo-Narita daily.  United's Star Alliance partner ANA-All Nippon has two daily nonstops to Tokyo-Narita, and a daily run to Tokyo-Haneda. Japan Airlines has three daily nonstops to Tokyo-Narita. China Airlines has a daily nonstop to Tokyo-Narita (continuing on to Taipei). Korean Air has a nonstop to Tokyo-Narita that continues on to Seoul. Budget carrier Air Asia X flies nonstop to Osaka-Kansai four times per week (continuing on to Kuala Lumpur). Finally, Delta runs twice a day to Tokyo-Narita, and daily to Osaka-Kansai, Fukuoka, and Nagoya.
  • To Korea, Hawaiian Air (daily), Korean Air (1 daily nonstop & 1 daily flight via Tokyo), Korean Air's low-cost subsidiary Jin Air (5/week), and Asiana (5/week) all fly to Seoul-Incheon.
  • To Taiwan, China Airlines has a daily one-stop to Taipei (via Tokyo) as well as two weekly nonstops.
  • To Guam and the Marianas, United has a daily nonstop service to GUM (as well as the famous island-hopping service through Micronesia)
  • To Manila, Philippine Airlines flies nonstop 3 times per week.
  • To Malaysia, Air Asia X offers 4 weekly flights to Kuala Lumpur via Osaka.
  • To Beijing, nonstops can be had on Hawaiian Air (3 per week) and Air China (3 per week)
  • To Shanghai-Pudong, China Eastern flies nonstop 6 times per week.

Connecting opportunities exist at all the major Asian hubs above to reach nearly any point in East or Southeast Asia as well as deep within China on a one-stop basis.

Within the islands, Hawaiian Air flies the Boeing 717 jetliner on the trunk routes to Hilo, Kona, Kahului, and Lihue on a shuttle basis. Its subsidiary, Ohana, flies the ATR turboprop to Molokai and Lanai, as well as supplementing jet services.

The three smaller carriers in the state are Island Air, flying ATR and Bombardier turboprops to Kahului, Kona, Lihue, and Lanai; Mokulele Airlines, flying 9-seat Caravan turboprops to smaller airports on Molokai, Maui, and the Big Island; and Makani Kai Air, flying Caravans to Molokai.

Customs Arrival

Arriving passengers from international flights from the outer two concourses are directed onto buses to the central Customs facility; from the central concourse and gates directly attached to the terminal, there is a moving walkway.

Passport control is handled at a middle level of the building, and then passengers descend to ground level to pick up bags and go through any necessary Customs clearance. On the ground level just past Customs there are baggage and ticketing check-in counters.

For connecting flights on Hawaiian Air, their gates are up and to the left; for Island Air and Mokulele propeller-craft services, catch a bus to the Commuter terminal. All other carriers are directly upstairs in the International Terminal.

Time to clear immigration and claim bags varies with how many flights are arriving; morning arrivals can take as long as an hour-and-a-half according to the CPB, while afternoon arrivals usually clear in around 20 minutes. HNL is installing automated kiosks for machine-readable passports and this should help cut wait times (as it has in Dallas and other cities). You may also want to sign your family up for the Global Entry program - this gets you all the benefits of the domestic PreCheck security lines but also expedited handling at U.S. Customs.

The same lighting and paneling you remember from Magnum, P.I. episodes...

The same lighting and paneling you remember from Magnum, P.I. episodes...

Click on the diagram above to open the Honolulu Airport's map page

Click on the diagram above to open the Honolulu Airport's map page

Navigating the Airport

For an airport that really isn't all that big, there sure is a lot of walking involved.

Travelers coming in from other islands on Island Air or Mokulele Airlines will arrive at the Commuter Terminal on the far end of the complex. The Inter-Island Terminal is for the short hops on Hawaiian Airlines (or its partner, Ohana).

From most difficult to least:

  • Passengers coming in on Mokulele Airlines need to pick up their luggage in the Commuter Terminal, walk outside to a shuttle bus, and take that either to the Inter-Island Terminal (if connecting on Hawaiian) or the International Terminal (for all other airlines), where they'll have to check in and drop bags with their overseas airline - as well as go through agricultural inspection and security screening. Figure on needing at least 90 minutes to connect as buses, airline desks, and TSA lines can't be easily predicted.
  • Island Air passengers can take a covered walkway to get up to the Inter-Island Terminal. Their bags are checked through, and they don't have to go through security again.
  • Hawaiian Air passengers will already be in the Inter-Island Terminal, with bags checked through and in the secure zone.

Passengers from Oahu check in either at the Inter-Island Terminal (Hawaiian Air) or the International Terminal for all other carriers.

Inside the secure zone you may walk anywhere - all three concourses, plus the Inter-Island Terminal. There is an agricultural inspection checkpoint between the Inter-Island Terminal and the concourses, but it takes only a minute (and if you aren't carrying a bag, you're waved through).

Easier than walking, however, is the Wiki Wiki Shuttle that runs on a roadway above the terminals.  If you are in the Inter-Island Terminal and connecting to the Diamond Head concourse - especially - go up to the third floor and take the bus; it will save you almost 20 minutes of walking. The bus also stops on the Ewa concourse and along the International Terminal.

What is really unusual - and that will make mainland travelers unsure if they've made a mistake - is that the walkways from the International Terminal out to the Diamond Head and Ewa concourses are not just open-air, but have a roadway running alongside for the Wiki Wiki buses as well as other airport vehicles.

The view of the ramp can't be beat, but I wouldn't want to get caught in a rainstorm trying to dash to my flight...

In 2016-2017, the airport intends to build a replacement Commuter Terminal on the far end of the Diamond Head concourse - tear down the current Commuter Terminal - and extend the Inter-Island Terminal into a new concourse on that space, where Hawaiian Air will be able to consolidate its long-haul routes and hopefully free up congested gate space in the International Terminal.

Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

Another unexpected but charming difference between HNL and mainland airports is the pair of open-air gardens inside the secure zone; the bigger one set between the central concourse and the food court of the International Terminal, and the smaller between the Inter-Island Terminal and the Ewa concourse. There are staircases leading down from the gate level - garden paths and plenty of seating on the ground; birds and wildlife to watch. It's a favorite for airport staff and a unique space where kids can unwind in nature.

The gardens make up for the lack of any kids'  play equipment in the airport...

The far ends of the three concourses have sweeping views of airport activity (there's a military airbase to the west, and hangars directly across the runway) - and the Diamond Head concourse is aptly named for its great position looking over its namesake mountain and the skyscrapers over Waikiki. There's a third floor - empty save for a United Club and offices - that you can easily get to for space away from crowds and an even better view.

Native artwork and cultural items are spread throughout the complex, some small and some taking up entire walls. Often there will be well-written explanations of how items were used and what their significance is - great teaching opportunities that also keep kids' interest.

Restrooms

The Inter-Island Terminal - as the newest part of the secure area - has functional and relatively clean restrooms, though lacking in space to manage personal baggage.

The older concourses off the International Terminal are showing their age, and the restrooms are literally something out of the 1960's. While they are ADA-compliant, they aren't at all big enough to handle the kind of traffic they get - ESPECIALLY for the women's facilities, and they're not very well maintained. Best to be proactive at HNL - if you don't see a line, it's time to try to go - rather than having to wait and panic before your flight boards...

There are family restrooms near Gate 15 on the central concourse and Gate 60 in the Inter-Island Terminal - none out on the Diamond Head or Ewa concourses or in the central terminal area.

Food and Shopping

There is remarkably little breadth of selection for both food and merchandise at HNL, and the same outlets get repeated several times across the facility. If you like Starbucks or Burger King, or want to shop at a duty-free outlet for luxury goods, you're in luck. 

There is a small food court in the central part of the International Terminal, plus a small cluster at the entry of the central concourse. Outside of that the food offerings are scattered, but very few options out on the Diamond Head and Ewa concourses.

Likewise, most of the retail is clustered along the corridor running through the International Terminal, with more shops in the central concourse and only newsstands on the Diamond Head and Ewa.

There is one bookstore and a couple newsstands with children's materials. Most gift shops have candy, toys, and island souvenirs that kids would appreciate.

Nowhere to pick up supplies like bread, lunchmeat, and salads for a picnic lunch on the plane, however, the Lahaina Chicken & Pizza near Gate 14 has a good buffet. There are several sushi and Asian-food bistros that could also work. The Hawaii Market (several locations) has packaged Hawaiian snacks - mostly intended as gifts, but we all know we'll be tucking into one of those boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts...

There are several flower shops and places to pick up bulk lots of fruit; while it's understandable to get one last taste or sniff of the islands before leaving - and fresh Hawaiian fruit is an excellent gift in Asia - but really as a family traveler do you have room or strength to carry a case of pineapples? And a fresh-flower lei will have wilted and gotten messy by the time you reach Japan or China. Plus, you'll have to declare them at Customs on arrival; no way to disguise that big box...

The "Flight Deck" shops, especially the big one at the entrance to the Diamond Head concourse, have a nice assortment of model aircraft and aviation-related gifts, both for collectors as well as for kids' play.

Connectivity

There is no free WiFi at HNL; ShakaNet charges $6.95 per hour, or use your phone's data plan.

Some areas where there used to be phone banks (mostly in the main terminal) have been converted to charging stations, but out on the concourses outlets are few and far between.

Honolulu is getting a light-rail system together and the airport is supposed to be connected on it, but that is still years off. There are local and express buses available.

Also see:

Our Pinterest board about Hawaii

Chicago O'Hare - ORD

Spread your wings from the Windy City.

O’Hare is the second-busiest airport in America (after Atlanta), with excellent access to Asian hub cities. Multiple factors work to provide Midwestern fliers with plenty of competitive choices:

  • Chicago’s concentration of finance, manufacturing, distribution, and retail business has natural ties with Asia;
  • Its many higher-education institutions draw worldwide attendance;
  • Tourism brings in many from Asia - Chicago’s sports teams, museums, landmarks, and shopping are deservedly famous;
  • Significant Asian immigration - including the largest Chinatown in the central U.S. - drive visits in both directions from friends and relatives.

If you walk down Michigan Avenue and through Millennium Park, the second-most-common language you’ll probably hear is Mandarin!

O’Hare is a major hub for two of the three global airline alliances:

The Star Alliance, anchored by United Airlines (itself headquartered in Chicago), plus its partners ANA-All Nippon and Asiana, offer twice-daily nonstops to Tokyo-Narita, daily nonstops to Tokyo-Haneda, and daily nonstops to Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. The Seoul and Beijing flights are especially convenient for making same-day connections directly to inland Chinese cities on partners Asiana, Air China, and Shenzhen Airlines. Fellow Star member EVA Air has started nonstop service to Taipei.

The oneworld Alliance, with American Airlines, Japan Air Lines, and Cathay Pacific, offers double-daily service to Tokyo, plus daily nonstop service to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.

The third global alliance, SkyTeam, is also represented with Korean Air’s nonstop to Seoul. Korean Air flies directly from Seoul to many inland Chinese cities, and covers Southeast Asia comprehensively. China Eastern offers daily nonstop service to Shanghai-Pudong.

Hainan Airlines is a rapidly-growing Chinese carrier not in one of the big 3 alliances, and it offers daily nonstops to Beijing. 

For domestic connections, both United and American operate massive banks of flights from ORD to all the major cities in the country. Incoming flights from Asia connect very well to the Midwest, Ohio Valley, and East Coast.

Click map above to open the Terminal 5 full-size map (Chicago Dep't of Aviation)

Click map above to open the Terminal 5 full-size map (Chicago Dep't of Aviation)

Customs Arrival

All flights from Asia arrive at Terminal 5. Getting off the aircraft, you’ll be directed down a hallway to passport control - about a 5-minute walk. U.S. citizens can take an express lane; expect a wait of 10 to 20 minutes, depending on how many other flights are being processed. (Most of the Asian arrivals get in before the rush of European traffic, so the odds are in your favor there.) If the lines look long, you may want your partner to scout out the other side of the arrivals hall; offices block the view.

Picking up bags and working through the declarations line (plus random screening) can take as little as 10 or as much as 60 minutes, again depending on traffic and staffing. 

If you have a domestic connection, look for the baggage re-check counters; each of the major carriers has one. This will save you a lot of time for your next flight.

There are two exits which both open up to the public reception area. If Chicago is your final destination, walk out the door and head home; otherwise follow the signs to the ATS (Airport Transit System) tram station for access to the rest of the complex.

The ATS runs about every five minutes, and from Terminal 5 takes about five minutes to get to the far end at Terminal 1. The ATS can get a bit crowded; you may need to wait for the next train.

Budgeting two hours for international-to-domestic connections gives you enough wiggle room for delays and clearing security for your next flight.

Navigating the Airport

You could compare O’Hare’s layout to an octopus; outside of the International Terminal, there are three domestic terminals and eight concourses arranged in a semi-circle.

Click to open the interactive O'Hare map for all terminals (Chicago Dep't of Aviation)

Click to open the interactive O'Hare map for all terminals (Chicago Dep't of Aviation)

Heading from Terminal 5 on the ATS, you’ll first stop at Terminal 3 - American Airlines’ base, plus Alaska, JetBlue, Spirit, and Virgin America. Terminal 2 is the home of Delta and Air Canada. Finally, Terminal 1 is the base for United Airlines.

United and American use their Terminal 1 / Terminal 3 gates for international departures, so on your outbound flight this is where you’d start from. (United’s Star Alliance partner ANA-All Nippon also uses Terminal 1 for its Tokyo departure, and American's oneworld partner JAL has its Tokyo departure from Terminal 3.)

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Security lines in the terminals can be very long, especially at the checkpoints in the middle of each building. You can sometimes find shorter waits by trying the checkpoints at the far ends of the buildings.

Once through domestic security, you have access to all three terminals. The concourses are long; they were all designed to handle jumbo jets so the space between gates can be a long haul. If you have a stroller, this would be a good airport to use it in. Only the connector between concourses C and B have moving sidewalks. There is a shuttle bus running between the E concourse and the far end of C, for passengers flying on United Express.

Kids love going through the connector tunnel between concourses C and B; the neon lights overhead and wall panels pulse and dance in time with variations on Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue".

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

You’ll find a very large play area in Terminal 2 just outside the security checkpoint and entrance to Concourses E / F, with stairs and slides, places to crawl, sit, view the action outside and burn off energy.

Another gem is the walkway connecting Terminal 2 to Terminal 1. Here there is also less foot traffic, a nice view of the tarmac, many benches to sit on, and kids’ artwork of the city displayed on the tall glass walls. The space is both peaceful and full of creativity at the same time.

In the middle of Terminal 1, look up to see the full-size skeleton of a brachiosaurus towering over everything else - you can get right up next to it and walk around its legs. (You’ll find its brother outside the Field Museum of Natural History downtown.)

The "Hall of Flags" along American's concourses H/K is also fun (when foot traffic is light). How many can you recognize? American also dresses this area festively for the winter holidays.

The rotunda between Terminals 2 and 3, where Concourse G connects, has an upstairs area where they have set up an indoor farm for greens that are used in the airport's restaurants. This is a most unexpected and calming place to get away from the crowds downstairs. It has a great view as well, plus a dedicated yoga room off to the side, if you need to literally unwind.

Restrooms

Even in the newer sections of the complex, stalls in men’s and women’s restrooms are narrow, have no shelving to set a bag on, and are equipped with one thin coathook; very difficult to maneuver yourself and your child. While the restrooms are generally never too far of a walk, you should always anticipate having to wait for a toilet.

In the older sections (E and F concourses in particular), the walls and doors of the stalls are still made of wood!

Lighting is adequate and the toilets and sinks are generally in good condition. The toilets are all equipped with plastic sanitary liners that mechanically advance after use - it looks strange, and you’re sitting on cling wrap, but at least you know the seat is clean.  For the rest of the restroom, cleanliness could be better.

There only seems to be one “family restroom” per terminal building - at the terminal, not on the concourses.

Food and Shopping

O’Hare has made significant progress in recent years in the number, diversity, and quality of food choices. The deep-dish pizza and Chicago Dogs are no longer bland institutional facsimiles of native cuisine, but the real meals from the real restaurants. There are three reasonably-sized food courts - one between the H and K concourses, one at the end of the K concourse, and one in the rotunda at the beginning of the G concourse (all in American Airlines’ territory), but sit-down and fast food options are scattered evenly through the other two terminals as well. McDonald’s is headquartered in Chicago, so you know what you’ll see a lot of; but local chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill also has a couple outlets, so if you want great authentic Mexican food, that's a big plus.

Because you just can't get good Mexican food in East Asia.

Because you just can't get good Mexican food in East Asia.

The options are not as many for shopping; with no central “mall” most of your choices are of the newsstand / small electronics / scarf-and-tie variety, scattered throughout the complex. Concourse B has the most selection but more of those stores are selling luxury goods; probably not what you’re after on this trip...

Connectivity

WiFi is available terminal-by-terminal for a fee. If you have a GoGo subscription you'll get good use from it; otherwise don't count on it being cheap.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line train runs from O’Hare to the downtown Loop 24 hours. The ride takes about 40 minutes, and from downtown connections can be made to all other CTA trains.

Also see:

Our family-travel guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Our Pinterest board for Chicago

Vancouver - YVR

A world-class welcome in a world-class city.

When the Canadian Pacific Railway finally reached what would become Vancouver in Winter 1887, it literally did so on the backs of Chinese immigrant laborers, who worked under hardships and racism. Many would never see their homes again, and so started their own neighborhood uphill from the railyard at Gastown. The Canadian Pacific, however, did have its sights set clearly on China, and started steamship service from Vancouver to Hong Kong by 1891 with its Empress-class liners.

Canadian Pacific eventually started an airline, using YVR as its hub and stretching its wings from there to Australia, South America, Europe, and of course Asia.

Chinese immigration to British Columbia continued through the 20th Century, and today about 20% of the metro Vancouver population claims Chinese heritage. Its Chinatown is second only to San Francisco. You’ll also encounter significant communities of Southeast Asian, Korean, Japanese, South Asian, and Persian origin, all coexisting among the breathtaking scenery and dynamic economy.

That kind of population base, combined with significant business and higher education resources, has created an incredible demand for Transpacific flights.

Air Canada is the largest carrier at YVR, with frequent nonstop or one-stop service to all major Canadian cities west of Montreal, and extensive commuter operations in B.C. and Alberta. They also fly daily nonstops to Hong Kong, Seoul-Incheon, Tokyo-Narita, Shanghai-Pudong, and Beijing, where their Star Alliance partners Asiana, ANA-All Nippon, and Air China can connect you pretty much to any destination in East or Southeast Asia.  Air China also flies its own aircraft to Vancouver from Beijing, code-sharing with Air Canada.

Star Alliance partner EVA Air has a daily nonstop to Taipei, Taiwan. ANA has a daily flight to Tokyo's Haneda airport. And AC's budget division, Air Canada Rouge, offers a summertime nonstop service to Osaka-Kansai.

The oneworld Alliance is represented by Japan Airlines, flying daily to Tokyo, and Cathay Pacific, offering double-daily nonstops to Hong Kong.

The third global alliance, SkyTeam, competes with Korean Air's daily nonstop to Seoul-Incheon, China Eastern with a twice-daily nonstop to Shanghai-Pudong as well as a 3-per-week nonstop to Nanjing (starting December 2016), China Southern with a daily nonstop to Guangzhou, China Airlines of Taiwan daily to Taipei, and Xiamen Airlines sending 3 weekly nonstops to its namesake city.

Sichuan Airlines, not part of an alliance, has a 3-per-week service from Chengdu via Shenyang to YVR. Another non-aligned carrier, Beijing Capital Airlines (part of the Hainan Airlines confederation) begins Vancouver-Qingdao-Hangzhou  3-per-week service at the end of December 2016, and one of their sister carriers, Hong Kong Airlines, will start low-cost daily nonstops to their namesake city in June 2017.

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Domestic carrier WestJet has a comprehensive network from YVR, and selectively code-shares with several Asian carriers. Numerous smaller carriers connect the small towns and islands from Victoria all the way up to Yellowknife. While those carriers generally do not offer through-ticketing, connections are convenient without too much extra walking through the terminal.

American families may find that fares through YVR are a bargain, and if everyone in your group has a valid U.S. passport, there will be no issues in making connections.

Customs Arrival

Passengers arriving from overseas who have a final destination in Canada are directed up one level and along walkways which give the sense of being in the Western Canadian environment, finally exiting down to ground level between totem poles of greeting and into the large Immigration Hall.

This is usually a very busy place, with dozens of passport checkpoints. Waiting times here run as short as 10 minutes but could take up to 90 depending on how many flights have just unloaded, and from where.

Baggage claim carrousels sit just beyond the passport check, and wait times to retrieve luggage range from zero to thirty minutes.

If you’re connecting immediately to a domestic Canadian flight, a security checkpoint for these gates sits on the far right side of the hall. If you’ll be staying in Vancouver, need to check in with a different airline, or just want to step out for fresh air, the exit to the outside is on the left side of the hall. In either case, be sure to have your baggage declaration form completed and ready to hand to an officer as you pass through.

If you are connecting to an American destination, follow the signs from your gate to the "USA Connections" facility. There you'll have a security scan and go through U.S. Customs. You won't have to go through customs again when you get to your home airport.

Navigating the Airport

Click on this charming scale model to open up maps of the airport, hosted at the YVR website

Click on this charming scale model to open up maps of the airport, hosted at the YVR website

YVR is a relatively compact airport, using an octopus-shaped layout. Concourses for US and overseas flights fan out to the north, while domestic concourses spread east and south. Check-in halls, as you approach the terminal by train or road, start with the US transborder desks, then the overseas desks, and finally the domestic desks.

(There is also a South Terminal which can be reached by shuttle bus, mostly supporting the small floatplane services to coastal and island communities.)

Walking times in the complex are reasonable; from international security to the farthest gate can be done in 15-20 minutes; domestic gates are about 20-25 minutes across. Many moving sidewalks have been installed, and hallways on the International side are generously wide.

or Americans passing through to Asia, your flights from the U.S. dock in a dedicated area that is glassed off from the rest of the terminal. Follow the "International Connections" signs to a Canadian border station, get your passports checked there, and then enter the International gate area.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

If you’re connecting domestically, don’t mind leaving the secure zone for a while, and have a toddler or older child, the first place to go (and an ideal place to hang out) is Level 4 in the domestic terminal, just upstairs from the food court. This is the Observation Deck with tall, wide windows facing the western ramp and Pacific Ocean. On sunny days, you’ll enjoy mountain views to the north and south, twinkling waves and passing ships on the horizon before you, and exciting takeoffs and landings on the runways to either side. Several telescopes are available, plus touchscreen history displays, and an interactive miniature diorama of the total airport complex.  Food and restrooms are immediately below you, and there’s enough space to let the kids stretch their legs (yet bounded that you can easily keep an eye on them at all times.)

The “streambed” water feature weaving through the international departure area offers a place for quiet relaxation, although you will have access to it only on your outbound journey.

Locally-produced artwork is placed liberally through the terminal; kids will appreciate the variety, scale, and stories behind the pieces.

There’s a kids’ play area near gates 53-54 on the international side, and on the domestic side, near gate 43 on Concourse C, and gate 5 on Concourse A.

Restrooms

YVR includes a family/special-needs facility at almost every point where conventional restrooms are located. These are generously-sized for stroller parking, incorporate a large counter for setting bags and changing diapers, and are cleaned frequently.

Standard restrooms vary in quality from place to place; the pre-security domestic food court location is very well-appointed, whereas facilities on the international concourses are rather generic. Stall sizes by the international gates are only average, with few options to place your belongings. Cleanliness is average, lighting is adequate, and finding a working faucet or towel dispenser may take a couple tries.

he family facilities are highly recommended; use the standard facilities just for your own needs.

Gotta get some Timbits and a double-double...

Gotta get some Timbits and a double-double...

Food and Shopping

Food courts and sit-down restaurants are liberally placed throughout the Domestic and International terminals and gate areas, both pre- and post-security. Usual chains like Pizza Hut, Wok ‘n Roll, and Starbucks are well-represented, with some local vendors mixed in. Most importantly, Tim Horton’s can be found in multiple locations, including the international gates, so departing and returning families can get their donut fix.

Shopping choices are numerous but mostly of the newsstand and souvenir variety. There are a number of shops catering to families both inside and outside the secure zone.

Very thoughtfully, a medical clinic and pharmacy is located on the domestic arrivals level; handy for quickly addressing your child’s basic health concerns that may have manifested after leaving Guangzhou.

Connectivity

Wi-Fi is free throughout the terminal.

Light rail northbound to Downtown on Skytrain’s Canada Line takes about 25 minutes. Connections are available at the Waterfront station to light rail and commuter rail for eastbound suburbs, and by ferry to North Vancouver.

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on Vancouver

Portland - PDX

Header photo via Pixabay; CC0 license.

Fly over the blue ocean to the Rose City’s “green” terminal!

Despite being one of the smaller cities on the West Coast, there’s always been a consistent demand for good Transpacific service from Portland, driven by its strong corporate presence, medical and educational assets, tourism, and historic Asian immigrant community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, United and Delta pioneered various routes from PDX to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, but the aircraft of the time were too big and expensive to operate, and the carriers couldn’t put enough connecting traffic together to keep the services viable.

In 2004, Northwest connected Portland to its Tokyo-Narita hub using new, more-efficient twin-engine aircraft, and this time the route proved sustainable. After the merger with Delta, the combined carrier now runs the route with 767-300ER equipment, just the right size for the job.

Sustainability is a keyword for the Portland airport, which like the Tokyo service, has prospered by employing its resources smartly. You’ll notice the solar panels, natural-gas-powered buses, light-rail-line, and water-saving toilet handles. You might not see the recycling / composting programs, stormwater management, or wildlife protection efforts. Portland’s “green” reputation is upheld at PDX.

Delta’s link to Tokyo allows for same-day connections on to Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

Coming home, Delta interlines with Alaska Airlines for domestic connections to the Cascades and California, plus Delta’s own services to the East, South, and Midwest.  Alaska Air is by far the largest carrier at PDX; Delta, United, and Southwest are the other dominant carriers. American, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, and Hawaiian offer more-limited services.

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Customs Arrival

The Narita flight arrives at the end of Concourse D, where you'll be directed downstairs for passport control, baggage retrieval, and inspection. Your flight will be the only one unloading at that time.

If Portland is where you stop flying, you'll walk outside and board a shuttle bus which will take you securely around to the other side of the concourse and drop you off at the downstairs baggage claim area of the main terminal.

If you have connecting flights, check your bags at the airline counter and head back upstairs to Concourse D, where you'll clear security and be able to reach all gates.

Total time to clear Customs, including the shuttle bus ride to the terminal, can take 30-90 minutes. For connecting passengers, this should be ample, since the Narita flight arrives at 9:45 am (Winter 2016 schedule) and its domestic connections mostly departing in the 12:30 - 1:30 pm range.

Navigating the Airport

PDX uses a sideways-H shaped building, with the main terminal and parking areas in the middle and east side. On the south side are Concourses A (Alaska-Horizon's commuter gates), B (for Alaska Airlines), and the long Concourse C (Alaska, American, Frontier, Southwest, and JetBlue.)

On the north side are Concourses D (Delta, Hawaiian, Spirit, and Virgin America) and E (United and Air Canada.)

There is a connector passageway between the north and south sides so that you do not have to leave the secure zone to make connections. This passageway has moving sidewalks, as do stretches of the C, D, and E concourses. These concourses are noticeably wider than at most airports, so even during busy times you don't feel crushed by the crowd.

The A-gates for Alaska-Horizon are located on the ground level, which you can access by elevator or escalator. These are used by the commuter and regional aircraft heading to places like Medford, Boise, and Spokane. This part of the airport is busy and often crowded, although food and restrooms are convenient. If you’re connecting home on Horizon, finding private space to hold your family and bags will be a challenge.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

Portland offers two different kids' play areas. The larger one, with active-play elements such as a jungle gym, slides, and a lookout tower (with a telescope to view the tarmac), is in the main terminal just outside the security checkpoint for Concourses D-E. There’s a general seating area between it and the main walkway, so you’ll need to watch closely for it.

At the end of Concourse C, there's another, smaller, play area with games, puzzles, video, and plenty of space to relax. It’s conveniently located next to a food court, too, so the parents can have a bite to eat while the kids burn off some energy. Creative Kidstuff has a shop near gate C8 if you need to pick up a few more toys or surprises, and there are several outlets of hometown bookstore Powell’s around the complex, well-stocked with kids’ books and activity materials.

PDX features live music performances year-round and rotating art exhibitions. Portland loves its public sculptures, and there are several here as well that kids are magnetically drawn to. The airport will be opening a free mini-movie theater in Spring 2016 to show short films by local artists and about the region!

If you’re looking for a quiet spot, head for the halfway point on the concourse connector, where there are cushy seats, a great view of the tarmac and mountains, some open space and not that much foot traffic.

Restrooms

Airports in the Pacific Northwest have good-quality restrooms, and Portland is no exception. Stalls in men’s and women’s restrooms are ample and include a fold-down shelf to set a small bag on. Lighting is adequate and the toilets and sinks are in very good condition. The toilets are equipped with dual-flush handles (up for #1, down for #2.)  Restrooms are cleaned frequently and are well-maintained.

Specific family restrooms are located near gates A2, C3, and D1 (especially good for maneuvering strollers); however, general restrooms are located every few gates.

Food and Shopping

PDX presents an abundance of food and shopping choices both inside and outside the security zone. In the central building (outside security) the Oregon Market houses 25 food and merchandise vendors, including an outpost of hometown brand Nike. Inside the secure zone, there is a smaller court halfway along Concourse D, and two courts along Concourse C, incorporating a creative mix of national and local brands, so while you can get your fix of Starbucks or Wendy’s, you can also try something from the Flying Elephants Deli, Pizza Schmizza, or the Coffee People. Finally, additional shops and restaurants are scattered among the concourses outside of the food courts.

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Connectivity

WiFi is available in all the gate areas and is free.

Portland's MAX light rail serves PDX with the Red Line, linking it southwest to Chinatown in less than 35 minutes and Downtown in under 40. Connections to the Blue and Green Lines are available at the Gateway transit center, less than 15 minutes from the terminal, allowing fast access to neighborhoods to the south and east of the airport.

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on Portland

Seattle/Tacoma - SEA

This traditional Pacific port of entry is easy to use.

Seattle’s historic ties of trade with and immigration from Asia, its many technology and service companies, and its relatively short flying times have attracted many airlines to start Transpacific service here.

Delta Airlines has built up a strong Asian operation out of Seattle with nonstops to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai-Pudong, and Tokyo-Narita. 

Fellow SkyTeam carrier Xiamen Air has started a 3-per-week service from Seattle nonstop to Shenzhen in the Pearl River Valley, continuing on to Xiamen on China's southeast coast.

Korean Air offers 5-per-week nonstop service to their massive hub at Seoul-Incheon. Some same-day connections are available to interior Chinese cities and other Southeast Asian destinations; many more can be reached with an overnight stay (Incheon has a hotel inside the terminal for just this reason.) 

ANA - All Nippon Airways, in the Star Alliance with United, has a daily nonstop to their big Tokyo-Narita hub; many Southeast Asian cities can be reached same-day.

Asiana Airlines - in the Star Alliance with United - runs a 5-per-week nonstop to Seoul-Incheon. A few interior Chinese cities can be reached same-day; otherwise an overnight stay is needed. 

Hainan Airlines, an independent Chinese carrier, flies nonstop 5 times a week to Beijing, where they offer excellent same-day connections to many interior cities. They have also started a 3-per-week nonstop to Shanghai-Pudong.

EVA Airways flies daily nonstop to Taipei. Airlines from Taiwan have only recently been allowed to fly into mainland China; your best connections on EVA are to Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The return flight into Seattle arrives too late in the evening to make same-day onward flights, and the departure from Seattle leaves well after midnight.

Domestically, Seattle is the headquarters and main hub for Alaska Airlines and their commuter arm, Alaska Horizon, as well as a major base for Delta, who has its own commuter services too. Sea-Tac is also an important focus city for United. These networks link Seattle to every major city in the Pacific and Alaska time zones, and every second-tier city in the Pacific Northwest.

Every major US airline serves SEA, including the low-cost carriers Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit. No matter which frequent-flyer program you’re on, or part of the country you’re from, you’ll have numerous options.

Customs Arrival

All international flights arrive at the South Satellite. As you deplane, you’ll be directed along ramps to the level below the gate area. Even though many overseas flights arrive midday, waiting time for passport checks and luggage retrieval usually takes between 30 to 60 minutes. (Even on domestic flights, Sea-Tac’s baggage delivery is super-speedy; your suitcases will be at the carrousel before you can get there.)

After clearing Customs, if you have an onward flight, stop at the baggage re-check counters, then go through security screening, and walk over to the underground tram stop (for Delta flights, head upstairs; for all other carriers, take the tram to the main terminal, where you can access all other gates.)

If Seattle is your final destination, after you’ve picked up your bags and gone through the declaration line, you’ll set your bags back down on a high-speed conveyor belt which will zip them over to Baggage Claim carrousel #1 in the main terminal. Meanwhile, you and your family will bypass security and get on an isolated tram car which will take you to the Baggage Claim exit. (You don’t want to cram that car full of everybody’s bags...)

Navigating the Airport

Click on image to access airport maps (Port of Seattle)

Click on image to access airport maps (Port of Seattle)

The Sea-Tac complex uses an X-shaped layout: Concourses A and B extend south of the central terminal, while Concourses C and D run north. There are two satellite gate areas, South and North.

Image courtesy Port of Seattle. Click on image to see more about the expansion project.

Image courtesy Port of Seattle. Click on image to see more about the expansion project.

Thanks to robust growth of international service, Concourse A and the South Satellite are being linked by a skybridge, and a number of A-gates will be able to handle overseas arrivals.

The North Satellite is also being expanded to handle Alaska Airlines' hearty growth.

Concourse A houses United, Air Canada, and Sun Country. On Concourse B you’ll find Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier. Concourses C and D are the heart of Alaska’s hub operation, as well as the North Satellite. American and JetBlue also run out of Concourse D. Delta flights operate from the South Satellite.

While Sea-Tac is spread out, walking times are quite short thanks to three underground tram lines, all inside the security zone. Using the trams, you can move from the South Satellite to the North Satellite in less than 15 minutes. Concourse A is the longest, but has been equipped with moving sidewalks for speedy transit.

The entire complex has been freshly renovated with wide corridors, expansive windows, and engaging art. On clear days you can see the Cascade Mountains and islands in Puget Sound. Even on overcast days the terminal is filled with natural light.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

A large play area is located between the central food court and the beginning of the A-Concourse. There’s also plenty of seating for parents, too.

If you have several hours between flights, and children who want to stretch their legs, the far end of the A-Concourse (gates A11-A14) has great views on a sunny day, and you can often have the entire area to yourselves.

Local artwork permeates the terminal, often with an aviation or Native American theme, giving great opportunities for kids to ask questions, look for patterns, and inspire their own creativity.

The Pacific Northwest music scene also resonates at Sea-Tac as they have created an ambient music stream for the terminal featuring local artists.

Another semi-secret gem is the Atrium at the south end of the ticketing counters. This area is outside security (so you’ll need to be screened again to get to your flight), but the open space, rocks to clamber over, and seating outside for fresh air are worth a visit if you have time.

Restrooms

Several family restrooms are available on every concourse and satellite. In addition, the stalls in regular restrooms incorporate several sturdy coathooks, plus a shelf above the toilet, making it much easier to manage your cargo and children. Cleanliness is very good, and the facilities are uniformly in excellent condition.

Food and Shopping

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Sea-Tac offers some gift/newsstand options on each concourse and satellite, at least one sit-down restaurant and several fast-food counters; often one will feature Asian cuisine. And coffeeshops, lots and lots of coffeeshops (and not just Starbucks.)

For the most diverse selection of gifts, a good-sized bookshop, numerous sit-down restaurants, and additional fast-food options, go to the central food court, where all four concourses converge and the view is amazing. There are several shops here with kids’ sections, as well, including the awesome Planewear - gear, gadgets, and gifts all about aviation!

Connectivity

WiFi is available throughout the terminal and gate areas at no charge!

Seattle’s light rail line allows access north to Chinatown / International District (about 25 minutes) and the central Downtown corridor (about 30 minutes.)

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on Seattle

Detroit - DTW

The Motor City is your freeway on-ramp for all of Asia.

Families flying to Asia from the eastern USA have only a few routing options that do not involve going to the West Coast first. Probably the most convenient and diverse set of choices for East-coast families who live anywhere but New York City involve flying through Detroit.

Thanks to the auto industry’s global supply and sales relationships, and the good fortune of being a major hub for the old Northwest Airlines, DTW has long enjoyed excellent access to Japan, Korea, and China.

Today, Detroit Metro is the second-largest hub for Delta, who has built on what Northwest pioneered and added to it, making DTW its main Asian gateway for the entire eastern half of the country:

  • Nonstops to Shanghai (Pudong), Beijing, Seoul (Incheon), Nagoya, and Tokyo Narita.

  • One-stop service to Hong Kong.

  • Flights inbound from Asia arrive early-to-mid-afternoon, allowing for same-day connections to about 90 eastern cities. The Mid-Atlantic, Northeast / New England, Ohio Valley, and Great Lakes regions are comprehensively covered out of Detroit.

DTW is served by most of the other national carriers’ hub airports, although from a different terminal than where international arrivals dock. If you’re transferring to United, American, Southwest, or another carrier, you’ll need to take a shuttle bus and clear security again. As Asian trips through here will be on Delta, that’s where we focus this article.

Customs Arrival

All flights from Asia arrive Delta’s McNamara Terminal in the central section of Concourse A. Getting off the aircraft, you’ll be directed below ground level and through a corridor to passport control - about a 5-minute walk. Expect lines at the passport desks of 10-20 minutes.

Picking up bags and working through the declarations line (plus random screening) can take as little as 10 or as much as 60 minutes, depending on traffic and staffing. If you have a domestic connection, look for the Delta baggage re-check counter. Your bags will be x-rayed and sent on to your next flight.

Exiting the customs zone will put you in the small reception area on the bottom floor of the McNamara Terminal. To get to your next Delta flight, head right to the elevators, ascend to level 2 and re-clear security.

Budgeting two hours for international-to-domestic connections should give you plenty of cushion for delays and security.

Click this image to open terminal maps (Wayne County Airport Authority)

Click this image to open terminal maps (Wayne County Airport Authority)

Navigating the Airport

The “A” concourse at the McNamara Terminal is - literally - a mile long. The international gates are located in the center, where you emerge after security screening. To the left and right there are each about two dozen gates where the mainline jets dock, for services to bigger cities.

Overhead you’ll see the red Express Tram, which connects the station in the center to both ends of the “A” concourse. From end to end the tram takes only 3 minutes.

Extending down and forward from the center is a tunnel out to the “B” and “C” gates, which sit parallel to the “A” concourse. The 58 B/C gates are used by regional aircraft to reach smaller cities and towns and to provide additional frequency to larger cities.

Moving sidewalks are used throughout the gate areas, so while the complex is vast, getting to your aircraft does not have to take a long time.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

The two signature art installations of the McNamara Terminal are the central Water Feature, directly under the Express Tram Terminal Station, and the Light Tunnel connecting the A gates to the B/C gates. Both are excellent fare for kids’ imaginations (and for de-stressing adults as well.)

The Water Feature is a large granite reflecting pool and arrangement of computer-controlled water jets that propel streams in graceful arcs from point to point, much like aircraft tracing the lines on a route map. The arrangement lasts about 2 minutes, and there is plenty of seating around the fountain to relax and observe. The fountain itself is just outside the main flow of foot traffic, so your kids won’t be getting underfoot if they want to stand and watch for awhile.

There is plenty of seating throughout the gate areas, and you can easily find an unused gate for quiet time. Concourse A is surprisingly quiet for all the activity, thanks to noise-absorbing ceiling panels. There is even a subtle breeze of fresh air flowing through.

Have the kids listen carefully, as every few minutes a recording of a hawk’s call is played. The terminal is so large that small birds have made it their home, and the calls are intended to keep them on the move rather than setting up nests over travelers’ heads.

The Light Tunnel is lined with etched glass panels that resemble clouds, mountains, ferns, and dragon scales, and multicolor LEDs which glow and change color in time with an original half-hour long musical composition. Walking back and forth through the tunnel to view the entire presentation - including an artistic impression of a thunderstorm - is a great time & energy drain.

Near gates A18, B21, and C4 there are small play areas. These are modest - no slides or climbing equipment - and shoehorned next to gate seating.

Directly attached to the A concourse, with its own security checkpoint, is a Westin Hotel. While it is unlikely your itinerary home would require an overnight stay, this hotel makes it very convenient if you need to break up the trip.

Restrooms

The McNamara Terminal features 16 immaculate family restrooms. These are generously sized with a large private stall, fold-out changing table, electric sockets, and a chair.

Standard restrooms also include built-in changing tables, and are regularly cleaned. Stall space is about average - a tight fit to try to manage a suitcase and a child. There are no shelves to keep your bags off the floor.

Food and Shopping

DTW is a great airport for food choices. There are food courts at either end of the A concourse, and additional restaurants and stalls spread throughout A, B, and C. The usual fast-food chains are represented, as well as sit-down restaurants and specialty stands featuring regional and world cuisine.

Most of the shopping options at DTW are of the newsstand and travel-accessory variety, with a few high-end jewelry/luggage stores. There is an outlet of the Henry Ford Museum near the central tram stop, and a branch of the KidZoo chain just north of the same stop, which will have something to appeal to the kids.

Connectivity

WiFi is available and complimentary for the first 30 minutes.

There is no rail service from the airport; public transportation from the McNamara Terminal is limited to the SMART bus route #125 to the Southland Shopping Center in Southgate.

Atlanta - ATL

The busiest airport in the world.

At a natural crossroads for the 19th-century railways, the highways that followed, and the airways that arose after that, Atlanta’s natural resources and people were brought together by transportation to create a manufacturing, finance, education, and media center. Atlanta’s diversity is reflected in its hometown companies, such as Coca-Cola, UPS, CNN/Turner Broadcasting, and The Home Depot.

Pioneer airlines Delta and Eastern developed ATL into the first true “hub” as they learned how to balance business and leisure traffic flows among the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, and the South. Short-haul and long-haul services were both within economical reach of common 20th-century aircraft thanks to Atlanta’s excellent geography.

After Eastern’s collapse, Delta rapidly expanded both in the USA and overseas, finding Atlanta again to be placed ideally to balance West Coast, Transatlantic and Latin American traffic flows. Today ATL is not just a true global hub, it is the busiest airport in the world by passenger count (although Beijing is catching up quickly!) Flights to major cities are now so frequent that there is no longer “slack time” between banks of connecting flights.

Low-cost carriers Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit offer substantial competition to key business and vacation centers across the US, and the major network carriers link ATL to every US hub.  

Service to Asia has been slow to develop, however, as Delta has better-positioned hubs to carry traffic in that direction (such as Detroit and Seattle). There are several flights: Delta’s focus city at Tokyo-Narita is served with a daily nonstop, and SkyTeam partner Korean Air flies from Seoul-Incheon with daily (with a late morning arrival). These flights allow for convenient same-day inbound connections from all across East and Southeast Asia and most major cities in China.

More options from Atlanta to East Asia have opened through the Middle East with the arrival of Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines in 2016. These carriers have been aggressively expanding their route networks and building new airports specifically for global connecting passengers.

Customs Arrival

With the completion of the new International Terminal in 2012, the arrival procedure has been streamlined significantly. Overseas flights dock at concourses E and F and passengers from those aircraft are directed through secure hallways to the new Customs facility beneath the International Terminal. Flights from Asia tend to use Concourse F (which is attached directly to the International Terminal.)

The walk from gates on Concourse F to passport control takes less than 5 minutes, but from Concourse E you should be prepared for 15-20 minutes (although there are moving sidewalks in the tunnel to help you along.) With 20 passport-check counters, waiting time for this step should be under 10 minutes - and baggage should be arriving at the carrousels at about the same time you do. 

If you have items to declare in your luggage, stop at the USCIS counter. If connecting to another flight turn left outside the baggage claim and re-check your bags at the airline counters - then proceed through the security check. Once through security, you can head up one level to Concourse F, go forward through the underground tunnel to Concourse E, or down to the tram station to ride to the other concourses. Check the row of departure information screens to figure out which direction to take.

Total time from getting off your aircraft to getting back into the gate area runs 30-60 minutes, depending on which concourse you arrive at and how many other overseas flights are being processed at the same time. 

If you’re not flying somewhere else, turn right outside the baggage claim and follow the hallway to the lower level of the International Terminal. If people are waiting for you this is where they’ll be, and the parking ramps are directly outside. If you are planning on using Atlanta’s MARTA system, catch the shuttle bus to the Domestic Terminal where the train station is located.

Navigating the Airport

Click the graphic to open terminal and concourse maps (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

Click the graphic to open terminal and concourse maps (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport)

ATL’s gates are arranged in six long parallel concourses. Starting from the Domestic Terminal:

  • Concourse T (United and American, some Delta long-haul flights)
  • Concourse A (Delta mainline, usually the biggest jets)
  • Concourse B (Delta mainline)
  • Concourse C (Delta mainline and regional services, plus Southwest)
  • Concourse D (Delta regional, Frontier, Spirit, other domestic)
  • Concourse E (International services)
  • Concourse F (International services) 
  • the International Terminal

The concourses are linked together by an underground automated tram (the "PlaneTrain"), and all gates are in the same security zone. Tram stations are located at the middle of each concourse. It takes just over a minute to travel from one concourse to the next; figure about 10 minutes from concourse A to concourse F. The tram tunnel also includes a pedestrian walkway; this is the best way to grab extra steps if you have the time or desire.

Walking from one end to the other of any concourse takes up to 15 minutes; be prepared for heavy crowds, especially in the middle sections and in front of restrooms and fast food places. Concourses A, B, C, and D get very congested (with D being the worst.)

The hallways are too narrow for moving sidewalks, and there aren’t enough escalators to quickly handle the crowds at tram stations. The tram can get very tightly-packed, especially at peak times of the day. You’ll need to carry along extra patience when traveling through ATL.

Having said that, the new Concourse F is better-designed all around, with a wider hallway, bigger gate areas, plenty of natural light, and comfier places to rest. If you have 2 or more hours between flights, this is the place to settle down.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

Compared to other major airports, ATL is sorely lacking in features to make travel less stressful for parents and more enjoyable for kids.

At present, there are no play areas in the concourses. (There used to be a few, but all were removed as of May 2011.) 

Some of the gift shops have toys, and Panda Veranda near gate B9 has a nice selection of stuffed animals and Atlanta Zoo merchandise, but there’s no other retail in any of the concourses specifically aimed at families.

ATL does feature an extensive collection of artwork of many varieties- from puppets to mosaics to sculptures, kid-created to professional - and pieces can be found throughout the complex, but especially on concourse E. If your children are old enough to enjoy the arts, this may be a good use of time.

Quiet, open space can be a challenge to find, and a place for kids to run around to burn off steam is even more difficult to come by. There are no designated relaxation areas, and considering how crowded the aisles get at peak connecting times, you’ll want to keep your kids very close.

As mentioned above, Concourse F is the best spot to find quiet, comfortable space if you have extended time between flights. We’ve also had good luck on Concourse E in finding empty gate areas where kids can nap or play on the carpet without getting underfoot.

Watching the takeoffs and landings is especially enjoyable in Atlanta, for the variety of airplanes you’ll see and the constant activity - the best spots for this are at the far end of any of the concourses.

Restrooms

There are 13 “family restrooms” in the secure gate area - 3 on concourse T; 2 on concourse A; 3 on B; 2 on C; and 2 on D. No dedicated family restrooms are located on the international concourse E, but one is on Concourse F by gate F6.

The facilities have the basics - a changing table, electric outlets, a wide space around the toilet - but are on the small size compared to other airports (except for F6) and don’t have a privacy wall around the toilet. They appear to get a lot of use, so cleanliness may be an issue.

Conventional restrooms are also heavily used, keeping the maintenance staff continually busy. The fixtures have recently been updated, but stall space is not big enough to hold your luggage and a child, and there is no shelving over the toilets or urinals to keep your bags up and out of the way. Both men’s and women’s restrooms do have changing tables near the sinks.

Food and Shopping

ATL does manage to pack a good number and variety of food options into the gate areas. Larger food courts can be found in the central areas of concourses A, B, E and F, just outside the tram escalators. The court on E has the most variety; the seating area on B has the best close-up view of the airplanes; and F has the most space to park your family comfortably.

Sit-down restaurants, fast food and coffee stands (with all the usual chains represented), and small carts are distributed evenly around the concourses.

Shopping options tend to be more of the newsstand / travel goods / electronics variety, with a few cosmetics shops and bookstores. Look for Atlanta-specific gift shops if you still need to pick up some locally-sourced items for presents.

Connectivity

ATL now has free WiFi available throughout the complex, including the PlaneTrain. Charging stations are widely available and easily spotted.

MARTA’s Red and Gold lines connect ATL with several neighborhoods, including College Park, West End, Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Lenox, Chamblee, Dunwoody, and North Springs. Connections downtown at Five Points to the Blue and Green lines give access to the east and west halves of the city as well.