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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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...
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.