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!

IMG_9442.JPG

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 daily service to Tokyo-Narita and Hong Kong. American and China Southern have also become allies, but at the moment China Southern only flies a freight-only route to Chicago.

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. Delta codeshares with both carriers.

Hainan Airlines is a rapidly-growing Chinese carrier not in one of the big 3 alliances, and it offers daily nonstops to Beijing. This carrier has also indicated it may possibly start Chicago-Chengdu service later in 2019-2020.

IMG_9431.JPG

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. [ UPDATE: The ATS system is being overhauled through Fall 2019. Follow the signage to a free bus connector to access the other terminals. ]

When the ATS system is brought back online, it will run about every five minutes; from Terminal 5 it will take 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, and Spirit. Terminal 2 is the home of Delta and Air Canada. Finally, Terminal 1 is the base for United Airlines.

IMG_2169.jpg

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.)

P1070040.JPG

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.

At the far-eastern end of United's "B" concourse, gates b19-20, you'll see a long art installation called "City Windows" by Qiao xiaoguang. it is based off traditional chinese papercuts and features scenes from both chicago and beijing. lots of details for kids to hunt for!

At the far-eastern end of United's "B" concourse, gates b19-20, you'll see a long art installation called "City Windows" by Qiao xiaoguang. it is based off traditional chinese papercuts and features scenes from both chicago and beijing. lots of details for kids to hunt for!

 

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! Even the H/K concourses where American has made some gate and dining upgrades, the restrooms show heavy wear and tear, and door locks are unreliable.

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.

O'Hare has been installing more unisex Family restrooms, and these are probably your better option with smaller children. In Terminal 1, they are near gates B4, B10, and C20. For Terminal 2, look across from the children's play area and also by gate E5. In Terminal 3, they are by gates G11, H3, H14, and L5. (There are also Family restrooms in the Terminal 1-2-3 baggage claim areas, outside security.) And in the International Terminal, there is one in the central food court.

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. (I would rate the Reggio's deep-dish ahead of Uno Pizza Express...) 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), and a smaller, more-cramped court out in the middle of United's concourse C; 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 through the Boingo network; you can get 30 minutes at low speed for free, but after that, or for any streaming you'd want to do, you'll have to pay for a package. Their servers remember your phone or laptop's IP address and won't serve you another free session for a full day...

IMG_3639.JPG

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Blue Line train runs from O’Hare to the downtown Loop 24 hours a day. The ride takes about 45 minutes, and from downtown,  connections can be made to all other CTA trains. At intermediate stations, several CTA bus routes intersect the Blue Line as well. The Blue Line station is under the central parking structure and can be accessed from the baggage claim level of Terminals 1, 2, and 3. From International Terminal 5, take the ATS tram to Terminal 3 and follow the signs.

Metra trains on the North Central line can be reached by taking the ATS all the way out to its end at Economy Parking Lot E and then using a shuttle bus to reach the O'Hare Transfer Station.

The airport is also served by two Pace suburban bus lines. For more transit info, click this reference page.

Also see:

Our family-travel guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Our Pinterest board for Chicago

Transpacific Pioneers: United Airlines' acquisition of Pan Am's Asian routes in 1986

Transpacific Pioneers: United Airlines' first Transpacific services in 1983

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 daily nonstop to Shanghai-Pudong (extra frequencies added seasonally) as well as a 3-per-week nonstop to Nanjing, 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.

Image by  Anna Zvereva  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Anna Zvereva via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Sichuan Airlines, not part of an alliance, has a 3-per-week service from Chengdu via either Shenyang or Zhengzhou to YVR. Another non-aligned carrier, Beijing Capital Airlines (part of the Hainan Airlines confederation) runs a Vancouver-Qingdao-Hangzhou  3-per-week service, and one of their sister carriers, Hong Kong Airlines, flies low-cost daily nonstops to its namesake city. Hainan Airlines itself is running YVR-Shenzhen nonstops twice weekly from late January 2019 onward.

P1080882.JPG

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.

For 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.

The airport will be undertaking a massive expansion to its International and U.S. gate areas and terminal area through the early 2020s with the goal of handling about 50% more passengers - be prepared to dodge some construction (but the illustrations look amazing & we are looking forward to visiting again!)

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.

Where to Stay:

If your connections or driving time makes it a good idea to either spend the night near the airport before you leave, or after you return from overseas, here are some family-friendly hotels near the airport with free shuttles to consider:

  • The Fairmont Vancouver Airport is certainly the easiest to reach, as it is attached to the main terminal (just east of the U.S. ticket counters). Rates are higher than the off-airport properties but not by much.

  • Hampton Inn Vancouver Airport / Richmond

  • Radisson Hotel Vancouver Airport

  • Holiday Inn Express Vancouver Airport

  • La Quinta Inn Vancouver Airport

  • Four Points by Sheraton Vancouver Airport

  • Accent Inn Vancouver Airport

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on Vancouver

Minneapolis / St. Paul - MSP

The historic bridge from the northern tier to East Asia.

The connection between the Twin Cities and East Asia goes back to the late 1800s and the days of the railroad barons. When local “Empire Builder” James J. Hill completed his Great Northern and Northern Pacific lines from Minnesota to Seattle, his trans-Pacific steamship line was waiting to provide continuous service to Yokohama and the ports of Cathay.

Northwest Airlines - headquartered here - pioneered the “Great Circle Route” from America through Canada and Alaska to Asia during World War II, and pioneered airline service along that corridor after the war. Minnesotan companies like 3M, Cargill, General Mills, and Target built import and export business with Asia; the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic attracted students and clients from across the Pacific; and a steady stream of immigration and overseas adoption has made the Twin Cities into a surprising multicultural home.

MSP-Delta-777-Haneda-landing.JPG

The Minneapolis-Tokyo route is still flown daily by Northwest’s successor Delta Airlines; the terminus was switched from Narita Airport to the more-conveniently located Haneda Airport, making this flight excellent for family travel to Japan. Delta is starting MSP-Seoul Incheon nonstops in April 2019 and this will allow for excellent connections to all of East and Southeast Asia, exceeding what Delta and Northwest had ever offered over Narita.

Delta has also applied for Minneapolis-Shanghai nonstop service to begin in 2020, if approved.

MSP is Delta’s 3rd-biggest hub, so same-afternoon connections from the inbound Tokyo and Seoul flights can be made to every large city in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast, plus almost every mid-sized community in the North Central states.

Customs Arrival

Even though MSP's Terminal 1 is a very busy facility, when the Asian flights arrive there are usually no other international operations being processed by Customs. As a result, passport checks go quickly; expect a 5-15 minute line.

Baggage claim at MSP used to be dreadfully long, but Delta has made steady improvements - domestic luggage is usually coming onto the carrousel by the time you’ve made it off the airplane and down to baggage claim. International passengers should expect to see their bags rolling up about 10 minutes after clearing passport control.

If you have nothing to declare, you may proceed directly to the exit area. If you’re connecting to another Delta flight, check your bags at the Delta counter and then go through security screening. You’ll exit directly back onto Concourse G - the same level you arrived on.

If you’re using another airline, taking ground transport or being picked up, skip the security check and head downstairs to the exit on the domestic baggage claim level.

Navigating the Airport

MSP uses two terminals, spaced several miles apart. Terminal 1 (Lindbergh) is much larger and the home of all Delta and SkyTeam flights, plus United, American, Spirit, Alaska, and Frontier. Terminal 2 (Humphrey) is the home of low-cost carriers Southwest and Sun Country, as well as budget carriers coming over from Europe like Icelandair and Condor - it has its own dedicated Customs operation so as not to interfere with Delta/ Skyteam arrivals at peak times. There is a free subway link between the terminals which is accessed via the parking complexes at each building. As most Asian trips through here will be on Delta, that’s where we focus this article.

Terminal 1 is H-shaped, with four main piers extending from the central ticketing / shopping / baggage claim complex. The longer concourses (A, B, C, and G) are equipped with moving sidewalks, and there is also a tram running between the A - C - D gate areas. If you are checking in for an international flight, those Delta counters are on the left-hand (western) side of the building.

Delta has installed automatic luggage drop centers at the main terminal check-in. these have the potential to significantly speed up the process, especially for traveling families!

Delta has installed automatic luggage drop centers at the main terminal check-in. these have the potential to significantly speed up the process, especially for traveling families!

Delta uses the A, B, C, and D gates mostly for regional aircraft and shorter-haul routes. The F and G gates see larger aircraft and longer-haul routes.  Gates G1 - G10 can serve long-range international flights; the Tokyo run usually departs from G4.

The G-concourse was renovated in 2012-2013 to feature thoughtful, family-friendly improvements such as wider seats, easy access to power outlets, and even iPads free to use for games and ordering food (which is delivered to where you are sitting!)

All other Terminal 1 carriers are located on Concourse E. Regional propeller-aircraft flights dock at the far end of Concourse B.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

In the middle of Concourse C you’ll find a large active play area, where kids can climb, slide, and explore a two-level jetliner.

Also near the play area (by gate C22) you’ll find a private nursing-mothers room. And there’s a vending machine for diaper-bag basics next to the play area, too!

MSP has sported video-game and pinball arcades since the 1970s and there are three of them operating today - look by gates G7, C1, and F7.

There's a small, free movie theater that runs short films near Gate C13, and along the moving sidewalk between gates C7 and C4 there is an art gallery with frequently-changed exhibitions.

MSP_LiveMusic-marquee.jpg

The Republic bar at the entrance to the D concourse has built a live-music venue that will showcase work by students, faculty, and friends from the Twin Cities' music community. 

IMG_9719.JPG

Most local travelers don't know about the open-air “Quiet Seating Area” in the central complex upstairs on the Mezzanine level; a perfect place to close your eyes and get away from crowds between flights. Look for the sign by the entrance to Concourses F.

Another great place to find some peace is off Concourse D, up three flights of stairs to the Observation Deck. You’ll have a panoramic view of the eastern half of the airport and Downtown Minneapolis. There are extra seats here and usually very few travelers. If your kids are a little bit older or fascinated by airplanes, head here between flights.

MSP_MensLav-art-mainterm.jpg

Restrooms

There are five Family facilities in the secure side of Terminal 1 (near gates A6, B11, C16, at the entrance to Concourse E, and F11.)  Restrooms throughout Terminal 1 are being progressively remodeled to give more light and less crowding - these upgraded facilities each feature unique and cheerful mosaic artwork at their entrances. Brightly lit and with plenty of room to maneuver around in a heavy coat or with a stroller, these could be some of the best airport restrooms in the country!

Stalls are both wider than the ones they replaced and *deeper* which means you can get your roll-aboard suitcase in there with you ... or a stroller... and still have room to take care of business without smashing your knees. They've also added hooks and small shelves inside the stalls to help you keep your gear off the floor. Each of these upgraded restrooms has a changing table, and usually one even-larger stall for wheelchairs or family needs, where it's actually walled-off, not just partitioned-off, for extra privacy.

IMG_3628.JPG

Food and Shopping

The many choices for eating and shopping at MSP, and their convenience, are award-winning. The “Northstar Crossing” central terminal area (being progressively re-built in 2017) houses dozens of stores, sit-down restaurants, and fast food and coffee counters. Ample seating at the central food court looks over the E and F concourses. Each concourse also has its own options, with mini-food courts in the A1, C12, E6, F5, G-entrance, and G20 neighborhoods. You may never even need to venture into Northstar Crossing to find a great meal...

The new "Food Truck Alley" midway up the E concourse, for instance, features only Twin Cities-area restaurants, and offers fun choices for any time of day:

IMG_3629.JPG
You walk through this market to get to the main International gates in Terminal 1.

You walk through this market to get to the main International gates in Terminal 1.

The open-air market area at the entrance to the G-gates is a particular favorite for families because of its many healthy food options, buffet-style stations, and a self-serve frozen yogurt bar!

Connectivity

Wi-Fi is now free at MSP for the first 30 minutes.

IMG_0031.JPG

MSP is located on the METRO light-rail “Blue Line”, taking you to Downtown Minneapolis (northbound, 30 minutes) and the Mall of America (southbound, 15 minutes.)

Where to Stay

If your inbound or outbound connection requires you to stop over, or if you're driving to MSP from an outlying destination and want to have a night's rest before travel, there are many nearby family-friendly hotels. With the Mall of America only a few minutes away, entertainment and eating options abound. Some mid-range choices will include: 

  • Courtyard by Marriott Bloomington

  • Hilton Garden Inn Minneapolis Airport

  • Hyatt Place Minneapolis Airport South

  • Crowne Plaza AiRE (the Northwest Airlines History Center is also located in this building!)

  • Embassy Suites MSP Airport

  • Fairfield Inn & Suites

  • Four Points by Sheraton Minneapolis Airport

  • Hampton Inn & Suites Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport

Also see:

Our family-travel guide to St. Paul's emerging "Little Mekong" district

How the Mall of America helped Northwest Airlines start additional Asian flights

Our Pinterest board for Minneapolis/St. Paul

Our Pinterest board on Northwest Airlines

San Francisco - SFO

IMG_4629.jpg

The traditional U.S. gateway to Asia

From the days of sailing ships to the flight of the China Clipper, San Francisco's ports have long been the primary connecting point for passengers and cargo between the USA and Asia. California's Gold Rush of the 1850s and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad were not just logistical drivers that put San Francisco in its hub position, but also the reasons for the initial wave of Chinese immigration to North America.

Despite a troubled social and environmental history, Asians stayed in the city, and more waves followed, creating iconic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Japantown in the city proper, and giving the entire Bay Area an exciting and unique cultural mix like nowhere else on Earth.

Universities, research centers, military, electronics and Internet industries all promote a trans-Pacific worldview, and school systems in the region routinely teach Asian languages.

All this demand has resulted in a cornucopia of choices to cross the Pacific, with over 20 daily departures:

  • To Tokyo-Narita, United and ANA-All Nippon each have a daily nonstop. To Tokyo-Haneda, United and Japan Airlines each fly daily.
  • To Osaka-Kansai, United flies nonstop daily.
  • To Seoul-Incheon, there are three daily nonstops; one each on United, Korean Air, and Asiana.
  • To Beijing, United and Air China each have a daily nonstop.
  • To Shanghai-Pudong, China Eastern and United each have a daily nonstop.
  • To Chengdu, in China's western Sichuan Province, United has a 3-times-per-week nonstop.
  • Guangzhou is reached daily by China Southern; 4 flights per week are nonstop, and the other 3 stop in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province.
  • Hong Kong enjoys twice-daily nonstops on Cathay Pacific, plus a daily nonstop each on United and Singapore Airlines, and new nonstop service on Hong Kong Airlines which started in March 2018.
  • To Taipei, China Airlines and United each offer daily nonstops; EVA Air flies it twice-daily.
  • Manila has a daily nonstop on Philippine Airlines.
  • Singapore is now served nonstop twice daily: one with United and one with Singapore Airlines - and those are mighty long flights, indeed. Additional nonstop service will be added in late 2018. The city is also reached with a one-stop on Singapore Airlines via Hong Kong.
IMG_4644.jpg
IMG_4638.jpg

For domestic flights, United is by far the dominant carrier at SFO with a full-fledged hub operation with commuter, regional, and transcontinental service; they run all the E and F gates out of Terminal 3 and have a connector to concourse G in the International Terminal so that you do not have to go through another security screening.

American, Alaska, and Delta are the next-biggest carriers at SFO, both covering a number of key business destinations and some shuttle services. Southwest, Frontier, JetBlue, and Sun Country cover a narrower set of domestic routes.

Customs Arrival

All flights from Asia arrive at the International Terminal. Star Alliance flights (United, Air China, ANA, EVA Air, Asiana, Singapore) arrive at Concourse G; everyone else arrives on Concourse A. For both concourses, there is a departures level above and an arrivals level below. As you exit your aircraft, ramps will direct you to the ground floor and moving sidewalks will take you to the central Immigration desks. Wait times range between 5 - 30 minutes depending on how many flights are unloading; SFO is usually one of the fastest airports in the country for handling passport control.

Your bags should be waiting on the carousels beyond; if you have any goods to declare, stop at the Customs/Inspection counters; if not, you'll leave the hall. Airline counters are just outside to re-check your bags if connecting onward; if the Bay Area is your destination, ground transport including the AirTrain and BART are just outside.

After checking your bags, go up one floor to the Ticketing level to move on to your domestic terminal / gate. United is to the left (north) in Terminal 3; Delta on the right (south) for Terminal 1; for American you'll take the AirTrain to Terminal 2. You will have to re-clear security.

Navigating the Airport

Click on this graphic to open the SFO Airport map page (San Francisco International Airport)

Click on this graphic to open the SFO Airport map page (San Francisco International Airport)

SFO has been rebuilding the domestic gates and terminal buildings; Terminal 2 / Concourse D (American and Alaska is complete) is all-new. United's complex in Terminal 3 has finished its renovations, and Terminal 1 is well underway.

United has the lion's share of domestic-international connections, and their gate setup makes it seamless for travelers to connect; departure areas in concourses E, F, and G are all inside the same security zone.

Concourses C (Delta) and D (American, Alaska) are also in a common security zone.

Concourse B is mostly Southwest and is in its own security zone - it is undergoing heavy remodeling; Concourse A - in addition to international departures - also houses JetBlue and Sun Country.

There are connecting passageways between Terminal 3 - Terminal 2 - Terminal 1, but these are in the public (non-security) zone. It's usually faster to take the AirTrain if you have to get between Terminal 2 and the International Terminal, and while construction on the western end of Terminal 1 is ongoing, there's no walkway to even use - so you'll have to use the AirTrain as well.

IMG_3878.jpg

For local passengers, check-in at the spacious International Terminal is straightforward, with the Star Alliance carriers' counters close to the Concourse G entrance, and the SkyTeam & oneworld carriers concentrated toward the Concourse A entrance.

On the International Terminal concourses A and G, the boarding gates are actually below the walkway and retail/restaurant space. Escalators and elevators can take you between these levels; everything is in the same security group.  (You can't pass between A and G, however.)

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

SFO is not just well-known for its extensive art displays and numerous seasonal exhibits throughout the complex, they're an actual, accredited museum, with more than 20 different gallery spaces in the terminals, plus a library, and a full-sized permanent aviation museum in the International Terminal.

IMG_4633.jpg

There are four "Kids' Spots" at SFO - two in Concourse D, one on E, and one on F - each with weather-related science experiment stations, some kind of climbing / crawling apparatus, and spongy flooring to help tykes wiggle out extra energy before flights. On Concourse E by gate 60, also see the "Flight Deck," where a great view of the tarmac is paired with interactive screens teaching about aviation history and the city of San Francisco.

Yoga rooms have been set up on Concourses D and E to help you unwind. SFO has self-guided tours / scavenger hunts for kids for each of the three domestic terminal areas, with prizes for completing each course - check with the Information desks for the guides.

Drinking fountains on all the concourses have been upgraded to hydration stations, so you can refill your water bottles for free.

Perhaps the most AWESOME amenity at SFO is the "Wag Brigade," a group of over 20 specially-trained dogs who are brought all over the terminal complex to help de-stress travelers and bring smiles to kids and grown-ups.

Restrooms

Standard mens' and women's restrooms at SFO get a lot of traffic, so be prepared for lines during peak connecting waves. Stall space is at a minimum and would be very cramped with a child; expect one hook but no shelf to keep your bags off the floor. Cleanliness varies with traffic, but we saw frequent cleanings. The fittings and finish in the International area is nicer than the United gates, but overall SFO's restrooms don't stand out one way or the other.

At SFO their 'companion care restrooms' are what other airports would label 'family restrooms', meaning the same thing: a good amount of shelf space for changing and keeping bags off the floor; sinks and handles at lower heights; and plenty of maneuvering room. There are 8 of these on the all-new Concourse D; just one each on E and F - and none on B or C, nor on the International wings.

There are private nursery rooms available in each of the domestic terminals and most of the domestic concourses; you'll need to reserve them - there's a code you have to enter for access (use the airport courtesy phone to get set up.)

Food and Shopping

While on the International wings you can expect the usual duty-free lineup of luxury brands, perfume, crystals, and leather, on the domestic side you can really see how the airport has brought in local restaurateurs and merchants to give travelers a real sense of being in San Francisco. 

The only Starbucks outlets are pre-security, and there's only one Burger King; for coffee inside security it's mostly local Peet's, and while you can get burgers, there's an amazing amount of seafood and Asian fare compared to nearly any other airport in the U.S. - and fairly priced, too!

Likewise for merchandise, the vendors have been thoughtfully selected and souvenirs are relevant to the city; and there is a good selection of material for kids at bookshops and even clothing stores.

IMG_5220.jpg

Connectivity

The airport's Wi-Fi is strong and free, with no interruptions for commercials.

The BART system has a station just outside the International Terminal; trips to downtown are 30 minutes long. BART connects to Caltrain at the Millbrae station for folks heading south. And SamTrans has 24-hour bus service available for all of San Mateo and parts of San Francisco.

IMG_5008.jpg

Lodging

If your flight timing has an awkward connection in or outbound, or for families driving to SFO from a distance, an overnight stay near the airport may be a good idea. Thankfully there is a good variety of family-friendly hotels just north and south of the airport with shuttle service, including:

  • The Aloft San Francisco Airport
  • The Westin San Francisco Airport
  • Hampton Inn & Suites - San Francisco-Burlingame
  • Hampton Inn & Suites - San Francisco Airport
  • Comfort Inn & Suites San Francisco Airport West
  • Four Points by Sheraton Hotel & Suites San Francisco Airport
  • Courtyard by Marriott San Francisco Airport
  • Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport South
  • Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport North
  • Crowne Plaza San Francisco Airport

Several of the hotels on the airport's southern side are immediately across the street from Bayfront Park, which has a nice walking trail and stunning views of the intersecting runways.

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on San Francisco

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). Another budget carrier, Scoot, also flies four-per-week to Osaka (continuing on to Singapore). 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 Singapore, Scoot runs 4 weekly flights 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.

Image by  airbus777  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by airbus777 via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

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. Southwest Airlines is expected to begin some level of inter-island service in 2019 to provide some competition to Hawaiian.

Image courtesy Mokulele Airlines

Image courtesy Mokulele Airlines

Mokulele Airlines is the third-level carrier in the state, flying 9-seat Caravan turboprops to smaller airports on Molokai, Maui, and the Big Island.

Customs Arrival

Arriving passengers from international flights from the B, C, and G gates are directed onto buses to the central Customs facility; from the D, E, and F 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 Mokulele propeller-craft services, catch a bus to the Terminal 3. All other carriers are directly upstairs in Terminal 2.

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...

Image composed using Google Maps.   Click on the diagram above to open the Honolulu Airport's map page

Image composed using Google Maps. 

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 Mokulele Airlines will arrive at Terminal 3 on the far western end of the complex. Terminal 1 is for the short hops on Hawaiian Airlines (or its partner, Ohana). The long-haul international flights dock at Terminal 2.

An important thing to remember is that all the Terminal 2 gates are "common-use", meaning any flight could be assigned to any gate. While United tends to get the G gates and Delta the E gates, "it all depends" day to day, so be sure to check the monitors on your day of flying.

  • Passengers coming in on Mokulele Airlines need to pick up their luggage in Terminal 3, walk outside to a shuttle bus, and take that either to Terminal 1 (if connecting on Hawaiian) or Terminal 2 (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 (probably 120) to connect as buses, airline desks, and TSA lines can't be easily predicted.
  • Hawaiian Air passengers will already be in Terminal 1, with bags checked through and in the secure zone.

Passengers from Oahu check in either at Terminal 1 (Hawaiian Air) or the Terminal 2 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 Terminal 1 and connecting to the G gates - especially - go up to the third floor and take the bus; it will save you almost 20 minutes of walking. The bus also makes intermediate stops.

What is really unusual - and that will make mainland travelers unsure if they've made a mistake - is that the walkways from Terminal 2 out to the C and G 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 2018-2020, Hawaiian Airlines will be extending the A gates into where the old Commuter Terminal used to be, and will run international flights from there as well. This should help the crowding situation when multiple overseas flights converge...

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 E concourse and the food court of Terminal 2, and the smaller between Terminal 1 and the C 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) - the G gates used to be called  the "Diamond Head concourse" 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

Terminal 1 - 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 Terminal 2 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 E6 on the central concourse and Gate A15 in Terminal 1 - none out on the C or G concourses or in the central Terminal 2 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 Terminal 2, plus a small cluster at the entry of the central E concourse. Outside of that the food offerings are scattered, but very few options out on the C and G concourses.

Likewise, most of the retail is clustered along the corridor running through Terminal 2, with more shops in the central E concourse and only newsstands on C and G.

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 E2 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 G 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.

Small workstation clusters are available near gates A15, A19, B5, E3, and F2.

Some areas where there used to be phone banks (mostly in Terminal 2) 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

Our article on Lahaina's Historic District

Our "Transpacific Pioneers" article on Inter-Island Airways (predecessor to Hawaiian Airlines)

Calgary - YYC

skyline-calgary-866032_1280.jpg

Connecting Asia with the Energy of the New West

Calgary's combination of mountain tourism appeal, its energy and agricultural industries, and its concentration of corporate headquarters give good reasons for Asian business and leisure travelers to come to Alberta, and for local traders and investors to make their way west across the Pacific.

But also as long as there has been a Calgary, there has been a Chinese emigre community in Calgary - over 100 years. The Canadian Pacific steamship and rail lines were key to the Asian settlements in Vancouver, and Calgary's position as the next major city east on the C.P.R. also made it a natural place to build new lives. In the current era, Calgary is home to immigrants and students from throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Canada's openness to global trade and immigration - and savvy negotiation of air services treaties - has helped the country become a vital node to the world's economy, so it is not surprising to see Alberta gain Transpacific airline links.

Image by  Daniel  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Daniel via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by  BriYYZ  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by BriYYZ via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Air Canada launched Calgary-Tokyo flights in 2010 with a three-per-week schedule, but thanks to strong demand the frequency was upgraded to daily status in 2012, where it has remained. The late-morning arrival from Tokyo, and early-afternoon departure from YYC, allow ample time for connections with airports in the Prairie provinces. Flights AC 009 / 010 operate with a Boeing 767-300, which has a comfortable and family-friendly 2-3-2 seat arrangement in Economy.

Image by  Malcolm  via Flickr, CC 1.0 license (public domain)

Image by Malcolm via Flickr, CC 1.0 license (public domain)

Hainan Airlines launched flights from Beijing to Calgary in June 2016. These services run three days per week (every other day) and arrive YYC about 1 pm; departing about 3 pm. The Boeing 787 is used on this route, with a tighter 3-3-3 arrangement in Economy.

Image by  Paul Hamilton  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Paul Hamilton via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Calgary is a hub for both Air Canada and WestJet (who is also headquartered there). Both carriers operate competitive networks to all the major Canadian cities and regional centers, using a mix of jet and prop equipment. WestJet is the largest carrier at YYC, offering about 50% more seats than Air Canada; however they do not fly to Asia at this time.

Image by  abdallahh  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by abdallahh via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

YYC also connects with smaller airports in Alberta, the Yukon, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and British Columbia with several independent commuter carriers.

Image by  Iván Ledesma  via Google/Picasa, public domain

Image by Iván Ledesma via Google/Picasa, public domain

Customs Arrival

After deplaning from an international flight, passengers are routed down to ground level and directed toward the International Terminal. Passengers ticketed for onward domestic flights should look for signage to direct them to the "Connections Centre", because depending on the inbound flight and airline, you may be permitted to go directly to your onward flight without having to reclaim baggage or undergo further screening (check with your airline for details). 

All other passengers are shunted to the passport control counters and then baggage claim, before exiting to the landslide zone. YYC does offer Automated Border Clearance terminals which may speed the process for families who've signed up. 

A reviewer on sleepinginairports.net stated, "humongous, well-staffed customs areas make passing the border a breeze." Depending on how many other flights are arriving, wait times for passport check should run 10-20 minutes.

Image by  Susan Johnston  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Susan Johnston via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Map created with Google Earth photo imagery. Click on image to open airport maps on the YYC website.

Map created with Google Earth photo imagery. Click on image to open airport maps on the YYC website.

Navigating the airport

YYC has a domestic terminal with three concourses: A, B, and C. Concourse A is primarily the gates for WestJet, and the smaller independent carriers. B is split between WestJet and Air Canada, with C dedicated to Air Canada. The A and B gates radiate out of a central security checkpoint, but there is a narrow secure hallway between B and C, and C and D/E.

The International D and US-bound E gates sit on top of each other, and are shared across all carriers. The airlines share all these gates, and the assignments change from day to day. You might not know which particular gate your flight is leaving from until the aircraft actually arrives, so the airport would prefer you sit in the concourse's central waiting area (and shop and eat) instead of going directly to the gate. This means you'll need to watch the departure monitors frequently and listen intently for announcements while you're trying to watch your kids.

Image by  Steve Gerecke  via Google Maps, public domain

Image by Steve Gerecke via Google Maps, public domain

The International terminal is a 5-10 minute walk from the close end of the Domestic Terminal via an enclosed walkway, on both the ticketing and baggage claim levels in the pre-security area, and also via moving sidewalk inside the secure zone. If you have through-ticketing from a connecting domestic flight onto your international departure, you won't need to leave the secure zone to check in at the ticket counters; just proceed directly to the D concourse.

Image by  Daniel  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Image by Daniel via Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0 license

Inside the secure zone, there are also "YYC LINK" 10-passenger mini buses that stop at all the concourses, even the International wing. From one side of the airport to the other takes just 5 minutes by this method.

Image by  Brian Chow  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Brian Chow via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by  Sascha Pohflepp  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Sascha Pohflepp via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

There are two kids' play zones in the secure area for International (non-US) departures:

  • Gate D80 with a Calgary Stampede theme
  • Gate D72 with an aviation theme
Image courtesy Calgary International Airport

Image courtesy Calgary International Airport

There are also two play zones in the US departures gate area, and three in the public (non-secured) parts of the airport. Plus, YYC has placed smaller climbing and play structures throughout the domestic gate areas.

Flippers Arcade is an old-fashioned video game lounge on Concourse A; teach your kids how it was done back before we had the Internet and touchscreen phones!

The Calgary International SpacePort, at the food court mezzanine level between concourses B and C, (outside security) is a free attraction with flight simulators, real moon rocks, and a big model of the Space Shuttle! It's open 9 am - 9 pm weekdays, and 9 am - 5 pm on weekends.

Image by  Steve Gerecke  via Google Maps, public domain

Image by Steve Gerecke via Google Maps, public domain

Artwork in a wide variety of media have been placed throughout the airport, from tiny brass fossils in the flooring to giant sculptures in the arrivals hall; unique displays in domestic baggage claim, and even giant cartoony conifers in the International gates.

Baby care and private nursing rooms are available next to all the restrooms in the secure side of the International terminal,  plus two on domestic concourse A and one on concourse C.

Image by  Adetoyese Oyedun  via Google Maps, public domain

Image by Adetoyese Oyedun via Google Maps, public domain

Restrooms

As the International gates were opened in 2016, the restrooms for the D gates are all still quite new and designed with current accessibility standards. Standard restrooms have conventional-sized stalls. For both International and Domestic restroom locations, larger-sized units with locking doors are available for families.

Image courtesy Who's Who in the Zoo

Image courtesy Who's Who in the Zoo

Food and Shopping

Once through security and into the International departures area (Concourse D), you'll have to walk right through the Duty Free Shopping zone. As these are generally luxury items, alcohol, perfume, and the like that you won't be able to consume or use right away, walk right through into the central waiting area. Of interest to families are two candy shops, two newsstand / convenience stores, and the toy shop "Who's Who in the Zoo?," specializing in animals and aviation.

In the central area of Concourse D there are also three sit-down restaurants, Thai and Indian food counters, several fast-food locations, and a Starbucks. 

Back in the domestic secure zone, Concourse A definitely has the most options for fast and fresh food; Concourses B and C have basically Tim Horton's, Starbucks, and Jugo Juice outposts. If you have a lot of time between international and domestic flights, and don't mind going through security again, a meal in the big food court in the landside area between concourses B and C will give far more options.

In the same vein, family-interest shopping options are rather scarce on Concourse B and minimal on Concourse C (although there is a "Who's Who in the Zoo" mini location there.) Most of the shopping variety will be found on Concourse A, including another outpost of the "Who's Who" toy shop.

Connectivity

YYC is linked to downtown / City Hall with BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) service on route 300. The fare is C$10.50, and it makes 12 intermediate stops. Route 100 is a local bus connecting the airport to the city's northeastern neighborhoods. Route 100 does connect to the CTrain Blue Line for access to the western side of the city via downtown, but there's no speed advantage versus connecting onto Route 300 in downtown.

There are plans to extend the Blue Line to the airport, and recent road construction has reserved space to handle the light rail line, but no timetable has been yet set.

Wi-Fi is free and fast throughout the airport.

Image courtesy calgary airport marriott in-terminal hotel

Image courtesy calgary airport marriott in-terminal hotel

Lodging

For families driving in from more than a few hours' distance, an overnight stay either before or after the trip may make sense to get used to the time change, deal with weather, or just to recharge after the stress of long-distance flying.

There are two full-service hotels directly attached to YYC:

  • Marriott Hotel Calgary Airport
  • Delta Hotels Calgary Airport

And there are several hotels just off-property with convenient shuttle service, including:

  • Homewood Suites Calgary Airport
  • Hampton Inn Calgary Airport North
  • Radisson Hotel Calgary Airport North
  • Best Western Premier Freeport Inn & Suites
  • Candlewood Suites Calgary Airport North
  • Holiday Inn Express & Suites Airport - Calgary

Also see

Our airport guide to Tokyo-Narita

Our guide to Calgary's Chinatown neighborhood

Header of Calgary skyline photo by by MillicanD on Pixabay, CC 0 license (public domain)