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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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...

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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

San Francisco - SFO

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Denver - DEN

A growing airport, reaching new heights of service

Denver has long functioned as a hub for the Mountain West, first with the transcontinental rail lines linking Chicago and Missouri with California and Texas with the Pacific Northwest, and then with the airlines: United, Frontier, Continental, and Western all built connecting operations there from the 1920s up into the 1970s.

The city’s old Stapleton International Airport had to be extended time and again until there was nowhere left to build, and at the expense of operating well in snow and bad weather. Sites to start a new airport were evaluated through the 1980s, and the building process went from 1989 through 1995.

Early troubles with the airport’s baggage system and snow removal were resolved, and today Denver International is one of the highest-rated airports in North America with excellent on-time figures.

Despite its busy schedule of connecting flights and growing list of nonstops to Europe, Denver did not get a flight to Asia until June 2013, when United launched service to Tokyo-Narita. Part of this is due to the city’s historic absence of Asian immigrant communities: in the 1880s an early Chinatown was destroyed in race riots, and a later version was torn down in 1940 to build industrial space. The Vietnamese community that arrived in the 1970s-80s stayed and grew roots, however, and in the 1990s-2000s global trade and higher education has drawn budding neighborhoods of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants. 

Denver’s high altitude and thinner air also posed a problem for long-range flights to Asia; United’s early Transpacific fleet of 747-200s and DC-10-30s would not have been able to carry full loads nonstop, so those airplanes were used from Seattle and California instead.

Image by  Jeffrey Beall  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

United’s newest generation 787-8 was the right aircraft with the high-performance engines, low weight, and appropriate capacity to handle the route, and with Star Alliance partner ANA-All Nippon generating connecting traffic in Tokyo, the daily flight is a permanent fixture in the Colorado sky.

Appropriately, United is Denver’s largest airline and offers services to large and mid-sized cities across the USA. The Tokyo flight’s lunchtime arrival and departure times allow for well over 100 connecting flights.

Image by  Tomás Del Coro  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Tomás Del Coro via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Denver is also the home base for low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines (with its famous animal-tailed jets) and a major connecting center for Southwest Airlines.  American, Delta, JetBlue, Alaska, and Spirit also serve the city. 

Image by  Thomas Hawk  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image of International Arrivals area by  Sunnya343  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

Image of International Arrivals area by Sunnya343 via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

Customs Arrival

The flight from Tokyo will arrive at the central section of the A concourse. After deplaning, passengers are directed up and across the skybridge from the concourse to the Jeppesen Terminal, coming out on Level 5 for passport control and then baggage claim. Passengers connecting onward may drop their bags at the United counter before heading out into the terminal.

The exit from Customs is conveniently on the same level as domestic baggage claim, and for connecting passengers, the security checkpoint (and train station to get back to the gates) is just steps away.

Click through to the full-size version, courtesy Denver International Airport

Click through to the full-size version, courtesy Denver International Airport

Navigating the airport

Denver shares the same general arrangement as Atlanta, with a main terminal “head” building and a “spine” of an underground tram connecting multiple parallel concourses. Once inside security, all gates can be reached. There are three concourses at Denver:

Concourse A holds the dedicated International gates, the Frontier hub operation, and gates for American, Delta, JetBlue, Sun Country, and the independent commuter carriers Boutique Air and Denver Air Connection. Passengers can also walk across a bridge from the main terminal to reach the A gates – aircraft taxi underneath!

Concourse B houses United’s hub, including United Express gates.

Concourse C is for Southwest , Alaska, and Spirit.

Thanks to growing traffic, the airport will soon be expanding the concourses to either side to make more gates. Ultimately the tram system can be extended out to support future D and E concourses by mid-century.

Image by  marcos ojeda  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by marcos ojeda via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Full-length windows and high ceilings help the concourses avoid feeling cramped, and moving walkways run the length of each concourse to help you reach your gate quickly. Power outlets are widely available. And check for extra seating areas one level above the gates!

Image by  Ard van der Leeuw  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Ard van der Leeuw via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

There aren't any dedicated kids' play areas in the terminal or concourses, which seems like a missed opportunity.

The concourses are long enough to get good exercise - and the bird's eye view of the airport apron from the skybridge connecting the Jeppesen Terminal to Concourse A is great entertainment. In good weather, the Rocky Mountains also make for fascinating scenery.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

More and more airports are bringing animals into the terminal and gate areas to help kids and grown-ups deal with stress and have happy experiences, and Denver is no exception: look for their CATS patrol (Canine Airport Therapy Squad)!

If you have the time, pull up the airport's website or grab a printed guide to the artwork currently on display and take the kids on an art scavenger hunt - DEN is loaded with installations large and small, permanent and temporary.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Nursing rooms are available in the center of each concourse. These are quiet spaces with sinks and changing areas, and can only be entered with a passcode.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Restrooms

The restroom facilities at DEN are well-distributed throughout the gate areas and central concourse cores. All restrooms are handicap accessible and private, larger-space unisex/family rooms are spread throughout the facility. If you're managing more than one child, you'll want to look for those family restrooms as the stalls in the 'standard' facilities are conventionally-sized and not big enough to handle suitcases and a stroller at the same time.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Food and Shopping

There are food courts in the central upper levels of each concourse, and additional dining and beverage counters scattered through the gate areas. The options include the usual fast-food and mall-based brands, and outposts of some of Denver's local restaurants if you have time for a sit-down meal.

Shopping options are a mix of clothing, souvenir, newsstand, candy, and electronics. Of course, being in Colorado means plenty of outdoor gear is available (and beef jerky)! There is one toy shop, the well-stocked Kazoo & Company, on the mezzanine level of Concourse B.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Image by  Jim Maurer  via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Image by Jim Maurer via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Connectivity

Denver’s RTD system runs its A Line commuter rail trainout to DEN from downtown, in 15- to 30-minute increments. The ride takes just under 40 minutes from Union Station and costs $9. There are six stations between downtown and the airport, connecting many of the key neighborhoods on the city’s east side, as well as providing links to the R line. At Union Station, there are also links to the B, C, E, and W lines as well as Amtrak.

Wi-Fi is free throughout the airport and is blazingly fast. There are no ads you need to sit through and no time limits, so it’s ideal for kids who want to stream media or play games online.

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Photograph provided courtesy Denver International Airport

Lodging

A brand-new Westin full-service hotel is connected to the Jeppesen Terminal and commuter train station.

Off-site family-friendly hotels with shuttle service include:

  • Country Inn & Suites Denver International Airport
  • Courtyard by Marriott Denver Airport
  • Hampton Inn Denver International Airport
  • Holiday Inn Express Denver International Airport
  • Homewood Suites Denver International Airport
  • La Quinta Inn & Suites Denver International Airport
Image by  Jeffrey Beall  via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

Image by Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0 license

See also

Our airport guide to Tokyo-Narita

 

Header image of Jeppesen Terminal against mountains courtesy Denver International Airport via Wikimedia Commons.

Houston - IAH

Image courtesy Visit Houston

Image courtesy Visit Houston

New flights power Asian connections through the Energy City

Houston’s historic importance as a center of energy production and logistics quickly put it on the post-World War II map of long-range flights from Europe and Latin America. Companies like Phillips 66, Conoco, Halliburton, and Occidental – and the contractors and suppliers who support them – send their people all over their world, often on short notice: they require frequent international service and are willing to pay well for it.

The city’s seaport and distribution infrastructure – and closeness to Mexico and the Caribbean – also gave it more of a global outlook, cuisine, and population. Yet it was not until after the Vietnam War and the emergence of the Four Tigers economies in the 1970s-80s when Houston started to pick up Asian influences and migration, and vibrant Vietnamese and Taiwanese communities developed in the southwest quarter of the metro area in the 1980s-90s.

Continental 777-200 at Narita Airport, preparing to depart for Houston

Continental 777-200 at Narita Airport, preparing to depart for Houston

It took until 1998 for Houston-headquartered Continental Airlines to start nonstop service to Tokyo, the city’s first air link of any kind to Asia.

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United and Continental merged, moving their headquarters to Chicago but keeping Houston as a mega hub. While United has not added any more nonstop flights to East Asia, they have encouraged their Star Alliance partners to come to Houston, so today IAH has daily or near-daily service to:

  • Tokyo Narita – on United and also ANA-All Nippon Airways
  • Beijing – with Air China
  • Taipei – on EVA Air
  • Singapore – with Singapore Airlines (this flight stops in Manchester, England on the way)

From these four hub cities, nearly any point in East and Southeast Asia can be reached in just one stop.

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Domestically, United covers all major US cities from IAH and regional destinations in Texas, the Southwest, and the Gulf Coast. These areas, and Florida, are best-positioned to use Houston as a connecting point for flights to Asia.

Delta, American, and Spirit also send numerous flights into IAH, but don’t have international partners flying there to take you to Asia via Houston. Finally, Southwest doesn’t fly to IAH at all, as they have a significant base at Hobby Airport on the south side of the city.

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Customs Arrival

International arrivals for the Asian carriers pull up to gates in Terminal D, where mid-level walkways and bridges direct passengers through the building, across the street, and into the central Customs checkpoint.

Image of Terminal E courtesy Visit Houston

Image of Terminal E courtesy Visit Houston

Passengers arriving on United’s flight dock at Terminal E, where they ascend a level and walk above that concourse to get to the same central Customs area.

Passport checks take place on the upper level, and then passengers go down a floor to the baggage claim and Customs inspection area. For travelers not flying onward, there are exits from this point to the arrivals area on the ground floor of Terminal E. For people connecting to other flights, turn right after Customs for baggage re-check stations and then security screening. Once through TSA screening, you will come out into a corridor linking the D and E gates, with the Skyway train station just around the corner.

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Click this map to open a new window for detailed maps on the airport's official site.

Click this map to open a new window for detailed maps on the airport's official site.

Navigating the airport

One thing is certain when flying from or connecting through IAH: there’s almost always going to be a lot of walking.

The airport opened in 1969, before the days of security checks or massive airline hub operations, so the original Terminals A and B were small, separate buildings each with four “banjo” concourses tucked in close.  By the early 1980s this arrangement was clearly impossible to manage for Continental’s growing hub, so they built Terminal C further east.  Terminal D opened in 1990, then Terminal E in 2002.

In 2018, only two "banjos" remain, on the north side of Terminal B. These will get torn down in the early 2020s and replaced with more-conventional concourses.

In 2018, only two "banjos" remain, on the north side of Terminal B. These will get torn down in the early 2020s and replaced with more-conventional concourses.

The terminals are spread so far apart because they are sitting between the airport’s east-west runways, and concourses can only extend outward by a few airplanes’ wingspans before blocking taxiways. Likewise, creating one central terminal is impossible because of how the roadways and tunnels were laid out in the 1960s. In fact, the airport has run out of room and cannot add any more terminal buildings to the east – so they have been progressively re-constructing the terminals and gate areas to become more efficient.  IAH is about halfway through that process, and it will take well into the 2020s for all its parts to be rebuilt.

The C-North gates have breathtaking design with lots of open space - the model for what the B-North and D gates will look like in about ten years...

The C-North gates have breathtaking design with lots of open space - the model for what the B-North and D gates will look like in about ten years...

United’s operation in Houston is so large that it now uses all the B, C, and E gates, and many of the northern A gates as well. Delta, American, Spirit, Air Canada, Alaska, Frontier, and other US and Canadian carriers use gates in the A complex, while all the overseas and Mexican carriers use the D gates.

So even for a United-United connection it is entirely possible you may arrive at gate A1 and depart from gate E19. Thankfully, all gates can be reached without having to leave the secure area.

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Skyway shuttle trains run along the north side of the complex, with one station in Terminal A, B, and C, and a station between Terminals D and E. These trains are quick and frequent and afford a pretty good view of the runways and ramp on the north half of the airport. From one end to the other is about a 5-minute ride.

Corridor connecting the E-gate concourses

Corridor connecting the E-gate concourses

However, even using the Skyway train, there is still considerable walking needed along the C and E gates. And if you are using United Express service leaving from the B gates (especially B1-B31), those are also a long walk from the Skyway station. For domestic-domestic, or domestic-international connections, we would advise using no less than a full hour and preferably 90 minutes between flights.

The one case where you won’t have too far to walk is if you are being dropped off on the ground floor of Terminal D to check in for your flight – in that case the gates are immediately above the ticket counters and security checkpoint.

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Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

IAH has no children’s play areas and no consistent safe stretches of space where kids can run around to burn off steam while waiting for boarding. Even open gate areas in the C14-C15 or D1-2-3 stretches will see a steady stream of cart traffic and just enough people trying to sleep to keep them “no fly zones” for children.

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The international gates east of the small food court, D7 – D12, have several interesting child-height art installations and occasionally someone playing the grand piano.

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Over in Terminal A, the Skyway train station is full of eye-catching star sculptures, and the walkway between the north and south gate areas holds many sculptures under Plexiglas at kids’ eye level.  There are also musical performances scheduled in the north-side food court. (And here is a link to the full portfolio of artwork)

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Mindworks, near gate E9, is a small but well-stocked kids’ shop with toys and aerospace / NASA gear; well worth a visit if you are in the E gates or even the C30-C40 area.

Surprisingly missing is any exhibit from NASA/Johnson Space Center – in contrast to the two locations Kennedy Space Center has in the Orlando terminal. There is plenty of open-air space in the E gates, the C-North gates, and the ticket hall of Terminal D for them to mount full-sized spacecraft replicas!

 

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Restrooms

Just as the gate areas are being progressively torn down and rebuilt, so are the restrooms. The newest parts of the complex (A-gates, E-gates, B1-B31 United Express holdroom, and the C-North gates) have been built with conveniently-located family restrooms.

The C-North / E / new B mens’ and womens’ lavatories also have more stalls and more room in each stall for stowing carry-on bags up off the floor (or for managing children if need be.)

D-gate restroom entrance

D-gate restroom entrance

The restrooms in the international D-gate areas are adequate in periods of average traffic, but starting to show their age and not up to the same standard as the ones in the E-gates, plus there are no family facilities in that stretch. This could lead to long waits if several flights are leaving around the same time.

Typical stall in the E-gates; note the small shelf above the toilet for storage.

Typical stall in the E-gates; note the small shelf above the toilet for storage.

Restroom repair and cleanliness is also uneven across the terminals – the newest are simply built better for the traffic they get, so they are easier to maintain.

 

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Food and Shopping

Thankfully, great food options for any palate or food requirement are available throughout the complex, and since you’ll be walking anyway, you’ll get to see a wide spectrum of choices. The local cuisines of East Texas and the Gulf are well-represented, from steakhouse to Tex-Mex, Cajun/Creole, Vietnamese, and seafood.

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National chains are well-represented, and the airport is rolling out many sit-down restaurants that use the popular order-from-iPad service format. There are also several shops to pick up fresh fruit and deli sandwiches.

Shopping options include the usual newsstand, electronics, cosmetics, sunglasses, and luxury-goods choices, but you’ll also find more than the usual number of clothing stores.

IAH is piloting an interesting twist to shopping: certain merchants will let you use your MileagePlus points toward payment!

IAH is piloting an interesting twist to shopping: certain merchants will let you use your MileagePlus points toward payment!

 

Connectivity

Wi-Fi is free and strong throughout the airport.

Houston has a metro rail system, but has not extended it out to IAH – it might get there by 2035, according to the latest long-range plan. There is a bus route to downtown, but it does not go near the Convention Center or main bank of hotels. SuperShuttle, taxi, or private car are the only realistic options for fast ground transport.

 

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Lodging

If you need to stay overnight before or after your trip, the Houston Airport Marriott is located between Terminals B and C, and can be reached from any terminal via underground Subway (catch it on level LL below baggage-claim). Many rooms have a good view of the ramp! For its convenient location, it does claim a premium price.

Lower-priced national chain locations with family-friendly amenities and free shuttles to IAH would include the Spring Hill Suites by Marriott, DoubleTree by Hilton, Country Inn & Suites, La Quinta Inn, Hampton Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott.

 

See also…

Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport official website

IAH Wikipedia entry

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, as well as many Delta flights. On Concourse B you’ll find Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier, and also Delta. 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. The South Satellite is Delta territory.

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