With the holidays fast approaching, flyers are preparing themselves for the perils of this hectic travel period: heavy crowds, long security lines, and unforeseen weather delays. And this year, travelers should expect even worse conditions than usual: Airlines for America, an industry trade group, estimates that nearly 24 million people will take to America's friendly skies during Thanksgiving week. That's 150,000 more than last year. Add in inflated airfare, and holiday travel can seem downright dreadful.
While you can't bypass the inevitable throngs of seasonal flyers, you can keep your frustration level in check by steering clear of hassle-prone hubs. With that in mind, we've tracked down the major U.S. airports where heavy traffic, frequent weather delays, and poor punctuality could set you back, as well as alternative airports to help make your holiday journey more manageable.
According to data released by Orbitz, Chicago O'Hare is expected to see more travelers pass through its gates this Thanksgiving than any other U.S. airport, and it doesn't look good for Christmastime. Couple that with the Windy City's legendary blizzards (and southwest winds), and you could easily find yourself stranded with nothing but your carry-on. Though O'Hare has made great strides in its overall timeliness in 2012, improving its on-time departure performance by over 5 percent compared to the first eight months of 2011, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Still, Chicago's primary hub could stand to improve its overall timeliness. However, because of the hub's sprawling size, travelers have plenty of dining establishments and amenities at their service, making extra time in transit more bearable. If you're stranded with kids in tow, head to the Chicago Children's Museum in Terminal 2.
Situated just over 10 miles southwest of Chi-town, Midway International Airport (MDW) allows Chicagoans to save time (and avoid cramped terminals) by departing from its less-busy grounds. Plus, with Midway's better on-time arrival and departure track record, flyers can rest easy knowing they have a smaller chance of being delayed.
Every day, more than 600 domestic flights depart from Los Angeles International's terminals; in 2011, 61 million travelers passed through its gates. So it comes as no surprise that LAX took Orbitz's No. 2 spot for busiest airport this Turkey Day. To top it off, LAX touts a 17.52-percent late-arrival record for the first eight months of 2012, just slightly lower than last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And though you won't likely have to worry about a weather-related delay like you would in the foggy Bay Area, you should still expect long lines and cramped terminals. A minor consolation: LAX's cozy lounges, such as the reLAX lounge found in the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which provides flyers with complimentary Wi-Fi and snacks.
Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport (SNA) sits roughly 40 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. If you don't mind that the airport is a bit of a drive (and let's face it, you're probably getting around L.A. on four wheels anyway), you'll battle fewer crowds and shorter lines. Orbitz lists John Wayne Airport as the ninth least-busy airport this season. In 2011, John Wayne served just over 8.6 million passengers, so travelers can expect much fewer crowds at this hub than its L.A. counterpart.
If you're taking off from the Big Apple this holiday season, you may want to reconsider flying out of LaGuardia. This massive New York City-based hub saw more than 24 million passengers pass through its gates in 2011 and carries the title as the nation's fourth-busiest Thanksgiving Day airport, according to Orbitz. That said, LaGuardia's on-time departure performance has improved by nearly 7 percent compared to last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, so your chances of getting stuck are slimmer than other national hubs.
John F. Kennedy International (JFK) was named the sixth-busiest airport for Thanksgiving Day travel by Orbitz. Admittedly, you won't be able to escape the crowds (roughly 23.9 million passengers flew through its gates in 2011), but you'll find that JFK's size helps alleviate the cramped feeling you would encounter at LaGuardia. Additionally, Weather.com reports fewer weather-related delays in 2011 (just 10,520) while LaGuardia saw more than 13,000. If you haven't finalized your future holiday travel arrangements yet, you may want to consider departing from this slightly more reliable hub.
Orbitz named San Francisco International Airport (SFO) as the third-busiest domestic hub for Thanksgiving travel, and it's not looking good for Christmas. Factor in SFO's lagging arrival and departure performance record (due to the City by the Bay's legendary foggy weather), and your chances of getting stranded increase. Plus, wintertime ushers in a dense cloud covering over the city, which often causes additional delays. But should you find yourself stuck here, take a deep breath: There are far worse places to be. This state-of-the-art airport features plenty of luxury duty-free stores in the international terminal, not to mention unique SFO exhibitions and galleries to entertain travelers of all ages.
To avoid throngs of fellow passengers, consider swapping your SFO ticket for a seat on a plane leaving from Sacramento International (SMF) instead. Orbitz ranks SMF—located just over 90 miles northeast of downtown San Francisco—as the nation's fourth least-busy airport, making it an ideal option for those who loathe long security lines and cramped terminals.
As New England's largest transportation hub, it comes as no surprise that Boston's nexus holds Orbitz' title of fifth-busiest domestic airport for Turkey Day travel—the same place it claimed last year. Travelers can expect to encounter hoards of fellow flyers circulating throughout the airport's four terminals. Travelers can also look forward to the potential for heavy snowfall, which often causes flight delays. But there is a shining light: As a central stopover point for New Englanders, Logan Airport is equipped numerous shopping and dining spots.
Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) sits just 50 miles north of Boston; though a ways away, this airport can serve as a convenient departure point for those looking for fewer crowds. Plus, you'll find the same signature airport amenities as Logan.
If you're traveling through this bustling airport, brace yourself for heavier congestion than usual. Rising from 15th to 10th place on Orbitz's list of the busiest U.S. holiday hubs this year, Fort Lauderdale's airport will surely see long security lines and jam-packed terminals. To make matters worse, Fort Lauderdale also lags behind most airports in the country in punctuality, with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reporting more than 16 percent of flights experiencing delayed departures during the first eight months of 2012. As far as weather is concerned, you'll have to brace yourself for a possible (but not likely) repeat of Superstorm Sandy through the end of November.
You can beat the crowds by departing from Palm Beach International (PBI), just an hour's drive north of Fort Lauderdale. You may have to exercise your credit card to nab a ticket at the last minute, but since Palm Beach's central hub holds Orbitz's title as the sixth least-busy domestic airport over Thanksgiving Day, you'll steer clear of headache-inducing check-in and security lines.
If you haven't already finalized your travel arrangements and you're looking to avoid the masses this holiday at all costs, consider taking off from another Washington D.C.-based hub. Reagan claimed Orbitz's title of ninth-busiest domestic airport over Thanksgiving this year, a major uptick from last year, when it clocked in at No. 13. DCA is the hub of choice for most D.C.-area travelers because it's easily accessible via public transportation. However, the airport's lackluster track record—which includes an air-traffic controller snoozing while on the job in 2011—may make you more willing to sacrifice convenience this year.
Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) both offer fewer crowds than DCA. However, there is a caveat for flying out of these hubs: extra time in transit. Data published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that both Dulles and BWI exhibited a worse overall 2012 on-time departure performance than Reagan, meaning you could be sitting at your gate longer than expected.
Although Atlanta really has only one central hub—which hosted more than 92 million flyers in 2011—there's still hope for those jet-setting from ATL. This year, the humongous airport did not appear on Orbitz's list of the nation's most crowded Turkey Day take-off points, giving travelers plenty to be thankful for this holiday. However, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' data shows that, between January and September 2012, more than 16 percent of ATL's flights didn't take off on time. You may want to consider an alternative route if you value timeliness.
Unfortunately, you won't find another airport within an hour's drive of Atlanta. However, if you don't mind spending more time behind the wheel, Chattanooga Airport (CHA) in Tennessee is just a two-hour car ride northwest of downtown Atlanta, and does not see nearly as many passengers departing from its gates. Chattanooga only served around 600,000 passengers in 2011.
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