Frequent traveler and novelist Ryan O’Reilly has a love-hate relationship with Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. “Nearly every time I’ve been through Chicago, my flights have been delayed, canceled, or both,” says the Springfield, Mo., resident. “Once, my flight was delayed by six hours, and when we finally got onto the plane, we had to perform an emergency exit because the deicing truck next to it caught on fire.”
Perhaps it’s no shock, then, that Chicago’s airports scored near the bottom in the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, where Travel + Leisure readers rated 30 U.S. cities on a variety of fronts, including food, shopping, on-time performance, and the efficiency (or potential surliness) of airport employees.
One of the big winners was Orlando, which came in second place for having a distinctly pleasant airport — perhaps even in the middle of the night. Dallas-area kindergarten teacher Maria DeRusse recently arrived at Orlando at 4 a.m., after her flight from Dallas had been delayed five hours. “When we arrived, the airport staff was very apologetic and welcoming,” DeRusse says, and despite being bleary-eyed, she found the place easy to navigate, taking notice of both the on-site Hyatt Regency and the plethora of restaurants and shops.
The best airports in the U.S. share a few things in common: plenty of dining options and “entertainment,” which could mean live music, kids’ play areas, spas, or — increasingly important — free wireless Internet access. Strikingly, airports that made up that lower half of the AFC airport survey tend to still charge up to $10 for you to check your email or change your Facebook status. The free wireless is one reason Oregon pharmacist Chris Carter loves Portland International Airport (No. 4), along with small niceties. “It’s easy to get in and out of,” he says, “and we love the parking garage with lights in the ceiling, showing you where open spots are.”
For the most part, though, airports that perform one basic task well — getting you to and from your destination on time — dominate the Top 10 (Providence reigns in the on-time category and is No. 5 overall). But schedule isn’t everything. Atlanta ranks near the bottom (No. 26) for its punctuality, but its fourth-place finish for food helped boost Hartsfield to 11th overall, implying that a good beer and a hot muffuletta can make up for a fair amount of hassle.
Indeed, a big way for airports to boost travelers’ happy factor is to infuse local flavor into the terminals. Austin’s Bergstrom Airport (No. 9) offers barbecue and Tex-Mex from local favorites Salt Lick and Maudie’s, and even has a stage for live music. Not that this approach always works: Lambert International in St. Louis scores a dismal No. 28 out of 30 cities, perhaps no thanks to its Missouri Vineyards restaurant.
Of course, airport satisfaction is also what you make of it. The O’Hare-oppressed O’Reilly and his fiancée have created their own way to pass the hours in Chicago, which ranked No. 29 in on-time performance. “We invented a game we call O’Hared and Seek,” he says, “where you sit in the passenger lounge reading or typing emails for five minutes while your partner goes and hides in the same concourse. Then you have to find them. It’s a great game — if you’re going to be stuck somewhere, you might as well make a game of it.”