With the sad condition of our nation's airways, people are being stuck in airports for longer than ever. And that doesn't include folks stuck there by choice, like the crowds who have to wait several hours for international connections.
After a few hours, everybody gets antsy. I know I do. I think, "Hey, I've never been to [fill in the city] before. Wonder if I can get out and see some of it?" The answer can be yes, as long as you're cautious about getting back to the airport on time. A little jaunt can turn a layover into another real destination on your trip.
My general rule of thumb is that if your layover will be less than three hours, plus the time you need to be back at the airport to clear security and/or check in again, you should crack open a book and hang out at the airport. In other words, you need to have at least four hours available to leave the airport -- five, if you're checking in for an international flight.
I've picked five common transfer airports to tell you what you can do with a few extra hours. Generally, with just a couple of hours, it isn't worth going into a central city -- it may be too far, and you may get too overwhelmed by the available tourist options. I prefer checking out residential neighborhoods nearer the airport that still have the flavor of their cities. With more time, you can take a whirlwind tour of the city before settling back in for your next flight.
JFK Airport, New York, NY
JFK is on the edge of New York City in a rather miserable part of Queens; there are nicer parts of Queens, but they're a train ride away. If you haven't checked your luggage through, stash your bags at the kiosks in Terminal 1 or 4.
3 hours: It takes at least an hour to get into Manhattan from JFK, so try a closer-in neighborhood. Leafy Forest Hills, in Queens, has plenty of strolling, shopping and eating opportunities. At JFK, buy a $14 Metrocard. Then take the JFK AirTrain to the Jamaica station and switch there for an E subway train to the 71st Avenue/Forest Hills station. That should take you a little over half an hour. Exit on the south side of Queens Boulevard and walk one block down Continental Avenue to Austin Street for the neighborhood's main shopping strip. Some of the city's best (New York style) pizza is at Nick's, on Ascan Avenue just off Austin Street four blocks down.
5 hours: This gives you enough time to get into Manhattan. You might as well dazzle yourself with a quick walk past some of the city's major tourist sites. Buy a $12 MetroCard and take the AirTrain to Jamaica for the E train. Get off at the 53rd Street and 5th Avenue stop to walk down famed Fifth Avenue past Rockefeller Center. Cut west on 47th Street to Times Square at Seventh Avenue. At 42nd Street, head back east to Fifth Avenue to see the New York Public Library, then walk down to 34th Street for the Empire State Building. Walk west on 34th Street to Penn Station at Seventh Avenue and hop a more comfortable LIRR commuter train ($5.50) back to Jamaica.
7 hours: This gives you time to become a little more intimate with a Manhattan neighborhood or two. SoHo and Greenwich Village could give you the vibe you need. Take the AirTrain to Howard Beach Station and get on the A train; take it to Canal Street. Walk east on Canal Street to Broadway, and up Broadway through SoHo and part of the Village. Make sure to turn off Broadway when you get to Broome, Spring and Prince streets to see SoHo's shops and boutiques. At W. 4th Street, take a left and walk past Sixth Avenue into Greenwich Village. Once you get to 14th Street, take a left and go to 8th Avenue to get on the southbound A train back to the airport. You'll find enough shops, restaurants and diversions to last you a day on this walk.
Denver International Airport
One of the most inconveniently located metro area airports in the United States, DIA is 25 miles away from Denver, and bad weather tends to clog up roads in the area. Translation: if you can, stay put at DIA. If you have a lot of time, you might want to risk venturing into Denver; stash your bags at the Airport Baggage Center on level 5 of Jeppesen Terminal.
3 hours: Forget about it. DIA is in the middle of nowhere. Coloradans know they may have to dig in at DIA for long periods of time, so the Denver Post has a convenient list of ways to pass a few hours.
5/7 hours: Might as well risk it. The Denver RTD's SkyRide AF line buses will get you to downtown Denver in about an hour for $8. It will drop you at the Greyhound station at 20th and Arapahoe. Walk three blocks down Arapahoe to 17th Street, take a right, and walk one block up 17th Street. That will put you at the Tabor Center, stop 10 on our walking tour of Denver. Since our walking tour is a loop, you can proceed through the tour and eventually end up back at the Tabor Center to walk back up to your bus. It's possible to do the walking tour in two hours, if you walk briskly.
Chicago O'Hare International Airport
The great news about O'Hare is that the underground CTA Blue Line train runs even during those snowstorms which strand travelers for hours on end.
3 hours: It takes about 45 minutes to get to downtown Chicago on the CTA Blue Line, so give yourself a hit of fabulous architecture. Take the train to the Washington/Dearborn stop, get out, and walk five blocks west to Millennium Park and the Art Institute. Take a right, walk five blocks down, take another right, and walk seven blocks west to get back on the train at LaSalle and Van Buren. In that short trip, you'll see a chunk of Michigan Avenue, the city library and the Chicago Board of Trade building, too.
5 hours: Take the quick downtown tour outlined above. Then check out the more bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood for an hour by hopping on the Blue Line back to the Damen stop, at the heart of Wicker Park. The walk up Damen Avenue about half a mile from North to Armitage is crawling with little cafes, shops and boutiques that give a very different Chicago flavor than the towers of downtown. If you're nervous about time, turn around at Churchill St. Find out more at www.wickerparkbucktown.com.
7 hours: This gives you plenty of time for a real walking tour of downtown Chicago, including the Magnificent Mile and the Gold Coast -- some of the most beautiful blocks in the United States. Take the Blue Line to Jackson and follow our one-day Chicago tour, basically wandering north through the city. After the Oak Street beach, cut left to get on the Red Line El at Clark and Division; take it back to Jackson to switch for the blue train back to the airport.
Dallas Fort-Worth Airport
A big American Airlines hub, DFW is wedged between Dallas and Fort Worth. Fortunately, so are several other interesting area attractions. DFW doesn't make it easy for you to get out of the airport, though. There's no left luggage facility, so you'll have to take your bags with you. The best way to get off-airport with limited time is by cab, but cab rates are high.
3/5 hours: Feel like a small-town stroll? A 15-minute, $20 taxi ride will take you to downtown Grapevine, a small "old west" town just north of the airport. (Make sure to schedule your cab ride back before you get out of the cab.) Grapevine has a handsomely restored Main Street, ten winery tasting rooms and a string of art galleries, all within a few blocks of each other. Tell the cabby to drop you off at the Palace Arts Center, 300 South Main Street. The town's visitor's bureau is right across the street.
7 hours: Head to Fort Worth. You can save a lot of dough by taking public transit, but it's a pain: you have to take two buses and a train, and with all the connections it can easily take two hours each way. Ick. The good news is, a day pass costs $3/person roundtrip -- compared with a $43 flat taxi fare each way for the half-hour cab ride. Use the trip planner at www.dart.org to figure out bus times if you want to go that route. With limited time, select one of Fort Worth's three districts to explore: the museum area, the old-west-style Stockyards, or the renovated and walkable downtown. Check out our Fort Worth guide for more details.
Los Angeles International Airport
If you're crossing the Pacific, you're likely to get stuck at LAX for a while. That's okay. While LAX is a miserable place to hang out, the west L.A. beach cities nearby are far more pleasant. You'll have to bring your bags, though, as LAX has no on-airport baggage storage.
3 hours: Take a $19 taxi ride to Venice Beach, which is less than half an hour away even with traffic. Pseudo-bohemian Venice Beach has funky shops and restaurants along its Main Street and Abbot Kinney Blvd., and a famed ocean-front parade of freaky L.A. humanity. Tell the taxi to drop you off at Venice Blvd. and the beach, and get a phone number so you can call for a pickup later.
5 hours: Add on Santa Monica to your Venice trip. You can use the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus #1, which runs every ten minutes and costs $1.50, to shuttle between Venice and the neighboring city of Santa Monica. Santa Monica's amusement-park-style pier and Third Street pedestrian outdoor shopping mall are popular attractions; Frommer's author Matthew Richard Poole also has some Santa Monica secrets elsewhere on our site.
7 hours: Save some money by foregoing one taxi ride. Take an airport shuttle bus to the LAX Transit Center and there switch for the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus #3, which ends in downtown Santa Monica and costs only $1.50. If you work your way back to Venice and need to get back to the airport, though, you'll still need to call a cab.
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