Light Tunnel at DTW-Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Michigan, U.S.A.. The LED illuminated 700 foot tunnel connects Concourse A with Concourses B and C and the McNamara Terminal.

Best Airports In America

BY Matt Meltzer | March 25, 2024

Entering an airport is exciting, brimming with the anticipation of a journey somewhere new and riveting or old and familiar. Those sliding glass doors are the cusp of vacations and reunions with friends and family or a long-awaited return home. All that excitement is then immediately shut down when we’re met with unmoving check-in lines, interminable security waits and $22 beers at the airport bars. This isn’t the case everywhere, though, as some airports are actually pleasant and, dare we say, fun experiences, that keep the thrill of travel going from the front door to the gate. Here are our picks for five airports, large, medium and small, that are doing air travel right — though we can’t make any promises about the security lines.

Large Airports

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – Phoenix, Ariz.

Photo courtesy of Adam Croom | CC BY 2.0

No airport makes you look forward to a long layover quite like Sky Harbor. Hands down, it has the best airport food in the United States. Even though Sky Harbor lifted its mandate that outlets cap prices at 10% above their regular, non-airport rates, the food here isn’t egregiously expensive, and you can sample some of the valley’s best restaurants from staples like Matt’s Big Breakfast, Blanco Tacos and Tequila and Four Peaks Brewery at a fantastic price. Yes, the walk between gates can be long at PHX, and hallways can get hot with floor-to-ceiling windows, but with so much to eat during your layover, you can probably use the exercise.

Laguardia Airport – Queens, N.Y.

New York, NY / USA – August 15 2020: Traffic car on the highway going to LaGuardia Airport. Air traffic Control Tower seen above terminals. Photo via Shutterstock.

For years, LGA was a symbol of everything people hated about New York: crowded, dirty, stressful and expensive. It’s still expensive, but a recent renovation has pretty much cured all of those other problems, bringing bright, new concourses with great views of the city. The airport’s social media star is a food court water show with splashing streams of water that dance to the tune of “New York, New York.” Beyond the water show, there are delicious new food options too, from Shake Shack to Dale Talde’s eponymous noodle bar. Upstairs is the Panorama Bar, where you can watch planes take off and land in front of the Manhattan skyline. There’s still no train to LGA – its remaining downside – but the Queens airport has otherwise massively improved.

San Francisco International Airport – San Francisco, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’ve ever been to Europe, you might notice its airports are considerably quieter than their American counterparts. That’s because they limit unnecessary announcements, an initiative SFO adopted in 2018 with its “Quiet Airport” program. Along with a pleasant travel environment, SFO also has automated bag sorting and security systems, streamlining both processes for its 20 million annual passengers. You’ll also find a yoga room at SFO — the first in a major United States airport — and the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum and Library. The airport’s food reflects the city wonderfully, with Banh Mi sandwiches, Filipino food and mission burritos available in abundance.

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport – Detroit, Mich.

Airport tunnel that glows in the Detroit Metro International Airport. Photo via Shutterstock.

One need look no further than Detoit’s airport for proof of its resurgence. DTW landed on the top spot of J.D. Power’s annual rankings for airport satisfaction this year, dethroning San Francisco in a way the Detroit Lions football team could not. In true motor city fashion, the airport didn’t notch this win because of flashy amenities like yoga rooms and sushi bars. It did it with efficiency and dependability, ranking highly for both security and customs wait times, and keeping flights on schedule well over 80% of the time. Not that Detroit’s airport is a blah, industrial wasteland – the neon-filled underground corridor between terminals is one of the trippier airport features in the United States. And the food’s pretty good too, with an outpost of Italian stalwart Andiamo and Coney Island hot dogs in the Mcnamara Terminal.  

Harry Reid International Airport – Las Vegas, Nev.

Photo courtesy of Harrison Keely | CC BY 4.0

Only one large American airport gives you the chance to leave the terminal thousands of dollars richer than you walked in. The slots at the Las Vegas airport are almost as much a part of the Sin City experience as a soul-crushing hangover, blinking and beckoning visitors to take one last shot at the jackpot. That alone makes Harry Reid one of the most entertaining airports in the world. LAS can be a hassle on Sundays after big weekends though, or really any time you “forgot” to go to sleep before you got there. Yet as far as big airports go, it keeps its concourses wide and rarely feels overcrowded.

Tampa International Airport – Tampa, Fla.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Heneen | CC BY 4.0

Following the lead of the city’s ice hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lighting, and its football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa International Airport has made itself a perennial champion over the past decade. Its regular top spot on J.D. Power’s ranking of large airports is thanks in large part to its multi-terminal layout serviced by a series of high-speed trains. Each terminal has its own TSA checkpoint, meaning security lines aren’t jammed with people going in all directions. And local icons like Columbia restaurant — the oldest in Florida — and Cigar City Brewing have spots at TPA too, so you can get some Cuban food or a Jai-Alai IPA before boarding your plane. In the main terminal, TPA has one of the more fun examples of airport art: a flamingo whose long legs and craning neck dip into the concourse like it’s an underwater marshland.

Medium Sized Airports

John Wayne Airport – Santa Ana. Calif.

Photo courtesy of Don Ramey Logan | CC BY-SA 3.0

If airports are emblematic of the places they serve, then Orange County’s airport makes a lot of sense. It’s clean and there’s no reason to stress. This might sound fairly unremarkable to someone who lives outside Southern California, but if you’ve ever experienced the chaos at LAX, John Wayne is a calm, welcomed respite. Don’t mistake this for a boring airport, though. The county legally requires planes here to have an exciting take off: a nearly-vertical ascent that’s not unlike that of a fighter jet, done to comply with local noise regulations. It’s a great final roller coaster after a family vacation to Disneyland and gives you stunning views of Newport Beach and the Pacific Ocean once you’ve leveled off.

Palm Beach International – West Palm Beach, Fla.

Much like Orange County is a calmer, easier alternative for Angelinos, so is PBI the less-stress option for people living in South Florida. Palm Beach International sets the tone for a relaxing Florida vacation better than any airport in the state, with a putting green and spa inside the terminal and uncrowded, easy gates. It has some of the shortest security wait times in the country and is a perennial top-five finisher in J.D. Power’s annual customer satisfaction survey. With easy connections to the Brightline train, PBI is a reasonable alternative if you’re traveling to Miami, as most of the big discount airlines opt for gates at PBI instead of more expensive space at Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester Airport – Rochester, N.Y.

At large airports, showcasing the local food scene is a given nowadays. In smaller, regional airports, not so much. That is unless you’re flying into Rochester. At ROC, you can meander through the Taste of Rochester, where smaller outposts of some of the city’s favorite eateries sell the local fare. Chief among them is Nick Tahou Hots, home of Rochester’s most famous dish, the Garbage Plate. If a heaping portion of macaroni salad, meat sauce, home fries and condiments isn’t your ideal pre-flight meal, you can also try pizza from local fave Salvatore’s, Zweigle’s hot dogs and pasta in a cup with Guglielmo’s marinara sauce. Like most regional airports, ROC has easy security lines and light traffic at the entrance, giving you that much more time to eat before you fly out.

Sacramento International Airport – Sacramento, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Hitchcock | CC BY 2.0

No airport in the United States does public art as well as Sacramento. A bold statement for a mid-sized city, but one you’ll understand when you descend the escalator in Terminal B and spot the two-story red rabbit diving into the baggage claim. Leap is a welcome home beacon for Sacramentans like the Manhattan skyline is for New Yorkers, and for locals has become as enduring a symbol of the city as the Capitol Building or Tower Bridge. At the rabbit’s base, there’s even more cool art, including elevator-activated screens and murals of baggage handlers. Over in Terminal A, you’ll find “Samson” waiting by your luggage, a pair of 23-foot pillars made out of old, discarded suitcases. If you have the time and the disposition, grab a drink at the airport’s best bar, the Iron Horse, a regular hangout for government workers and politicos who make regular trips from Southern California to the capitol.

Small Airports

Santa Barbara Airport – Santa Barbara, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Tom C. Baker | CC BY-SA 4.0

If colonial Spanish missionaries ever designed an airport, it would probably look a lot like SBA. This five-gate terminal looks more like a Southern California luxury hotel than a place to catch a flight. Its creamy white tower and palm trees instill an immediate sense of place, while a tall atrium just before ticketing brings California sunshine inside. The airport sits on 430 acres of ecological reserve as well, making the space around the building calming and beautiful. Once through security, passengers can step out onto the observation deck and watch planes take off against the California blue sky.

Jackson Hole Airport – Jackson, Wyo.

JACKSON HOLE, WY –1 AUG 2020- View of a welcome sign at the Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, United States. Photo via Shutterstock.

Jackson Hole is the only airport in the country inside a national park, but the view from inside the terminal is what really sets it apart. Set right up against the Tetons, Jackson Hole’s massive windows look out on snow-capped peaks, staging gorgeous photo ops of the jets lining the outdoor tarmac. The views from both takeoff and landing are like free flight tours over Grand Teton National Park. While the space can get a little crowded during high-season weekends, a large marketplace provides ample food and drink options as well as a last chance to buy some national park souvenirs.

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport – Bozeman, Mont.

BOZEMAN, MT -5 SEP 2018- View of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN), located in Gallatin County, Montana. It serves tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park. Photo via Shutterstock

Second to Jackson Hole in airport mountain views is Yellowstone’s unofficial airport, tucked into the Bridger Mountain Range in Bozeman. The terminal feels more like a hunting lodge than an airport, with slate stone walls, wood beams and sculptures dominating the décor. Locals awaiting guests can kill time sitting on a buffalo bench by a roaring fireplace, and visitors can peruse local artists whose work lines the terminal corridors. Bozeman has grown from a somewhat obscure mountain airport to a sizable regional destination over the past decade too, adding nonstops to New York, Atlanta, and other eastern hubs to its lineup of West Coast destinations.

Palm Springs International – Palm Springs, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Sdkb | CC BY-SA 4.0

If you’re enjoying a warm, winter escape to Palm Springs, your desert sun doesn’t have to end when you walk into the airport terminal. That’s because Palm Springs International Airport is almost completely outdoors, a connecting tapestry of desert modernism in which tents stand in for staid airport ceilings. Its setting at the base of Mount San Jacinto makes for some great airplane-wing Instagram content when you take off, and, with 350 days of sunshine, delays at PSP are almost as rare as a rainstorm.

Cherry Capital Airport – Traverse City, Mich.

Tiny Traverse City’s airport feels about 10 times larger than it is: the six-gate terminal is filled with open spaces and large windows. The glass-and-stone building’s design was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, welcoming the outside in and making travelers feel like they’re still in the Great Lakes wilderness. The interior is filled with copper, stained glass and the region’s abundant cherry wood, which all feels especially cozy when gathered around the terminal’s central fireplace.