Are you headed down Route 66, up the Empire State Building or through the Redwood Forests? When planning a trip to the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’, it’s important to keep in mind that the United States is massive — 30 European countries would fit comfortably inside the continental US with plenty of room to spare. And that’s without including tropical Hawaii or snowy Alaska, the largest of the 50 states!
The country’s enormous size makes selecting which city to fly into a very important part of your trip planning. But how do you choose which destination is best for you?
Scrolling through an exhaustive list of all the international airports in the US isn’t going to make it any easier to narrow down your choices. Plus, you might sprain your finger from all the scrolling required to slog through the more than 100 options!
To help, this guide will narrow your focus so you can hone in on the major international airports where you’ll be most likely to find the perfect flight from your city to the ideal gateway to your American vacation.
Busiest Airports in the US
While landing in a terminal buzzing with thousands of other travellers might not sound appealing at first, for the earliest stage in your trip it may be in your best interest not to avoid the crowds.
When it comes to airports, more activity (measured by passenger traffic) often means more affordable flight prices, more flexibility in terms of flight times, and more locations worldwide you can fly from. Not to mention the spectacular people-watching opportunities!
So don’t shy away from the top 10 busiest international airports in the United States:
|1. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport||Atlanta, Georgia||ATL|
|2. Los Angeles International Airport||Los Angeles, California||LAX|
|3. O’Hare International Airport||Chicago, Illinois||ORD|
|4. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport||Dallas, Texas||DFW|
|5. Denver International Airport||Denver, Colorado||DEN|
|6. John F. Kennedy International Airport||New York, New York||JFK|
|7. San Francisco International Airport||San Francisco, California||SFO|
|8. McCarran International Airport||Las Vegas, Nevada||LAS|
|9. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport||Phoenix, Arizona||PHX|
|10. George Bush Intercontinental Airport||Houston, Texas||IAH|
Since the level of busyness is measured by the number of passengers travelling through, you may find that the rankings shift from year to year, and even from month to month. Other American international airports with sky-high levels of activity are:
- Seattle–Tacoma in Seattle, Washington (SEA)
- Orlando in Orlando, Florida (MCO)
- Newark Liberty in Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
- Charlotte Douglas in Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT)
- Miami in Miami, Florida (MIA)
However, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta is far and away the leader of the pack: in fact, it’s the busiest airport in the world, ahead of Beijing Capital. And that’s not ATL’s only point of pride: it has also been recognised as the world’s most efficient airport by the Air Transport Research Society more than 15 times!
Largest Airports in the USA
Passenger traffic is one thing, but physical size is quite another! Surprisingly, bustling Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta doesn’t even make it onto this list of the biggest airports in the US:
|1. Denver International Airport||Colorado||DEN||137.26|
|2. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport||Texas||DFW||69.63|
|3. Orlando International Airport||Florida||MCO||52.6|
|4. Washington Dulles International Airport||Virginia||IAD||47|
|5. George Bush Intercontinental Airport||Texas||IAH||40.5|
|6. Salt Lake City International Airport||Utah||SLC||31.1|
|7. O’Hare International Airport||Illinois||ORD||30.9|
|8. San Francisco International Airport||California||SFO||21.07|
|9. John F. Kennedy International Airport||New York||JFK||21|
|10. Detroit Metropolitan Airport||Michigan||DTW||19.6|
You will also find the top 5 here on the list of top 10 largest airports in the world. DEN in Denver is the second biggest airport on the planet, covering more ground than the entire island of Manhattan!
Best Airport in the US for Your Holiday Destination
When it comes to deciding where you want to fly into, more than the number of passengers or square kilometres, it’s all about location, location, location. While the choice is obvious for some destinations, others are not so clear. Here are some of the most popular sites to visit and the arrival destination to pair it with.
- Grand Canyon – Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX) or McCarran (LAS)
If you are planning to visit the popular South Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park, the closest major international airport is Phoenix Sky Harbor, located about 3.5 hours away by car.
On the other hand, if you’re headed to the West Rim, McCarran is your best bet. It’s only a 2.5-hour drive to the park, plus if you have time and you’re feeling lucky, you can stop off in Las Vegas on the way.
- New York City – John F. Kennedy (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA) or Newark (EWR)
There are many ways to get to the City That Never Sleeps, and there are a few different factors to consider before booking your tickets.
As you’re weighing your options, look not just at the cheapest flights, but also the flight times available and how much it will cost you (in terms of time as well as money) to get to your accommodation. Your best option may depend on which neighborhood you are staying in.
Keep in mind that while it may be possible to take public transportation into the city (easiest from JFK, where you can take the AirTrain and then the subway), you may want to spend the extra cash on a taxi or shuttle. Not only will you save yourself the trouble of lugging a heavy suitcase up and down multiple staircases, many visitors find it challenging to navigate the city’s public transportation system, especially if you’re suffering from jet lag.
- New Orleans – Louis Armstrong (MSY)
Flying into Louis Armstrong sounds like just the ticket for visiting the birthplace of jazz. However, due to limited direct flights from overseas, you may find that you are scheduled to land in a larger airport before transferring to a domestic flight and landing at MSY. But once you do arrive, you’ll be just a hop, skip and a jump from Bourbon Street.
- Disneyland, California – Los Angeles (LAX)
There are several major airports in California, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can just pick the cheapest flight because they’re all relatively close to one another. LAX is less than 1 hour’s drive from the Disneyland Resort (depending on traffic), but San Francisco International is about 6 hours away!
- Austin, Texas – Look for the best deal
Planning a trip to the so-called Live Music Capital of the World? While the city’s own Austin-Bergstrom (AUS) is the closest option, there are several international airports in Texas that may be worth looking into if you want to shop around for the cheapest flight. San Antonio, George Bush Intercontinental and Dallas/Ft. Worth are all within a 3.5 hours’ drive.
Airlines in the US
Since the country is so huge, if you want to visit more than one area during your holiday, you may find that you need to take a domestic flight or two. As you look for flights within the US, you’ll want to be familiar with the local commercial airlines.
Here are some of the largest airlines in the United States:
- Alaska Airlines has 5 hubs, with SEA in Seattle as the main one.
- American Airlines has 10 hubs, with DFW in Dallas/Fort Worth being the largest.
- Delta Air Lines has 9 hubs. The biggest is ATL in Atlanta.
- Hawaiian Airlines is based in Honolulu, Hawaii and is the state’s largest airline.
- Southwest Airlines has over 10 operating bases.
United Airlines has 8 hubs, the largest is ORD in Chicago.
You may also want to check out these low-cost airlines:
- Allegiant Air has its most popular base at SFB, near Orlando, Florida.
- Frontier Airlines has its hub at DEN in Denver and multiple focus cities around the country.
- JetBlue Airways has its primary hub at JFK in New York.
- Spirit Airlines is headquartered in the Miami metropolitan area.
Travel Tips for the USA
You should now have a better idea of what to look for when deciding what flights to take when visiting this country. But before you book your tickets, here are a few extra things to consider.
Look at Alternative Airports
Have you considered how many international airports there are in the USA?
There are about 150 scattered all across the map. Wherever you’re going, it’s a good idea to investigate nearby alternatives when you’re looking at flights. There may be a cheaper option that’s only a few hours’ drive away. In some cases, the best option may be located across state lines, so keep your eyes peeled for deals.
Double-Check Where You’re Going
Though it may confuse and bewilder the average traveller, there are 2 popular US destinations called Washington, and they are located more than 4000 km apart. That’s about a 40-hour drive, so it would be a costly mistake to fly into the wrong one!
If you want to visit the country’s capital city of Washington, D.C., you’ll want to fly into an East Coast airport. On the other hand, to visit Washington State and see the city of Seattle, you must head instead to the West Coast.
Similarly, there are 2 Portlands located on opposite sides of the country, in Maine and Oregon, and 33 Springfields located in 25 different states.
Think About Buying Health Insurance
While it is not required, it’s a very good idea to purchase health insurance before going to the United States. If you should fall ill or have an accident during your travels, your hospital bill could be thousands of dollars. It’s best to take out an insurance plan to cover you just in case.
Also, most foreign travellers need to go through the process of getting a visa or applying for the ESTA visa waiver before travel. You can learn more about the US Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) here and apply online if you’re eligible.