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Layover Lowdown: Chicago O’Hare International Airport

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Our “Layover Lowdown” series features airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Katie Hammel guides us through Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Welcome to O'Hare (Photo courtesy of Tupungato / Shutterstock)
Welcome to O’Hare (Photo courtesy of Tupungato / Shutterstock)

One of the top three busiest airports in the world and the hub for American and United, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is notorious for delays, which means you may end up with a longer layover than you planned. The good news: it’s not a bad airport to be stuck in, if you must. And from the airport, the city is an easy—if not always quick—ride on the L train’s Blue Line.

At the Airport

Special Features

There are four terminals at sprawling O’Hare, though they’re numbered as Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 5 (Terminal 4 existed as the International Terminal for only a few years and was closed when the new Terminal 5 opened). Thankfully, despite its size, the airport is easy to navigate and once you’re past security, you can access any of the domestic terminals (Terminal 5 is connected via transit system). WiFi is available throughout the airport, but use your time wisely as only the first 20 minutes are free; it’s $6.95 per day after that.

Chicago’s Public Art Program decorates each terminal with paintings, sculptures, and murals from local artists. For those traveling with children, the Kids on the Fly interactive play area (Terminal 2) brings the airport to life with child-sized model airplanes and a control tower. Kids might also enjoy seeing the largest mounted dinosaur in the world—a four-story high, 72-foot-long Brachiosaurus skeleton model—on the upper level of Terminal 1 in Concourse B or a replica of a World War II fighter plane hanging in the main hall of Terminal 2. Kids of all ages love “The Sky’s The Limit” – a 744-foot-long ever-changing neon light installation that illuminates the underground walkway between Concourses B and C in Terminal 1.

Neon lights at O'Hare (Photo courtesy of Nicola on Flickr)
Neon lights at O’Hare (Photo courtesy of Nicola on Flickr)

Family bathrooms and changing stations are available in each terminal, and the Travelers Aid offers a private space to breastfeeding mothers (Terminals 2 and 4). For members of the Armed Forces and their families, the 24-hour USO offers lounge space in Terminal 2 (open 24 hours) and Terminal 3 (6 am-10:30 pm). An interfaith chapel is open 24 hours a day in Terminal 2 and a Yoga Room in Terminal 3 is open from 6 am to 10 pm.

Travelers who want to work up a sweat can purchase day access to the Hilton Athletic Club inside the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, accessible by underground walkways connected to each of the domestic terminals (1, 2, 3) or from International Terminal 5 via the Airport Transit System. For pure relaxation, there are Terminal Getaway Spas in Terminals 1 and 3 and an XpressSpa in Terminal 5.

O’Hare also offers a range of medical services to keep you healthy during your travels. In Terminal 2, there’s an Urgent Care Clinic (should you find yourself feeling ill after being sneezed on by the guy in 32A) open Monday-Friday, 8 am-5 pm (9 am-5 pm on weekends and holidays). The University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center has kiosks in Terminals 1, 2, and 3 and offers flu shots seven days a week, 9 am-5 pm.

There are several lounges at the airport. In Terminal 5 (the International Terminal), you’ll find Air France/KLM, Korean Air, British Airways First Lounge, British Airways Terraces Lounge, SAS Lounge, Swiss International/Austria Lounge, and the Swissport Lounge. Terminal 1 has a United Club, Terminal 2 has a Delta Sky Club, and Terminal 3 has American’s Admiral’s Club and American Flagship Lounge.

Luggage Storage

There are no luggage storage options at the airport, so plan to check your bag or pack light as you’ll need to haul it with you throughout your layover.

Shopping

Vosges chocolate, a locally-made treat (Photo courtesy of Roxanna Salceda on Flickr)
Vosges chocolate, a locally-made treat (Photo courtesy of Roxanna Salceda on Flickr)

Like any major airport, O’Hare has bookstores and snack shops around almost every corner. There’s also a Duty Free in each terminal. Terminal 2, unfortunately for those transiting though, doesn’t offer much else. Terminals, 1, 3, and 5 have a much better selection of shops.

In Terminals 1 and 3, browse for gadgets you never knew you needed at Brookstone, grab new shades at Oakley or Sunglass Hut, snag some sweet treats at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory or Chicago’s own Vosges Haut-Chocolat (try the Mo’s Milk Chocolate Bacon bar), or find an educational gift at the Field Museum Store. Terminal 3 also has Brooke’s Brothers, Erwin Pearl, Harley Davidson, and Mont Blanc stores.

In Terminal 5, you’ll find more high-end brands, including Swatch, Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Emporio Armani. An I Love Chicago shop is the perfect place for last minute souvenirs.

Dining

Mexican sandwiches from Tortas Frontera (Photo courtesy of Alyson Hurt)
Mexican sandwiches from Tortas Frontera (Photo courtesy of Alyson Hurt on Flickr)

Take a walk through the entirety of O’Hare and you’ll notice that what’s in one terminal is often found in at least two more. For example, in addition to the McDonald’s outposts in every terminal, you’ll find that Uno’s Pizza Express (Terminals 1 and 2), Argo Tea and Garrett Popcorn Shops (Terminals 2 and 3), and Wolfgang Puck Cafe (Terminals 1 and 5) are found in multiple locations. In all three domestic terminals you can snack on Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, tex-mex from Chili’s Too, locally-brewed beer from Goose Island Beer Company, and Chicago Style Hot Dogs. Those traveling in Terminals 1, 3, and 5 should make a beeline for the delicious and authentic Mexican creations at Tortas Frontera from local celeb chef Rick Bayless.

In Terminal 1, other standouts include Beaudevin Wine Bar, and local favorites Berghoff Café and Billy Goat Tavern and Grill, while Terminal 5 has a solid international selection; go for Thai or Chinese at Big Bowl, Chinese dumplings at Wow Bao, rustic Italian at Tocco, or the eclectic mix of fresh salads and sandwiches from The Goddess and the Grocer.

Travel to the City Center

The O'Hare Blue Line station (Photo courtesy of chrisar676 on Flickr)
The O’Hare Blue Line station (Photo courtesy of chrisar676 on Flickr)

The L train’s Blue Line runs from the airport southeast into the city. To the heart of downtown, known as the Loop, it takes about 40-45 minutes via train. If you plan to explore the Museum Campus at the south end of the Loop (where you’ll find the Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, and the Adler Planetarium) it’s closer to an hour; jumping off farther north of downtown, such as at the Damen stop in the hip Wicker Park neighborhood, will cut your travel time to 30 minutes.

From Terminals 1, 2 or 3, follow signs in the airport to “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” From Terminal 5, follow signs to the Airport Transit System, take that train to Terminal 2 and then follow the signs. Trains run 24 hours a day, and all trains leaving O’Hare go downtown so there’s no risk of taking the wrong train or going in the wrong direction.

At the station, you can use a contactless bankcard (with the wave symbol) to have your fare deducted from your card. Otherwise you’ll need to buy a Ventra card. From the airport, a single-ride Ventra ticket is $5; on the way back a single-ride is only $3. If you plan to ride public transit in the city, invest in a one-day card that allows unlimited rides for $10.

Taxis are another option, but best avoided during peak travel times. With minimal traffic, the ride from the airport to the Loop will take about 30 minutes and cost around $45.

If your next flight departs from Midway Airport (MDW), Chicago’s smaller airport south of the city, plan for a 45-minute cab ride or 90 minutes via L train from O’Hare (take the Blue Line to the Clark/Lake Station and then transfer to the Orange Line – don’t worry, it’s easier than it sounds).

If You Have Half a Day

Chicago is just as pretty when seen from the river (Photo courtesy of jessicakirsh / Shutterstock)
Chicago is just as pretty when seen from the river (Photo courtesy of jessicakirsh / Shutterstock)

With half a day, you can easily check out the highlights of Chicago – most of which are clustered downtown. Head up to the SkyDeck at the Willis Tower (formerly—and forever to a Chicagoan—known as the Sears Tower) for a birds-eye view of the city on glass-bottomed ledges, then head to the heart of the Loop to check out the masterpieces at the Art Institute, snap some pics of the famous “Bean” sculpture in Millennium Park, take a Architecture Cruise on the Chicago River, or do some shopping (or window shopping) along the famed Magnificent Mile. Fuel up with some of the city’s famous deep-dish pizza from Pizzeria Uno or Lou Malnati’s or indulge in perfectly grilled beef from a classic steakhouse like Gibson’s or Chicago Chop House.

If You Have a Whole Day

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs (Photo courtesy of Richard Cavalleri / Shutterstock)
Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs (Photo courtesy of Richard Cavalleri / Shutterstock)

With more time, check out the city’s other great museums—the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, or the Adler Planetarium—or explore some of the neighborhoods outside of downtown, such as Bucktown, Wicker Park, Lincoln Park, or Lakeview, each with its own unique feel, and dotted with independent boutiques, bars and restaurants. In Wicker Park, line up for tacos at Big Star or head into the candle-lit, speakeasy-style Violet Hour bar for a handcrafted cocktail. Check out Lincoln Park for trendy, high-end boutiques juxtaposed with rowdy college bars, or join in the game-day action around Wrigley Field, a short walk farther north. If you’re downtown come sunset, head to the 96th-floor Signature Lounge at the Hancock Building to enjoy a cocktail with a view of the city lights.

If You Have the Night

Chicago by night (Photo courtesy of Adam Alexander Photography via ChooseChicago.com)
Chicago by night (Photo courtesy of Adam Alexander Photography via ChooseChicago.com)

If you have a late arrival or an early departure, you can’t beat the convenience of the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, which is connected to Terminals 1, 2, and 3 by underground walkways. It’s also connected by indoor walkways to the Blue Line so it’s easy to get from the hotel to downtown. There’s a fitness center, pool with Jacuzzi, sports bar, two restaurants, and business center. Though it’s located close to the airport, sound-resistant windows ensure a quiet sleep. Room rates start at around $250 or 40,000 HHonors points per night.

Marriott, Hyatt Regency, Aloft, DoubleTree by Hilton, Crowne Plaza, and Westin all have hotels located a short shuttle ride from the airport; rates start at around $110 per night. If you’d rather stay downtown, the centrally located Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile Hotel has rates starting at $180 per night or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points. The classic luxury of the Waldorf Astoria comes at a higher price, around $330 per night or 80,000 HHonors points. The more playful and affordable Aloft hotel in the River North area is only 10,000 Starpoints or $180 per night.