Chicago O’Hare vs. Midway: Which Chicago airport should I fly into?
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
Visitors to Chicago have a choice to make when it comes to trip planning: Should they fly into O’Hare (ORD), a sprawling international airport, or Midway (MDW), which offers more convenient access to the city but with far fewer choices of flights?
Southwest Airlines flyers have the best selection out of Midway, while those who fly on American Airlines or United Airlines — or those wanting to catch a long-haul international flight — will likely end up at O’Hare. We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each airport.
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Distance to downtown and transportation options
Downtown Chicago stretches north and south, roughly split in half by the Chicago River. O’Hare is located northwest of the city, Midway to the southwest. To measure the distance from each airport into the city, we chose as a central destination the famous Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park, also known as “the Bean.” It is two blocks south of the river and within walking distance of Navy Pier, the museum campus and the shops of the Magnificent Mile.
Here’s how the two airports stack up:
|Getting downtown||O’Hare (ORD)||Midway (MDW)|
|Distance (by car)||18 miles||12.5 miles|
|Time (by car)||35-60 minutes||25-40 minutes|
|Estimated Uber cost||$35||$28|
|Public transit||CTA Blue Line||CTA Orange Line|
Chicago O’Hare is 18 miles from the Bean by car, while Midway is about 12.5 miles away.
If you plan on driving, keep in mind that Interstate 90 (the Kennedy Expressway) often gets very congested around O’Hare. Since there are multiple terminals, it might take you five to 10 minutes just to get in and out of the airport area itself. And if your flight lands during rush hour, you might find yourself fighting traffic in and out of the city. With no traffic, you should be able to reach downtown in about 35 minutes, though in my experience you should budget more time — likely 45 minutes to an hour. An UberX should cost about $35 normally, or you can take the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line rail connection all the way between O’Hare and downtown. Travel time is about 50 minutes to an hour, depending on the time of day.
Midway, on the other hand, is about 25 minutes from downtown and generally less prone to traffic delays than O’Hare (although if you’re traveling on a Sunday when the Chicago Bears are playing at Soldier Field, nearby Interstate 55 that runs past the field en route to the airport can get backed up). Midway also has its own CTA station with the Orange Line headed downtown. Or you can get an Uber for approximately $28. Midway is not in the best neighborhood in Chicago, so you’ll want to make sure you know where you’re going when you land.
Winner: No matter how you plan on getting to the city from the airport, Midway comes out ahead: less traffic, shorter drives, cheaper Ubers and even less time spent on the train. Of course, that is if you’re headed to downtown Chicago. Travelers to the suburbs or other Chicago neighborhoods may calculate the math differently. Those headed to Chicago’s popular north side neighborhood of Wrigleyville, for example, may find O’Hare to be more convenient – even if the traffic adds an unwanted headache when getting to or from the airport.
Airlines and flight options by the numbers
When it comes to airlines, O’Hare and Midway could not be more different. O’Hare was the fourth-busiest airport in 2020, serving 30.8 million passengers, according to Airports Council International-North America. It’s also one of the only U.S. airports that’s a major hub for two different airlines with both United and American having major operations there. And Southwest Airlines started flying out of O’Hare in 2021, adding to the competitive mix.
In contrast, Midway was the 26th-busiest airport in 2020, serving 8.8 million passengers. It’s served by Southwest — by far the dominant carrier there — as well as Allegiant, Delta Air Lines, Toronto-based Porter Airlines and Mexico City-based low-cost carrier Volaris.
United operated almost 700,000 flights out of O’Hare in 2020, followed by American, at 545,976. At Midway, Southwest was king with 283,481 flights in 2020. Delta Air Lines was a distant second with 16,238 flights.
Chicago O’Hare is in the final stretch of a $1.2 billion renovation to the airport’s Terminal 5, which will add 35 new gates, 3 million additional square feet of terminal space and an all-new “Global Terminal.” It is phase one of the massive $8.5 billion “O’Hare 21” modernization project, which will eventually include the construction of the Global Terminal to replace Terminal 2.
Future phases of the project will include improvements to the 25-year-old baggage handling system, an expanded parking garage, roadway enhancements to increase lanes and alleviate traffic bottlenecks, and an expanded curbside area to enhance drop-off and help passengers move more easily between terminals 1, 2 and 3.
Midway had its own $400 million modernization program from 2017 to 2020 that included: widening the existing security checkpoint area; terminal garage enhancements for more efficient entry and exit, improved safety and aesthetics, plus better directional signage to help travelers keep moving; improvements to several off-site parking options including the economy parking garage, daily parking lot, cellphone parking lot and employee parking lots; nearly doubling concessions to 70,000 square feet; and adding more than 50 new food and shopping brands.
When it comes to international flights, O’Hare has a full complement of international airlines. Below are the numbers, from Cirium, for the top carriers at the airport in 2021.
No matter where in the world you’re heading, there’s a good chance you can fly directly from O’Hare.
Midway, on the other hand, is a fortress hub for Southwest Airlines, which operates an overwhelming majority of the flights out of the airport. Take a look below at the arrivals board for Midway, which features more than 20 Southwest flights and two Delta flights. Delta Air Lines, which has a relatively small presence at O’Hare, is one of the only airlines other than Southwest to operate any flights out of Midway. Below is a snippet of the flights arriving at Midway on Jan. 4, 2022:
Much of Southwest’s success comes from tight control of its operations and its uniform fleet of all 737s, and I’ve found Midway to be a very efficient airport in general.
Winner: For AvGeeks and road warriors there’s something special about O’Hare. American and United have expansive domestic route networks at ORD; there aren’t many destinations you can fly to from Midway that you can’t fly to from O’Hare. Add in the host of international carriers and O’Hare wins this easily.
Airport amenities and perks
O’Hare is not a place you want to spend any more time than you absolutely have to. The sprawl of runways and terminals often leads to long taxi times and random delays. O’Hare is an older airport, so there are plenty of food options, but you won’t see much of the high-end shopping that dominates newer and international airports.
Still, O’Hare has at least two things going for it in the area of human comforts. With United Airlines headquartered in Chicago, O’Hare was the logical choice for the airline’s first revamped Polaris lounge. The access requirements are relatively strict, but the lounge is incredibly sleek and easily one of the best of any American carrier. I had the chance to check it out myself before a Polaris flight to Shanghai (PVG), and even at 7:30 a.m. I was blown away by the friendly service.
O’Hare is also home to one of American Airlines’ Flagship lounges, located in Terminal 3. The space is a great place to get some work done before a flight or to relax and get something to eat. I love the large windows looking out on the apron with runways 28R/10L and 28C/10C in the distance.
And O’Hare has two Priority Pass lounges, but they’re both located in the international Terminal 5. T5 is not connected airside to any of the other terminals, and you can’t clear security without an international boarding pass. I’ve heard from a number of people that this rule is being relaxed, but I’ve been turned away at the TSA checkpoint twice when my boarding pass listed a different terminal. The T5 offerings — an Air France-KLM Lounge and a Swissport Lounge — are not spectacular, but they are quiet places to pass the time.
Midway doesn’t have much to speak of when it comes to on-site amenities. Aside from the USO military lounge, there are no lounges at Midway.
Winner: Although most of O’Hare’s lounges will be off-limits unless you’re flying in a premium cabin or hold top-tier elite status, at least there are lounges available. An airport of O’Hare’s size should have more Priority Pass options in the domestic terminals, but something is better than nothing.
After spending four years in Chicago for college, I have a love-hate relationship with O’Hare. There were flight delays and missing bags, but some of my earliest international trips started or ended at O’Hare. When I travel now, I love trying out the Polaris and Flagship lounges and seeing a more luxurious side to the airport.
That’s not to say that Midway is without merit. For domestic travel, especially the Chicago-to-Washington, D.C. (DCA) route that I flew frequently, you couldn’t beat the convenience and efficiency of Midway. I could make it from my apartment in the Hyde Park section of Chicago to my home in D.C. in exactly three hours, whereas it would take me almost half that time to get to O’Hare and clear security.
If you’re flying internationally or you are loyal to United or American, you’ll be flying out of O’Hare. But if Southwest is a good option for your domestic travel, the often-overlooked Midway is worth paying attention to.
Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson.
Featured photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images.
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