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Layover lowdown: Chicago O'Hare International Airport

Nov. 17, 2019
5 min read
Passenger Tunnel, Chicago O'Hare Airport
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Even with the introduction of ultra-long-haul flights like Singapore to Newark or Qantas' ambitious dream of flying nonstop from New York to Sydney, layovers are still a necessary part of many trips, whether you're flying domestically within the US or on a longer international journey. With Chicago O'Hare (ORD) serving as a major hub to both American Airlines and United, as well as a popular destination among foreign carriers, there's a good chance you'll end up passing through O'Hare at some point in your travelers.

Today, we're going to take a look at how you can make your layover even more enjoyable at one of the busiest airports in the country.

At the airport

O'Hare is in the midst of an $8 billion expansion and renovation plan that will include an upgrade to Terminal 5, a new "global terminal" and satellite concourses where Terminal 2 currently stands. Most of these projects are still a few years down the road, so for now travelers passing through O'Hare can expect a fair amount of construction, and discrete terminals that for the most part aren't connected airside.

Terminal 1 belongs to United and a number of its Star Alliance partners, and is also where you'll find the iconic rainbow walk, a subterranean art installation that helps lighten the mood as passengers travel between the B and C concourses.

Photo by aoldman / Getty Images
Photo by aoldman / Getty Images

O'Hare is also home to the first ever United Polaris lounge, which represents a massive improvement in the carrier's ground experience. This lounge is only accessible to passengers traveling in long-haul Star Alliance business or first class — no amount of elite status can get you in.

United Polaris Lounge Review
Photo by Zach Honig/TPG

The next major terminal is 3, which primarily houses American Airlines and a few other Oneworld carriers. This was the terminal I spent the most time in when I lived in Chicago, and after four years I grew especially frustrated with the constant 'traffic jams' created by the terminals "Y" shape (which makes it hard for more than one plane to push back at a time). Inside though, American Airlines offers its Flagship check-in experience and lounge, despite having seriously cut back on its trans-Pacific routes from Chicago.

AA ORD Flagship Lounge - window seating overlooking gates
Photo by JT Genter/TPG

Terminal 5 is where most international airlines — regardless of alliance membership — fly out of. This is also where you'll find O'Hare's only Priority Pass lounges, the Air France - KLM lounge and the Swissport lounge. While I've heard conflicting reports, I've never been able to access Terminal 5 when flying out of another terminal, so these lounges will really only be available for international passengers. In addition to these Priority Pass options, you'll find British Airways, SAS and Swiss lounges in Terminal 5 as well.

Terminals 1 and 3 have a good range of food options, with each terminal offering a decently sized food court and some shopping options. You won't find a flood of high-end retailers like many international airports have, but there are plenty of Hudson News outlets and similar stores for you to stock up on anything you may need before your flight.

Airport hotels

If your layover at O'Hare involves an overnight stay, it doesn't get any more convenient than the Hilton Chicago O'Hare airport, which goes for between 29,000 and 50,000 points for a free night, and often sells for about $200. The hotel connects directly to all the domestic terminals via underground walkways, making it unbeatable in terms of convenience.

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If you're looking for a cheaper option or are loyal to a different brand, you'll find dozens of hotels 5-10 minutes away from the airport, most of which offer complimentary shuttle access. Just note that you'll be on the highway for part of that drive, and as anyone who has ever flown through Chicago knows, what should be a 5 minute drive often ends up being 20+ so make sure to budget extra time before your flight.

Getting downtown

Traffic aside, the easiest way to get downtown from the airport is by calling an Uber or taxi. You'll find designated ride-share pickup zones on the departures level of most terminals, though if you're arriving at T5 you can get picked up on the arrivals level. O'Hare also has a dedicated stop on the CTA blue line which can be accessed from most terminals. It should take you about 40 minutes to get downtown, and this is the only guaranteed way to avoid the headache-inducing traffic jams.

Further Reading: Chicago O’Hare vs. Midway: Which Airport Should I Fly Into?

Bottom line

Both American Airlines and United are heavily invested in their hubs at Chicago O'Hare, as evidenced by each carrier offering its top ground experience to premium passengers at the airport. Whether you have a short stop between flights or a bit more time to kill, there's plenty to do at O'Hare. If all else fails, you can always fall back on some pretty exciting plane spotting as much of the airport is angled to face the two main runways.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto