Layover lowdown: Denver International Airport
Most people understandably try to minimize the time they spend at an airport. However, delays/cancellations happen and long connections are sometimes inevitable. Fortunately, being stuck in an airport between flights doesn't have to ruin your trip.
Today, we're going to take a look at how you can pass a layover of any length at Denver International Airport (code DEN, though often referred to as DIA). We're going to go over navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the city.
DEN is the largest airport in the U.S. by total area — a whopping 53 square miles — and the fifth-busiest airport in the country, serving some 64 million passengers each year. United and Frontier both use the airport as a hub and it’s a focus city for Southwest Airlines. Thankfully, its design makes it feel more compact and easier to navigate than its size would have you assume.
At the airport
The Denver Airport is best known for its uniquely designed roof — the white peaks evoke the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and the Native American teepees that once dotted the surrounding plains. The airport consists of the Jeppesen Terminal — where check-in, baggage claim, car rentals, several shopping and dining options, and security points are located — as well as three concourses (A, B, and C) which are connected post-security via an automated people mover. Concourse A is also connected to the Jeppesen Terminal by a pedestrian bridge that offers views of taxiing planes below and the Rockies to the west.
Related: How to Find Denver Airport’s Best-Kept Security Secret
Concourse A has an American Airlines Admirals Club, Delta Sky Club and a USO lounge. Concourse B has two United Clubs — one near gate B32 and the other near gate B44.
Related: Denver Airport 101: A guide to the lounges at DEN
The airport has taken several steps to reduce its environmental footprint. The white canopy roof lets in tons of natural light and reduces electric usage, natural gas heats and powers much of the airport, and there’s an extensive recycling program in place, as well as water-filling stations in each terminal and electric vehicle charging outlets in the garage. The airport is also quite pet-friendly: an on-airport pet resort, Paradise 4 Paws, offers private suites, massages, and obedience training.
Other perks include free Wi-Fi throughout the airport, many personal device charging stations, nursing rooms in each concourse and an Interfaith Chapel and Prayer Hall in the Jeppesen Terminal, open 24 hours. Luggage storage is available in the Jeppesen Terminal on Level 5.
There are also several permanent and rotating art installations. If the Rockies are enough to keep you enthralled, though, head to Concourse C; the best mountain view is by gates C23 and C24. And if you need to stretch your legs or work off the airplane food, take a stroll around Concourse B, which is a whopping 3,300 feet long. In the summer, the outdoor plaza hosts a pop-up park with mini golf and lawn games, and in the winter, there's an ice rink.
DEN has all the basics covered when it comes to shopping. For instance, all concourses and the Jeppesen Terminal have Hudson News and SEE's Candies stores. There are also plenty of local souvenir stores, such as Greetings from Colorado and Colorado Limited, and duty-free stores throughout the airport. More shopping and dining options will be added after the renovation of the Jeppesen Terminal is completed, which is expected to be by 2025.
The Jeppesen Terminal has several pre-security options to choose from, ranging from restaurants like the Boulder Beer Tap House and Cantina Grill to chains like Subway. In fact, for a city with a reputation for being health-conscious, Denver Airport has a surprising amount of fast food chain options. Every concourse has a Caribou Coffee and a McDonald’s. You’ll also find your usual KFC, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panda Express and Wetzel’s Pretzels.
However, the airport also offers a lot more. Local restaurants like Denver Central Market and Snarf’s Sandwiches in Concourse A and Root Down in Concourse C offer plenty of healthy and vegetarian-friendly options. For something a little more upscale, there’s the Denver Chophouse in Concourse A and Elway’s in Concourse B.
Suffice to say, whether you want to grab a quick bite to go or sit down and relax, you won’t go hungry. Don't fret, you won't go thirsty here either — in true Colorado style, the airport boasts a whopping six breweries.
The Westin Denver International Airport is virtually connected to the airport, making it the perfect refuge between flights. You get there via an extremely short covered walkway, located on the upper level of the Jeppesen Terminal by security. There are 519 rooms and amenities include an indoor pool. Nightly rates start at $179, but often exceed $300. Alternatively, you could redeem 30,000-40,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for a night here. If your layover is not overnight and you're simply looking for a quiet place to shower and recollect before the next flight, you could book a day rate room, which provides access between the hours of noon and midnight, for 50% off the overnight rate. Note that you can't book day rates online so you'll need to call the front desk or ask in person.
Other nearby hotel options include the Aloft Denver Airport at Gateway Park, Embassy Suites by Hilton Denver International Airport, Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center and Hyatt House Denver Airport. These hotels tend to be more reasonably priced (both cash and points rates), but they offer less amenities and you'll need to take a shuttle to get to them.
DEN is located 25 miles northeast of downtown. The quickest public transportation option is to take the A Line commuter train, operated by the Regional Transportation District (RTD). It runs every 15 minutes during peak travel times, and every 30 minutes from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., and the ride takes 37 minutes to downtown’s Denver Union Station. Alternatively, there's the airport's bus line, SkyRide, which runs from approximately 3:30 a.m. to midnight, but that ride takes about an hour. Unlimited travel day passes for either option are $10.50. They depart from the DEN Transit Center, which can be accessed at the south end of Jeppesen Terminal by exiting through the glass doors and taking the escalator or elevator down to ground level. Shared shuttle buses are another option.
A taxi costs about $70 to the city center; Uber and Lyft are also available.
If you have half a day
Many of Denver’s main tourist attractions are clustered in the downtown area, so it’s easy to plan an afternoon of sightseeing getting around on foot, by bus and taxi. Visit the Denver Mint (the largest mint in the U.S.), wander past the Colorado Convention Center — easily recognizable by the three-story-tall blue bear peering into the windows — and take a free tour of the beautiful Colorado State Capital.
Check out the art and culture of the city at the Denver Art Museum, which contains more than 350,000 square feet of space filled with artwork from around the world, the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Science and Nature, the Forney Museum of Transportation, the Colorado Historical Society, or the Museo de las Americas.
If you’d rather enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, visit City Park, Washington Park or Chessman Park, wander the Denver Botanical Gardens, or head to the Denver Zoo. There’s also an Elitch Gardens amusement park located on the edge of downtown.
Or, pick one of Denver’s neighborhoods to explore. Stroll the 1.25-mile length of the pedestrian 16th Street Mall; check out the shops of Larimer Square, Denver’s original city block and now a revitalized historic district; or head to LoDo (Lower Downtown) for a beer at Wynkoop Brewery or a tour of Coors Field. Beer lovers can make it a brewery crawl, and sample from dozens of beers at Falling Rock Tap House or take the tour at Great Divide Brewery — both are nearby.
If you have a whole day
With a whole day you can cover most of downtown Denver, of get just a taste of the city and then head to the hills, or rather, the mountains. Just 30 miles from Denver, near Boulder, you can go hiking in the Flatirons, where there are several trails that range from three to four miles round-trip. Be wary of taking on too much; Boulder sits 5,400 feet above sea level and even some of the shorter trails climb to 7,000 feet or higher. Closer to Denver, Red Rocks Park has two hiking trails — one 1.4 miles long and another one six miles in length — that weave around and over the park’s dramatic red sandstone rock formations.
For some evening entertainment, check out Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, a slightly risqué cabaret show under the clock tower on the 16th Street Mall.
A lengthy layover at Denver Airport doesn't have to be as unpleasant as it might initially seem. While there are no out-of-the-ordinary amenities like swimming pools, slides or movie theaters here, the airport's many shopping and dining options should help pass time. With six breweries on-site, you could even go on a brewery crawl at the airport. In fact, if you pick up a beer "passport" from a participating brewery, you could score a free beer after sampling four. If your layover is on the longer side, you might be best off booking a day room at the on-site Westin or taking the commuter train downtown.
Keep in mind that if you're a victim of a lengthy delay at DEN (or any other airport) that was out of your control, you may be entitled to certain benefits from your airline or credit card. If the delay was within the airline's control (like maintenance problems), they'll typically provide you food vouchers and overnight accommodations. But if it wasn't, or the vouchers aren't enough to cover all your expenses, credit cards with trip delay reimbursements will reimburse you for reasonable additional expenses, such as meals, lodging and toiletries.