These are the best places for plane spotting
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
Whether you’re somebody who has flown just a few times or you’re a serious AvGeek, there’s a certain magic in watching planes take off and land. Even though flying has become commonplace in the century since the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk, we still marvel at 100 tons of aluminum roaring above us. It still seems so improbable — even if we can get our heads around the laws of physics that make it possible.
Fortunately, many airports around the world make it easy and enjoyable to watch planes come and go. In other places, top plane-watching spots result not from facility planning but rather from geography. Almost every airport now has a location or two favored by plane-spotters, and many websites and online discussion groups help fans discover the best places.
Here’s our favorite places around the world to observe these modern marvels as they depart and land.
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Dulles International Airport parking garages
Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., has a reputation for embracing planespotters. The best place to watch the airport’s heavy metal take off and land is the Daily Garages 1 and 2. If you’re worried about the police wondering about what you’re up to, you can call Dulles airport operations at (703) 572-2730 before arriving at the airport. Other locations in the area include the Sully Place Shopping Center, the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott at Dulles Airport.
The ‘secret’ observation deck at MSP
In addition to being one of the best shopping airports in the world, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is also one of the best plane spotting locations in the U.S. The airport has a dedicated outdoor viewing area with picnic tables near the airfield, accessible by car by going through a series of tunnels.
But many passengers transiting through the airport don’t realize they can also snag an interesting vantage point via a “secret” enclosed observation deck, located off Concourse D on the departures level. It’s a little tricky to find, and it requires going up some stairs (no elevator), but this area offers windows on all four sides, chairs, some tranquility — and of course, spectacular views of the runways.
The Visitors Park at Munich Airport
Although Frankfurt Airport (FRA) is Lufthansa’s main hub and has an excellent rooftop, open-air deck from which to watch planes, Munich Airport (MUC) is also a strong contender because of its Visitors Park (Besucherpark). The park, which has its own stop on the S-Bahn rail line, has interactive aircraft displays, a mini-golf course and even a playground. Nearby Visitors Hill gives plane spotters an even better view.
Bayfront Park in San Francisco
San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a great place to spy on all different aircraft — domestic and international — that’s only enhanced by its scenic location on the San Francisco Bay. At the southernmost edge of the airport sits Bayfront Park, a public space maintained by the City of Millbrae.
Its location is especially convenient as it is just a short walk along the bay from several popular airport hotels. If you’re just passing through SFO, you should know that in 2019, the airport opened an outdoor observation deck on Terminal 2 (after security) that includes tables, chairs, chaise lounges and bronze sculptures.
The In-N-Out Burger by LAX
What’s better than watching planes at the second-busiest airport in the U.S.? How about watching them while demolishing a Double-Double from In-N-Out Burger? The In-N-Out near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at West 92nd Street and Sepulveda Boulevard allows its guests to watch aircraft take off and land from its patio. There’s also a small park across the street. Parking is tight.
Maho Beach in St. Maarten
This is perhaps the granddaddy of all plane-watching places because it has it all: up-close views of landings, a nice beach and laid-back bars, especially the Sunset Bar and Grill. Although Hurricane Irma slammed St. Maarten in 2017 — destroying nearby businesses and washing away some of the beach — the Maho Beach area has rebuilt and is back open to tourists hoping to sip a drink on the beach as huge planes pass just a few hundred feet above them.
Often referred to as “Airplane Beach,” Maho lies directly under the western approach to St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) and is just steps away from the furthest edge of the runway. Bars on each side of the beach list scheduled landings. Some adventurous tourists even get close enough to the airport’s fence as planes depart to risk being blown backward, despite signs warning of the danger.
Phuket international beaches
Most points and miles travelers consider Phuket, Thailand, to be an ideal vacation destination throughout the year. It’s a spot where beachfront resorts line crystal blue waters with white sand — and aviation lovers can watch the planes come in and out of Phuket International Airport (HKT). Both Nai Yang Beach and Mai Khao Beach sit on the western side of the airport directly in line with its only runway, so you’ll be able to easily spot a variety of liveries from airlines all across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Founders’ Plaza at DFW
Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) is one of the country’s busiest airports, and locals and travelers alike have a chance to catch some of the action at an observation area known as Founders’ Plaza. It offers a few tables, telescopes, historic information and even a radio that broadcasts air traffic control communications from the tower. The biggest planes tend to take off in the afternoon, including those to Europe that typically depart in the late afternoon. It’s also a family-friendly place to have a picnic.
Gravelly Point at DCA
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is surrounded by the Potomac River on one side and development on the others. But its location so close to many of Washington, D.C.’s famous monuments is what makes it an especially scenic place to watch planes. The best spot is from Gravelly Point in Arlington, Virginia, which is part of the National Park Service’s George Washington Memorial Parkway, a pleasant spot popular with walkers and bike riders. If you’re in town, you can see planes passing low overhead and combine the experience with a walk or bike ride along the scenic Potomac with views of the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and other sites.
The Panorama Terrace in Amsterdam
There are lots of great spots to watch planes by Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), which has made it easy for people to watch takeoffs and landings. But the best spot might be the Panorama Terrace, a large observation deck outside security with views of the gates, the runways and the Dutch countryside. It’s a huge space with tables, benches, binocular rentals and even a seasonally open restaurant that serves Heineken. The Panorama Terrace will be closed in bad weather conditions such as fog, ice and storms, so plan accordingly.
TWA Hotel’s rooftop pool at JFK
Some of the sites on this list boast beaches, but no other site allows you to watch the comings and goings of planes while sipping a cocktail in an infinity pool. The TWA Hotel opened in May 2019 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), and it includes a pool and 10,000-square-foot observation deck that affords views of JFK’s Bay Runway, the second-longest in North America.
There’s a pool bar and also a full bar in the observation deck, plus a full-service kitchen. If you plan to go in the winter, the pool will be heated to 100 degrees — to what the hotel’s owners call a “pool-Cuzzi.” The area is free for hotel guests; non-guests can make reservations for the pool bar online.
Featured photo by Roland Bedernik/EyeEm/Getty Images.
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