Sold-out food and overstuffed lounges await travelers at some airports this summer — here's what to expect
Travel demand is high, ticket prices are up and there's still a shortage of staff in some aspects of the airport experience. Layer that with long lines to get airline lounges that have overflowed into the hallways at multiple locations.
With travel set to ramp up for the summer as Memorial Day approaches, what could possibly go wrong as U.S. travelers pack their carry-on bags and head to the airport?
If the preview of coming attractions we've seen play out at airports across the country recently is any indication, a lot, actually.
We certainly hope that 2023 won't be a repeat of some of the larger-scale meltdowns various airlines and airports experienced in 2022. However, the odds are high that there will be some challenges awaiting the millions of travelers scheduled to fly this summer.
Here's what we are already seeing — and how to be prepared as you take to the sky.
Come hungry, risk leaving starving
We're not going to start this off with a tired tip like allowing extra time to get through security, though you probably should do that if you still don't have PreCheck or Clear or otherwise reserve your spot in the security line. Here's how to minimize your wait to get through security if you need those tips.
Today, we'll start with something arguably even scarier than a long security line — "hanger," the combination of "hunger" and "anger."
In recent weeks at airports across the country, including Orlando International Airport (MCO), Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL), Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) and beyond, TPG staffers have encountered little to no food available at the airport.
The reasons for this are multifaceted but come down to one main theme: staffing.
As a result of those constraints, operating hours for concessions are still shorter than you might expect. If you have an evening or early flight, you may have very limited choices. Even if the food outlet is open, we're encountering empty trays and dramatically scaled-back menus.
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Last month at Orlando International Airport, I encountered a very busy food court. More of the food trays with the day's offerings were empty than full at the post-security Manchu Wok. When a fellow customer asked the one staffer working the counter when replenishment might be coming, the question was met with an almost humorous shrug. You needed to pick from the few options that were left or get nothing at all.
The other customer opted for nothing at all while I just pointed at the tray that looked to have the most left in it and said whatever that was would be fine. If you had any dietary restrictions or concerns in the slightest, there would have been no remedy.
TPG's Nick Ewen encountered a similar situation at Einstein Bros. Bagels at the Fort Lauderdale airport when the staffer at that outlet waved to the menu behind him and said, "We don't have any of that other than the first two sandwiches."
Things were arguably even bleaker at O'Hare International Airport for TPG's Gene Sloan as he tried to grab dinner after his connection from Charlotte and before an evening departure bound for Europe when the outlet he first went to only had hot dogs left. Other options around him were closed or closing around 7 p.m. (well before many of the international departures from O'Hare).
When he eventually found a still-open Burger King, he ordered quickly and didn't look back. However, because it was so busy, he couldn't find an open table and had to settle on eating dinner on a bench in the packed terminal.
The moral of these stories is that while airports aren't as post-apocalyptic as they were in 2020 when it comes to concessions, they aren't as far off from that as you might imagine — just for different reasons than before.
Related: Our favorite airport restaurants
No vacancies at the airport lounges
Frequent travelers, or even those with the right credit cards in their wallets, may think what's going on in the terminal food court isn't particularly their problem, as food awaits them in the lounge.
Maybe there will be food. However, that doesn't mean you'll be able to get in during the window before your flight. Overcrowding at airport lounges is not a new problem, but it's unresolved as we head into another busy travel season.
In addition to long waits for lounge access, you may not be able to get in at all.
We are also hearing reports of Priority Pass members unable to use their membership to get into lounges at all as they are completely full. The "no room" denial is happening at airports all over the place – San Diego, Cancun, London and beyond.
Sometimes the same "sorry, can't get in today" response happens for those with one-time-use lounge passes, such as United passes you get with the United Explorer Card, which includes two single-use United Club passes each year.
Naturally, there are also times you can waltz right into the lounge, visit the buffet for a "free" plate of food, grab a complimentary drink and live the airport high life. But even with all the recent lounge expansions, guest restrictions and new openings, if you travel enough, you're likely to encounter a situation where there are simply no vacancies in the lounge.
Related: These are the best credit cards for getting in airport lounges
What to do about all this
Don't worry — you are not necessarily doomed to a life of overstuffed gate areas with nothing but hot dogs for sustenance if you plan ahead and make some strategic choices along the way.
In addition to having a strategy to get through security, keeping track of your flight and having a backup in the case of cancellations or delays, here's how to handle the airports like a prepared pro this summer.
- Bring snacks — really, this time. Some travelers have always been vigilant about packing and bringing their own food and snacks for the airport, but now is the time for all of us to be prepared. At a minimum, packing granola bars or something similar in your bag is a must this summer. Packing an in-case-of-emergency sandwich isn't a bad idea either.
- Prioritize grab-and-go lounges. There is a still small but growing number of grab-and-go lounges that can keep your belly full on the go. Delta has the grab-and-go concept at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Concourse B and at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in Concourse B. United launched its first grab-and-go lounge at Denver International Airport (DEN) near Gate B61. Capital One also makes grab-and-go available at its Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) lounge in Terminal D.
- Make a reservation to get in the lounge. While most lounges still don't accept reservations, some do. For example, there are a number of Priority Pass lounges at London airports that do, but note there is generally a small fee charged to guarantee your spot.
- Eat a free meal at Priority Pass-eligible restaurants. A few credit cards still offer credit at actual sit-down airport restaurants. That number of eligible food outlets has shrunk dramatically in recent months. However, some, including the popular Chase Sapphire Reserve, still pick up around $28-$30 per person per meal at restaurants in airports such as George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), Dulles International Airport (IAD) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
It's easy to shrug off the airport experience and say you'll eat when you arrive at your destination. However, if you're boarding an international flight or a long transcontinental flight, or start facing long, rolling delays, the last thing you want to deal with on top of everything else is travel "hanger."
Before you book that airport parking spot or book that ride to the airport, don't forget to also plan for the airport to not be the most relaxing and accommodating part of your journey.
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