Family vacations are great opportunities to create memories that last a lifetime, but painful travel experiences can generate unpleasant memories that never fade. Neverending car rides and missed flights can ruin otherwise fun trips. In my own travels, I have always avoided layovers in Denver because I still remember playing on the moving sidewalks until I was bored and irritable during two extended layovers in Denver International Airport. I’m sure my dad wished we were anyplace but a large, busy terminal for those seemingly endless delays. These days, even a routine flight can involve long delays at the airport thanks to increased security and reduced staff at check-in. So how do you keep the kids happy on the fly?
While you can never guarantee a trip free of delays and mishaps, you can nevertheless plan the best way to handle those situations when they arise. To help ensure good travel memories and smooth vacations, we’ve put together a list of the best kid-friendly airports for long layovers. These airports provide more than just moving sidewalks to keep the kids busy. Kid-friendly amenities include everything from aviation-themed play areas and educational exhibits to private family rooms and rocking chairs for mothers with infants.
We judged these airports based on their kid-friendly amenities, convenience as a stopping point, and proximity to great family vacation spots. Next time your family takes to the sky, plan for the unexpected by connecting through these family-conscious hubs.
One of the world’s busiest airports is also one of the best kid-friendly terminals in the country. Good thing, too: Despite being voted the best airport in the world by Business Traveler Magazine from 2004-2007, O’Hare has also earned notoriety as the second-worst airport in the country for delays.
If you do get stuck in this Midwestern travel citadel, have no fear: Numerous parenting websites have ranked O’Hare as the number one family-friendly airport, and Travel Mamas explains why: “There are diverse ways to keep kids entertained at O’Hare when the wait becomes much longer than expected.” The airport boasts multiple play areas, including Kids on the Fly in Terminal 2. The 2,000 foot playground installed by the Chicago Children’s Museum features airport-themed climbing structures that the museum says allow kids to, “play, pretend, and practice skills.” The airport also has many kid-friendly, post-security dining options, including Garett’s Popcorn (Terminal 1) and Macaroni Grill (Terminal 3).
You can pass through Chicago on flights to and from almost any major airport in the U.S. O’Hare is a particularly good transfer point for flights connecting coastal hubs like Boston and Los Angeles with regional, mid-western destinations.
While O’Hare is a busy international airport with popular flights to and from London, Toronto, and Frankfurt, we recommend avoiding it when you travel abroad with kids because the international terminal does not feature all the family-friendly amenities of the domestic terminals.
While San Francisco is a common endpoint to a journey, it can also serve as a great connection to Asia-Pacific destinations like Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo. Before stepping onto a long trans-Pacific flight, there are few airports better suited to entertaining kids than SFO.
The airport includes nurseries in Terminals 1, 2, and 3; Kids’ Spot play areas in three locations, and three different aquariums in Terminal 1 before security. Dedicated family lanes also help families get through security at their own pace. The convenient security lanes can be helpful on very long layovers, as SFO’s location makes it relatively easy to escape the airport and explore San Francisco for an hour or two between flights.
A-List Mom Travel ranked SFO the second best airport terminal for kids (after O’Hare). They point out that the airport has great options for older kids and parents in addition to the play areas, including the Commission Aviation Library and the 11,500 square foot Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. The museum, “conjures up a feeling of a bygone era when traveling was a sophisticated pastime for only the rarefied few.”
SFO is so dedicated to keeping your family happy and engaged between flights that they have put together self-guided tours of the airport terminals. The tours will lead you and your kids to the various exhibits, play areas, and airport features that make SFO unique. They also include questions and challenges to occupy the little ones. There’s no better way to spend a long layover than taking the family on a treasure hunt.
If you are taking the kids out of the country, then Boston’s Logan International Airport is a great place to catch your flight. The domestic and international terminals are connected by walkways, so transfers are quick and easy. The most popular international flights from Boston connect with European hubs London, Frankfurt, and Paris, though you can also fly direct to Tokyo and Beijing.
Families facing a layover in Boston will find the airport well-equipped to keep your kids entertained. Two Kid Port play areas, created with the Boston Children’s Museum, are located in Terminals A and C. Like O’Hare, Logan’s indoor playgrounds feature plane and tower shaped climbing structures. These play spaces also include seating for parents, as well as an area for watching TV. Atlanta-based blog, My Busy Children, advises, “I would definitely recommend waiting for the airplane there with kids instead of the gate area.”
Keeping the youngest jet setters in mind, Logan also features rocking chairs, family restrooms, and rooms for nursing mothers who want some space and privacy.
In addition to major domestic and international flights, Logan is also a hub for transportation to regional vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Vermont, and Maine.
Considering a family trip to Hawaii but worried about how the kids will handle long flights? Think about connecting through Phoenix. Phoenix Sky Harbor is one of the five most popular airports in the lower 48 for flights to Hawaii, the others being Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Las Vegas.
One of the biggest perks about flying to Hawaii from Phoenix is that the airport has four play areas for kids. The flight across the Pacific is long, and it’s better to let the kids wear themselves out beforehand so they won’t be running up and down the narrow airplane aisles all the way to Honolulu. After all, you do want to get some rest!
You can reach Phoenix Sky Harbor on your way to the Aloha State from Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and other domestic airports. Sky harbor is also a major hub for international flights to points in Canada and Mexico. With one of the play areas located in the international terminal, it’s a great option if you’re flying out of the country with the kids.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport is the busiest airport in the world, and also one of the coolest airports for kids to visit (it came in first for amenities and third for families on a recent Travel Leaders Group poll cited on Gadling). Why? Dinosaurs. In addition to its two play areas, the Atlanta airport features a fully assembled skeleton of Yangchuanosaurus—a dinosaur that lived in China during the Jurassic period. This particular dinosaur now lives in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atrium, to the amazement of children and parents passing through.
Hartsfield-Jackson also features an Airport Art program that includes artworks and rotating exhibits that delight passengers of all ages. The Youth Art Galleries on concourses D, E, and T display art projects by Georgia students.
Atlanta is a major hub for Delta, and the most popular domestic flights connect with many cities in Florida, New York City, and Dallas, along with international hotspots like Cancun, Jamaica, and Nassau.
Keep in mind that Hartfield-Jackson is an enormous airport, and more than a few travelers have gotten lost in its concourses. While it’s one of the better airports for keeping the kids busy, you should also make sure your children don’t stray far, and remember to leave plenty of time to get from play areas and exhibits to your gate before your flight leaves.
The fact of the matter is that you don’t have to do much planning to wind up traveling through DFW. Texas’s main airport is home to American Airlines and connections to airports around the country. It’s a popular stopping point for flights to Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and New York, and it services many regional airports in the Southwest. It is also a gateway to Mexico.
Fortunately, it’s not a bad place to get stuck with the kids. Dallas-Fort Worth features five play areas called Junior Flyer Clubs. These playgrounds feature interactive structures for climbing and make-believe, toys, and games for children. There’s also a seating area for parents to rest while the kids tire themselves out.
If you’re stuck in DFW for an unusually long time, then you can change it up and take the kids to the McDonald’s play area near gate D33.
The music capital of the South puts its reputation on display in Nashville International Airport. Hit the airport at the right time and you’ll be lucky enough to catch live musical performances on one of the airport’s four stages. 80 to 100 bands perform at the airport each year, and Thursday and Friday afternoons are the best times to catch a show.
The airport also has an extensive public art program, including permanent installations and rotating exhibits.
For kids with the kind of energy that can’t be burned off enjoying art and music, the airport also features three play areas - one in each terminal. Airport guide, TravelNerd ranked Nashville the sixth most kid-friendly airport thanks to its three play areas, entertainment, and Redbox DVD vending machines.
Nashville is a regional hub serving 49 markets. It’s a great connection point for travelers headed to Memphis, Indianapolis, and Raleigh/Durham. The most popular flights to and from the Music City connect to Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, and Chicago.
Minneapolis St. Paul
Stuck in Minneapolis St. Paul between flights? This hub, which connects major US cities with Canadian airports and other international destinations, is subject to weather-related delays that may be impossible to avoid - especially if you're traveling in winter. The good news is that it’s a great place to spend a few hours between flights because the airport is conveniently located near Mall of America and other local attractions.
Light Rail Transit connects MSP to downtown Minneapolis and Mall of America. The ride takes about 12 minutes each way and children under five ride free when accompanied by a ticketed adult. The train also provides convenient access to Mall of America, which could be worthy of a vacation itself. This modern American icon is home not only to shopping, but also to movie theaters, an Aquarium, and experiential stores from American Girl and Lego. Not to mention Nickelodeon Universe: this kid-centric indoor amusement park comes complete with characters and rides for all ages.
For layovers too short to leave the airport, there are two play areas located right in the terminals that have aviation themes. There are also rooms for nursing mothers and a family center where parents and children can relax together and take advantage of amenities such as a family bathroom, rocking chairs, and cribs.
In general, Las Vegas is not a popular destination for families with young (read: underage) children. There certainly are some things for families to do in Nevada’s Mecca of extravagance, but the inevitable adults-only content may be too much for some families. The airport, on the other hand, is a classy place that’s comfortable for multiple generations. Adults can even get a taste of the tamer side of Vegas action while waiting for their flight - the airport is fully loaded with over 1200 slot machines.
McCarran airport is a stop on the way between Southwestern destinations and major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Seattle. For travelers with kids, it’s not a bad place to pass an hour or two between flights.
For the kids, McCarran features a huge unsupervised kids’ play area in Terminal D. The area has play structures and an interactive control tower. The airport is also home to some cool vintage planes, which will garner the attention of kids interested in aviation. The Las Vegas airport has also appeared in many Hollywood movies, so you can entertain the family by finding spots where famous scenes from Up in the Air, Ocean's 13, and Rush Hour were filmed.
Seattle-Tacoma offers a host of family-friendly amenities from car seat and stroller rentals to a private room for nursing mothers, complete with adjustable lighting and rocking chairs. The Mother’s room is situated in the Kids Play Area, so parents can easily take care of multiple kids. (It’s also located across from the Seattle Tap Room, so parents can take care of themselves as well.)
Cascadia Kids, a family travel website in the Pacific Northwest, highlights the airport's rocking chairs as a major attraction for parents and children alike. Lora Shinn writes, “Near the gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling central terminal window, Sea-Tac offers wooden rocking chairs, so you can rock a toddler and watch the aircraft… Or let the kids rock while you eat lunch (it’s essentially the dining area for the food court).”
For more information on these airports’ family-friendly amenities, check out these resources: