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The Ultimate Guide to New York City’s Airports

By Mike Arnot

Jan 24, 2020

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The recently opened TWA Hotel has introduced some great new restaurants and bars to the JFK scene.

Photo by John Arehart/Shutterstock

The recently opened TWA Hotel has introduced some great new restaurants and bars to the JFK scene.

Is LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark the best airport for your travel needs? We break down each airport’s best features, where to eat there, and how to get to and from these New York hubs.

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New Yorkers and visitors alike are blessed with convenient air access to and from numerous points away thanks to the fact that New York shares nonstop flights with almost every major city in the world as well as with countless smaller centers.

Those flights are facilitated by the three major airports that serve New York City and its environs: LaGuardia Airport (LGA), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). There are benefits and drawbacks to each from a passenger’s perspective, including their distance from Manhattan (and the relative ease—or lack thereof—of getting to each).

I’ve flown out of every terminal at each of these three airports myriad times and have eaten everywhere from Dunkin’ and Auntie Anne’s pretzels to the very fancy British Airways Concorde Room and Air France’s lounge. While I’ve personally come to love flying out of the United Airlines terminal at Newark, JFK will connect you with the entire world, and LaGuardia (which often gets a bad rap) is undergoing numerous improvements. Here, we outline what each airport has to offer.

JFK Airport: A world-class hub that’s a bit of a drive

John F. Kennedy International Airport, also known as JFK, is an international hub on par with other major global airports such as London’s Heathrow Airport, Frankfurt Airport, or Dubai International Airport. Simply walking through the terminals presents a who’s who of international airlines and a potpourri of people from around the world. It makes for fascinating people-watching.

JFK is definitely the easiest way to get from the New York area to destinations around the world due to the sheer number of nonstop flights available on major international carriers such as British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Air China, Lufthansa, Delta, and American. The one major airline that doesn’t fly out of JFK is United, which uses Newark as its main hub. More about that below.

How to get to JFK Airport from Manhattan

The AirTrain at JFK connects travelers to public transportation options.

By train or subway

Unlike London’s Heathrow Express or Hong Kong’s Airport Express, there is no direct train service between Manhattan and JFK. Nevertheless, for around $15 you can take the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from Penn Station in Manhattan to the Jamaica station in Queens, and transfer to JFK’s AirTrain, which takes passengers directly to the airport terminals for an extra $7.75 per person. Consider this the best-kept secret of getting to JFK, but not by design. The LIRR does a mediocre job of promoting the option and a worse job explaining to tourists how to use the service. The signage is very poor and the route names don’t even mention the airport. But the LIRR will get you to the airport from Manhattan in less than an hour. You can save $5 and take the A subway line out to the Howard Beach–JFK Airport stop, and then connect to the AirTrain. But this will be about 45 minutes longer and makes at least a dozen stops between JFK and Manhattan. Our advice is to take the LIRR if you’re keen on using public transportation.

By taxi or rideshare service

Traveling by car highlights the biggest drawback of JFK; it is some 30 miles outside Manhattan, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the all-too-common traffic along the way. And you can definitely expect to hit some unless you’re driving to or from the airport after 10 p.m. at night or early in the morning prior to 7 a.m. When there is no traffic, the drive is about 45 minutes, but during most of the day and evening passengers should figure on a 75- to 90-minute car ride to or from Manhattan. The flat rate fare from JFK to Manhattan via a classic yellow cab is $52 (if you include surcharges during peak periods, tolls, and tip, you can figure on about $60). From Manhattan to JFK, however, you’re paying whatever the meter indicates for a 90-minute trip plus tolls and tip, which will usually set you back at least $60 and likely more. On-demand rideshare services like Lyft and Uber are typically cheaper; I recently took an Uber to JFK from Brooklyn on a Saturday morning at a cost of $36 (it would have been about $50 from Manhattan, and is more expensive during rush hour). 

By paid van service

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There is a smattering of van services between JFK and Manhattan, which are a great way to save money but not time. Go Airlink charges $20 per person to go from JFK to Grand Central Station, which is a good deal particularly if you have a lot of luggage and don’t mind sharing a ride and experiencing multiple stops at various hotel pickups along the route.

By helicopter

The absolute fastest way is via Uber or Blade helicopter service, which takes around five minutes, and flies between a helicopter pad in Manhattan and a private terminal at JFK. It’s about $200 for an Instagram-ready seat.

The food and services at each terminal in JFK

Depending on which terminal you’re in, you’ll either have ample options or pretty slim pickings for things to do before your flight or during a layover. Here is a breakdown of what to expect in every terminal, each of which has its own distinct features and design.

  • Terminal 1: Several major international airlines call this home, giving it some serious globe-trotting clout. Here, you’ll find the likes of Air France, Lufthansa, Korean Air, and Japan Airlines. But it is a comparatively small terminal with only 11 gates. And despite this group of leading airlines, there’s not much in the way of exciting food options unless you’re visiting one of the airline lounges. Otherwise, you’ll be eating sandwiches from Panini Express. There is high-end luxury shopping such as Hermès and Cartier if that’s your speed. And you can gain entry to several of the lounges with Priority Pass, an annual fee-based membership program.
  • Terminal 2: This terminal is less glamorous and feels a bit more like a small-town airport. It’s exclusively used by Delta Air Lines. It’s got a Cibo Express and a Hudson News, and not much more.
  • Terminal 3: This terminal no longer exists—it was demolished. The same goes for Terminal 6.
  • Terminal 4: This is the main Delta and Virgin Atlantic terminal. You’ll find notable drinking and dining choices such as an East Coast outpost of Peet’s Coffee, Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke (for barbecue fans), and the eternally popular Shake Shack for a dependable burger and “concrete,” Shake Shack’s version of a thick shake. Consider yourself lucky because most other terminals at JFK don’t come close to having Shake Shack–level eating options.
  • Terminal 5: This terminal has the most modern design, is the youngest terminal, and it’s JetBlue’s home. There’s an outpost of the beloved Japanese home goods emporium Muji, where you can stock up on sleek travel accessories and stationery, and the terminal also has an almost-secret outdoor roof deck accessible once you’ve cleared through security. Food is not a strong point of this terminal; there is a large Cibo market and Deep Blue Sushi (a more elegant sit-down restaurant).
  • Terminal 7: You’ll find British Airways here, including the Concorde Room for first-class passengers, which is the highlight of the place. For everyone else, there is a Hudson News and a Wolfgang Puck Express for pizza, pasta, sandwiches, soups, and salads.
  • Terminal 8: This is the home of American Airlines and its Oneworld partners, such as Finnair and Qantas. It’s not the airport’s most appealing terminal. The food establishments include the standard airport fare such as Cibo. There is also a Bobby Van’s Steakhouse for a heartier meal. Shopping is limited to the Metropolitan Museum of Art store and the Porsche Design shop.

Some of the best dining options at JFK are in Terminal 4, including Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke on the Road for barbecue.

Renovations at JFK

There are big changes afoot at JFK. A $13 billion renovation led by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is kicking off in 2020. Terminal 8 is undergoing a renovation and expansion, and British Airways will move into the terminal in 2022, abandoning Terminal 7. That terminal will be demolished, and Terminal 5 will be expanded to take over the space. Finally, terminals 1 and 2 will be demolished and will double in size, replaced by a new Terminal 1. The impact on transportation remains to be seen. If LaGuardia’s renovation is any indicator, car traffic will be much worse before it (hopefully) gets better.

JFK’s TWA Hotel

The TWA Hotel’s 1958 Lockheed Constellation “Connie” airplane has been transformed into a cocktail lounge.

One of the buzziest features of JFK is the throwback glamour of the recently opened TWA Hotel. The formerly abandoned mid-century terminal turned hotel is near JetBlue’s Terminal 5, and sports a rooftop pool with runway view, a cocktail lounge inside a restored Lockheed Constellation L-1649A airplane, a sprawling sunken lounge that was restored to its original 1962 glory, and the Paris Café, a restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten (who has Michelin cred and is behind Jean-Georges and ABC Kitchen in Manhattan). The TWA Hotel is like stepping back in time and is worth popping into for a meal or a drink or staying overnight in the mid-century–inspired rooms if you need a place to crash before or after your flight. I’d take hanging out at the TWA Hotel over most lounge experiences at JFK.

LaGuardia Airport: New York’s up-and-comer

LaGuardia Airport will soon boast the newest and freshest terminals and passenger gates of the three New York–area airports. A massive and ongoing development project will transform a hub that former Vice President Joe Biden likened to a “third-world country” into a modern collection of terminals.

LaGuardia is the closest airport to Manhattan, and that’s its strongest selling point, for now. The airport could be one of the best in the United States when it’s completed in 2022. But it will never be a world-class international airport like JFK or Newark because of its “perimeter rule,” which caps most nonstop flights to and from the airport at a distance of 1,500 miles. Delta is investing in making LaGuardia a major hub; it already operates 40 percent of all flights out of the airport, with American operating 25 percent. Top destinations from LaGuardia are Chicago, Atlanta, and Florida.

Chicago is one of the main destinations out of LaGuardia.

How to get to LaGuardia Airport from Manhattan

Direct public transportation to LaGuardia from Manhattan is nonexistent, and it’s a shame. Several years ago, to save a few dollars, I took the subway to Queens and then the Q33 bus to the airport, and did so at around 5 a.m. in the wintertime. I do not recommend the experience as it was painfully slow and required a wait outside at the bus stop with my luggage in tow during the dead of winter. But it only cost around $3, which is a steal.

By public transportation

Nowadays, there is direct bus service on the Q70 from the 61st Street–Woodside stop on the 7 subway line, but most tourists—hard-core budget travelers notwithstanding—will simply opt for a rideshare, taxi, or paid van service.

By paid van service

You can take a paid van service from Grand Central Station but are required to leave significantly earlier than your flight—some three hours beforehand so that passengers can’t claim their van was late.

By taxi or rideshare service

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The most common option is a taxi or rideshare service. It’s about a $35 taxi ride from Manhattan to the airport (and vice versa) and takes from around 40 minutes with no traffic up to one hour during peak hours. The rideshare experience is becoming more convenient at LaGuardia; there’s a dedicated level in the parking structure for the new main terminal, Terminal B. Passengers call for their car and walk over to a designated parking spot to meet their driver—it works pretty well.

The food and services at each terminal in LaGuardia

So why does LaGuardia have such a bad reputation? Well, up until its current transformation it was dirty, crowded, and small. Thankfully for current travelers, the airport is already much improved from its former incarnations, and passengers are benefiting from the changes. Here are some of the best ways to spend your time before your flight or during a layover at LGA.

  • Terminal A: The historic Marine Air Terminal dates back to the 1930s and is often a source of confusion for passengers. It’s a beautiful Art Deco–style terminal and the home to JetBlue. However, it’s on the other side of the airport from the main terminal (Terminal B) and terminals C and D, and not linked to those terminals in any way. At Terminal A, there are no noteworthy amenities (restaurants include Cibo Express, Dunkin’, and the deli Yankee Clipper), but at least getting to the gates through security is a breeze; Terminal A is as quiet as a library.
  • Terminal B: The airport’s main terminal is in the midst of a massive renovation project, with new portions opening and old sections closing. One such newly opened area is the United Airlines pier. It boasts a hip McNally Jackson bookstore (an independent bookseller with three locations in New York), a Shake Shack, and power outlets at every seat. It’s clean, airy, and a vast improvement over the old piers.
  • Terminals C and D: These are run by Delta Air Lines, which is making a massive $8 billion investment in the facilities, with plans to completely overhaul them within the next several years. The existing terminals C and D will be replaced with modern terminals that will match aesthetically and will connect with the main Terminal B. Delta’s new gates on the far eastern side of the terminals offer enjoyable views of the water that surrounds the airport—a promising start to the project.

LaGuardia’s redesign and construction moves the entire facility closer to the highway, which gives taxis and rideshare vehicles easier access to the terminals. There will also be about two miles of additional taxiways created for aircraft that is intended to increase on-time performance by allowing for better movement of planes on the ground.

Newark Airport: A tale of two (very different) terminal experiences

Newark Liberty International Airport is a tale of two cities. On the one hand, there are terminals A and B, which are dark and utilitarian, with beige and brown serving as the dominant color schemes. The culinary “standouts” here are Panda Express, Tony Roma’s, and the Budweiser Brew House, and there’s a gift shop simply named America! that sells, well, American-themed products. Terminal C, on the other hand, is where Newark really shines. With its sleek design and outstanding dining options, this is probably the single best airline terminal in the New York area.

If you’re flying with United or a United partner airline, you’ll be flying out of Newark. But there are other reasons to consider this airport. It’s not that difficult to reach with public transportation, as detailed below, and it offers a fair amount of international service, minus some of the chaos of the more popular international hub JFK. Sure, security lines can get pretty long during peak travel times at Newark too. But 38.5 million passengers traveled through Newark between January and October 2019 (the most recent data provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey), compared with the 52.8 million passengers who traveled through JFK during the same period. So getting through Newark is usually a bit easier.

Newark, New Jersey, is a short car or train ride from Manhattan.

How to get to Newark Airport from Manhattan

By car

Over the last few years, United Airlines has been trumpeting that it is actually much faster to get from Manhattan to Newark than to JFK. (The airline used real-time taxi data in a creative campaign). And it’s true. A ride to or from Newark is typically between 30 minutes and one hour. That said, taxi rides to Newark are expensive. Your fare from Manhattan will be at least $65, plus a surcharge and a charge for the return tolls paid by the taxi. That can add up.

By train

Where Newark actually does pretty well is with the public transportation options. Travel to Newark by train is quite good by New York standards. From New York’s Penn Station you can get to Newark Liberty International Airport Station with a New Jersey Transit train. It’s about a 25-minute trip and costs around $15 per person. You then transfer to the free AirTrain, which stops at each terminal. The entire trip from Manhattan is about one hour, including transit to New York’s Penn Station.

By shuttle service

The same companies that operate shuttles between Manhattan and JFK or LGA also operate shuttle services to and from Newark for around $20 per person.

The food and services at each terminal in Newark

If you have a flight out of Newark, or find yourself with a layover there, here is what each terminal has to offer. 

  • Terminal A: This terminal serves the likes of Air Canada, JetBlue, and Frontier, and has no customs facilities. The terminal always feels crowded, and the food options consist of typical airport fare like Ruby Tuesday, Tony Roma’s, Dunkin’, and Jamba Juice. Terminal A is slated for reconstruction in 2021, mercifully.
  • Terminal B: This is the main international terminal—except for United flights. It has lounges for Delta, British Airways, and other international carriers, Malone’s for healthy options such as fish and a selection of salads, and Sora, a Japanese restaurant with decent ramen.
  • Terminal C: This is the home of United Airlines and, as mentioned above, the highlight of traveling through Newark. In my opinion, Newark’s Terminal C has the best food options of any airport in the United States. For example, the sushi restaurant Tsukiji Fishroom serves fish that comes directly from Japan a few times per week. There’s a wood-burning grill at the terminal’s Daily restaurant (that’s its name), which has a menu that changes—you guessed it—daily. The salad bar at a takeaway area called the Global Bazaar is on par with any Whole Foods salad bar. Another highlight is Crêperie Juliet, which serves fresh crepes in the morning, and then successfully transitions into Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese eatery in the afternoon. This same switch of cuisine happens at many of the other restaurants and helps keep the food options ever-changing and fresh. It’s very innovative.

The dumpling-focused Little Purse is among the culinary options in Newark's Terminal C.

The best times to get to and from NYC airports

New York is called the city that never sleeps. A secret from a New Yorker, however: Manhattan does actually sleep. You can jet across Manhattan to Newark, JFK, or LaGuardia with little traffic hassle after 10 p.m. and before 7 a.m.—the later at night and the earlier in the morning, the better. I’ve personally made it from JFK to Manhattan in 40 minutes, and from LaGuardia to Manhattan in about 25 minutes, in the middle of the night after arriving from a late flight. But I also drove from Brooklyn to Newark for this story at 8:30 a.m. (peak rush hour) on a Monday and made it in 46 minutes, which is not bad. So you can get lucky, but it’s often worth going extra early or waiting a bit to avoid the worst of the traffic.

>> Next: The World’s Busiest Airports—and What to Do During Your Layover There

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