Why You May Want To Avoid Flying Into This Western US Airport After Being Abroad

After a flight, every traveler's dream is to sail through security and breeze into a cab to get to the final destination as soon as possible. Sadly, that is not always the case at every U.S. airport. Some notorious airports have average wait times of over 30 minutes for customs and immigration, never mind the security lines. According to a data study by Upgraded Points, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) was revealed to have the longest wait times in customs out of all other U.S. airports. The average length of time it took to get through was 31.6 minutes.

The Seattle-Tacoma Airport has come under some scrutiny before this study. Canceled flights, frequent delays, and long lines at airline counters have caused some turbulence for travelers passing through this international airport. Not to mention the strain of a $546 million renovation upgrade project, expected to be completed in phases through 2026. This construction has led to barricaded entrances, labyrinthine pedestrian detours, baggage belt nightmares, and lots of confusing signage. Essentially, the last thing anyone needs before flying abroad.

Moreover, Seattle-Tacoma is one of the few airports in the United States that has already surpassed its pre-pandemic numbers of international travelers, only adding to the chaos and excessive waiting times every step of the way. However, this study and other compelling traveler surveys have revealed the best airports across the U.S. to fly into any time you have the option.

The best domestic U.S. airports to fly into

Depending on where you live or where you're going, it is sometimes possible to fly to a different, much better airport with shorter wait times. In fact, there are over 5,000 public airports in the U.S. for you to, technically, choose from. Statistics from the Upgraded Points study showed that compared to Seattle-Tacoma, the wait at John Wayne Airport (SNA) was only 4.6 minutes. This is an ideal welcome in Orange County for travelers. However, if you're bound for the northwest coast, Portland International Airport (PDX), with its 12.6-minute wait time, is another good alternative. 

According to a 2023 traveler satisfaction study by consumer insight company J.D. Power, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) was the best U.S. "mega" airport. Tampa International Airport (TPA) topped the large airport scoreboard for the second year in a row, and Indianapolis International Airport (IND) was the highest-scoring medium-sized airport. These rankings were driven by airport elements that passengers like, such as suitable facilities, nice restaurants, places to drink, and a range of duty-free stores.

Travel + Leisure surveyed its readers on domestic U.S. airports based on key criteria such as design, shopping, amenities, accessibility, and the overall check-in and security process. Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT) in New Hampshire secured the top spot on the 2023 list with a score of 85.31 out of 100. This was partly due to its efficient security and general operations. Unsurprisingly, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport did not make the cut. If you have the luxury of choosing to fly into any of these fabulous airports, it may make your journey less stressful.

Savvy airport navigation for a better travel experience

In reality, choosing what airport you're going to is not always possible, especially as bigger U.S. airports only carry specific routes. So before you go, download or screenshot a copy of the airport map to help you navigate the building. When you do, check that it is the latest version so that any construction or alternative routes are marked. Know what to expect and fortify your mental stamina — if an airport is statistically doomed to long waiting times, don't expect a miracle.

Another way to quickly navigate a busy airport without losing your mind is to get pre-approved by the TSA. The TSA PreCheck program allows you to join their designated lines, which means not having to remove clothing or electronics, expedited queues, and an overall smoother screening. It's estimated that this can make your wait time in security less than 10 minutes. Programs like Global Entry, Clear, and NEXUS can also significantly streamline your airport experience. Each one offers unique benefits for different travel needs. Check your eligibility for these programs and consider applying to the one that suits you best.

If you're traveling during the busy holiday season, you can also embrace your inner minimalist and put all your belongings in a carry-on instead of bringing a hefty checked luggage, saving you lots of time in baggage claim. Also, use airline apps to your advantage and complete the check-in process on your smartphone to head straight to customs. Airports can be hellish, but with these savvy tips, flying via Seattle-Tacoma or any other airport will be much smoother.