If you haven’t had the pleasure already, there will most certainly come a day that will call for a visit to John F. Kennedy International Airport. With over 30 miles of taxiway and runway, and covering nearly 5,000 acres, JFK is one of the largest—and busiest—airports in the country. In 2018, more than 61 million passengers passed through its gates.
Despite high-profile projects that may help to recast the airport’s image anew in the coming years—ahem, TWA Hotel—this is still JFK, which is uninspiring on the best of days. But much like the loathed Penn Station, it serves a crucial purpose—and with a $13 billion overhaul planned for the airport’s future, things are starting to look up for this swamp-side aerodrome.
But all experiences are not created equal when it comes to visiting JFK. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a newbie, this guide—covering how to get there, where to eat within the station, and survival tips—will help you navigate the airport with minimal stress.
How to get there
Getting to JFK is a schlep if you live anywhere except for the edge of Queens. But luckily for us, New York City has one of the most robust public transportation systems in the country, and that can be put to good use getting to the airport.
The AirTrain delivers travelers to the airport’s doormat, but navigating to the shuttle can be a little bit tricky. At Jamaica Station, the AirTrain connects with the subway (E, J, and Z), buses, and LIRR (from Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal, and Nostrand Avenue). Travelers can transfer to and from the A train at Howard Beach. You can pay the $7.75 AirTrain fee with your MetroCard, but here’s a pro tip: make sure you load it up beforehand so you don’t get stuck with the tourists who need to buy cards as soon as they step off the plane.
Cabs, Uber, and any other non-public transit are the most convenient—read: expensive—way to get to JFK in terms of personal comfort, but remember, traffic can be brutal, and a real schedule killer. Traveling between Manhattan and JFK, or vice versa, in a cab runs a flat rate of $52, plus various fees. Cabs run metered fares between JFK and the remaining four boroughs.
For a full list of public transportation transfers to JFK, head this way.
Where to stay
Travelers needing to stay close to JFK mostly have bland airport hotels—see: Sheraton, Holiday Inn Express, Hilton—as options, and even there, rooms go for north of $100 a night.
But there is one nice lodging option at the airport: The TWA Hotel, which opened earlier this year. The hotel incorporates Eero Saarinen’s circa-1962 TWA Flight Center, a stunning example of Space Age architecture, which was largely hidden from public view since 2001. Now, the flight center building functions as the lobby of the 512-room hotel, with shops, restaurants, and other perks for guests.
Reservations for the hotel are available through the TWA Hotel website, and there are currently two types available: an overnight stay, and a special day rate—available in the morning, afternoon, and evening—for those who need just a few hours to decompress between flights. It’s located just outside of Terminal 5, and connects to that space via the iconic red-carpeted tunnels that were featured in Catch Me If You Can.
What to eat
New York’s travel hubs aren’t known for their stellar dining options, but JFK has some of the better places to nosh when it comes to eating on the go. Here are a few of the best dining finds, from our friends at Eater NY:
Shake Shack/Blue Smoke on the Road (Terminal 4): Terminal 4 has branches of two of Danny Meyer’s most beloved restaurants. Two locations of Shake Shack offer all the favorites you find at the other locations, plus breakfast sandwiches and good coffee in the morning. Blue Smoke on the Road, which faces one of the Shake Shacks, serves ribs, sausages, and sandwiches, plus beer, wine, and cocktails.
Uptown Brasserie (Terminal 4): This sit-down restaurant offers American fare like catfish and grits and chicken and waffles for dinner from chef Marcus Samuelsson. The breakfast menu features classics like buttermilk pancakes and a smoked-salmon bagel. There’s an open kitchen, too.
Piquillo (Terminal 5): This restaurant, first created with the help of Txikito’s Alex Raij, is reportedly the first-ever Spanish tapas restaurant in a U.S. airport. You can get an order of paella or Spanish-style sandwiches, but this is an especially a good place for a glass of wine with some simple, sophisticated (by airport standards) snacks like cheese and charcuterie.
There are also three different restaurants and bars at the TWA Hotel, including Connie, a cocktail bar in a decommissioned TWA airplane, which broke the transcontinental speed record on a flight from California to New York in 1946.
John F. Kennedy International Airport was built in 1948—but not under that name, of course—as a response to the swelling crowds at nearby LaGuardia Airport. (Nowadays, it far surpasses LaGuardia in volume of travelers.)
The airport was slated to cover a modest 1,000 acres on Jamaica Bay marshland that was then the territory of the Idlewild Golf Course, but throughout its construction the project ballooned to five times that size.
When it opened in 1948, the hub was officially called the New York International Airport, but was colloquially referred to as Idlewild. (Fun fact: The Times says the name is “believed to have been inspired by the fact that the site at that time was wild and that the hotel and park constituted a recreational facility for the idle rich.”)
The facility was promptly renamed after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Less than two weeks after Kennedy’s death, Mayor Robert Wagner announced that he would submit a bill to the City Council to rename the airport. The following week, that bill was approved and the John F. Kennedy International Airport was officially renamed in a Christmas Eve ceremony.
The year prior to the airport’s rededication, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center opened in all of its jet-age splendor, marking a shift in the history of air travel. The terminal's heyday coincided with the golden age of flying, in which travelers were restricted neither by economic class nor security concerns. Ironically, it was shuttered in 2001 when its glorious architecture was deemed no longer suitable for modern-day air travel; now, it’s a swanky hotel.
- When it comes to taking public transportation to and from JFK, opt for the LIRR for efficiency. It’s quicker—a lot quicker—than the subway, but also comes at the cost of $10.75 during peak hours, plus $7.75 for the AirTrain, versus $2.75 for the subway and $7.75 for AirTrain.
- Terminal 4 has a second security checkpoint on the lower level that’s often used for incoming international passengers, but is also available to those departing. It’s often much less crowded than the other security checkpoint but beware, its hours are spotty.
- Surpass the line for a cab right out front of the arrivals area by going to a second, less-used taxi stand. To get there, walk all the way to the right of the arrivals bank and just around the corner as if you’re going to get on the bus.
- Hack the walk to the far-out B gates of Terminal 4 by turning right instead of left at the first entrance to the gates, as if you were going to take the shuttle to Terminal 2. There you’ll find a bus that skips from gate B18 to B54 in less than half the time it would take to walk (even with the moving sidewalks.)
- Forgot to bring a gift for the friend you’re visiting? Don’t sleep on the Metropolitan Museum of Art store in Terminal 4.
- If you’re flying with Delta, download their app. Passengers flying with checked baggage will get an alert once their luggage is scanned and dropped on the carousel at arrival. Instead of waiting at the carousel (boring), mill about the terminal while you wait (less boring.)
- The Terminal 4 Shake Shack by gate B37 is always less crowded. Rumor also has it that they’ll sell full bottles of wine, should you ask.