Chicago O’Hare vs. Midway: Which airport should I fly into?

Sep 28, 2019

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Visitors to Chicago have a choice to make when it comes to trip planning: Should they fly into O’Hare (ORD), a sprawling international airport, or Midway (MDW), which offers more convenient access to the city but with many fewer choices of flights. In the past, we’ve compared what airport is best in both Paris and Tokyo. And today, we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of O’Hare and Midway.

Distance to downtown & transportation options

Downtown Chicago stretches north and south, roughly split in half by the Chicago River. O’Hare is located northwest of the city, Midway to the southwest. To measure the distance from each airport into the city, we chose as a central destination the famous Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park known as “the Bean.” It is two blocks south of the river and walking distance to Navy Pier, the museum campus, and the shops of the Magnificent Mile.

The famous "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park.
The famous “Bean” in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Here’s how the two airports stack up:

Getting downtown O’Hare (ORD) Midway (MDW)
Distance (by car) 18 miles 12.5 miles
Time (by car) 35-60 minutes 25-40 minutes
Average Uber cost $35 (~£28) $25 (~£20)
Public Transit CTA blue line CTA orange line

Chicago O’Hare is 18 miles from the Bean by car, while Midway is about 12.5 miles away.

If you plan on driving, keep in mind that I-90 (the Kennedy Expressway) often gets very congested around O’Hare. Since there are multiple terminals, it might take you five to 10 minutes just to get in/out of the airport area itself. If your flight lands at the wrong time, you might also be fighting rush-hour traffic in and out of the city. With no traffic, you should be able to reach downtown in about 35 minutes, though in my experience you should budget 45 minutes to an hour. An UberX should cost about $35 (~£28) normally, or you can take the CTA blue line all the way downtown.

Midway, on the other hand, is about 25 minutes from downtown and generally less prone to traffic delays than O’Hare. (Though if you’re traveling on a Sunday when the Bears are playing at home, I-55 can get backed up.) Midway also has its own CTA station with the orange line headed downtown. Or, you can hop an Uber for approximately $25 (~£20). Midway is not in the best neighborhood in Chicago, so you’ll want to make sure you know where you’re going when you land.

Winner: No matter how you plan on getting to the city from the airport, Midway comes out ahead. Less traffic, shorter drives, cheaper Ubers and even less time spent on the metro.

Airlines and flight options

When it comes to airlines, O’Hare and Midway could not be any more different. O’Hare jumped ahead of Atlanta (ATL) this year as the busiest airport in the US in terms of total flights, with 903,747 flights in 2018 serving over 83 million passengers. O’Hare is also one of the only airports in the country that’s a major hub to two different airlines, with both United and American Airlines calling it home. United operates almost 600 daily flights around the US and to 41 international destinations, including nine in Europe and four in Asia. American Airlines has significantly scaled back its trans-Pacific operations but still has international flights to Europe, Central America and more. Chicago is also finalizing plans for an $8.5-billion renovation to the airport, which would add 35 new gates, three million additional square feet of terminal space, and an all new “global terminal.”

A rendering of the proposed changes to O'Hare's terminal 5
A rendering of the proposed new look for O’Hare’s Terminal 5

In addition to these US-based carriers, O’Hare is served by several international airlines, including:

  • Air New Zealand has three flights weekly to Auckland (AKL) with a 787-9
  • ANA flies to both Tokyo Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND) daily with a 777-300ER
  • Qantas is launching flights to Brisbane (BNE) four times a week with a 787-9
  • JAL flies to Tokyo Narita (NRT) daily with a 777-300ER
  • Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong (HKG) daily with a 777-300ER
  • EVA Air flies to Taipei (TPE) five times a week with a 777-300ER
  • Turkish Airlines flies to Istanbul (IST) daily with a 777-300ER
  • Lufthansa flies to Frankfurt (FRA) twice daily with a 747-8
  • British Airways flies to London (LHR) twice daily, once with an A380 and once with a 747-400
  • El Al is launching flights to Tel Aviv (TLV)
  • Qatar flies daily to Doha (DOH) with a 777-300ER

No matter where in the world you’re heading, there’s a good chance you can fly directly from O’Hare.

Midway, on the other hand, is a fortress hub for Southwest Airlines, which operates an overwhelming majority of the flights out of the airport. Take a look below at the arrivals board for Midway, which features 16 Southwest flights and one Delta flight (the Air France/KLM/Virgin Atlantic/Aeromexico entries are simply codeshares of the same Delta flight). Delta, which has a relatively small presence at O’Hare, is one of the only airlines other than Southwest to operate any flights out of Midway.

Much of Southwest’s success comes from tight control of its operations and its uniform fleet of all 737s, and I’ve found Midway to be a very efficient airport in general. And when Chicago gets hit with snow and the ensuing weather delays, it’s easier to get rebooked if you’re dealing with the Southwest hub at Midway.

Southwest won't have any competition on its new route from Sacramento to Spokane. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Winner: For AvGeeks and road warriors there’s something special about O’Hare. American and United have expansive domestic route networks at ORD; there aren’t many destinations you can fly to from Midway that you can’t fly to from O’Hare. Add in the host of international carriers and O’Hare wins this easily.

Airport amenities and perks

O’Hare is not a place you want to spend any more time than you absolutely must. The sprawl of runways and terminals often leads to long taxi times and random delays. O’Hare is an older airport, so there are plenty of food options but you won’t see much of the high-end shopping that dominates newer and international airports.

Still, O’Hare has at least two things going for it in the area of human comforts. With United Airlines headquartered in Chicago, O’Hare was the logical choice for the airline’s first revamped Polaris lounge. The access requirements are relatively strict, but the lounge is incredibly sleek and easily one of the best of any American carrier. I had the chance to check it out myself in June before a Polaris flight back to Shanghai (PVG), and even at 7:30 a.m. I was blown away by the friendly service.

United Polaris Lounge Review

O’Hare is also home to one of American Airlines’ Flagship Lounges, located in Terminal 3. The space is a great place to get some work done before a flight or to relax and get something to eat. I love the large windows looking out on the apron with runways 28R/10L and 28C/10C in the distance.

AA ORD Flagship Lounge - window seating overlooking gates

O’Hare is also home to two Priority Pass lounges but they’re both located in the international Terminal 5. T5 is not connected airside to any of the other terminals and you can’t clear security without an international boarding pass. I’ve heard from a number of people that this rule is being relaxed, but I’ve been turned away at the TSA checkpoint twice when my boarding pass listed a different terminal. The T5 offerings — an Air France/KLM Lounge and a Swissport Lounge — are not spectacular but they are quiet places to pass the time.

If the main seating area runs out of space, be sure to check the room to the side.
Air France lounge Chicago O’Hare. Photo by Eric Rosen TPG

Midway doesn’t have much to speak of when it comes to on-site amenities. Aside from the USO military lounge, there are no lounges at Midway.

Winner: Although most of O’Hare’s lounges will be off-limits unless you’re flying in a premium cabin or hold top-tier elite status, at least there are lounges available. An airport of O’Hare’s size should have more Priority Pass options in the domestic terminals but something is better than nothing.

Bottom line

After spending four years in Chicago for college, I have a love-hate relationship with O’Hare. There were flight delays and missing bags, but some of my earliest international trips started or ended at O’Hare. When I travel now, I love trying out the Polaris and Flagship lounges and seeing a more luxurious side to the airport.

That’s not to say that Midway is without merit. For domestic travel, especially the Chicago-to-Washington DC (DCA) route that I flew frequently, you couldn’t beat the convenience and efficiency of Midway. I could make it from my apartment in the Hyde Park section of Chicago to my home in DC in exactly three hours, whereas it would take me almost half that time to get to O’Hare and clear security.

If you’re flying internationally or are loyal to United or American, you’ll be flying out of O’Hare. But if Southwest is a good option for your domestic travel, the often-overlooked Midway is worth paying attention to.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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