I was sitting around the other day talking with a friend about the shortest layovers that we’ve ever had, which isn’t all that uncommon of a discussion when two travel geeks get together. Anyway, the subject of Chicago O’Hare airport came up. He claimed that a short layover at ORD is a recipe for disaster. I claimed otherwise. That begs the question: is a 1 hour layover enough time in Chicago?
Yes, it is! But only as long as you’re not moving between terminal 5 and any of the other terminals. A 1 hour layover is very much possible when transferring between terminals 1, 2, and 3. It’s pretty much impossible if Terminal 5 is involved.
Table of Contents
First things first: A brief overview of the terminal layout at Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Chicago O’Hare is a massive airport. In terms of square footage, it’s the 7th largest airport in the US (according to Airport-Technology.com). In terms of overall traffic numbers, it’s usually in one of the top 10. It’s gnarly.
There are four main terminals at ORD: Terminal 1, 2, 3, and 5. Terminal 4 doesn’t exist yet, so that makes things just a little confusing. Anyway, all you really need to know is that terminals 1, 2, and 3 are connected. Terminal 5 is it’s own separate building located on the east side of the airport. The only way to get to it from the other terminals is to take the inter-terminal train.
The reason why short layover times are ok in Chicago
As you can see in the diagram above, terminals 1, 2, and 3 are connected. Not only that, they are connected behind the security checkpoint. This means that you can access all of them without having to re-clear security.
As a matter of fact, this is precisely the reason why short layovers are possible in Altanta as well. And Denver too! Sub 1-hour connection times are ok in Denver because the terminals are connected just like they are at ORD.
For the record, I can walk from the far end of Concourse C of Terminal 1 all the way to the end of Concourse L in Terminal 3 in under 30 minutes. I did this nearly every weekend back in my aviation photography days (here is an example of my in-terminal photography from ORD), and I know this airport like the back of my hand. And because of that, I can confidently declare that a 1 hour layover IS enough time in Chicago.
As I mentioned earlier, all of this goes out the window when terminal 5 is involved. I’ll get to the specific transit times between terminals in a moment, but just know that 1 hour likely is not going to be enough if you have to travel between terminals 1, 2, 3, and 5.
Travel time between all terminals at ORD
The following information is based on my years of walking from one end of Chicago O’Hare to the other. It used to be my home airport back when I lived in southwest Michigan, so I’m very familiar with the place and how long it takes to walk between the terminals.
From Terminal 1
Terminal 1 at ORD is the home of United Airlines. It’s broken up into two separate concourses (B and C), and overall, it’s a beautiful place. This is how long it takes to walk to other parts the airport from terminal 1:
- To anywhere within Terminal 1: 10 minutes
- To Terminal 2: 15 minutes
- To Terminal 3: 20 minutes
- To Terminal 5: 20 minutes (but you’ll have to re-clear security once you get there)
From Terminal 2
Terminal 2 is the overflow terminal for United at Chicago O’Hare. There are also a handful of other airlines that call Terminal 2 home, so there’s a pretty good chance that if you’re flying United, you’ll be transiting between Terminals 1 and 2. Here’s how long it will take to walk to anywhere else at ORD from Terminal 2:
- To anywhere within Terminal 2: 5 minutes
- To Terminal 1: 15 minutes
- To Terminal 3: 10 minutes
- To Terminal 5: 20 minutes – but remember that you’ll have to go through the security checkpoint once you get there.
From Terminal 3
Terminal 3 is American Airlines country. Well, it’s not exactly a country but it feels that way because of how large it is. If you’ve got a 1 hour layover in Chicago and are flying American Airlines, don’t worry. It’s a big terminal, but it’s very easy to get around.
It should also be noted that Terminal 3 is broken up into several concourses. American Airlines makes up a bulk of it, but there are many airlines who share common use gates at the end of Concourse L.
Here’s how long it will take to walk to any of the other terminals here at ORD:
- To anywhere within Terminal 3: 5 minutes within each individual concourse, but it can take up to 10 minutes if you have to switch to a different one.
- To Terminal 1: 20 minutes
- To Terminal 2: 10 minutes
- To Terminal 5: 20 minutes – but again, it’s likely to take much longer due to the fact that you’ll have to re-clear security once you arrive at terminal 5.
From Terminal 5
Terminal 5 is the international terminal at Chicago O’Hare. It’s also important to note that there are some domestic airlines which uses this terminal as well. Being an international terminal, many of the gates sit unused during much of the day and it’s not uncommon for a domestic airline to use some of those gates as overflow when things get busy.
Here’s how long it takes to get from Terminal 5 to any of the other terminals at O’Hare airport:
- To anywhere within Terminal 5: 5 minutes
- To Terminal 1: 20 minutes plus the time it takes to reclear security
- To Terminal 2: 20 minutes plus the time it takes to re clear security
- To Terminal 3: 20 minutes plus the time it takes to re clear security
Are you sensing a pattern here? Since the only way to get to the other terminals from Terminal 5 is to take the inter-terminal train, travel time to all other terminals is relatively the same. The problem is that you’ll have to go through the security checkpoint again once you reach your departure terminal. Depending on how busy the airport is, it could take anywhere from 10 minutes to up to an hour (or more).
Having to re-clear security in Terminal 5 makes international flights in and out of ORD difficult. On the flip side, you don’t need a long layover in Seattle for domestic to international connections. If your schedule allows it, it may be more convenient to out of SEA (or anywhere else you don’t have to re-clear security instead).
4 tips for surviving a short layover time at O’Hare
I hope that I’ve been able to convince you that a one hour layover in Chicago is more than enough time. As long as you don’t need a transit to and from Terminal 5, it’s gonna be a piece a cake. Don’t worry about it.
Anyway, if I haven’t been able to convince you yet, here are some more tidbits of information which might help you survive a short layover at ORD:
- Study the terminal map before you go. Knowing exactly what you’re going to need to do before you get there is going to save you a lot of time and stress. Better yet, keep all this information easily accessible on your phone so you can refer to it once you’re there and doing the transit.
- Stay focused! Walking from one end of the airport to the other in under 20 minutes is certainly doable as long as you set decent decent pace and don’t get distracted by all the restaurants and shops.
- It’s usually faster to walk briskly between terminals than it is to take the inter-terminal train. This isn’t the case in all airports in the US, so take advantage of it. For example, the only reason why you can do short layovers in the Orlando airport is because of the train. The terminal layout is nowhere near as efficient as it is at ORD.
- If you’ve only got a 1 hour layover, and you want to get something to eat before your next flight, it’s best to walk to your gate first. There are a plethora of restaurants and cafés everywhere at ORD, so don’t worry – there will be food near your gate.
- Keep things in perspective. ORD is a fantastically efficient airport that allows for short layovers. For example, my personal minimum international to domestic connection time at SFO is nearly double that of what I estimate for O’Hare. In other words, things could be worse!
One final bit of information that’ll make you feel good about a short 1 hour layover in Chicago:
Chicago O’Hare is a massive airport. It’s also prone to congestion and frequent flight delays. The silver lining in all this is that, during peak times, there’s a pretty good chance that your connecting flight will be delayed. I can’t count the number of times that I walked across the entirety of ORD at a stupid-fast pace only to realize that my connecting flight had been delayed due to overall congestion at the airport.
And every time, I felt disappointed that I wasted so much mental energy stressing out for nothing. If I’m gonna stress out at an airport, I want it to be because I can’t decide between a chicken and rice bowl or Healthwhich (from Camden Food C0.) before my next flight. That’s a real conundrum.