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Absolute beginners
American airports

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There are a few key differences between American and popular european tourist airports that are well worth knowing about before you go.

This brief guide should be valuable to the 'newbie' fly driver. Scroll down the page to read all about it.

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Physical size
One of the major diffferences between US and European airports is size. By this I dont mean the number of flights and passengers passing through the airport. There are many huge airports in Europe and few in the world are as busy as Heathrow. What I mean is the physical space the airport occupies. Land in the USA is plentiful and as a consequence things are well spaced out. In contrast in Europe most airports are limited in size due to the surrounding built up areas. If you are used to flying into Majorca, Benidorm or Corfu, the sheer size of a small American airport will surprise you to say nothing of one of the really big ones like Chicago or Denver.

When you land
Most destination airports in America have an international terminal where you will land. You will first then pass through immigration where you have to hand in the green immigration form you filled in on the plane and have your passeports examined (be prepared for a lengthy wait during this process). Dont be tempted to make a silly joke about why you are visiting or anything about security. These people do a serious job and they will take whatever you say literally as they cannot afford to assume you are joking. You then proceed to pick up your luggage. From there you proceed through customs where you hand in the white customs form you filled out on the plane.

If you are flying on immediately to your end destination follow the signs that say 'transfer passengers' (you will often go through the above procedure at one of the eastern USA cities say Chicago, New York, Newark or Atlanta, before flying on to your final destination if you are flying to the west - depending upon which airline you fly with). You then hand your luggage back in to the transfer section to be taken to your onward flight.

You then have to transfer to the terminal from which your onward flight departs. This is by train links in many of the airports such is their vast size or may be by bus. If you dont know which terminal you are departing from, look out for the signs for the airline you are flying with. Dont panic, just take it easy and carefully read all of the signs. The airports are designed to be easy to find your way around and I have found that to be the case. Each terminal is normally home to a few specific airlines e.g. the signs may say
Terminal 1: American airlines, Alascan, North West
Terminal 2: United, British airways, Delta
Terminal 3: KLM, BMI, US air etc etc.
These example lists above are very small just to give you an idea. You will be amazed at just how many airlines there are when you look at the lists in a real airport.

When you are flying home, you do not fly from the international terminal where you landed. You fly from the home terminal of whichever airline you are flying with (see example above).

Picking up your hire car
Once you are at your final destination airport you have to pick up the car. This area of the airport will be well sign posted with all the car hire desks in one place. There are a few possibilities here.
Returning the hire car
All this is easy to handle, just go with the flow. Where it gets important is when you come to drop your car off. You need to know if you are heading for the departure terminal (see above) or if you are heading for a more distant car hire depot from where you will catch a bus to the departure terminal. Research this before you travel. On our first holiday to the USA we were dropping off our minivan at Los Angeles airport. As we drove into LA my wife noticed on the car hire paperwork the address of where to drop off was not at the airport (we had picked up in San Francisco). Very fortunately for us we had a detailed road map of LA and could find our way there. In slightly different circumstances we could have missed our flight.

During the 1990's I used to tell people that Americans treated airports like we would treat a bus station or a train station. It was a superb relaxed way to travel. You could hand your luggage in to a luggage check in service on the pavement outside the terminal and wander round the airports at will. I'm afraid the dreadful events of September 11th have stopped all that. The security is now like we have been used to in Europe for many years and you have to do the suitcase shuffle as you queue to check in.

For more information on security and documentation (visa and passport requirements) see the passports and visas page

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