*Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through a credit card issuer partnership.
This article was last updated Dec 18, 2019. Terms and conditions may have changed. For the most accurate information, please consult the issuer website.
Over two million passengers fly on U.S. airlines each day on 28,000 flights worldwide.
One of life’s underappreciated joys is arriving at your assigned seat and discovering that no one is sitting next to you. It’s almost like getting an instant – and free – flight upgrade to a seat with more space. Sadly, departing from an airport on a congested flight means you’re less likely to land one of these coveted seating arrangements.
The research team at CompareCards.com set out to uncover the airports in the U.S. that have the highest occupancies on departing flights. These are airports where flights are closer to full so there’s less of a chance that you’ll get assigned to a seat with no neighbor.
For this study, we looked at 2018 data for 100 of the largest airports and compared the number of passengers to the number of available seats on departing flights.
Here’s what we found:
- Denver International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Colorado Springs Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport had the most crowded flights. Departing flight occupancy ranged from 84.6% to 86.4%.
- Dayton International Airport, Kona International Airport, Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Hollywood Burbank Airport had the least crowded flights with occupancy ranging from 72.6% to 75.2%. Depart from one of these airports and you may have a decent shot at getting some space to spread out in the cabin.
- The airport with the most crowded flights is Denver International Airport. In 2018, there were 36.7 million available seats on flights departing from Denver International and about 31.7 million of those seats were occupied. That means Denver International had an occupancy rate of 86.4%.
- Coming in second is Orlando International Airport. This airport saw overall less traffic than Denver with just 27.3 million available seats. But flights out of Orlando International were still quite full. The average flight was filled to 85.6% of capacity.
- Hovering around 85% capacity is another Colorado Airport: Colorado Springs Airport. Flights departing this airport had 1.05 million available seats and 890,000 people filled them.
- At the bottom of the list where you are most likely to have some elbow room are smaller airports. Dayton International Airport in Ohio for example, filled just 72.6% of its possible 1.2 million seats.
- Flights out of Kona International Airport in Hawaii, were filled to just 73.6% of capacity, the second-lowest rate in the study.
- Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska, was the third-least crowded airport in our study. Just 73.9% of the available seats on flights out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport were filled.
- One outlier at the bottom of the list is Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. This Washington, D.C.-area airport was one of the larger ones in the study to rank in the bottom 20. Reagan National Airport had 14.47 million seats available in 2018 and 11.4 million passengers. Only 78.8% of seats on flights out of Reagan National were occupied.
Preparation is key when headed to an airport with a full flight
If you have no choice but to fly through a crowded airport, a bit of early preparation can make traveling less of a headache. Try these travel strategies:
Arrive early. The minimum amount of time you need to check-in before departure varies from one airline to the next and from airport to airport. American Airlines, for example, recommends arriving to the airport at least one and a half hours before a domestic flight and at least two hours before an international flight. Following these guidelines (or arriving even a bit earlier) and checking your airport’s website before a flight can help you determine how much time you’ll need to check-in, go through security and relax at the gate before your flight departs.
Map out the connection (ideally before booking). It’s never fun to make a mad dash to a connecting flight. Take advantage of airline connection tools when they’re available. United Airlines, for example, has the ConnectionSaver program that sends a text message with your connecting gate location and an estimated time it’ll take you to get there. If there isn’t such an app or tool available, review the terminal map at the connecting airport beforehand to get the lay of the land. This way, you’ll have a general idea of where you need to go when the connecting gate is assigned.
Pack light. Traveling without a checked bag can help you avoid baggage fees and a long line at the baggage check-in desk or kiosk.
Be ready to go through security without a hitch. Prepare your carry-on bag and personal items, such as a purse or backpack, for security screening. Throw away bottles larger than 3.4 ounces or pack them into your checked luggage. Read through the security screening instructions if you need a refresher on what you can and can’t carry through the checkpoint.
Scout out the airport lounges. Airport lounges can offer some peace away from the chaos of a crowded airport. Take a look at what airport lounges are available at your departing location. If you’re not a lounge member, you may be able to buy your way into a lounge by purchasing a single-day pass. American Airlines, for example, offers a $59 pass to the Admirals Club® lounge at select locations. Some travel rewards cards give you complimentary access to airport lounges. We’ll talk more about travel rewards credit card perks below.
How the credit card in your wallet can help
You don’t need to be a frequent flyer with thousands of miles stashed away to benefit from travel rewards cards. Here are some travel credit card benefits that can help you get through a busy airport:
Speed through security
TSA Precheck is a program that offers expedited security screenings for eligible travelers at over 200 U.S. airports. People who qualify for TSA Precheck get to go through the TSA Precheck line without removing shoes, belts, outerwear or laptops from bags. Global Entry is another membership program that comes with the perks of TSA Precheck plus expedited re-entry into the U.S. for low-risk travelers who go through a background check process.
The five-year membership application fee for TSA Precheck is $85 and Global Entry is $100, but here’s the good news — some credit cards will give you a statement credit to help cover the membership fees. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®, U.S. Bank Altitude™ Reserve Visa Infinite® Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card all provide up to a $100 statement credit to cover the fee every four years. Terms may apply.
Waived baggage fees
Checked bag fees can add up fast when you’re traveling with the whole family. Airline credit cards that offer baggage waivers can save you potentially hundreds of dollars in baggage fees.
For example, the Delta family of co-branded American Express cards let you check your first bags with the airline for free. You get a fee waiver for up to nine bags on the same itinerary, and this waiver covers baggage for the departing and returning flight. The domestic checked bag fee for Delta is $30 each, so you could save up to $540 if you’re traveling with nine people, or $120 for two. Here are a few other cards that waive bags for your first trip:
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® — First bag free for you and up to four companions on domestic American Airlines flights
- JetBlue Plus Card — First checked bag free for you and up to three companions
- United℠ Explorer Card — First checked bag free for you and one other traveler
- United Club℠ Card — First and second checked bag free for you and one other traveler
A baggage waiver isn’t the only way credit cards can offset the cost of checked luggage. Some credit cards come with annual travel credits that can reimburse you for miscellaneous travel expenses, including checked bags. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® comes with a $300 annual travel credit, and the Citi Prestige® Credit Card offers up to $250 in annual travel credits as well.
Why not kick back in a lounge instead of fighting for a seat or electrical outlet in a packed airport terminal? Certain credit cards also unlock free access to travel lounges with comfortable seating, Wi-Fi, snacks, satellite TV, private bathrooms, workspaces, conference rooms and more.
The Platinum Card® from American Express, for example, gives cardholders complimentary access to 1,200 Priority Pass™ airport lounges and the Delta Sky Club®. Plus, you’re able to get into The Centurion® Lounge, a luxury lounge for American Express card members. Terms apply to American Express credit card offers. See americanexpress.com for more information.
Booking a seat in business or first class can be a budget buster, whereas upgrading to a better seat through a travel credit card may be more affordable. An upgrade may even be complimentary if you earn elite status with an airline.
Case in point: Alaska Airlines gives complimentary immediate first class upgrades to MVP® members, MVP® Gold members and MVP® Gold 75K rewards members who book in certain fare classes as long as space is available.
United Airlines also gives complimentary upgrades to Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and Premier 1K® members on award travel if you have a Chase-issued MileagePlus credit card and you book the right fare class. If a complimentary upgrade isn’t available, you may have the option to use miles you’ve racked up on your credit card to redeem for an upgrade.
Priority booking through your credit card can help you dodge long airplane boarding queues. The Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard® gives preferred boarding in Group 5 for cardholders and up to four companions while flying American Airlines. United Club and Explorer cardholders get priority boarding on United and United Express flights before general boarding.
Flying from a busy airport may be unavoidable, but knowing which airports are the most crowded can help you prepare accordingly. Arriving early and packing light can make flying less of a hassle. Keeping a few travel credit cards in your wallet may unlock access to additional perks, amenities and upgrades that can make for a more enjoyable travel experience. If you’re on the hunt for a travel credit card, take a look at our roundup of the best travel cards.
In order to find the airports with the most crowded flights in the country, researchers looked at data on the 100 largest airports measured by total available seats on departing flights. To find the most crowded ones, we compared the number of passengers on flights to the number of available seats. The airports were the highest occupancy rates finished at the top while those with a lower occupancy rate finished lower. All data comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation and is for 2018.
The information related to the United Club℠ Card has been independently collected by CompareCards and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.