The best airports for fast food ranked

For millions of airline passengers, the search for a quick, affordable meal during a layover starts straight out of the gate. At Los Angeles’ busy LAX airport, more than 30 thousand flyers per day pause at their fast food chains.

Most major airport terminals in the United States offer passenger corridors populated with a combination of familiar chain restaurants, casual dining facilities, and grab-and-go kiosks. Airline benefits expert Upgraded Points recently ranked major airports based on their fast food and casual dining options.

The food options in airport terminals often include anything from ethnic specialties to customized sandwiches to familiar hamburger combos. The main goal of airport-based quick-service restaurants is to serve the maximum number of passengers as efficiently as possible.

“Quick-service restaurants are a travel essential, offering a sense of familiarity no matter where you go,” said Keri Stooksbury, Editor-in-Chief at Upgraded Points. “Whether it’s a McDonald’s Big Mac or a Chick-fil-A sandwich, these foods are easy to grab in a pinch.”

Five Airports With the Easiest Fast-Food Locations

The study of airport fast food chains used overall service efficiency as a significant measuring stick, and compared the number of fast food options to the number of daily passengers passing through. Passengers can’t take advantage of a 30-minute layover if the average wait time at a quick-service restaurant is 20 minutes. Five major U.S. airports scored highly in efficiency and dealing with the volume of passengers per venue.

The study ranked the top 5 airports that scored the highest for service efficiency. Getty Images

Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG)

This midwestern airport comes in first place, with an average ratio of 6,900 daily passengers per quick food dining option, translating to shorter wait times and more time for actual dining.

CVG offers several familiar fast-food choices, including Subway, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy’s.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

The Houston-based George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) has a daily passenger-per-chain ratio of 7,400 per fast-food restaurant, putting IAH in second place. The airport houses 15 fast-food establishments in total, including five Panda Expresses and three Wendy’s.

Ontario International Airport (ONT)

Canada’s Ontario International Airport (ONT) earns a spot on the shortlist with a ratio of 7,800 passengers per chain. Popular fast food destinations in the terminal include two Subways and a Chick-fil-A.

Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE)

Another airport based in the Midwest, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE), makes the shortlist with a ratio of 7,900 daily passengers per fast food chain. The terminal also offers a range of regional and local eateries, many of which include quick-service menus. Much like ONT, this airport also features two Subways and a Chick-fil-A for those passengers on the go.

Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) features a ratio of 9,700 daily passengers per fast food chain. The lines may be slightly longer at this busy terminal, but the options include two Subways, two Chick-fil-As, and a Pizza Hut, all known for their fast service times.

Top Airport Destinations for Heavy Packers and Picky Eaters

Time limitations are only one concern for many airline passengers looking for a quick meal before departure. The trip from the arrival gate to the nearest food source can be challenging for those who pack heavily and don’t feel like dragging all of their luggage around the airport looking for a delicious bite. The Upgraded Points study singled out San Diego International Airport (SAN) as the best major terminal with the highest density of restaurant chains; an average of 3.09 chains per mile.

San Diego International Airport is a good place for travelers with lots of luggage to eat as they won’t have to travel far for a bite. Getty Images

Texas-based Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) gets top marks from passengers seeking the highest number of quick-service and fast-food options, with a nation-leading total of 19 fast-food locations housed in its sprawling terminals.

JayDee Vykoukal at Health Means Wealth shares her criteria for choosing an airport-based quick-service restaurant. “We really don’t eat fast food at home, so finding something with fresh ingredients that isn’t fried is always a priority. Qdoba at most major airports is our favorite option since we all love it (kids included); it’s cheap, quick, and always good.”

Most Popular Fast Food Chains in the Busiest 60 US Airports

Of the 60 busiest U.S. airports, which fast-food chains had the most extensive presence? While the shortlist still largely resembles the country at large, the rankings surprise you.

Chik-Fil-A is present in 42% of the major U.S. airports in the study. TRIPPLAAR KRISTOFFER/SIPA

Topping the list is Chick-fil-A, present in 42% of the major airports in the study. The Georgia-based chain earns a reputation for speedy customer service, making it ideal for time-strapped passengers. The product line, including chicken nuggets, sandwiches, and waffle fries, also earns high marks for its quality and value.

In second place, Burger King exists in 30% of the 60 busiest national airports. The ability to customize orders, along with an extensive menu of familiar breakfast and lunch items like wraps and burgers, is key to the chain’s appeal. Wait times for the most commonly ordered items are also notably shorter than average.

Wendy’s holds the third spot with 20 locations in the busiest U.S. airports. Its freshly prepared square hamburgers, innovative salads, and iconic Frosty dessert have helped create a dedicated customer base seeking a familiar name in an unfamiliar airport.

Despite having the most locations overall, McDonald’s is only found in 27% of the busiest airports. Getty Images

Surprisingly, McDonald’s, the restaurant most synonymous with quick-service food, is in fourth place on the study’s shortlist. Although located in more U.S. airports overall, its Big Macs, Happy Meals, and Quarter Pounders offerings are only found in 27% of the busiest.

Subway, also found in 27% of the busiest airports, offers passengers healthier alternatives with customizable sandwiches and salads. The store’s efficient order fulfillment and value pricing also add to its overall appeal to passengers.

With a presence in 25% of the 60 busiest U.S. airports, the quick-service Asian food chain Panda Express offers an alternative to the typical hamburger and chicken options found on other fast-food menus. Its signature Orange Chicken and other stir-fried or flash-fried entrees topped with their delicious sauces can be dished up to order in a matter of minutes, making it an appealing option when dining time is limited.

For airport passengers seeking healthier food choices, other options do appear. For example, many airport lounges offer members salad bars and lighter fare. Other quick-service restaurants with a smaller overall presence also provide dishes based on dietary restrictions or lifestyle choices.

Alex Caspero, Registered Dietitian at Delish Knowledge, shares her preferences.” We travel often and prioritize airports with good lounges — the food is almost always better than fast food and better for families. As a dietitian, my favorite chain is Chipotle because it’s easier to find whole grains (brown rice), healthy proteins, and plenty of vegetables. Panera, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s also offer better-for-you options.”

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