Welcome to the ATL, home to the world’s busiest passenger airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport handled nearly 104 million passengers in 2017.
Think of it as the biggest transfer point in the known universe.
On an average day, the airport moves 275,000 people with an average of 2,700 arrivals and departures. Many of those people fly into the ATL to transfer from one flight to another flight, here only for a brief time before departing our fair city. (Yes, we refer to Atlanta by its airport code.)
You may think it’s time to run to your car service and drive to your hotel in downtown, midtown Atlanta or swanky Buckhead?
Stop for a minute before you do.
Before you book that $100 black car or leave via Lyft or Uber, CNN Travel has some advice. We asked Delta Airlines Diamond flyer Jessica Vazquez Torres to give us the lowdown on this 4,700-acre transportation hub.
Vazquez Torres flew more than 200 days in 2018, covering over 134,000 miles and visiting 45 US cities (plus South Korea and the Philippines) for her work as an anti-racism consultant and trainer.
ATL24: A day in the life of the world’s busiest airport
The key to understanding the Atlanta airport is planning, says Vazquez Torres. The airport has a center corridor, which is marked by the plane train and moving walkways. The concourses cross over the corridor. Most restaurants are concentrated in the middle of each concourse, where passengers enter to go to their gates.
Concourse T is closest to the airport entrance and exit, followed by A, B, C, D, E and F. You can take the train to Concourse F, the international terminal, but it also has its own entrances and exits. (Although some international flights will use Concourse E.)
The fastest way into Atlanta
Once you land, if you really need to leave quickly, take public transportation. Yes, it’s true. You can land at the airport, get your bags if you over-packed enough to check your luggage and walk right onto Atlanta’s MARTA public transit system. Just follow the MARTA signs.
It’s really the fastest way to get around if your hotel has a MARTA stop nearby. It can run about $5 for a round trip from the airport to downtown. (Buy a MARTA card at the airport MARTA station.)
There are escalators and elevators to get you down to the trains, and MARTA can take you from the airport to many hotels in downtown, midtown and other neighborhoods around the Atlanta metro area.
It’s never as busy as the New York City subway, which means there’s room for your suitcases. (It can smell a little in the elevators. Just breathe through your mouth for a minute.)
MARTA can even take you to the CNN Center station stop via the blue or green line. (Welcome to our home turf, where we host tours and even have a food court.)
Got some time? Walk …
… not to Atlanta! But do walk from your concourse to baggage claim and the exits. Depending on where you land (from Concourse E through Concourse T), able-bodied passengers can walk instead of taking the plane train to the exits.
“In the land where we count our steps, walk the length of the airport,” says Vazquez Torres. “It’s three miles, and from the beginning in Concourse E to T, it takes 35 minutes at a brisk pace.”
Just head down to the plane train and keep walking instead of taking the train. There are moving sidewalks if you get tired or, like me, want to see how fast you can walk on a moving sidewalk.
Sometimes you’ll see airport and airline staff getting their exercise before a flight.
Instagrammable art along the way
Among the displays to enjoy for the price of your plane ticket: Between Concourses C and B is a fine exhibition on Atlanta’s past, “A Walk Through Atlanta History” by Ayunini Media.
There’s a spectacular and Instagrammable nature installation between Concourses B and A, “Flight Paths” by Steve Waldeck, and there’s also the incredible “The Conversation” exhibition by Agnes Nyanhongo of Zimbabwe, between Concourses A and T.
When you leave the underground and take the escalator or elevator up to your gate, remember that you enter your concourse in the middle. That’s where the food is located – in the middle – but that means that Gate 1 is at one end of the concourse and the highest numbered gate (which varies by concourse) is at the other end.
Look at your gate on a map to see how far you have to walk after you grab your local bagel or taco.
Yes, it can feel crazy with so many people, but stay right as you walk down any concourse and you probably won’t get run over.
Need a bite? Eat here
Maybe your flight was delayed or you forgot to pack a snack or your airline ran out of food. It happens. You can eat when you land and avoid overpriced hotel food. You can also eat after you arrive way early for your departing flight.
While her Delta Sky Club is a good backup, Vazquez Torres knows the menu there by heart. That’s why she often visits different concourses between flights to get a meal at the following spots. (Since your concourse and gate may change before departure, it’s good to have a backup at each concourse.)
Concourse T: It’s the only concourse where restaurants are either side of the concourse. Our intrepid foodie loves Papi’s Cuban and Caribbean Café on the south end, always ordering the tostones plate with meat or shrimp on top or the Cuban medianoche sandwich.
Grindhouse Killer Burgers is on the north end of the T concourse, and it’s next door to a bar that will sell you a beer to go with your burger. There’s also local institution Goldberg’s Bagel Company and Deli, which serves delicious bagels and good sandwiches on those bagels.
Concourse A: In this concourse, “my backup place is Goldberg’s here,” she says. Shake Shack is her occasional treat after landing, if she’s hungry when she gets home.
While she doesn’t eat cake regularly, she always sends people to local bakery Piece of Cake, which sells delicious cake in Concourse B, by the slice of course. (Its non-airport stores will sell you an entire cake.)
Concourse B: While it’s not the healthiest choice, “my place in Concourse B to get a bite is always Popeyes because they are fast,’ she says. “That line just moves, and their chicken fingers are easy to take on the plane.”
If she’s not feeling very hungry, “I get the Pura Pasion smoothie at LottaFrutta, a local shake, paleta and ice cream joint.”
She recommends Paschal’s for visitors who haven’t gotten their fix of Southern cuisine yet.
Concourse C: Her go-to place is always Umaizushi, where she loves the ramen and udon.
“If you didn’t get a chance to eat at local institutions The Varsity and The Original El Taco, you can try them here or at Concourse E,” she says.
Concourse D: If she’s in a hurry, she heads to Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. “If I have time – and you need an hour – I go to Chicken + Beer,” she says, which is owned by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Like the name says, “I go there because they sell fantastic fried chicken and really good beer.”
There’s a Grindhouse in Concourse D, too.
Concourse E: “I personally love One Flew South,” she says, “The other best bet is Nature’s Table. They have hot food, sandwiches, salads, a quick, premade meal. Remember The Varsity and The Original El Taco are here, too.”
Concourse F: This is the international terminal, where lots of people are waiting to fly far away. “If you have a crapload of money and time, go to Ecco,” she says. “It’s a local, fantastic restaurant” with two other locations in Buckhead and Midtown. (There’s also El Taco and The Varsity here, too, if you want a bite of the ATL before you go.)
Want a drink? Of course, in moderation
While we never recommend overindulging before or after a flight, the right drink can be a pleasure at the end of a long workday. (Remember to hydrate – that’s water, people! – before flights.)
That said, Vazquez Torres knows her cocktails.
“If you want a good cocktail, One Flew South in Concourse E has a really good bar. They have really good bartenders. But you are going to pay One Flew South prices to drink there.
“The other place that has a really surprisingly good bar is Varasano’s Pizzeria and Piano Bar. Chicken + Beer has a legit good bar, specifically because of their good beer list. It covers lots of local beers.
“If you have money to waste, you can go to Ecco in Concourse F and get a good glass of wine.”
There are other spots that will feature local beers but smoking is allowed in those spots, which Vazquez Torres doesn’t like.
Need a quiet place to regroup? Join the club
The Delta Sky Club is always a backup for Vazquez Torres – free for her because of her Diamond status – whenever she needs to work and eat. (She would also qualify through her high-end American Express card, but if you’re flying Delta you can also pay for the privilege.)
She can charge up her gear, write a presentation and fax or print documents. Concourses A through F all have Delta clubs (some have more than one) although the advice can apply for other airlines’ clubs.
She always checks the Delta app to see if she’s already been rebooked and will call Delta first to solve any flight issues. But if she needs to talk to a live person, the Delta club has gate agents who will help her without the long lines outside the club.
Now you’re going home
You’ve finished your work or play, wined and dined your way around Atlanta, and now you’re going home. You’ve confirmed your flight is still departing on time, and you’re heading to the airport.
Again, we recommend you take MARTA, which is the fastest way to get into the world’s busiest airport, which is also under construction. The construction is causing major delays for people getting dropped off at the airport.
If you must take a car service and are flying Delta, have your driver follow the signs to Delta’s lower level by heading to the left past the parking entrances (instead of following the signs to the right to departures). Taxi drivers know about this special drop off, although many Uber and Lyft drivers do not.
Get there early, since you can check out all these food recommendations once you clear security.
Are you transferring here?
Atlanta is the world’s busiest airport because of all the people transferring here, not just because people are flying into or out of Atlanta.
With all of those concourses, you need an hour between flights to get from A10 to E10 in time. “And you’re hustling to get where you’re going,” says Vazquez Torres.
“When I change planes here, I never book less than 90-minute transition,” she says. “That allows me to account for any delays, go to the bathroom, allows me to catch the train.
“If you plan, you might be able to already determine where you stop to get something to eat.”
“If you’re within two concourses of your departure flight, don’t take the train. Walk. It’s faster,” she says. “If you’re more than two terminals over, take the train. It’s faster. “That means, if I land on B and am going to D, I walk. If I land on B and am going to E, I take the train.”
Lost? Ask for help
Yes, there are signs everywhere but maybe you’re still confused. It’s a big airport!
People who work at the Atlanta airport are usually nice, even when some of them might be stressed about not getting paid. The airport “green jackets” can answer questions and guide you. Delta has customer service representatives wearing red coats all over the South Terminal (which Delta dominates).