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Unveiling the World’s Most Beloved vs Busiest Airports

Travel – what’s not to love? Exploring new destinations, meeting unique and inspirational people, seeing and trying new things, taking a breather from the daily grind, and connecting with loved ones.

Sometimes, though, the journey isn’t quite as idyllic as the destination. When you consider that global air passenger traffic reached nearly 8.5 billion in 2023, marking a significant increase from previous years, it’s easy to understand why there’s often some turbulence along the way – and not just in the sky!

Fortunately, understanding which airports consistently please passengers – and those that tend to be slightly more stressful than others – can transform your travel experience.

Recently, the Airports Council International gathered nearly 600,000 surveys from travellers at more than 400 airports around the globe, revealing passenger favourites. Conversely, VisaGuide.World surveyed over 1,500 air passengers to uncover the world’s busiest/most stressful airports. Here’s a summary of the findings – and tips from Flight Centre South Africa’s experts on navigating any airport – no matter how big or busy – without worry.

The world’s top 5 busiest airports

Have you ever travelled to Europe during peak periods? Then, you’ll know how the sheer volume of passengers can create challenges in even the most streamlined airports. Understanding what makes an airport particularly busy—and the potential impacts on your travels—is key to a smoother experience.

Here’s VisaGuide.World’s survey results regarding the world’s top 5 busiest airports:

  • London Gatwick Airport, UK: A major international hub, Gatwick is ranked as Europe’s most stressful airport. This is understandable, considering it balances immense passenger traffic despite being significantly smaller than many of its competitors.
  • Istanbul Airport, Turkey: Europe’s busiest airport is undoubtedly impressive. However, its massive size can make for lengthy walks between gates and potential delays due to the number of flights managed.
  • Munich Airport, Germany: Though a significant European hub, Munich Airport is relatively compact, which can mean crowded spaces. Factor in its higher frequency of flight delays (the highest of the top 5 at 49.2%), and you’ll understand why it’s worthwhile to build extra time into your schedule if transiting here.
  • Denver International Airport, USA: It’s the most anxiety-inducing airport outside of Europe according to the survey results, the largest airport in the USA, and the second largest in the world, so to call Denver International Airport ‘busy’ is often a bit of an understatement. That said, it had the lowest flight delay frequency in the top 5, coming in at 20.9%.  
  • Heathrow Airport, UK: London’s primary airport is a sprawling complex. Its massive passenger volume (the highest passenger density compared to the other four airports on this list) is well-known for causing congestion, lengthy lines, and the potential for delays.

“Airports like those in London and Istanbul highlight the importance of understanding an airport’s layout and potential pain points before you even arrive. Resources on airport websites and travel blogs can be invaluable,” advises Antoinette Turner, GM of Flight Centre South Africa.

The world’s top 5 most beloved airports

While bustling travel hubs can sometimes test our patience, it’s heartening that many continue to prioritise passenger satisfaction, offering a smoother, more enjoyable transit experience –proving that size and passenger volume don’t always equal stress. Let’s explore the Airports Council International’s top five airports, as voted for by travellers:

  • Greenville-Spartanburg International (GSP) in South Carolina, USA: This smaller regional airport is beloved for its Southern hospitality, easy navigation, short queues, and comfortable spaces and amenities.
  • Gerald R. Ford International (GRR) in Michigan, USA: Serving Grand Rapids, this mid-sized airport stands out with its clean, modern facilities, efficient operations, and various shops and restaurants.
  • Rome Fiumicino (FCO) in Italy: Rome Fiumicino, Italy’s busiest airport, seems to balance its high traffic with spacious terminals, smooth flow, great shopping and dining, and even cultural exhibits for an enriching travel experience.

“Interestingly, Rome Fiumicino Airport also featured in the top 10 of VisaGuide.World’s round-up, making it simultaneously one of the most celebrated and most stressful airports in the world. Passenger volume fluctuates significantly depending on the season. Peak travel periods could create a more stressful experience, while off-peak times will be far more pleasant,” says Turner.

  • Casablanca Mohammed V International (CMN) in Morocco: North Africa’s busiest airport remains a passenger favourite thanks to its beautiful architecture, efficient processes, and diverse amenities.
  • Izmir Adnan Menderes (ADB) in Turkey: This airport serves a beloved coastal region and is praised for its modern facilities, short wait times, welcoming atmosphere, and focus on passenger comfort.

“It’s refreshing to see smaller regional airports like Greenville-Spartanburg and Gerald R. Ford leading the way in passenger satisfaction. It proves that size isn’t everything regarding a positive travel experience,” Turner comments.

Remember, it’s wise to consult your travel expert about alternative airports when planning travel. London’s Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted are a perfect example. Sometimes, smaller airports may offer cost savings and a more relaxed journey.

Expert tips for navigating airports ahead of European summer

Even the most chaotic airports can be managed with smart strategies. Here’s how to ensure your next airport experience is as smooth as possible, especially if you’re planning a European summer escape:

  • Plan smart:
    • Consider longer layovers: This gives you a buffer against delays and time to explore the airport at your own pace.
    • Research transport options: Know how to get to and from the airport (public transit, taxis, airport shuttles) to avoid on-the-spot confusion.
    • Pre-pack wisely: Pack essentials like medication, a change of clothes, and entertainment items in your carry-on.
  • Use technology to your advantage:
    • Airport apps: Download the official app for the airport(s) you’ll be visiting for real-time flight updates, interactive maps, and even food ordering options.
    • Flight tracking apps: Keep tabs on your flight status and potential delays for better decision-making.
    • Mobile check-in: Many airlines allow you to check in online, saving precious time at the airport.
  • Embrace preparation:
    • Know the rules: Research security regulations and restrictions for your specific airports to avoid surprises at checkpoints.
    • Pre-download your boarding pass: Have it both offline and printed to avoid reliance on data or airport Wi-Fi.
    • Arrive early: It’s still the golden rule of travel. Build ample buffer time for check-in, security, and reaching your gate.
  • Prioritise Comfort:
    • Wear comfortable shoes: You might walk more than you think!
    • Dress in layers: Airport (and in-flight) temperatures can fluctuate.
    • Pack snacks and water: Stay hydrated and fuelled, especially for longer waits. Just remember to adhere to airport liquid regulations.
    • Bring your entertainment: Books, podcasts, or downloaded shows prevent boredom.

Ultimately, while some airports might be more challenging to navigate than others, the right mindset, preparation, and tools will make a world of difference. Travel agents possess a wealth of insider knowledge about airports, airlines, and alternative routes. Follow their guidelines to ensure your getaway lives up to all expectations—from takeoff to touch down and back again. 

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