Traveling out of Denver’s main airport hasn’t been easy in recent months—and the holidays promise to make it even more challenging. Use our expert tips to make your trek more bearable.
Denver International Airport (DIA) has been kind of a mess lately.
At various points throughout the past few months, security lines have extended all the way to baggage claim. During one weekend day in early October, all of the airfield’s lots, garages, and off-site parking locations were full or almost at capacity. And this past Saturday, the site’s janitorial staff went on strike for the second time in as many months. (The two sides reached a new labor agreement, including raises and workload protection, later that day.)
The issues have been caused by an ill-timed confluence of factors. DIA was the third busiest airport in the world during the first half of 2021, with more than 24 million people making their way through the mountain-shaped tent between January and June. Those sky-high passenger numbers have continued, and even increased, in recent months. Nearly every piece of the airport’s infrastructure—parking shuttles, security, retail, and the airlines—is suffering from a labor shortage. The site is also still dealing with significant construction. While the recent unveiling of new ticketing counters for Southwest Airlines and United Airlines has relieved many issues, temporary walls from other renovations have created a borderline labyrinth in some areas.
The holidays certainly won’t offer any reprieve. DIA expects to set a post-pandemic record for the number of travelers during a single day on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And though the airport has implemented some changes to help with the influx, DIA CEO Phil Washington admitted during a press conference in mid-October that “the holiday season will be tough.”
Ahead of the craziest time of year at DIA, we pulled together some advice on navigating everything from parking to security to where to eat. Hopefully, each tip can make your traveling experience a little better. If all else fails, you can always say a prayer to Blucifer.
Deciding the best place to stow your car at DIA is a year-round conundrum. But it will be even more challenging during the coming months, thanks to limited parking options because of a shortage of shuttle bus drivers.
The East Economy lot near the terminal, the Mt. Elbert shuttle lot, and valet parking will be closed in the coming weeks. However, DIA has developed a plan that should help the airport avoid a parking catastrophe.
Here are the options run by DIA that are open:
Of course, there are also plenty of options available that are not on the DIA premises. They include:
DIA has also had problems with cars being stolen in recent months. Alex Renteria, a spokesperson for the airport, says the uptick in thefts tracks with the increase in stolen vehicles across the metro area. Also, the cars that are being taken are often unlocked or older vehicles lacking a security mechanism, according to Renteria.
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Most of the time, deciding what security line to travel through can feel like a game of roulette. DIA decided to take out some of the element of chance this holiday season by designating what type of travelers should head to each checkpoint.
Notably, the north security checkpoint on Level 5 of the terminal is supposed to be used by travelers with TSA pre-check status or airline-premium access status. This space will also feature a lane for passengers who are traveling light, meaning they only have a carry-on item, or a single purse or backpack.
The south security checkpoint and the line on the Level 6 bridge to Concourse A (which does have limited hours depending on the day) will serve travelers in need of general screening lines. Any DIA pro, however, knows that the hidden nature of the Concourse A bridge security often makes it the option with the least headaches. You can also reach the other concourses via train from that location.
“These changes are a little challenging because people aren’t used to them,” Renteria says. “But we are hopeful that when we see big lines that it becomes easier for passengers to know where to go.”
Regardless of what line you intend to take, DIA officials recommend getting to the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to take off.
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These apps promise to remove some of your travel-related headaches.
iFly: DIA has partnered with iFly to provide expected security wait times during specific time frames, as well as a live look at the current state of lines.
AtYourGate: This handy tool allows you to order items from DIA newsstands and restaurants and have them delivered anywhere you are inside the airport in less than 30 minutes.
LoungeBuddy: Find out what airport lounges you have access to based on your credit cards, reward memberships, and airline statuses. The program will also inform you of what hideaways you can pay to enter—and sometimes even let you purchase access through the app.
Flightradar24: This live tracker allows you to put in the flight number and see a plane’s exact location. The app comes in handy whether you are trying to figure out where you are in the air or waiting for a delayed plane to make it to you.
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For some, just the mention of an airport is enough to induce anxiety. But there are ways to manage those feelings, both before and during your travel experience. To help, we asked Dr. CJ Bathgate, a clinical psychologist at National Jewish Health, for her advice on dealing with the mental aspects of travel.
Travel Time Matters
“For some folks, I think it can be a good idea to plan an earlier flight because things don’t get backed up as much. If you are in the afternoon, you have to deal with everything that happened before it. But if you know you are going out late the night before [you travel], at a wedding or something, maybe you [travel] later. You don’t want a headache when you know you are going to be stuck in a fixed environment and not going to be able to lay down.”
Getting There Early Isn’t That Bad
“I know everyone says this, but arriving early is important. I think a lot of times, people are thinking they will be more comfortable at their home, in their own space, watching their show. They don’t want to just be sitting at the airport. But what if you get there early and get to relax and watch a TV show at the gate? Is that really that different?”
Use the 5,4,3,2,1 Technique in Long Lines
To help ground yourself, play this quick game:
Some Things Are Out of Your Control
“Sometimes you do all the things, you tick all the boxes, and you are still stuck in a line that might make you late. You have to acknowledge that you can’t control everything.”
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DIA takes up 53 square miles, making it the second biggest airport in the world. So it’s helpful to know exactly where you are headed, especially when in desperate search of anything. Here’s where to find the best food and drink, bathrooms, and other useful resources.
Concourse A: Much like its counterpart in RiNo, the Denver Central Market near gate A48 has an eclectic mix of dining options, from Sushi Rama to pizza and pasta at Vero Italian to breakfast at SK Provisions. If you are just looking to imbibe before a flight, the Breckenridge Brewery, located near gate A71, has local brews, as well as snacks.
Concourse B: This concourse has a number of new restaurants, including Shake Shack (if you need something quick) and local breakfast spot Snooze An A.M. Eatery, both of which are located in the center of the concourse on the mezzanine level. New Belgium Brewing, near gate B30, offers local pours, along with games like shuffleboard.
Concourse C: Stop by Mile High City favorite Root Down, near the center of the concourse, for globally inspired dishes like banh mi turkey burgers. Great Divide Brewing, another local brewing option next to gate C32, has everything you need to get a buzz on before your flight, along with some tasty bites.
(Read more: The 10 Best Places to Eat in DIA, Ranked)
It stands to reason that the newest bathrooms would be the nicest—and that is certainly the case at DIA. The recently unveiled lavatories on the west side of Concourse B, which were constructed as part of the Gate Expansion Project, are spacious, sleek, clean, and even include views of the airfield behind the sinks.
If you aren’t headed to Concourse B, stop at the new washrooms on Levels 5 and 6 near the new Southwest baggage check-in area in the main terminal before heading through security. They include many of the same amenities as the ones in Concourse B (minus the views), and promise to be less crowded than the bathrooms at the center of each concourse, which are always crushed with people getting off flights.
The mezzanine level of Concourse A features a relax and recharge area that’s full of recliners. The tucked away space should remain quieter than many areas throughout the likely busy concourses. Just remember to set an alarm.
There are few worse feelings than a full day of travel during which you barely step foot outside. If you find yourself in that predicament and have some time to burn, head to the outdoor deck on the west side of Concourse B. Not only will you get to do some plane spotting, but you’ll also get to relax in lounge chairs near large fire pits.
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Colorado may have had the pandemic somewhat under control when you booked your flight, but things have gotten worse in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Case numbers are spiking, and the number of Coloradans hospitalized with the disease is nearly at an all-time high. Dr. James Neid, an infectious disease expert at Medical Center of Aurora, provided some advice about how to be safer during your trek through DIA.
Testing Is a Helpful Tool
While Dr. Neid emphasized that people who are vaccinated are significantly safer than those who are not, there does continue to be some risk for everyone, especially since one out of every 62 inoculated Coloradans is infected. “If you have any symptoms whatsoever, there is value in testing,” Neid says. “If it’s negative—and according to rapid test instructions, it is best to do it twice—you probably don’t have the virus to the level that it is communicable.”
Limit Time Without a Mask
With long lines and hordes of people likely taking over the DIA terminal, social distancing won’t always be easy. The one thing you can control, however, is how much time you spend with your mask off. “You don’t wanna be one of those people who is having a three-course meal, sitting there without your mask off for 45 minutes,” Neid says. “There could be 25 people within your area, and you don’t know who the super spreaders are.”
Seek Out Less Crowded Areas
Hopefully, this one is self-explanatory, but as Neid puts it, “the crowded areas are where COVID is the happiest.” He suggests always being mindful of that and searching out areas with less people, as well as thinking ahead and doing things like bringing a jacket so you can wait outside for transportation, instead of inside with more people.
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We asked readers about the one thing they must do to ensure a smooth trip through DIA. Maybe some of the rituals will serve as inspiration for your travel experience.
Shane writes and edits stories for and manages 5280’s daily newsletter, The Local.
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