Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
The Worst Airports for International Travel This Holiday Season [2023 Data Study]
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International travel has skyrocketed¹ in 2023, driven in large part by pent-up demand from the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the winter holiday season is not as busy as the summer months, December is still a very popular time² for U.S. travelers to head abroad.
Apart from higher ticket prices and longer flight times, one of the biggest inconveniences of traveling internationally is the ever-dreaded wait at immigration checkpoints. “Being stuck in a traffic jam at customs after an already lengthy day of travel can really sour an otherwise great vacation,” explained Alex Miller, Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points.
Fortunately, many factors within the traveler’s control — including choice of airport — can increase the likelihood of an efficient travel day this holiday season.
Factors Affecting Immigration and Customs Wait Times
Despite common perceptions, immigration and customs wait times at U.S. international airports are typically reasonable, even during the winter holiday period (the week before Christmas through the New Year holiday). The average wait time during the winter holidays in 2022 hovered just below 23 minutes, aligning closely with the rest of the year. Nearly half of travelers enjoyed wait times of 15 minutes or less, while a mere 6.5% endured waits of 60 minutes or more.
However, factors such as arrival time and citizenship status significantly impact how long it takes travelers to clear these checkpoints. Arrival between 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. results in approximately 20% longer wait times compared to other hours of the day. Likewise, non-U.S. citizens can expect to wait roughly 66% longer than U.S. citizens, with non-citizens averaging over 28 minutes and U.S. citizens averaging 17 minutes for clearing immigration and customs.
Immigration and Customs Wait Times by Airport
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|Shortest Wait Times||Average Wait||Longest Wait Times||Average Wait|
|1. John Wayne Airport (SNA)||4.6 minutes||1. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)||31.6 minutes|
|2. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)||5.9 minutes||2. Miami International Airport (MIA)||30.6 minutes|
|3. Palm Beach International Airport (PBI)||6.6 minutes||3. Auston-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)||29.2 minutes|
|4. Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI)||9.2 minutes||4. Orlando International Airport (MCO)||27.8 minutes|
|5. Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT)||10.9 minutes||5. John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)||27.4 minutes|
When it comes to wait times, airport choice is the single most important factor. And perhaps surprisingly, there isn’t a strong correlation between immigration wait times and airport size. For example, out of 41 major international airports in the U.S. tracked by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection:
- Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is ranked 14th by total international travel volume but reported the worst average wait time during the 2022 winter holiday travel season at 31.6 minutes.
- Miami International Airport (MIA) ranks second for both international travel volume and average wait time.
- Austin–Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) is ranked 25th by total international travel volume but reported the third worst winter holiday wait time at 29.2 minutes.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, John Wayne Airport (SNA) reported the shortest average winter holiday wait time last year at 4.6 minutes. However, it’s worth noting that SNA is among the nation’s smaller international airports in terms of passenger traffic. In stark contrast, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) distinguished itself by efficiently processing a substantial volume of international passengers. Despite PHX being nearly 10 times busier than SNA, the average wait time during the holiday season was only marginally longer, standing at less than 6 minutes.
Below is a breakdown of the best and worst U.S. airports for international travel during the winter holiday season. The analysis was conducted by researchers at Upgraded Points using data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The data shown is for travelers passing through immigration and customs during the 2022 winter holiday travel season (the week before Christmas through the New Year holiday).
The data used in this study is from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s CBP Airport Wait Times dataset.
To determine the best and worst airports for international travel this winter holiday season, researchers at Upgraded Points calculated average wait times for travelers passing through customs during the 2022 winter holiday travel season (the week before Christmas through the New Year holiday). All major U.S. international airports tracked by the CBP were included. Researchers also calculated the average max wait time for all travelers, which is a total traveler-weighted average of the hourly maximum wait times reported for each airport over the study period.
Average holiday wait times for U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens, the percentage of all travelers that passed through customs in under 15 minutes, and the percentage of all travelers that passed through customs in greater than 60 minutes during the same time period were also included.
In 2023, international travel rebounded significantly and surpassed 2019 levels for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, experts predict a bustling winter holiday travel season this year.
Fortunately for those considering a trip abroad, immigration and customs wait times during the winter holiday travel period are generally no worse off than during the rest of the year. And while choosing a quieter arrival time can make a difference in one’s expected wait time, picking the right airport will have the largest impact.
Across the nation’s 41 major international airports tracked by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, average immigration and customs wait times range from a high of 31.6 minutes at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to a low of just 4.6 minutes at John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Santa Ana, California. Because of this wide range of expected waits, passengers can markedly improve their travel experience by choosing their airport wisely.
1. Reuters. (2023, August 9). Rising prices for travel yet to curb wanderlust. https://www.reuters.com/business/rising-prices-travel-do-not-appear-be-curbing-wanderlust-2023-08-09/. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
2. International Trade Administration. (2023). APIS/I-92 MONITOR. https://www.trade.gov/data-visualization/apisi-92-monitor. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
Featured Image Credit: Upgraded Points
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