If you haven't ventured inside BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport since last Thanksgiving, you'll be happy to hear the bathrooms are in the same place. So are the runways. That is to say, not a lot has changed physically.
But the airport has had a banner year otherwise, breaking passenger records in July and August, being among the airports with the lowest fares in the nation and receiving an award for providing just about the best food and drink of any airport in North America.
Now comes a real test: Thousands of travelers headed to Grandma's house will descend on the airport this week, stuffed carry-ons in tow.
"We do expect a busy holiday season," says Jonathan Dean, spokesman for BWI. "We've had record passenger traffic during the summer and we expect for it to continue."
That's good news for the airport and bad news for passengers facing the holiday crush. But if you know how to navigate BWI, your trip doesn't have to be a turkey. To help those who may not be frequent visitors to the airport, we asked some local travel experts to point us in the right direction for places to eat, park, shop — and escape the crowds. Of course, if all else fails, you can hide in the bathroom.
Best place to get a meal to-go
This "retro" diner is all about the food, made to order in the shake of a tail feather. Silver Diner offers a grab-n-go case, five-minute takeout express and a full carryout menu. You could even take a hot turkey dinner on your trip. "The restaurant is one of the largest of its kind on airport property in the country and continues to be a passenger favorite," says Carol Fearns, vice president of Airmall Maryland, the company that manages the airport's concessions and retailers.
Location: Concourse B
Runners-up: Au Bon Pain and Subway.
Best place to dine
"Being a Marylander, I have to say Phillips or Obrycki's," says Rich Gilbert, a sales manager in the Maryland Office of Tourism. Indeed. With a menu that includes crab cakes, crab soup, crab salad wraps — OK, crab everything — this hometown favorite doesn't disappoint. You can even pick up a container of Obrycki's Seafood Seasoning as a last-minute gift.
Location: Concourse B
Runner-up: Silver Diner. Yes, it has great takeout, but if you can set a spell, it's even better.
Best place for beer or wine
"Few can top Vino Volo, which combines a cozy wine lounge, tasting bar and restaurant into a sophisticated retreat" for travelers, says Fearns. Vino Volo (derived from "wine flight" in Italian) offers wines by the glass or by the bottle for customers who want to take it home or have it shipped.
Location: Concourse A
Runner-up: DuClaw Brewing Co., home of craft beers and ales, opened earlier this year at BWI. On the plus side, it's located in the terminal before the security checkpoint, so you can have a drink with friends or family before you take off.
Best place for coffee
"But only if you're flying Southwest," says Gilbert, who travels for business. "I enjoy filling my to-go cup for the plane; however, if you fly another carrier, the Starbucks is located prior to security."
Location: Concourse B and also in the terminal
Runner-up: Chesapeake Bay Roasting Co. "With a portion of the proceeds donated to preserving the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, travelers can feel good about their pre-flight purchases," says Fearns, who likes the small-batch coffees and smoothies at this shop in Concourse D.
Best place to shop
"Everything is $10! I've shopped at this store on cruise ships and at the airports in Florida and Vegas so was thrilled that one recently opened at BWI," says Ragina C. Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I have found a few nice scarves and costume jewelry there."
Travel writer Donna Owens, who lives in Baltimore, is another fan. "They have pretty pashminas in rainbow colors, earrings, watches and purses, among other items," she says. "The merchandise is cheap but doesn't necessarily look that way."
Location: Concourse B
Runner-up: Borders — it's a great place to stock up on in-flight reading materials. Also, Brooks Brothers, which has been open less than a month at BWI, will likely become a fast favorite.
Best place to buy gifts
Fire & Ice
"My favorite place to shop, especially for gifts, is Fire & Ice," says Averella. The shop specializes in handcrafted gold and silver jewelry, but also offers specialty items like art glass and holiday ornaments.
Location: Concourse A
Runner-up: Brookstone. The gift-giving options are endless at this go-go gadget store in Concourse D.
Best place to amuse the kids
The Observation Gallery
The gallery has its roots in BWI's predecessor, Friendship Airport, where visitors could step onto an outdoor observation deck to watch the activity on the runway. Today, the gallery maintains that connection, providing an area with rocking chairs and large windows for viewing aircraft takeoffs and landings as well as a Youth Art Gallery, a children's play area, a display of airplane parts and other exhibits. "It's a nice feature for the airport and connects travelers to aviation," says airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.
Location: Upper level, between Concourses B and C
Runner-up: Thurgood Marshall Tribute exhibit, near the gallery. "I have spent many an hour perusing his life story and am always inspired," says Owens. "The well-curated display includes rare memorabilia that tell the story of his influence on local, state and national history, and his roots in Baltimore. It's worthy of a museum and truly unexpected in an airport."
Best place to relax, avoid crowds
The Meditation Room
BWI offers a meditation room. "It's in a very public area, but I think it is a relatively little-known quiet corner of the airport," says Dean.
Location: Upper level, between concourses D and E, near AirTran Airways ticket counter
Runner-up: The International Pier, Concourse E. "[It] has a certain peace and tranquillity to it early in the morning, at least as airports go," says Owens. "There are some large windows in that area and the sun streams in and gives an ethereal effect."
Best place to plug in
Southwest Airlines Terminal
"They have large, soft, cushioned, armchairs," says Gilbert. "In between each chair is a great place to plug in and get some work done."
Location: Concourses A and B
Runner-up: Who says you have to plug in? Wi-Fi is available throughout BWI's terminal for a fee.
Best place to park
(Airport) Fast Park
"We park there every time we fly," says Averella. "It is affordable: $7.40 a day, efficient and convenient. The shuttles run regularly. They also have a frequent parker card, which yields great discounts as well as free parking. We just returned from a vacation and our parking for the entire week was free due to so many frequent parking credits. They also have a free newspaper in the mornings and free water as you leave."
Location: 1718 W. Nursery Road (Blue lot)
Runner-up: BWI daily and hourly garages, which offer 11,000 covered spaces — great for parking in winter — as well as a "smart park" system that directs users to available spaces. "BWI has among the most convenient, most affordable on-airport parking of any major U.S. airport," says Dean.