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Summary

If your travel plans include Orange County, consider taking advantage of the Orange County airport (SNA). While pricier than LAX, the convenience is unbeatable.

It’s your first trip to Orange County. You want to make the most of your time. Do you fly to SNA (also known as Orange County Airport, also known as John Wayne)? Or do you fly to LAX? Or do you skip both and choose a lesser known airport like Long Beach (LGB) or Ontario (ONT)? Or, paralyzed with indecision, do you decide to go somewhere less complicated?

From a local’s perspective, if price weren’t a factor, I’d fly into Orange County every single time, with very few exceptions – which I’ll explain later.

A statue of John Wayne at the Orange County Airport

What’s So Great About the Orange County Airport?

Six Reasons to Fly Into Orange County

1. Orange County Airport Traffic is Manageable

The Orange County Airport is a dream compared to LAX. It’s just easy. There may be traffic at times, but the airport traffic you wade through is a fraction of what you’ll experience at LAX. (And, honestly, it might be worse for the person picking you up – for the in-bound traveler, arriving in Orange County is a breeze.)

*The traffic in the surrounding area is another story, and can be tricky. While I’ll cover that in another post, I would like to point out that the airport basically sits next to the 405 freeway–the main freeway that travels through Orange County.

If you are headed north to Orange, the 55 north junction couldn’t be easier to hop on; there’s a dedicated ramp that leaves the airport and takes you directly to it.

2. SNA isn’t as busy as LAX

The Orange County Airport is typically less chaotic and crowded than LAX. Roughly 88 million passengers traveled through LAX in 2019 (we’re not going to talk about 2020), whereas SNA had a mere 10.7 million. That’s about 77 million fewer loud-talkers, close-standers, and hand-sneezers.

It could be because it’s smaller and there are fewer people, or the flights are staggered, or it’s just more well laid out, but when I’ve flown into/out of Orange County, I don’t feel the same amount of anxiety and stress I do when flying in/out of LAX.

Plus, it’s also only 15 minutes from Orange and 20-30 minutes from Anaheim (without rush hour traffic).

3. The OC Airport is Clean and Safe

I’ve never had an experience at the Orange County Airport where it’s been less than tidy or felt unsafe.

Light-filled, open and airy, it’s actually beautiful as far as airports go. It has a posh hotel feeling to it, with imported marble limestone that whispers, “There are wealthy folks nearby.”

The parking lots are well lit, and there are always officers around keeping a watchful eye to ensure passenger safety. (Also to gently usher you along when you’re trying to game the system by idling in a no-stopping zone as you wait for your friend. Or maybe that was just me.)

4. It’s Small and Easy to Navigate

There are three main terminals, A, B, and C – and they’re all adjacent to one another in the same building. It would be difficult to get lost. (I’m not saying it can’t be done – yours truly has a knack – but it would be challenging.) Here’s the other thing: there are only 22 gates. Twenty-two. Pfft. Easy-peasy.

Contrast this with LAX, which has nine terminals in an often-clogged U-shape, bursting at the seams with 146 gates.

5. Destined for Disneyland?

The Orange County Airport is the closest airport to Disneyland, a little over 14 miles. (One caveat – 14 miles in Southern California is not 14 miles in rural Wisconsin; 14 miles can take 45 minutes – it all depends on what time you’re arriving.) On average, it’s probably about 30 minutes.

6. You Won’t Hate California Within One Hour Of Arriving

And that is because you’ll be on your way to wherever you’re headed (v. still sitting in the always-congested horseshoe terminal at LAX, waiting to get out of the actual airport and on the road).

What Isn’t So Great About the Orange County Airport?

Six Disadvantages of Flying Into Orange County

1. The Orange County Airport Is Often More Expensive

Typically speaking (and there are always exceptions), it just tends to be pricier. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a LOT.

I just did a random check from SNA to BNA (Nashville), and one flight was actually less from Orange County, so there you go. If you do happen to get lucky and find a flight that’s less expensive out of Orange County – take it. For all of the reasons listed above, take it.

Here’s the other thing to consider…how valuable is your time? If you’re planning a short stay in Orange County, is it worth sitting in gridlock traffic? At minimum, you’ll be on the road for 45-minutes to an hour, but that is only if you happen to arrive at a no-traffic time. There are very few hours in the day when the traffic out of LAX isn’t horrendous.

If you have a longer trip planned, and you’re able to arrive during a non-peak hour for traffic, and it’s a lot less expensive – LAX is a great alternative.

2. There are Fewer Non-Stop Destinations at SNA

At the time of publication, there are more than 38 non-stop destinations on Orange County’s flight roster, including cities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Contrast that with LAX, which boasts 180+ non-stop destinations, including more than 40 countries and 111 domestic destinations.

We’ll often fly out of LAX for this reason alone, but it is worth noting that many of the destinations on Orange County’s list will connect you to an international flight with ease. (For example, Atlanta, Chicago and New York are all non-stop options for Orange County; from these points you can connect almost anywhere in the world.)

3. There are Fewer Passenger Airlines, Too

While serviced by the major U.S. players, including American, Delta, Southwest and United, as well as Air Canada, you’ll find fewer of the smaller airlines at the Orange County Airport.

4. Fewer Airlines, Fewer Flight Times…plus…a Curfew

Following the fact that there are fewer airlines and fewer gates, naturally there are fewer flight times. On average there are 126 commercial flights per day. At LAX, there are more than 1,500 flights every 24 hours.

Additionally, there’s a curfew at the Orange County Aiport. Why should it matter to you? If you have a late flight into SNA that has an ETA right before 11 p.m., pray you don’t have any delays. If you do, you’ll be treated to a side trip to LAX, and a lovely bus ride to Orange County – when you’re already tired and cranky. (Maybe that’s just me.)

Additionally, if you’re departing from Orange County, outbound flights have a curfew that begins at 10 p.m., so let’s hope that your plane isn’t late arriving – and departing.

5. Public Transportation Isn’t Fantastic

As a superfan of mass transit, it saddens me to report that your options out of the Orange County Airport aren’t great. Southern California and, really, most of California, was designed for cars. And, while we do have some light rail options, as well as the Amtrak Surfliner, neither visits the airport, so you’re left to seek other forms of transportation.

If you ask a local, renting a car really is your best option – it will give you the most flexibility and save you time. Plus, many – not all – but many parking lots are free. (Not all of them – I say this with hesitancy because I don’t want to lead you astray – hotels may charge, Disneyland charges; Angels stadium and the Honda Center both charge; it’s likely you’ll have to pay at the beach and other popular spots, BUT… I rarely pay for parking. It’s very, very rare that I’m paying for parking.)

6. International Flights Are Limited To Canada and Mexico

Yep, that’s it. Just two countries. Adjacent to the U.S. That’s it.

This said – I wouldn’t let this stop you from flying into Orange County if you’re flying internationally, because there are a number of options that will connect you directly once you land stateside.